An icon of L.A. popular culture, Calvin Coolidge "Cal" Worthington, star of generations' worth of television ads, is at age 90 finishing up yet another ad campaign. He still does the Worthington Ford commercials, and, admitting with a sigh resembling the sound made by a nose set to a grindstone for decades, "As I have for the last 50 years, I'm here every single Monday doing new commercials. It gets to be a real drag after a while," he says with a hearty laugh.
Despite his protestations, he's lost none of his energy for selling cars, that most grueling of all possible avenues to consumerism. Two things that brought him to it: poverty and energy.
"My family was desperately poor — I was one of nine children, and we were barefoot all the time, we didn't have shoes. No plumbing, no running water, no lights.
"My chance really came when war broke out and I went into the Air Force and trained to be a bomber pilot. I flew 29 missions over Germany — every mission a fight, I mean a fierce firefight, for hours. And the next day, you'd go again.
"When the war ended, I became so restless. I was used to tremendous activity, and now it was a terrible letdown, and I understand that that's very common. It was a real letdown — I wanted to go bomb something."
First aired in 1950, his commercials were sung — accompanied by a fast banjo — to the tune of "If You're Happy and You Know It." His signature line, "Go see Cal," was a clarion call that brought in prospective buyers by the thousands. It also made the wait through commercials running before the next segment of KHJ's Kung Fu Theater much more bearable. The late-night spots starring "his dog Spot" — never a dog, always some kind of exotic beast — hold the same kind of fascination that greeted the wild animals zookeeper Jack Hanna brought on Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show.
Even in those cynical days of the post-Vietnam era, Worthington imparted that most elusive quality of trust to consumers roundly abused by things like midnight-madness sales and the illusion of prices ending in .99.
The avuncular Worthington succeeded precisely because of his offbeat qualities, easily trumping competing pitchmen like the unctuous Chick Lambert (Ralph Williams Ford) or the cloying Pete Ellis (Dodge, Long Beach Freeway, Firestone Exit, South Gate).
At age 90, has the daily grind let up? "The car business is the most competitive business you could ever be in," Worthington says.
Fellow TV pitchman Shadoe "Fred Rated" Stevens testifies: "Cal Worthington is a legend. His approach was inspired. He was funny without being funny, and buying up all the inexpensive, late-night advertising with massive repetition was brilliant.
"We all grovel at his feet."