SCENE ONE: A helicopter sweeps past a sheer rock promontory jutting 1,500 feet into the sky. The jagged finger of red sandstone is Utah’s Castle Rock, the very same peak featured in Chevrolet ads back in the 1960s and ’70s. Only now there’s a Japanese-made Isuzu perched on top and an eager beaver car salesman standing next to it. “The amazing Isuzu Trooper II,” he says with the shark smile and cocky sincerity of a born huckster. “Its four-wheel drive can take you anywhere. In fact, I drove it up here myself.” Suddenly, superimposed on the TV screen, a silent disclaimer appears: HE’S LYING. “It has more seats than the Astrodome,” proclaims the pitchman, unabashed. (ALMOST, IT HAS FIVE, reads a second correction.) “Plus enough car go space to carry Texas. “(79 CUBIC FEET OF IT, reads the overlay.) “And Isuzu will accept marbles and sea shells as payment. “($10,599. MARBLES AND SHELLS NOT ACCEPTED.) “But they’re selling fast so you have to come in in five minutes,” warns the salesman, his voice rising to a shout as the chopper and its camera crew pull away. “You have my word on it!” They are, quite possibly, the wittiest auto ads to hit TV since Volkswagen’s “Think Small” campaign a generation ago. For starters, there’s that self-important reptilian announcer who oozes like a punctured tube of toothpaste. Then there are the outrageous claims about gas mileage, performance, optional accessories and financing, followed by the quiet corrections that set it all straight. For Isuzu Motors, which began airing the commercials this summer, the result has been an 18 percent jump in sales. For actor David Leisure, who plays the mythical car salesman, Joe Isuzu, in the 30-second spots, the mileage has been even better. An oft-unhired casting call veteran, Leisure, at 35, is suddenly in cruise control.
Not that Leisure (his real name) is new to the world of TV touting. The would-be movie actor has been seen on the home screen, portraying a sleazy pizza parlor owner in a Round Table Pizza ad and hawking hamburgers for Bob’s Big Boy and beer for Molson. It wasn’t his resume however that impressed the advertising boys at Della Femina, Travisano & Partners when Leisure faced off against 80 competitors for the car-selling gig. “When we saw him, we knew he was Joe Isuzu,” says Jeanne Mari Obeji, an art director for the ad agency. “He could lie like a pro.”
SCENE TWO: Leisure, standing behind a sleek, black car, introduces, “The amazing Isuzu I-Mark…It gets 94 miles per gallon, city; 112, highway.” HE’S LYING. 34 MPG CITY, 40 HIGHWAY, Cautions the subtitle. “Its top speed is 300 miles per hour,” says Leisure, barely pausing, DOWNHILL IN A HURRICANE, notes the text. “And if you come in tomorrow, you’ll get a free house. You have my word on it.” In truth, Leisure does know a bit about cars, having twice taken up residence in his 1964 VW bus. The first time was during his student-actor days at San Diego State University, where he roomed with Robert Hays, now in TV’s Starman. Leisure, a former high school fatty who once weighed 220 lbs., says “depression” drove him to abandon his roommate in favor of a home on wheels. “I wanted to be Bob Hays,” he sighs. “I used to dress like him and walk like him and talk like him. He was great looking, and every woman on earth wanted him.”
After graduating with a degree in fine arts, Leisure headed north to Los Angeles and began hunting for acting jobs. Six years passed before he finally landed one, playing a Hare Krishna in the 1980 film Airplane! “People even think Bob got me the Airplane! Job, but it was really just a coincidence that we both landed roles in the film,” he says. “I auditioned four times for that part. I’m lucky they only asked me to shave my head because I would have done anything to get a job at that point.”
One year later, with his acting prospects dimming again and his five-year marriage on the rocks, Leisure resumed housekeeping in his old VW. “I lived in my car for a year,” he recalls. “I used to park in front of friends’ houses, then knock on their door in the morning and ask to use the bathroom.” Eventually, Leisure took a job waiting on tables in a Burbank restaurant and was able to afford the rent on the cramped, sunless apartment that he still occupies near the Hollywood Freeway. Taking a girlfriend’s advice, he next joined a workshop for would-be commercials actors and finally, in 1983, landed his first role as a TV pitchman.
Soon after, Bell Atlantic hired Leisure to help boost ad sales for their Yellow Pages. So far he has appeared in more than two dozen 30-second spots for the company, cast as a tough-talking Joe Friday-like character in a Dragnet parody. Leisure, who got a boost in pay and profile from the assignment, now refers to the phone book ad series as “my big break.”
He would, alas, soon have another. Just after the first of his Isuzu ads was shot, with five more to be filmed, Leisure broke his ankle while ice skating with his daughter Maya, 7, and showed up at Delia Femina’s offices with his foot in a cast. “They looked at me like I was carrying the Andromeda Strain,” he reports. The mishap prompted a quick rewrite of the scripts, and in one of the newly created ads, Leisure sports his real cast, crutches, and a Formula One racing suit, while standing in front of an amusement park bumper car ride. “I had a little problem here at Monte Carlo,” he casually tells viewers, HE SLIPPED IN THE BATHTUB, explains the subtitle.
SCENE THREE: Leisure stands before a vacant house in L.A.’s Studio City. The windows are shattered, the paint peeling, the lawn has gone to dust and dead grass. On the front door of the ramshackle house is a sign that reads, “Unsafe Structure. Do Not Enter under Penalty of Law by Order of The City of Los Angeles.” Leisure, turning on his Joe Isuzu character, climbs through a window and then cracks a huge smile. “Yes, this is my dream house!” he booms, arms sweeping over the desolation. “A little glass brick here, a little renovation there, and this house will become a real home!”
This time he’s not kidding—the crumbling structure is his new home, bought with earnings from his commercials. Already in the works for 1987 are two more 30-second auto ads in which Joe Isuzu’s wife, mother and children will be introduced to TV viewers. (“His mother and wife will tell lies,” confides Jerry Delia Femina, “but not the kids. They’re adopted.”) By the time filming starts in December, Leisure hopes to be parking his old VW van in front of the house that “Yellow Pages paid for and Isuzu renovated.” And who knows? If he gets around to fixing up the front yard as well, TV’s favorite fibber just might end up lying in clover.