By Dan Chu Chuck Finnie
November 21, 1988 12:00 PM

At first glance, the six automobile commercials that have unreeled on TV since early October have the flavor of a how-we-spent-our-unusual-summer-vacation home movie. Here are Kurt and Marty packing up their duffel bags. Here they are stuck in traffic. Oh, see Kurt and Marty by the palm tree with the colorfully painted tribespersons. And, finally, the happy vacationers arrive at their destination and head right off for the beach. Good grief, is this any way to sell cars?

In a word, maybe, Look carefully, listen to the running commentary, and these commercials start to resemble a low-budget remake of Romancing the Stone. The series shows the highlights of a punishing 6,500-mile journey from a suburb of Chicago through Central America and down, six weeks later, to Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach. Along the way our hero and heroine encounter washed-out jungle tracks, lost cities and little-known Indian tribes. And only with the softest of pitches are viewers invited to note that the vehicle involved is none other than a four-wheel-drive Pathfinder from Nissan, the people who footed the $1 million-plus tab for the ad campaign.

If the two travelers on this bumpy Road to Rio seem extraordinarily natural about the whole deal, the reason is that they were picked to act that way. Californians Kurt and Marty Anderson are a married couple. They are not strangers to show business—Kurt is an independent filmmaker—but neither has ever done a commercial before. “There was no portrayal of fantasy characters here, it was just us,” says Marty. “They just turned the camera on us, and we did what we would normally do, which is bug each other and tell jokes.” Even part of their voice-over narration, with its engaging blend of Peace Corps enthusiasm and self-mocking humor, was written by them. “We were looking for the lost Mayan city of Yaxchilan,” says Kurt during a segment on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. “We were lost. So I figured we were close.” Chimes in Marty: “That looks like Kurt driving. I don’t use turn indicators in the jungle.”

Until their trek began in August, neither Anderson was a candidate for the Explorers Club. Kurt, 33, grew up in Hayward, Calif., and made a living wrangling extras for film companies. Five years ago he moved to L.A. and became a producer. His just-released offering, Party Line, is “an urban thriller,” according to Marty (or, more formally, Martha), 35, who sells real estate and sometimes acts on the side. A California native, she worked in her family’s manufacturing business until six years ago. She and Kurt married in 1986. The Andersons live in a remodeled barn in L.A.’s Topanga Canyon and are, they say, homebodies. They enjoy reading, watching PBS, eating Chinese food and hugging their part-dingo dog, Dude.

The couple got their roles in the Nissan ads the old-fashioned way: They lined up with 1,000 others to answer a casting call from Chiat/Day Advertising. Chosen for their affability and apparent willingness to endure discomfort, they were paid scale, which came to about $16,500 each for the 45 days, plus expenses and residuals. “But we would have gone,” Kurt says, “if they had only offered to pay expenses.”

From the start, the Andersons viewed the trip as an adventure—”Something big, something special,” says Kurt—and they were not disappointed. They were accompanied by a crew of 10, which used a single camera. Their most touching moments came deep in the Brazilian Amazon rain forest amid the Waiempee Indians, who marveled at the Pathfinder’s air-conditioning, power windows and the James Brown sound from the tape deck. “The Indians paint their bodies red and had never seen such pale skin as Marty’s,” says Kurt. “They liked her so much they gave her a name, Tohnshi, meaning White Stone.”

The Andersons gained new perspective too. All along the 2,200 miles of the trans-Amazonian highway, Kurt and Marty were shocked by the ecological havoc caused by raging fires set deliberately to clear land for settlement. But nothing appalled them more than their own return to civilization. “We drove through mountains, deserts, a couple of civil wars and 11 deodorant sticks,” narrates Kurt, but he claims that their worst moments came in Rio. There, just two miles short of the trail’s end, they found themselves enmeshed in that unspeakable horror feared by all city dwellers: total gridlock, followed by automotive anarchy. “We were never scared till we hit the streets of Rio,” says Marty. “In Rio they say that at night the traffic lights are only decorations.”

—Dan Chu, and Chuck Finnie in Topanga Canyon