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Dionisio Choperena -- in ad, life a shepherd

"Dio" Choperena grew up in northern Spain, immigrated to the United States and made popular TV commercials. Chronicle photo by Frederic Larson


Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Growing up in Spain, Dionisio Choperena loved John Wayne movies and dreamed he would one day live the life of a rancher in the rugged American West.


Reality did him one better.


The man everybody called "Dio" became a sheep rancher in Tomales, after immigrating to the United States. He looked so much the part that he was cast, out of the blue, as a cell phone-wielding shepherd in a $250 million AT&T Wireless ad campaign that made him a small fortune.


A large crowd is expected today in Petaluma to celebrate the life of Mr. Choperena, who lived a most unusual American dream. He died Sept. 12 of cancer in his Petaluma home. He was 51.


Born in 1954 in Goizueta, in the Basque region of northern Spain, he grew up poor. He left school at 13 to tend sheep for his father, but would sneak away whenever he could to watch John Wayne movies, according to his wife. He longed to live the life of a cowboy, he told his family.


At 17, he immigrated to the United States and began working on a Wyoming sheep ranch. His employer gave him a rifle, five dogs, a horse and 2,000 head of sheep to tend. For six years, Mr. Choperena traveled with the sheep, slept in the open or in a covered horse-drawn wagon and fished for food with a hook and string tied to a willow stick.


He came to the western Marin County town of Tomales to help one of his brothers, who had broken a leg. The rancher his brother worked for liked him so much that he offered him a job. Tired of the cold winters in Wyoming, he packed up and moved to the West Coast.


Mr. Choperena eventually ran his own ranch and at one point had 2,000 sheep.


Then, in 2000, a Los Angeles casting agent arrived in rural Marin looking for a weathered rancher type who looked at home with a flock of sheep and could be from Basque country. The agent found the real thing drinking a bottle of beer at the William Tell House in Tomales, and before he knew what had happened, Mr. Choperena's sun-weathered face and bright blue eyes were being featured in a dozen television commercials across the nation.


His grizzled visage was seen on television using an AT&T cell phone to summon a New York taxi cab, a helicopter full of Japanese businessmen and others to his isolated field. Other ads, some of which were filmed in Tomales Bay, depicted him strolling through the countryside, down grocery store aisles and across busy city streets followed by a herd of sheep as he blithely phoned up his family, traded stocks or the got the latest sports scores.


He was so good, said his wife, Kathy, that the camera crew began calling him "one-take Dio."


He never had any lines, but his natural charm shined through, making him an instant hit. He even helped the film crew, which had brought in trained sheep but knew nothing about the animals. To control the unruly flock, Mr. Choperena came up with the idea of tying fishing line between himself and the sheep so they would follow him.


He once criticized producers for an advertisement showing him calling for help to save a sheep caught in his fence.


"He told us, 'You're ruining my reputation,' " said Scott Couvillon, the account supervisor. "Then he explained that when a farmer says, 'Oh, he got a sheep caught in the fence,' it means the farmer is having relations with his sheep."


Speculation is that Mr. Choperena made anywhere from $300,000 to $1 million on the campaign, but he refused to talk about money or reveal how much he made. Couvillon said he was always laughing and had a childlike fascination with people.


"I'm kind of a country boy from Louisiana and he's this shepherd, and so we hit it off," Couvillon said. "At one point, we had to shoot commercials in Canada. Every day off we would go off fishing. He was like my foster dad. We would hunt together and ride around on his fields together. He was an extraordinarily important person in my life, not because of his celebrity, but because he was just such a cool guy."


He even became a celebrity in his hometown in Spain, where he visited every year and took tapes of the advertisements. A Spanish filmmaker did a documentary depicting him as one of the last Basque shepherds. Musicians paid homage to him in song.


But the money and fame did not change Mr. Choperena. He continued wearing dirty blue jeans, driving his beat-up white pickup, hanging out at the William Tell bar and carrying a bota bag for an occasional squirt of wine out in the field.


He even started a new business recently as a landscape contractor.


"He was such a strong person," said Kathy, his second wife, whom he married last year. "Up until the day he passed away, he was working and making plans with me. He even had a glass of port that day with his lunch."


Kathy, 36, who is pregnant with twin boys, said her husband wanted badly to become a father.


"He was really excited about the boys. He wanted to hold them so badly," she said "He told me that having children is proof that he was here on earth."


Mr. Choperena maintained a flock of 400 sheep "because he wanted to die a shepherd," said his wife. He told her recently that "if something does happen to me, you have to make sure our sons grow up with sheep."


Besides his wife, of Petaluma, he is survived by his mother, Juana Altamira of Goizueta, Spain; brothers Jose, Jesus, Miguel, Javier, Piquito, Ramon and Minolo Choperena; and sister Maria Jesus Choperena.


The "Celebration of Dio's Life" will be held today from 11:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. at the Sheraton Petaluma Hotel, 745 Baywood Drive, Petaluma.


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