Roy Grace, 66; Art Director Responsible for ‘Spicy Meatball’ Alka-Seltzer Ads

Times Staff Writer

Roy Grace, an award-winning advertising art director who was a leader in the Madison Avenue creative revolution of the 1960s and 1970s and responsible for the “spicy meatball” series for Alka-Seltzer, has died. He was 66.

Grace died Wednesday in his native New York City of prostate cancer.

Grace was a mainstay of the powerhouse Doyle Dane Bernbach, now DDB Worldwide division of the Omnicom Group, for 22 years of his four decades in the business. He guided creative campaigns for Volkswagen of America and American Tourister luggage, in addition to Alka-Seltzer, the product designed to soothe indigestion and headaches.


The amusing, edgy “spicy meatball” series in 1969 was a sharp departure from Alka-Seltzer’s previous campaign, which featured the cartoonish “Speedy Alka-Seltzer.” The Grace ads involved a commercial within a commercial -- an actor flubbing the line “Mama Mia! That’s a spicy meatball!” through 59 takes. When a lunch break was called, the camera focused on the anguished actor, stuffed with spaghetti and meatballs and in dire need of Alka-Seltzer.

For Volkswagen, also in 1969, Grace created the classic “Funeral” showing a funeral procession of luxury cars as a crotchety old man reads his will from beyond the grave. Scolding his relatives for extravagance, the deceased miser praises his thrifty nephew, Harold, bringing up the rear of the procession in his economical black VW bug. Harold, of course, is bequeathed the uncle’s entire $100-billion fortune.

“A funeral was absolutely the worst thing you could have in a commercial -- and that’s why it was so right,” Grace told Entertainment Weekly after the publication rated the commercial as one of its 100 Greatest Moments in TV History. Very few ads were on that list, which included such entertainment episodes as the birth of little Ricky on “I Love Lucy.”

A third memorable ad campaign Grace created for DDB was “Gorilla” for American Tourister, which showed one of its suitcases easily surviving a playful drubbing by a gorilla. A voice-over says, “Dear clumsy bellboys, brutal cab drivers, careless doormen, ruthless porters, savage baggage masters and all butter-fingered luggage handlers all over the world: Have we got a suitcase for you.”

Grace’s goal, he once said, was to make people think about a product and form their own decision to buy it.

Asked about his favorite ad in 1986, the year he formed the agency Grace and Rothschild with DDB colleague Diane Rothschild, Grace told Adweek, “I haven’t done it yet -- that’s the absolute truth.”

He did, however, have a couple of campaigns he considered personally significant. The first was for Volkswagen, with which he established himself at DDB. Beginning to tout VW in the mid-1960s, when the Beetle was already an American icon, he said, “was like following Michael Jordan onto a court.”

The second campaign he treasured was for the English-made Range Rover, which launched his independent ad agency. The concept of a “luxury 4x4” was new to the U.S. in 1987, and Grace had to introduce the product with a very low budget.

His ad campaign was so successful that the company sold 2,400 of the expensive vehicles in the U.S. that first year, and within a decade was selling 10 times that number, even as other auto makers moved into the luxury SUV field. The company was so pleased that it handed Grace its account for the Sterling automobile, a product other American agencies had been unable to sell here.

Although Grace was perhaps best known for his television commercials, he also created other forms of advertising including billboards. For J&B; Scotch, a major client of his independent agency, he designed an imaginative example in Buena Park near the Artesia Boulevard exit of the Santa Ana Freeway in the late 1980s. Touting “J&B; with a twist,” the billboard was twisted on one end as if damaged by a windstorm.

“Someone must be catching on,” he told The Times in 1988. “In all the outdoor advertising I’ve done for the past 20 years, nobody’s ever called me. Now, they’re calling like crazy.”

Born Jason Roy Grace in the Bronx, Grace was the son of a bottling plant foreman and a housewife and earned a scholarship to Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

He began his career by exploring everything from painting to packaging and earned an assignment as an animator for Paramount Pictures. But he settled into advertising by age 25, working for the firms Benton & Bowles, then Grey Advertising, before joining Doyle Dane Bernbach in 1964 as a protege of founder Bill Bernbach.

Grace left the firm briefly in the early 1970s to become a partner in Gilbert, Grace & Stark, but returned to DDB and rose to executive creative director and chairman of U.S. operations.

His firm, Grace and Rothschild, operated from 1986 to 2000, but closed when it lost its Range Rover account.

Grace was inducted into the Halls of Fame of the Art Directors Club and the One Club for Art and Copy, and won at least 28 Clio awards for commercials and several film festival awards. His work is included on several lists of top commercials of all time, and four of his commercials are among the New York Museum of Modern Art’s collection of 17 classic ads.

He is survived by his wife, Marcia; a daughter, Jessica of New York; and a son, Nicholas, of Beverly Hills.