An acting career and a life have gone up in smoke

September 05, 1995|By Liz Doup | Liz Doup,Knight-Ridder News Service

Does his face look familiar?

For two decades, the sophisticated smile and craggy good looks of Lauderhill, Fla., model-actor Alan Landers surfaced in magazines and on TV and billboards to sell Pierre Cardin suits, London Fog raincoats, Coca-Cola -- and cigarettes.

Now 54, with two lung cancer operations in the last seven years behind him, he wants to be the next cigarette-pitchman-turned-anti-smoking crusader, like the "Marlboro Man" before he died of cancer.

Mr. Landers believes that his life story -- how he went from being a $100,000-a-year model to being an out-of-work and ailing ex-smoker -- can punch up President Bill Clinton's recent message to teens: Don't smoke.

"When I did cigarette ads, it was just work -- how I made a living," says Mr. Landers, who started smoking at 14. "I didn't think the warning on the package meant much. It said that cigarettes are dangerous to your health. Now, I'd say to kids, 'Cigarette smoking causes cancer. This will kill you -- slowly, but it will kill you.' "

His voice is slightly hoarse from vocal-cord damage, a complication from his second surgery. His prognosis: Only 13 percent of people with lung cancer survive for five years. Mr. Landers has been cancer-free for nearly three.

He has signed onto a class- action suit, initiated by Miami attorney Stanley Rosenblatt, alleging that cigarette companies intentionally addicted their customers and conspired to hide information about the hazards of smoking.

While the case lumbers through the courts, Mr. Landers hopes publicity will jump-start his career, on hold since his most recent surgery in January of '93.

Just before that cancer bout, Mr. Landers filmed the straight-to-video movie "Deadly Rivals" in Miami, with Margaux Hemingway. He still surfaces in reruns of a 4-year-old "America's Most Wanted," playing Leslie Rogge, an on-the-lam bank robber. When you rent "Annie Hall," he's the pompous producer in beads and white hopsacking with the memorable line: "Right now, it's only a notion, but I think I can get the money to turn it into a concept, then later, maybe an idea." In July's Cosmopolitan, he's in a tux pouring a glass of wine, illustrating a story on "The Dangerously Extravagant Man."

Today, Mr. Landers makes do on a monthly Social Security disability check and Medicare, since his Screen Actors Guild insurance is gone. His apartment, decorated with black-and-white photos of Elvis, James Dean and Clint Eastwood, hints at his more glamorous past.

Mr. Landers' cigarette-plugging heyday was around 1967, three years after the surgeon general warned that smoking can be "dangerous" to your health.

He says he appeared in Winston ads on billboards, in news magazines and at subway stops for three years. At the same time, he says, he was the suave gent in the legendary TV Tiparillo ad. He walks into a room, tosses his trench coat on a hook, and walks toward a woman seductively dressed on a couch. He kisses her lightly, then offers her a cigar. The voice-over says: "Should a gentleman offer a lady a Tiparillo?"

The words became a catch phrase for the era. Mr. Landers says residuals helped pay bills for years.

He keeps a portfolio with the Winston commercials, a series with a holiday-winter theme: Mr. Landers holding Christmas packages, hugging a woman in the snow, cutting a Christmas tree.

And smoking, smoking, smoking.

Just like the "Marlboro Man," in real life Wayne McLaren, a rodeo rider. McLaren, too, became an anti-smoking crusader after developing lung cancer. He died in 1982, at the age of 51.

Maura Ellis, spokeswoman of RJ Reynolds, which makes Winstons, doubts the effectiveness of their message.

"There's a lot of skepticism about someone who says they've smoked for years, who willingly worked and was paid and now says they're a victim," she says. "It's like biting the hand that feeds you."

Mr. Landers smoked his first cigarette in a Lakeland, Fla., pasture where he and a boyhood friend rode horses.

He thinks it was a Camel or a Lucky Strike. He remembers coughing. He also remembers thinking that cigarette smoking, even if it choked you, was cool.

"I grew up watching Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne smoke in the movies," he says. "It was all about image. You weren't a man if you didn't smoke."

His father smoked, and so did his three older brothers. His father, who ran a plumbing supply business, died of skin cancer at 51, when Mr. Landers was 9. His brother, Frank, whose twin is 64 today, died of cancer -- sarcoma, a malignant tumor in connective tissue -- at 35.

Like most heavy smokers, Mr. Landers lighted a cigarette first thing in the morning and last thing at night. He smoked after meals, after sex, with a cup of coffee or a glass of red wine.

Over the years he tried to quit his 2 1/2 -packs-a-day habit cold turkey, with nicotine patches, with nicotine gum. The night before his first surgery, in 1988, to remove two right lung lobes, he smoked -- to calm his fears, he says. After surgery, he quit until his second diagnosis. Then he smoked for two weeks before surgery to bury his panic.

"Then I thought: 'What am I doing, committing suicide?' "

He quit again.

On rare occasion, he says, he's still briefly tempted by a cigarette but never gives in. Rather, he distances himself from smokers, fearing secondhand smoke might harm him, too. He exercises five days a week, eats fruits and vegetables and thinks positive thoughts about his health.

"I want to tell teen-agers that lung cancer can happen to them, even though they think it will happen to someone else," he says. "I'll tell them it's the most painful, disabling thing they can imagine. All that -- for a cigarette."

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