The former actor was the latest in a string of models for the Marlboro cigarette brand to die from smoking-related illness
It’s a grim pattern, familiar enough that it’s even gotten the Hollywood treatment: Eric Lawson, an actor who played the Marlboro Man in cigarette ads during the late ’70s, died on Jan. 10 of a smoking-related illness – at least the fifth Marlboro Man to pass away from such circumstances.
Lawson, an actor and model who had smoked since age 14, died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at the age of 72. Like other former Marlboro Men, he turned against tobacco later in life, speaking out against smoking on Entertainment Tonight and in an anti-cigarette PSA, though he did not give up the habit for good until he was diagnosed with the disease that ultimately killed him.
“He knew the cigarettes had a hold on him,” his wife Susan told the Associated Press, “but he couldn’t stop.”
Not all of Lawson’s counterparts were official Marlboro Men, though all appeared in ads for the brand that emphasized their stoic Western masculinity.
In the early days of the advertising campaign, the part of the Marlboro Man was played by aspiring actors rather than rugged ranchhands. One such city slicker was David Millar, who played a cowboy in TV spots for Marlboro in the 1950s. Millar famously hated horses, and according to his Los Angeles Times obituary, had to be hoisted onto his mount with a rope. He smoked for four decades before quitting in the mid-’60s. He died of emphysema in New Hampshire in 1987.
A former stuntman, Wayne McLaren was the first former Marlboro Man to make himself into a symbol of the dangers of smoking. For two years before his death of lung cancer at 51, McLaren worked as an anti-smoking activist, educating children on the dangers of cigarettes and speaking out against tobacco advertising at a meeting of Phillip Morris shareholders. On his deathbed in 1992, he warned an interviewer, “I’ve spent the last month of my life in an incubator, and I’m telling you, it’s just not worth it.”
According to his mother, his last words were “Tobacco will kill you, and I am living proof.”
During his campaign, Phillip Morris disputed that McLaren had even been “the Marlboro Man,” though the company eventually conceded that he had modeled for the brand.
A prolific cowboy actor, David McLean appeared in TV Westerns like Bonanza and Gunsmoke and played the Marlboro Man in television and print ads throughout the ’60s. A smoker for 30 years, McLean died of lung cancer in 1995. A year later, his widow sued Phillip Morris, alleging that the company forced McLean to smoke “up to five packs per take” while filming Marloboro TV spots. The lawsuit was later dismissed.
In 1971, Congress banned cigarette advertising on television, but the Marlboro Man survived in print campaigns and billboards. Richard Hammer, a firefighter-turned-actor from the TV show Emergency!, played the Marlboro Man during this era. He died of lung cancer in 1999.
Over the course of Marlboro Man’s 45-year history, dozens of men have played the iconic role. The Marlboro Man himself was retired in 1999, after the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement banned public cigarette billboards in the U.S.
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