Selling cars was a long way from Cal Worthington's career of choice. What he really wanted to do was fly planes, just as he had in World War II. Instead, he had to settle for becoming the best-known car salesman in the West.
The first of the million cars that Worthington said he sold was a Hudson Terraplane. He bought it, fixed it up, and sold it the next day for a $60 profit. He told me he had never made such easy money in his whole life.
From then on, he said, he was trapped in the car trade. He became the master of car salesmen, and the lord of the advertising airwaves. His cowboy outfits came from Nudie's — the well-known Hollywood tailor — and his accent was straight out of Osage County, Oklahoma.
Back when cars were cheap and TV time was even cheaper, Cal Worthington was a self-made star. His commercials ran for two, three, even four minutes. He told jokes. He pitched his patter about Fords and "Chivys," and later on, about Mazdas and "Tyotas."
He sang his jingle, the one imprinted on the musical memories of generations of Southern Californians: go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal. And mostly, he cavorted with his dog Spot who was sometimes a coati-mundi other times a hippopotamus or an alligator; anything from a goose to a gorilla, but never, ever a dog.
He was the TV wallpaper of the late-late show, and sleepless women would sidle up to him and let him know that they had spent the night with him - thanks to the television. He got invited to the famous sofa of that other king of late-night, Johnny Carson.
That first sixty bucks he made, he parlayed into millions. He got to become a pilot again, flying his own Learjet, visiting his dealerships from Anchorage to San Diego. He bought ranches in Idaho and Nevada and California, grew some almonds, ran some cattle.
Over time, cars got better, he told me once; safer. More efficient. You take decent care of them, he said, there's a 100,000 miles in 'em. In the old days, you were lucky if they made it to 25,000.
He himself never had the pink slip to any one car, but he drove so many different models from his dealership that on any one day, he couldn't remember which one. He'd go to dinner and then forget what he'd driven there. Once, he flew into LAX and raised hell because he couldn't get the key to work. Turns out the car had a Worthington plate on it, but it wasn't the one he'd driven there.
He never did go into politics, even though, as he told me, he'd tinkered with the idea a time or two. He said he knew he could get elected because he knew how to put a man in his place with a little humor, make him look kind of funny without getting vicious and slinging mud like a lot of politicians do.
As TV spots grew more expensive, he said he couldn't afford to goof around any more. Thirty seconds is all about the hard sell, and Cal Worthington didn't like being on camera during a hard sell. He said it didn't look good.
Maybe it took him three or four minutes to sell a car, but it only took Angelenos a few seconds to recognize that jangly little tune, along with the much-parodied man who got rich with it.
Cal Worthington? He was big. It was the airtime that got small.