Phil sits in Willie’s office at the Duck Commander warehouse. He’s telling a story, like Phil usually does.
Being with him in person is kind of surreal, like you’re having coffee with a cartoon. It looks like he came straight out of your television and sat in your living room—sunglasses resting on his head, camouflage bandana and pants, as if he’s been hunting all day, and a nest of a beard you could probably turn into a winter scarf.
He’s an identical projection of the Phil you see on Duck Dynasty, A&E’s hit-program about redneck millionaires, the Robertsons, living in the backwoods of Louisiana; and yet, as he talks, you see more clearly the real Phil Robertson. There’s more to him.
Willie, his third oldest son, is there, too, reclined in his chair, feet propped and crossed on his desk, enjoying his new office. He does business on his phone or strokes his beard or spits chew into his white coffee mug while Phil talks and talks and talks.
Again, this Willie, the CEO of Duck Commander and Buck Commander, looks exactly the same—worn jeans, plaid shirt, blue bandana, beard, and all—but there’s more to him, something that stretches far beyond the plots of reality television.
Miss Kay, Phil’s wife, is also there, sitting in Willie’s office, delightfully southern and cordial and giggly. She’s wearing a baggy, black, Under Armour sweatshirt with a giant, white Duck Dynasty logo plastered on the front. She’s not wearing an apron, believe it or not, and there’s no talk of fried squirrel, either. She sits quietly, listening to her husband, Phil.
Al, their oldest son, is in the office, too, occasionally offering anecdotes and background stories, but mostly just listening to Phil like the rest of them. Al is the only Robertson son who doesn’t look like a grizzly bear, and apparently his normalcy is enough to disqualify him from the show. Jase and Jep, his other two bearded younger brothers aren’t in the room but will be at church with them later. Al still seems like the ugly duckling in the vicinity of Phil and Willie, which is weird, because Al doesn’t look like he could scare children. He stands on the other side of Willie’s L-shaped, camouflage desk, handing him sheets of paper that look like lithographs to autograph while Phil talks.
The scene—the family, the interaction, the personalities—almost makes you feel like you’re on the set of Duck Dynasty. But at the same time, it’s different. The humor is the same, but their depth is more evident. There’s no censor. No storyline. They’re talking about the things they want to talk about. Also, there’s Al.
At the moment, Phil is telling a story about a time at the Super Dome in New Orleans when he was speaking to a 1,000-person crowd about duck calls and hunting. He stood beneath a sign that read “Budweiser, King of Beers” then said, “I tell you what, that concludes my duck call demonstration, folks.” He reached down and picked up his Bible. “I think while I’m here, I’m going to preach you a little sermon about the King of Kings.”
It’s been ten minutes since the reporters entered Willie’s office, and they haven’t asked a single question. Phil knew they worked for a Christian magazine, and he took it as a green light—a green light to preach. Then again, it probably wouldn’t have mattered if they worked for Sports Illustrated or Time. If you watch Duck Dynasty, you know this much: Phil is going to say what he’s going to say, even if it ruffles some feathers.
“My job is to tell them the good news about Jesus, and I’m on down the road,” Phil says, piggybacking off his own story. “Jesus died for the sins of the world, was buried and raised from the dead. Ya want in? Put your faith in Him, find ya a pond somewhere, let somebody baptize ya, and let’s go with it.”
Phil picks up more steam, his voice fluctuating.
“Love God. Love your neighbor. Ya think the U.S. would be a little better off if we tried that? Not looking too good the way we’re going now. People robbing, raping, ripping babies out of wombs—it’s just pitiful.”
He launches into another story. This one is about a time in Mississippi where he pulled up to an event, saw an endless line waiting to meet him, gathered everyone up in the parking lot, and started preaching. Like the hundreds of people he has baptized in the nearby Ouachita River—300, some say—several came to God in the parking lot that day in Mississippi.
One time, he stood on hay bales in a city square in California and started preaching. He’s preached from wagons before. He’s preached from 18-wheelers.
This is the side of the Robertsons you don’t see on the show, and, for the sake of their ratings, understandably so.
“I think it scares people more than making them mad or belligerent at me because of it,” Phil continues. “They seem more afraid, which, they oughta be. It’s not that I’m trying to put the fear of God in them, but,” he says, laughing, “I pretty well am. You know what I’m sayin’?”
“Phil,” Miss Kay interrupts.
He looks over at her.
“He’s going to ask you a couple questions,” she says, pointing at a reporter, realizing they haven’t asked a single question in the 20 minutes they’ve been there.
A reporter speaks, propelling Phil into another story.
This one is about preaching to 500 people in the middle of Oklahoma. Phil, who has never owned a cell phone or started a computer, was fascinated when his brother-in-law found his Oklahoma sermon online and showed him that nearly 500,000 people viewed it. “Punched my name into that cell phone,” he tries to explain.
“He’s almost like John the Baptist,” Al says of Phil, who has been called the Billy Graham of duck hunting. “Also because of the way he looks, ya know? If only he had camel hair—”
Phil interrupts, speaking quickly, leaning forward, laughing, “Some of them look at me and say, ‘That boy look pretty rough.’ I say, ‘Hey, John the Baptist looked a lot rougher than I did, and he paved the way for Jesus, so get out of my face!’”
The Robertsons weren’t always qualified to be the most Christian-friendly, family focused people to star on reality television. They weren’t always sitting around the dinner table each night, praying and laughing.
Truth is, all they’ve done—Duck Commander, Buck Commander, their hunting DVD’s, their shows on the Outdoor Channel, Duck Dynasty, the baptisms, the speaking engagements—may have never happened if it weren’t for the change Phil made when he was 28, back in the 1970’s.
“There were 8-10 years when Dad was pretty much a heathen,” Al says.
“Not pretty much, full blown,” Phil stresses.
“Well, he was out looking for his freedom wherever that was,” says Miss Kay, who started dating Phil when she was 14, he was 16, then married him in college, and fought for their marriage when he was coming home drunk, and getting in fights, and kicking her and their kids out of the house.
Willie chronicled the turmoil in The Duck Commander Family: How Faith, Family, And Ducks Built a Dynasty: “One night, Phil was arguing with the bar’s owner and his wife,” Willie wrote. “He was drunk and threw the woman across the bar and beat both of them up pretty badly. When the police arrived to break up the melee, Phil slipped out the back door. Before he left, Phil told Kay she wouldn’t see him for a while. Then he stayed in the woods for several weeks while the authorities were looking for him…”
These were the Robertsons, or, Phil, at one time: operating a honky-tonk, living out of a trailer, drunken nights and bar fights. Family was the last thing on his mind. Slightly different from what you see today on Duck Dynasty.
“Never realizing,” Phil says, “A man is a slave to whatever masters him. I was a slave to sin—”
“But he thought he was looking for his freedom,” Miss Kay adds. “I told our kids, I said, ‘The devil is in your dad now. Your dad is made from God. He has a good heart and is a good man, but right now Satan is occupying him and his mind. Don’t hate your dad. You hate Satan and the forces beyond him.’”
The relational pain crushed Miss Kay.
“What kept me there?” she reflects. “What made me stay with him? It was words my grandmother said: ‘One man, one wife, for one life.’ She would say things like, ‘You’re going to have to fight for your marriage.’ But after 10 years, I wondered how long you were supposed to fight for your marriage. He drove me into the ground…When I realized that I couldn’t save my marriage myself, you lose hope, and that’s what happened. That’s when I came to Christ.”
Miss Kay forgave Phil and took him back under two conditions: He had to quit drinking, and he had to leave his friends.
“Now Kay says, ‘Phil, I’ve been poor with you and you were mean; but now you’re kind, and I’m rich with you. Now rich is a lot better,’” Phil says.
“Let me explain,” says Miss Kay. “When he was mean, and we were poor, I had to manage everything. He wasn’t very worried about whatever happened. That’s why it’s much easier being this way now. I don’t have to worry about making this work, and debt, and somebody coming after us and shutting off the lights.”
“Why do you always cause me debt?” says Willie, jokingly, while signing posters.
“What?” asks Miss Kay.
“Why do you always cause me debt?” he says again.
“Because I have my own bank,” she says, laughing. “It’s the bank of Willie!”
Love & Sex
The talk of dark days and sin leads a reporter to ask a question about fame, and the temptations that come with being in the limelight. Everyone has been in Willie’s office for an hour, and maybe three questions have been asked.
Phil, fittingly, begins preaching again, as if he has 1,000 topics in his mind to choose from at any given time.
“The resurrection of the dead pretty well trumps the momentary pleasure of sin,” he says, wisely, referring to Jesus. “The long-legged chicks that show up, you say, ‘Is it more powerful than the resurrection of the dead?’ Naw, not even a race. You just think about the resurrection of the dead stacking up with anything on this earth, all your sins removed, your dead, cold body being energized and standing back up on the earth—I think that’s going to hold me in place right here.”
Phil pauses, then points at Miss Kay.
“My little sex machine is sitting over there,” he says. Miss Kay looks up at the ceiling and laughs. “It’s like banana pudding;’ I can have it every night if I want to.”
Phil’s sex talk continues for several more minutes, and you’d think it’d be awkward and uncomfortable but it’s not. Al and Willie are used to it, and anyone who watches Duck Dynasty is used to seeing it—the sex talk, not the sex.
“If I could have muted him,” Al laughs, “I would have done it 20 years ago.”
A reporter’s face is beet red, nonetheless, from laughing so hard, and Willie is staring at his desk, shocked but not really shocked at all, perhaps slightly distraught his father just quoted Ezekiel 23:20.
It’s these moments that make you understand why Duck Dynasty’s Season Three premier trafficked 8.6 million viewers, A&E’s most-watched telecast in its history, and why it’s the most popular reality show on cable television. Put four of them in a room, and you can be entertained for hours. Throw Si or Jase or “Mountain Man” in there, and you have a circus.
At the same time, the scene stands in stark contrast to the Robertsons of the 1970s—a marriage that was on the rocks and a family that was falling apart. Here were Phil and Miss Kay, 40 years later, talking as if they had just gotten back from their honeymoon. In a sense, there’s something beautiful and admirable, and not so taboo, about Phil’s adoration for his bride, even after all these years.
“And I usually tell em,’” Phil continues his sex talk, “’When you get my age, you’re just trying to get it over with without getting hurt, without straining a muscle or something.”
Phil pauses, the room flooding with laughter all over again, then looks at a reporter.
“Put that in your magazine.”
Just as the Robertson family wasn’t always thriving, neither was their business.
Phil, the original Duck Commander, laid the foundation for their family’s success. He received a patent for the duck call he created in the early 1970’s and the Duck Commander Company was born. After the success of the calls, Phil began a series of duck-hunting videos that developed a worldwide following.
By the time Willie turned 30, business had become stagnant, and he took over the company. “He was black-marketing gum and candy in elementary school and shutting down the concession booths,” says Phil, who laughs, thinking of Willie’s business roots, “going to Wal-Mart, buying them in bulk…I said, ‘He’s the next CEO!’”
If there’s one thing that gets Willie talking like Phil, it’s business.
He’s the marketer, risk-taker and entrepreneur behind the company. Phil perfected duck calls; he’s the engineer. Willie made it explode. He did more with their sponsors—shot gun companies, shell companies, camouflage manufacturers. He got other movers and shakers on board—guys like Washington Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche, and country stars Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan. Willie started Buck Commander.
Under Willie, TV opportunities arose, and he became the executive producer of their two shows on the Outdoor Channel, “Duck Commander” and “Buck Commander.”
“I pretty much immersed myself in figuring out how that worked,” says Willie, telling the story of the company. “How you made money. If you made money. If you build your brand…I think that was very important because God was setting us up for what was to come, and having that experience really helped us.”
Phil stands up.
“You heading out?” Willie asks.
“Gotta take a leak. I’ll be back.” Phil replies.
Willie laughs, then continues.
“When the opportunity came for Duck Dynasty, it just came from a producer out of Hollywood who was from Louisiana—cold email to the information box at our company. It said, ‘I think you guys actually have the gifts to go big.’”
They filmed two pilots, A&E picked it up, and the rest is history.
Phil returns two minutes later and sits back down.
“They probably had their fingers crossed, hoping it wouldn’t be a functioning family,” Willie laughs. “They probably hoped it would be a train wreck.”
“It’s morphed into a comedy,” Phil says.
“Yeah, they didn’t see it ever being a comedy,” Willie agrees.
“One day,” Phil explains, beginning a story about his brother, Si, “The producers said, ‘Who is that?’ I said, ‘That’s Old Si.’”
“They said, ‘Oh, gosh, he’s dumb enough to be on television.’”
Willie was the one who convinced Phil to do the show.
“Every day,” Miss Kay says, “Phil would say, ‘Why would anybody watch this show?’” Phil scratches his head and strokes his beard, as if he’s still confused why anyone would watch it.
The Robertsons have butted heads with Hollywood a little, but not much.
Early on, for example, the editors in Los Angeles inserted “bleeps” to make it appear like the Robertsons were cursing, when they weren’t. That didn’t go well with Phil. Another time, they cut out “in Jesus’s name” in their end-of-the-episode, sitting-around-the-dinner table prayer. That didn’t go well with Phil, either.
“I said, ‘Why would you cut out ‘in Jesus’ name’? They said, ‘Well, those editors are probably just doing that, and they don’t want to offend some of the Muslims or something.’ I said, ‘Let’s see now, what year is it?’ They said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Well, what year is it?’ They said, ‘Well, it’s 2012.’ I said, ‘2012, A.D. Anno Domini. Year. Of. Our. Lord. I said, ‘You Hollywood cats are counting time by Jesus just like I am. I don’t think it would hurt to throw his name in there time to time. Your calendar is based on it.’”
At the end of the day, however, the show has only expanded their platform. They understand they’re still dealing with Hollywood. “It’s not the Pat Robertson show,” Phil says.
Another story comes to Phil’s mind.
“The other day, some guy got in touch with us,” he says. “He was an atheist. This atheist was watching Duck Dynasty and said, ‘I don’t believe in God, but these people do.’ He said, ‘I don’t have that. I don’t have a family like that. My family, we all hate each other.’ Friction. Drugs. Fighting. He said, ‘I wish I could be like that.’ He got in touch with somebody, they preached the gospel, he got converted, and he sent a letter down.’”
And to think: All of this may have never happened—if Phil hadn’t walked away from football, if Miss Kay hadn’t forgiven Phil, if they hadn’t surrendered to God and gotten their lives back on track. Now, Phil and Willie are invited to hundreds of churches every year. Many have even traveled to West Monroe just to be baptized by the Robertsons—they trickle in each week, Phil says—because they were impacted by the show.
“Obviously, athletically, Dad had the talent and ability to be on a stage like a lot of athletes do,” Al says. “But what’s ironic is that, instead of that, it’s like God had a whole other plan, because this is something totally unique and different. This other door was down the road that we wouldn’t even know, and now, we’re just going through that door—”
“Ohhh, this is the big door, right here,” Phil says, excitedly. “This is our chance to—”
“Preach to millions.”
By Stephen Copeland
Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum magazine.