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Chrysler Air Bag Spot Called a Smash Hit : Advertising: The dramatic crash ad, the first to use a real person instead of a dummy, persuaded the stunt driver to trade in his Ford Bronco for a car with the safety devices.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Roger Richman, fame came only after he hit the wall.

Richman is that guy in the Chrysler TV commercial who nonchalantly buckles himself into a Plymouth Acclaim, then drives it smack into a concrete, steel-enforced wall at 21 m.p.h. That might not sound like much, but experts say that’s the rough equivalent of hitting another moving car at 50 m.p.h.

The highly dramatic commercial--the first one to ever replace a crash dummy with a real person--was filmed last month on a landing strip at Inyokern Airport in Kern County, about 150 miles north of Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert.

The ad promotes Chrysler’s placement of air bags in all of its American-built cars.

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Richman, a 37-year-old Hollywood Hills resident and professional stunt driver, said the mental and physical impact of driving that car into the wall has persuaded him to trade in his Ford Bronco for a car with air bags.

“I knew that I was strictly a live piece of meat,” said Richman, who is employed by Hollywood-based Drivers Inc. “But it’s rare that we stunt drivers get to do something that might benefit mankind. How many lives have been saved by watching stunt drivers on ‘The A-Team’ or ‘Starsky & Hutch?’ ”

More than altruism attracted him to appear in the commercial. Besides the pay--which he declined to reveal--the ad represented that one chance in a million for a stunt driver to get his mug on TV. Stunt drivers’ faces are rarely shown in films or on television because they’re standing in for another actor. But this time, Richman was no one but himself.

In the 30-second ad, Richman, dressed in street clothes, walks up to a Plymouth Acclaim, opens the driver’s door and tosses out a crash dummy. He then sits in the driver’s seat, buckles his seat belt and proceeds to drive his car into a specially built, steel-reinforced concrete wall, without so much as wincing.

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“They wanted me to act as if I didn’t know what was coming,” said Richman, who used only standard lap and shoulder restraints. “So I tried to defocus my vision to not see the wall.”

The car used in the stunt was right off a dealer’s lot and was not specially prepared in any way.

Seconds before the crash, tension on the set was great. “We were naturally quite concerned about safety,” said Sidney Rothberg, executive producer of Werner Hlinka Products, which filmed the ad created by the Minneapolis office of Bozell Inc. “Not only would we have contributed to injuring the driver, but the negative publicity surrounding such an accident would have been disastrous both for our company and for Chrysler.”

Immediately upon impact, Richman’s air bag exploded open and completely cushioned the blow, but Richman hardly remembers it. “I didn’t even realize that the bag came out,” he said. “It all happened so fast.”

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After the crash, Richman steps out of the car, unharmed. “If you’re looking at a Japanese car, see if it’s got an air bag,” says an off-camera narrator. “Then ask yourself if you can live without one.”

Paramedics stood by, just in case something went wrong. They also examined Richman immediately after the crash.

“It was the hardest hit I’ve ever taken in my career,” Richman said. “I never thought I’d die from the crash, but if the bag had failed, I knew broken bones and internal injuries were likely.”

Just in case all six cameras filming the crash somehow missed the impact, another Acclaim was waiting on the set for him to try it a second time.

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And what if Richman--who is single--had chickened out? Well, even Chrysler Chairman Lee A. Iacocca, a longtime opponent of air bags who only recently became an air bag cheerleader, was considered at one time.

“When he was first reviewing the concept for the commercial, he laughingly volunteered,” said Joe Hickey, Chrysler’s manager of corporate advertising. But Iacocca wasn’t there for the filming of the ad, although he did send Richman a thank-you note.

Richman has since received plenty of other correspondence. Several advertisers have asked him to ram cars into walls for them too.

“I’m being called the Hollywood crash dummy,” said Richman. He jokingly recalled what went through his mind moments before he hit the wall: “Is it too late to become a CPA?”

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