For the longest time, the Marlboro Man was synonymous with America’s image of itself — tough, self-sufficient, hardworking.
In one of the 20th century’s most famous ad campaigns, which began in the 1950s, he was a rugged but handsome man who did the jobs that needed to be done, and he almost always had a Marlboro cigarette in his mouth.
Today, the reality about the Marlboro Man is darker: At least four actors who have played him in ads have died of smoking-related diseases.
The latest was Eric Lawson, 72, who appeared in Marlboro print ads from 1978 to 1981. He died in San Luis Obispo, Calif., on Jan. 10.
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“He knew the cigarettes had a hold on him,” his wife, Susan Lawson, told The Associated Press. “He knew, yet he still couldn’t stop.”
She said he died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which is most frequently caused by smoking. He took up the habit at age 14.
Lawson’s unglamorous end has been shared by other Marlboro models, some of whom were honest cowboys. Others were just hunky California actors or similarly rugged stand-ins.
Marlboro Man David Millar, of Meriden, N.H., succumbed to emphysema in 1987 at age 81.
“They used to boost him up by a rope and put him down on the horse because he didn’t like horses,” Charles Dudley, a friend, told the AP after Millar died. He said Millar had smoked for about 40 to 45 years before quitting, after which Millar often joked that he was “the only Marlboro Man who doesn’t smoke, drink or like horses.”
That’s not quite true: One of the Marlboro ad campaign’s first actors was William Thourlby, a Broadway actor who would later say he never even drank, let alone smoked.
Thourlby survived long enough to give a 2012 interview, at the age of 88, about living for decades in the New York Athletic Club, which has a decidedly uncowboylike dress code.
Some of Thourlby’s later colleagues, however, embraced nicotine and suffered for it.
Wayne McLaren died of lung cancer in 1992 at age 51 after 25 years of smoking. His modeling job with Marlboro was followed by an anti-smoking campaign that lasted until his death.
“I’ve spent the last month of my life in an incubator and I’m telling you, it’s just not worth it,” McLaren told a Los Angeles Times reporter from his deathbed in Newport Beach, Calif., where he lay with several tubes connected to his body.
After he died a week later, his mother, Louise, told the Times that some of McLaren’s last words were, “Take care of the children. Tobacco will kill you, and I am living proof of it.”
McLaren had waged an anti-smoking war against Marlboro and its owner, Phillip Morris, complaining that the ads targeted kids, “the only target the companies have left.”
By the late 1990s, Marlboro’s ads were so effective and pervasive that one study suggested that more than 90 percent of schoolchildren knew who the Marlboro Man was.
Another Marlboro Man from California, David McLean, died of lung cancer at 73 in the UCLA Medical Center in 1995. His widow later sued Philip Morris, contending that McLean had to smoke pack after pack of cigarettes during Marlboro shoots so directors could create the perfect scene.
“During the taping of the commercials, David McLean was obligated to smoke Marlboro cigarettes,” the 1996 lawsuit said. “The commercials were very carefully orchestrated, and David McLean was required to smoke up to five packs per take in order to get the ashes to fall a certain way, the smoke to rise a certain way and the hand to hold the cigarette in a certain way.”
Years later, the McLean lawsuit was thrown out when a federal judge ruled that California law — in those days, more protective of tobacco companies — protected Phillip Morris from Lilo McLean’s claims. McLean was billed for the costs of the lawsuit.
A spokesman for Phillip Morris did not respond to a request for comment from the Los Angeles Times for this story.
By the time the McLean lawsuit ran its course, the Marlboro Man campaign had concluded its decades-long run in the U.S. media.
Cigarette use had continued a long plummet among Americans, which began with a groundbreaking 1964 U.S. Surgeon General report on smoking’s harmful effects.
But the Marlboro Man was finally finished off by the 1998 Master Settlement between tobacco companies and state attorneys general, which forbade the companies to use humans or cartoons on tobacco advertising in the United States.
“The Marlboro Man will be riding into the sunset on Joe Camel,” Florida Attorney General Robert Butterworth quipped to reporters after the deal was reached.
Lawson, the actor from San Luis Obispo, had done his part in later years to make up for the smoking ads that he’d done with Marlboro, at one point appearing in an anti-smoking ad that parodied the Marlboro Man.