Claim: The actor who portrayed the "Marlboro Man" in print and television cigarette advertisements died of lung cancer.
Origins: To the anti-smoking forces in our society, no irony could be more delicious than noting that the Marlboro Man, the advertising symbol whose
appearance in the "Marlboro Country" series of advertisements was instrumental in establishing Philip Morris' Marlboro brand as the world's best-selling cigarette, died of lung cancer. Any claims about "the" Marlboro Man are a bit misleading, however, since many different men have portrayed the rugged-looking cowboys featured in Marlboro cigarette advertisements since 1954. An Oklahoma native named Darrell Winfield was the main Marlboro Man from the mid-1970s onwards, but dozens of other men (many of them "real" cowboys) have also modeled for television commercials, magazine and newspaper advertisements, billboards, and other advertising materials promoting Marlboro brand of cigarettes, and two of those men, both long-time smokers, have died of cancers which began in their lungs:
Wayne McLaren, who posed for some promotional photographs on behalf of Marlboro in 1976, succumbed to lung cancer at age 51 on 22 July 1992. McLaren was a former professional rodeo rider who appeared in small parts in various television series and movies (primarily Westerns) throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and he modeled for print advertising between acting jobs in the mid-1970s including a Marlboro campaign in 1976. McLaren, who had a pack-and-a-half a day smoking habit, was diagnosed with lung cancer at age 49. Despite chemotherapy, the removal of one lung, and radiation treatments, the cancer eventually spread to his brain and killed him. After learning he had cancer, McLaren embarked on an anti-smoking campaign that included the production of a commercial described as follows:
In the powerful TV spot, images of the handsome young Wayne McLaren in a Stetson hat are juxtaposed with shots of his withered form in a hospital bed just prior to his death. His brother, Charles, provides the voiceover and chides tobacco companies for promoting an 'independent' lifestyle and asks, 'Lying there with all those tubes in you, how independent can you really be?'
In the last months of his life McLaren appeared before the Massachusetts legislature when it was considering a bill to add taxes to cigarettes to pay for health education and also spoke at the annual Philip Morris stockholders' meeting to support a resolution that the company limit its advertising. Philip Morris initially denied that McLaren had ever appeared in Marlboro advertising, but a company spokesperson later conceded that McLaren's image had been used in a retail display for Marlboro Texan Poker Cards. (The woman McLaren lived with for the last eight years of his life also produced a Marlboro magazine advertisement which she claimed pictured McLaren.)
David McLean, who appeared in many Marlboro television and print advertisements starting in the early 1960s, also died of cancer at age 73 on 12 October 1995. McLean starred in the short-lived 1960 television Western Tate, and he played roles in numerous television series and feature films during the 1960s and 1970s. McLean took up smoking at age 12, began to suffer from emphysema in 1985, and had a cancerous tumor removed from his right lung in 1993. Despite the surgery, the cancer remained and spread to his brain and spine, and McLean succumbed in 1995. In August 1996 McLean's widow and son filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Philip Morris, Inc., claiming that McLean was unable to stop smoking because of his nicotine addiction, and that his smoking habit was the cause of his lung cancer. (The lawsuit contended, among other issues, that McLean had been obligated to smoke up to five packs per take in order to get the right look while posing for advertisements, and that he received cartons of Marlboro cigarettes as gifts from Philip Morris.) At last report (in 1999) the lawsuit was still pending, having outlasted all attempts by defendant Philip Morris to have it dismissed.
The public's fascination with these deaths is easy to understand. With the growth of the anti-smoking movement, the proliferation of lawsuits against tobacco companies, and the passage of legislation restricting smoking in public places over the last several years, the death of the ubiquitous symbol of the world's best-selling cigarette is an irony that many anti-smoking campaigners particularly relish.