Friday, September 13, 2013

A Salute to Cal Worthington, his Dog Spot, and Spokespersons Everywhere

So SoCal icon Cal Worthington has rated an obit in the New York Times. Worthington, who died this week at 92, was known to Southern Californians of a certain age for hawking cars on local TV with the help of a catchy jingle and a lot of wacky stunts. Like, for instance, strapping himself to the wing of a soaring biplane, or acting out his promise to “stand upon my head to beat all deals.” He also enjoyed posing with exotic animals, each of them introduced as “my dog Spot.” In his heyday, Worthington was regarded as a folk hero, a genuine California crazy who frequently guested with Johnny Carson and played himself in several Hollywood films.

When TV sets appeared in our living rooms, Cal Worthington discovered a way to enter our homes and make a buck – or several. But he’s not the only guy who saw profit in the commercial side of television. A long string of Hollywood actors, most of them past their prime on the big screen, have found TV commercials to be a lucrative sideline. One of the first I remember was that iconic tough guy, Edward G. Robinson. Off-camera, he was known to be a connoisseur of the finer things, and I recall a rather elegant commercial that played upon this image. Robinson sat, beautifully lit, in a comfortable chair, while Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” played in the background. There was a fire in the fireplace, a silver coffee service beside him, and the camera dollied in as he sipped appreciatively whatever brand he was shilling. Later I recall a still-adorable Anna Maria Alberghetti (decades after being the toast of Broadway) mixing a salad in a prop kitchen and earnestly insisting, “Bottled dressing? Not on my fresh salad.” She urged us to buy Good Seasons, a seasoning packet you mixed with oil and vinegar for that just-made touch.

A whole raft of Hollywood character actors found a new lease on life by playing popular characters on commercials. Jane Withers, once a top child star, was Josephine the Plumber on behalf of Comet cleanser. Avuncular Wilfrid Brimley spent decades touting the virtues of Quaker Oats. Comic actor Jesse White, who  once voiced a series of humorous ads for Western Airlines, also played the woebegone Maytag repairman, who because of his product’s reliability was fated to be the loneliest guy in town.

Many A-list actors who wouldn’t stoop to being TV hucksters in this country have found huge paydays in faraway places like Japan. This is beautifully captured in Lost in Translation, where Bill Murray’s character is earning $2 million just to say “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.” Meanwhile, a few lucky nobodies have ridden a popular series of commercials to fame and fortune. I well remember Sandy Duncan as a perky teller for United California Bank, winning our hearts as she grappled with names like Nicholas H. Janopoporopolus. Those commercials got her noticed, and voila! – she had her own TV series. And Barbara Feldon turned heads while lying on a tiger rug and purring about the virtues of a men’s hair pomade called Top Brass. Next thing we knew, she was Maxwell Smart’s Agent 99. Now we have Flo, she of the retro hair and makeup, who has been the weirdly enthusiastic spokeswoman for Progressive Insurance since 2008. She’s played by actress Stephanie Courtney, but will Courtney’s long-term career get a major boost from this role? Maybe we just don’t pay much attention to TV commercials these days. And to me, the GEICO gecko is much cuter. 


  1. I certainly know of Cal Worthington, but I never saw one of his TV commercials as they were broadcast in California. RIP to a marvelous salesman and showman.

    I do enjoy seeing those familiar faces in commercials - and I have to say I find Flo a LOT cuter than the Geico Gecko.

  2. There's no accounting for tastes, Mr. Craig.