March 03, 1986 12:00 PM

In this TV commercial, the balding man in a pin-striped suit picks his way down the crowded airplane aisle. Walking toward the camera, he loyally defends the Eastern Airlines shuttle against the claim that its upstart competitor, New York Air, offers much roomier flights. Assuring viewers that he’s flown Eastern comfortably for years, the business traveler squeezes into a narrow seat. Then, delivering his punch line, “They give me all the room I need to stretch out,” he reaches down, grabs his ankles—and flips his feet behind his head. So much, in short, for Eastern’s spaciousness.

This outrageous sight gag has been dazzling audiences in Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., where the commercials have been shown for three weeks. In fact, fans have flocked to airport promotions, trying to duplicate the feat (and win a pair of tickets), or at least to meet the rubber man who has flexed their funny bones and made New York Air’s image fly.

The not-so-secret weapon of the northeastern air wars is actor Kedric Robin Wolfe, 46, a former electronics technician. Now living in L.A.’s Topanga Canyon, Wolfe discovered he had the elastic knack when he was growing up in Canton, Ohio. “I’ve always been what you would call ‘loose in the joints,’ ” says the celeb, who is known as “Pretzelman.” He used to perform the stunt for his relatives. “Folks,” he modestly admits, “found it a bit impressive.”

So did the folks who were making the New York Air commercial. “We looked everywhere,” says Tod Seisser, part of the ad agency team behind the contortionist concept. “It’s not easy to find a man who can fold up like a pretzel and act at the same time.” Wolfe has a leg up in both areas: He’s been a performer for the past 14 years, appearing in eight films, most notably House Calls. A devotee of hatha-yoga since 1972, he even knew the Sanskrit name for the position that the agency wanted him to assume: Dwi Pada Sirasana (feet behind the head pose).

Shooting the commercial was a snap, says Wolfe, mainly because one vital precaution had been taken. “After we picked out a suit, we waited until they triple-stitched all the seams.”

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