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KFC's Colonel Sanders: The Man, the Myth, the Mascot

A brief timeline of one of fast food's biggest icons

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The fast food world has its fair share of iconic mascots — the Hamburglar, the Taco Bell chihuahua, the Chick-fil-A cows — but few are as omnipresent as Colonel Sanders. Clad in a dapper white suit with a goatee to match, the avuncular chicken man’s likeness adorns signage (and buckets of chicken) at the chain’s nearly 20,000 locations worldwide.

After years of losing market share to other chains like Chick-fil-A, KFC embarked on a massive rebranding campaign in 2015 that resurrected the Colonel as front-and-center brand spokesperson, rather than just a picture on a box of biscuits. Saturday Night Live alum Darrell Hammond was tasked with bringing Sanders back to life, but not for long: He was soon replaced — and then his replacement was replaced, several times over. (Hammond later said he was blindsided by KFC's move to replace him, and had no idea he wasn’t in it for the long haul.) In fact, the chain is already on its second Colonel Sanders of 2017, the most recent addition to the lineup being actor Rob Lowe.

Here now, a brief history of Colonel Sanders — the man, the myth, the legend, and the fast food mascot — from his late 19th-century origins to present day.

Original Colonel Sanders KFC

The real Colonel Sanders

September 9, 1890: The real Colonel is born Harland David Sanders on a farm just outside Henryville, Indiana.

1930: After holding numerous jobs including tire saleman, fireman, blacksmith, and insurance salesman, Sanders opens a service station in North Corbin, Kentucky; it includes a restaurant where he serves fried chicken and biscuits, among other dishes.

1935: In recognition of his contributions to the state cuisine, Sanders is dubbed an honorary Kentucky Colonel by the state’s governor.

1940: Sanders perfects his "Original Recipe" for pressure-fried chicken seasoned with a secret blend of herbs and spices.

1952: Sanders becomes a pioneer in the fast food franchise industry, franchising the first Kentucky Fried Chicken to a restaurant operator in Salt Lake City.

1964: At the age of 73, Sanders sells the Kentucky Fried Chicken corporation to a group of Kentucky businessmen for $2 million. He remains the face of the company, filming numerous TV commercials and making frequent public appearances.

December 16, 1980: Harland Sanders dies in a Kentucky hospital at the age of 90.

2010: A survey by KFC shows six in 10 Americans age 18 to 25 (AKA that elusive millennial demographic) cannot identify the man in the KFC logo as Colonel Sanders; five in 10 don't believe he's a real person, and three in 10 have no clue who he is at all.

May 2015: KFC brings back the Colonel as part of an $185 million brand makeover; Saturday Night Live alum Darrell Hammond plays the part of the Southern-fried gentleman in TV spots. The rebranding effort also includes an online video game called ColonelQuest; players control Sanders during various stages of his life, bouncing babies off trampolines to represent his time as an "amateur obstetrician" and engaging in a gas station shootout that's become the stuff of legends.

ColonelQuest KFC

June 2015: Drivers equipped with GPS navigational systems can now have turn-by-turn directions voiced by Colonel Sanders, thanks to a partnership between KFC and the Waze app. (The Colonel comes armed with phrases like, "Pothole on the road ahead. I'd fill it with gravy.")

August 2015: KFC unexpectedly announces fellow Saturday Night Live alum Norm Macdonald (perhaps best known as the face of the show’s "Weekend Update") as the new Colonel Sanders. New TV spots featuring Macdonald-as-Sanders show him hanging out in a white stretch limo and hanging out with a children’s mandolin band.

KFC Norm MacDonald KFC

Norm Macdonald as Colonel Sanders

February 2016: KFC plonks down the cash for a Super Bowl ad spot to unveil the third iteration of the new Colonel: This time, it’s comedian Jim Gaffigan.

March 2016: Comedian David Alan Grier takes to Twitter to announce he’s been named the first black Colonel Sanders. This claim is soon revealed to be false, but KFC diplomatically says in a statement that it "hope[s] to continue the conversation with him over a $5 Fill Up."

June 2016: KFC reveals yet another Colonel: Famously tanned actor George Hamilton won’t replace Gaffigan, but rather has signed on to specifically promote the chain’s Extra Crispy chicken as the suave, beachside "Extra Crispy Colonel." "Extra crispy isn't just a product, it's a lifestyle," the character says.

July 2016: Colonel Sanders stars in a new comic book from DC Comics. Called The Crisis of Infinite Colonels — which doesn't seem to be far-off from KFC's current IRL situation — the story pits the fast food icon against the evil Colonel Sunder from Earth-3, featuring numerous Colonel characters including Bizarro Colonel and Steampunk Colonel.

September 2016: KFC continues to appoint mascots at a breakneck pace, appointing actor Rob Riggle as its newest Colonel — and the coach of its fictional football team, the aptly named Kentucky Buckets. Notably, as a former lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve, Riggle is now the first actual colonel to ever play the Colonel.

October 2016: Actor Vincent Kartheiser, best known for his portrayal of the shifty ad man Pete Campbell on Mad Menbecomes the latest actor to don the Colonel's white goatee. Kartheiser is cast as "heartthrob" Nashville Hot Colonel, appropriately selected to promote the chain's Nashville-style hot chicken products.

January 2017: KFC unveils its first new Colonel of the New Year, and it's none other than Titanic villain Billy Zane. Zane plays part of the gilded "Georgia Gold Colonel" in an ad spot promoting KFC’s new honey mustard barbecue-glazed chicken.

April 2017: The latest star to don the Colonel's bow tie is Hollywood icon Rob Lowe. For his campaign, Lowe dons a space suit decked out with a trompe l'oeil rendition of the Colonel's signature white suit; in a sendup of JFK's moon landing speech, Lowe announces the chain's Zinger chicken sandwich will be launched into space:

What’s next for the iconic Southern gentleman? KFC apparently has plenty more Colonels up its sleeve, with a company spokesperson previously telling Eater, "Colonel Sanders was too big a personality to be portrayed by just one person."

Meanwhile, not everyone is thrilled by the chain's decision to bring back the Colonel: Some feel it's disrespectful to resurrect a dead man, and claim Colonel the character is nothing like the real Harland Sanders. And Sanders himself wasn't without controversy: Legend has it he was a known philanderer, and worse, he was a major contributor to Alabama segregationist George C. Wallace's 1968 bid for the presidency (and was even on the short list to be his running mate). With all that in mind, it's no wonder KFC is recreating the Colonel as it sees fit — a racist womanizer isn't exactly the kind of mascot you want fronting a multinational fast food chain.

And while the chain has yet to reveal who might be next in line to play Sanders, here’s one idea: Alton Brown. The universally adored Food Network fixture proved he’s got the acting chops to play the Colonel in a 2010 episode of Good Eats in which he played a Southern-fried Kentucky fellow by the name of Bob Boatwright. He's already got the outfit and the accent down pat:

AB Colonel