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Used-Car Impresario Cal Worthington Dies At Age 92

Cal Worthington, a man whose used-car ads rose to the level of a cultural phenomenon, died Sunday at age 92. He was a fixture on televisions in California for decades, with zany sales pitches that drew both customers and fame.

"I will stand upon my head to beat all deals," was Worthington's slogan, "until my ears are turning red."

Wearing a trademark white cowboy hat and a Western suit, Worthington used the commercials to tout the latest bargains at his "big, friendly, giant supermarket of cars."

He also used a song that featured an infectious chorus:

"If you need a better car, go see Cal.

For the best deal by far, go see Cal.

If you want your payments low, if you want to save some dough,

Go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal."

In Worthington's ads, he often appeared with his "dog" Spot — a role that was never played by a dog but instead by a menagerie of animals that included a pig, a snake, a tiger and others.

"I'd say the craziest one was the hippo," Worthington told NPR's Carrie Kahn back in 2009, when he was 88.

Carrie spoke to Worthington at his sprawling ranch, where he had an audio and TV studio built to let him keep recording commercials — as many as four a day.

Here's how Carrie described the scene: "Worthington sits in the TV room in his California ranch home, about a hundred miles north of Sacramento. It's been restored since Wife No. 3 burned the house down sauteing mushrooms."

The decades of success were a big turnaround for Calvin Coolidge Worthington, who was born in Oklahoma in 1920 and spent his childhood mired in poverty. He served as a bomber pilot during World War II, and he sold his first car in Texas at age 24.

Worthington eventually moved to Los Angeles, opening a car dealership in the late 1940s. He went on to buy and sell dealerships in California and other states, all the while drumming up business with his aggressive and off-the-wall TV sales pitches.

For proof of how ubiquitous the ads became, witness the Facebook fan page titled, "When I was a kid I thought Cal Worthington said 'Pussycow' not 'Go see Cal.' " The page has been liked by tens of thousands of people.

And the salesman's death has reignited a discussion over whether the jingle's lyrics were actually misheard. After all, a man whose dog might actually be a seal or a cougar might be expected to also own a rare variant of the familiar pussycat. On Twitter, some fans are using the tag #pussycow to pay their respects.

For her 2009 story, Carrie visited Worthington's main Ford dealership in Long Beach. At one point, his grandson asks a man looking at cars what brought him in.

"Um, the commercial — that's been playing for the last 20, 30, 40 years," the customer replies.

The New York Times reports:

"The exuberant cheesiness of Mr. Worthington's ads made him a folk hero, as much a part of California popular culture as Woodies with surfboards on the roof or Orange Julius stands. He was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show, where Johnny Carson performed ad parodies. He appeared as himself in the 1973 Jack Lemmon film Save the Tiger and was the model for the car salesman played by Ted Danson in the 1993 film Made in America. He even infiltrated Thomas Pynchon's novel Inherent Vice."

Worthington never left the car business.

"Been so successful at it, you can't give it up," he told Carrie in 2009. "You know, you find something you can do that works well, you just can't give it up — as much as you might like to."

Complete versions of Worthington's TV spots are archived online, at the My Dog Spot website.

And we must mention Marshall Lucky, the twangy character played by Gerrit Graham in Used Cars, the 1980 Kurt Russell comedy. In it, Graham plays a character that many see as a hyperbolized version of Worthington, if such a thing is possible.

You can watch a clip of a particularly famous scene from the film on YouTube, if you're not put off by profanity.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.