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The Morbid Tale of the Marlboro Man–And Others

20 Nov

by Roger White

A moment of silence, please, for Mr. Eric Lawson. Mr. Lawson, 72, died earlier this year from respiratory failure due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The real cause: smoking. If you don’t recognize the name, you’ll certainly know him by his professional moniker. Eric Lawson was the Marlboro Man. You remember? The rugged cowboy dude rode the range, ten-gallon hat on his head and a smooth Marlboro in his hand, in those iconic cigarette ads of the 1970s.

The MMGet this: Lawson was the latest in a string of Marlboro Men to expire due to “hazards of the job.” Before him, aspiring actor David Millar, who did TV spots for the cigarette company in the 1950s, smoked for four decades before dying of emphysema in 1987. Former stuntman Wayne McLaren, another Marlboro male, died of lung cancer in 1992 at age 51. Western TV actor David McLean, who appeared in such shows as Bonanza and Gunsmoke, played the MM in print and television ads—he kicked the bucket in 1995 after 30 years of lighting up. His widow sued Phillip Morris, claiming the company made him smoke five packs per ad; she lost when the suit was dismissed. And then there was Richard Hammer, a firefighter-turned-actor who died of lung cancer in 1999 after his reign as the smoking cowboy. Talk about a risky profession.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are many sordid stories of TV and magazine pitch men who’ve succumbed through the years, overwhelmed by their corporate personas. It’s the sort of thing that Hollywood and Madison Avenue have conspired to keep quiet, fearing the backlash of negative publicity. Here are just a few I’ve become privy to:

ow!Did you know, for example, that the original Pillsbury Dough Boy, young Timothy Yeastley of Bakersfield, California, died of peritonitis after being poked in the belly 417 times during a marathon attempt at a particular TV commercial? “The director was never satisfied,” one stagehand remembered. “We kept shooting it over and over. It was gruesome. Timothy gamely tried to carry on, even laughing that silly laugh to the very end. But by the 400th take or so, he was black and blue.” Outtakes have apparently cropped up on Youtube; don’t watch them unless you have a strong stomach. So to speak.

Or how about the sad tale of Gunther Sauber, otherwise known in TV land as Mr. Clean? Poor Gunther became so consumed by his on-air identity that he died of OCD in 1977. Near the end, he spent all his time cleaning, polishing, spit-shining, mopping, shaving his head. They found Gunther, dead of a heart attack, in the Flatbush Avenue Subway Terminal in New York. He was Mr Cdressed all in white, a bottle of cleaner in one hand, a filthy rag in the other. Notes found in his apartment indicated he intended to degrease the entire New York City subway system.

Then there was Lee David Squibny of Hastings, Nebraska—the original Kool-Aid Man. Although Lee went violently—he died of repeated blunt-force trauma after crashing through 46 walls during a grueling TV ad taping session—an autopsy revealed early onset of diabetes. An unsettling side note: All of Lee’s internal organs were stained a hideous grape purple.

And let’s not forget ill-fated Ike Lipshitz, the original Jack of Jack in the Box fame. Mr. Lipshitz, apparently obsessed with staying in character, met a ghastly fate when his bulbous Jack in the Box head became stuck in an elevator door on his way to his fiancée’s apartment. When the elevator Jack is Badarrived at the fiancée’s floor, she was horrified to find only the giant Jack head inside, and a bag of tacos.

I could go on. I would, for instance, tell you about the fate of the first two Mr. Peanuts, but you’d never look at a jar of peanut butter the same way. Or of the original Jolly Green Giant—oh, the endless skin grafts… Suffice it to say, it’s not all glamour and glitz.

 

Roger White is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas, with his lovely wife, two precocious daughters, a very fat dachshund, and a self-absorbed cat. For further adventures, visit oldspouse.wordpress.com.

Listen to the Wife. Don’t Put Off the Doc Visit

7 Mar

by Roger White

Musician/songwriter Dan Fogelberg. Actor Dennis Hopper. Musician Frank Zappa. Television producer Merv Griffin. Actor Telly Savalas. Psychologist/writer Timothy Leary. What do all these guys have in common? They all died of prostate Dancancer, a highly treatable disease if caught in the early stages. Why am I telling you this? I guess you could say it’s become a personal mission of mine to get the word out about early detection. I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in November 2013.

It was a shocker, to say the least. It all started with a routine physical, grudgingly agreed to after the insistent urgings of my lovely wife, Sue. One of the many things the doc checks for in guys my age (50+) is the level of PSA in the bloodstream. PSA, short for prostate-specific antigen, is produced by the prostate gland, located down in the male nether regions. Its main function, to put it in terms appropriate for family-friendly reading, is to produce a substance that, um, allows one’s boys to swim more freely. An elevated PSA level is a red flag, however.

Now, here’s where it gets tricky. PSA tests, as Sue and I found through voracious research, are somewhat controversial because some health advocates have cited an overdiagnosis and overtreatment for prostate cancer in otherwise healthy men. Only 30 percent of men with elevated PSA levels are found to have prostate cancer following biopsy, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. And the biopsy is no picnic, let me tell ya. Many men, I discovered, opt to skip the biopsy—a quite literal pain in the rear—and conduct what’s termed “watchful waiting” over the years, wherein they’re obliged to check their PSA level regularly to see if it’s rising.

Unfortunately, it seems this controversy about PSA test accuracy has been used as an excuse by many men to simply skip the whole screening. Well, I’m here to tell men over 50, despite the clamor about overtreatment, to get your PSA level checked. I was in the 30 percent. My biopsy report came back stamped in red, in cancerall caps: “CARCINOMA.” Cancer. After the initial terror wore off, we went into action. And here is where it helps immensely to have a supportive partner. Sue read everything she could get her hands on about prostate cancer. We found that every case is different and that treatment options are varied—and confusing. We discovered that although prostate cancer is among the most common cancer in men, some men can actually live with the disease into very old age.

This, however, was not my case. The biopsy showed that mine was advanced to the stage that I required treatment. My options were surgery (removal of the prostate gland), external radiation (a series of treatments in which a beam targets cancerous tissue), or brachytherapy (inserting radioactive “seeds” directly into the body). Considering my relatively young age at diagnosis and at the recommendation of specialists, we chose surgery. Radiation, we found, is more viable for men in their 70s and beyond. My main fears regarding the procedure weren’t about being cut open; the possible side-effects were truly frightening: risk of urinary incontinence and loss of sexual function. With all this swirling in my head, we chose February surgery15, the day after Valentine’s Day, as the day to go under the knife.

I don’t remember much about my hospital stay, except that I was in much more pain than I had anticipated. And I was sent home with a “little buddy”—a catheter. With that cumbersome bag strapped to my leg for more than a week, I hobbled around the house looking somewhat like a nude gunfighter.

But the catheter’s off now. I have a nice scar running from just under my belly button to just above my crotch. I have a little pain, and I’m moving slow; however, I’m not wearing adult diapers and my ability to function as a man is coming back day by day. TMI, perhaps, but this is important stuff. I have some obstacles to overcome, but I have my life.

prostate-cancer[1]The upshot is this: Prostate cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death among men in the United States—sixth in the entire world. According to the American Cancer Society, of all the leading new cancer cases and deaths estimated for 2014, prostate cancer accounts for 10 percent, second only to lung cancer.

Listen to the wife, men. Get a physical.

Roger White is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas, with his lovely wife, two precocious daughters, a very fat dachshund, and a self-absorbed cat. For further adventures, visit oldspouse.wordpress.com.