If you watched television in Southern California in the 1970s and beyond, it was impossible to miss Cal Worthington, the lanky pitchman in the cowboy hat touting deals on a sprawling car lot with his “dog Spot.”
“Spot,” however, was anything but a dog — think lion, tiger, bull, penguin, anteater, iguana, even a whale. And Worthington, the Oklahoma transplant who rode and wrestled with the exotic creatures in one of TV’s wackiest and longest-running ad campaigns, kept the gag going for decades, building a cult following along with one of the most successful car dealerships west of the Mississippi. “Go see Cal” became a part of Southern Californians’ vocabulary.
Worthington, who estimated that he sold a million cars of various makes during a 65-year career that made him an icon of Southern California auto culture, died Sunday while watching football at his ranch in Orland, north of Sacramento, said his attorney, Larry Miles. He was 92. The cause has not been determined.
Worthington “created a legendary campaign,” said fellow pitchman Shadoe Stevens, whose own classic commercials for electronics discounter Federated in the 1980s were a send-up of Worthington’s spots. “There was something really engaging about his personality and his wit. He had this massive popularity that went on forever.”
Worthington was not the only car dealer of his generation who turned TV to his advantage. Ralph Williams was on the air in the 1960s with commercials that featured sidekick Chick Lambert and a German shepherd named Storm. Another competitor, Fletcher Jones, cuddled a puppy in his arms and promised to give customers a dog from the pound.
When Worthington prepared to make his TV debut, he conceived an ad that teased his rivals while also poking fun at himself. But instead of man’s best friend, he chose a gorilla, which appeared on camera acting very undog-like while chained to the bumper of a car.
“Speak, Spot,” Worthington told the beast. The gorilla roared, the audience howled. And “business about tripled” after the commercials began airing, he said.
Worthington “was a marketing and advertising genius,” said marketing consultant and teacher Larry Londre, who grew up in Los Angeles appreciating the circus flair of the commercials. “He created what you would call a unique selling proposition. Instead of selling cars he sold a personality.”
His use of humor — “I’m going to pretend it’s a dog, that I’m really a little stupid,” Worthington recalled for Los Angeles magazine in 2003 — was novel for the era.
“Advertising in the 1950s and ‘60s was very straightforward. It wasn’t necessarily the comical appeals, the silliness, people making fun of themselves,” said Laura Danforth Shute, an advertising consultant who worked on major car brands in a 25-year career. “Cal Worthington allowed people a little bit of entertainment before the hard sell. He had an old-boy persona that imparted trust and showed a fun, playful personality” that grabbed the audience’s attention.
Soon, his TV style was setting the standard. “You can go to almost any major city in America and find overstated ads related to autos, and nobody did it better than Cal,” said John A. Heitmann Jr., author of “The Automobile in American Life.”
Calvin Coolidge Worthington was born in Bly, Okla., on Nov. 27, 1920, and grew up in the poverty of the Dust Bowl, the seventh of nine children. His home had no running water and was heated by a wood stove. His father, a man who, Worthington once remarked, “couldn’t sell eyes to a blind man,” was a common laborer.
Worthington quit school at age 13 to help support his family and worked as a dollar-a-day cowboy. He also worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps.
When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the Army Air Forces and at 21 became a B-17 pilot. He was among the first bomber pilots to lead daytime raids over Berlin. In all, he flew 29 missions with the Army’s 390th Bomber Group, including raids over Hamburg and Frankfurt, and earned a Distinguished Flying Cross.
After the war, he applied to be a pilot with the major commercial airlines but was rejected because he lacked a college degree. With little idea of what to do next, Worthington, who then lived in Corpus Christi, Texas, paid $500 for a gas station lease. He’d raised the money in 30 minutes by selling his 1936 Hudson Terraplane automobile.
The gas station didn’t work out, but his knack for selling cars did. He began buying cars, fixing them up and then selling them from a dirt parking lot near the local post office. After a few months of sales success, he knew he would be a car salesman.
By 1950, Worthington had made enough money to buy a car dealership in Huntington Park. His business continued to expand as he organized and sponsored country-western music shows called “Cal’s Corral.” The three-hour live shows featured such acts as Buck Owens, Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash before they became big names.
The shows, while successful, didn’t make him as famous as Williams or Jones, the auto dealers whose TV shtick included a dog. So in 1971, “I decided I’d mimic them,” Worthington recalled in the Los Angeles Times in 2002. With the gorilla snarling in the background as the camera rolled, Worthington said: “Howdy, I’m Cal Worthington and this is my dog Spot. I found this little fella down at the pound, and he’s so full of love.”
Worthington spoofed the ads for decades, showing viewers his “dog Spot,” who was always an entirely different beast, sometimes even an elephant or a hippo. It was during this time, too, that he aired the famous 26-stanza jingle titled “Go See Cal.”
Borrowing its melody from the children’s song “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” it wormed its way into popular culture.
“Most every kid knew that tune,” said Joe Saltzman, a USC journalism professor who grew up in Southern California. “ ‘Go See Cal’ was … used all the time when something came up we didn’t understand. ‘I’m having a problem in algebra, what should I do?’ ‘Go see Cal.’ ‘My dad cut my allowance, what should I do?’ ‘Go see Cal.’”
At the height of Worthington’s success, he owned more than 23 dealerships from Houston to Anchorage and spent $12 million to run his commercials 50,000 times a year.
The ads caught the eye of Hollywood. Worthington made an appearance with a goose on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” When the bird soiled Worthington’s suit, host Johnny Carson quipped: “Be glad it wasn’t that elephant sitting on your lap.”
His fame earned him minor parts in the movie “Into the Night” and the television series “The Fall Guy,” where he naturally played a car dealer. The Television Bureau of Advertising called Worthington “probably the best-known car dealer pitchman in television history.”
His ride to cult celebrity status and great wealth wasn’t without its bumps. In the 1960s, and during the energy crunch of the mid-'70s, he tried to boost sagging sales by giving live Southern California traffic updates from a helicopter. And for a short time, he even sold motorized pogo sticks.
In 1979, Worthington divorced his wife of 37 years, Barbara, and married Susan Henning, an actress and model. The second marriage ended in a bitter divorce seven years later.
In the early 1980s, he left his Southern California headquarters in Long Beach and moved his operations to his 24,000-acre Big W Ranch and office complex in Orland.
In 1995, Worthington married disc jockey Bonnie Reese, about 40 years his junior. The couple divorced in 2006.
His fourth wife, Anna, a singer from Iceland, filed for divorce in 2011.
Worthington is survived by his sons Rod, Calvin and Coldren; his daughters Barbara Worthington, Courtney Worthington Shepherd and Susan Worthington Skellenger; and nine grandchildren.
As he aged, Worthington stopped his practice of flying his Learjet to dealerships in Houston, Phoenix and Seattle to shoot his commercials. In recent years, he stood before a green screen at his Northern California ranch and let a computer superimpose his 6-foot-4 image into an Alaska snowstorm for his Anchorage dealership or a sunset for his Long Beach or Carlsbad lots.
“I don’t do anything very well,” Worthington told The Times. “I just stick at it.”
Times staff writer Steve Chawkins contributed to this report.