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VIEWPOINTS : Huckster Image Belies Another Side of Iacocca : Some Insiders Dispute TV Persona, Calling Chrysler Chairman Insecure

October 04, 1987|PETER H. WYDEN

It was early in the do-or-die year of 1980 at Chrysler Corp. Lee Iacocca had been chairman for only a short time, and as one of his first acts he had cut his salary to $1 a year. Cash from the $1.5-billion loan guarantee he had pressured out of Congress would not begin to roll in until June. The current Chrysler cars were languishing in the dealer showrooms. The economical new front-wheel K-cars were not yet ready.

Chrysler was a high-wire act teetering over the abyss of bankruptcy. The press had already consigned the company past its demise. The papers were making Chrysler, the 14th-largest industrial corporation in the world, smell like a corpse twisting in the wind.

Just then, Iacocca received great news from that other paisan of note, Frank Sinatra. The crooner knew Iacocca only casually, but one evening Sinatra had been sitting with Bill Fine, the former chairman of Bonwit Teller, talking about Lee's dilemma, and the singer had pronounced his blessing upon the auto man. "I hope he makes it," Sinatra said. He offered his services to help out and Fine passed the word.

It was like the coming of the Marines, and Iacocca's advertising people practically expired in their delight. It had taken them more than a year to convince Iacocca that he should put his ego on the line in public by agreeing to make television commercials for Chrysler, even though the chairman often thought his company wouldn't survive. Now there just was no way for him to dodge the TV role any longer, and the ad people, having landed their reluctant star, wondered what sort of production would bring out the best in him on the screen.

To their credit, they wanted nothing phony. Surely Iacocca would perform best if they simply let him play his favorite role, himself. But how?

For some time, Iacocca had permitted cameramen with hand-held equipment to photograph him in action at Chrysler meetings. The advertising people liked what they saw, and they were ecstatic when they viewed films of the chairman testifying calmly, colorfully, wittily, always in command before the congressional committee weighing the federal loan guarantee legislation. That was it! He was a natural. Totally casual, natural commercials were the answer. Let Iacocca be Iacocca. And who could be a more natural partner for a commercial than Sinatra?

It would be the summit of selling power, a love feast.

Elated, Leo-Arthur Kelmenson of the Kenyon & Eckhardt ad agency, a loyal Iacocca crony, rushed to Palm Springs to confer with Sinatra about the details. Sinatra's public relations people were already unrolling press releases to herald the singer's rescue mission. His business manager, the normally implacable Mickey Rudin, waved the project ahead with unaccustomed informality. No papers were necessary.

"You don't want a contract?" asked Kelmenson, nonplussed.

"We'll set it up later," said Rudin.

"Lee, if you're working for a dollar, I will, too," Sinatra had said, according to the account in Iacocca's autobiography. In fact, the singer got some Chrysler stock options that eventually became very valuable. For the present, he received a free two-year "loaner" of a station wagon and even this doubtful blessing worked out nicely. Chrysler had a terrible reputation for quality, yet Sinatra's car happened to serve him well (which was more than Gregory Peck could claim for the Imperial that Chrysler bestowed on him. Peck, who also helped the company, found that his car kept breaking down on the Los Angeles freeways).

And so Iacocca's new partnership with Sinatra was indeed a love feast, but only until the filming of the commercial began in the Chrysler suite of Iacocca's favorite New York hotel, the Waldorf Towers.

The chairman had been briefed that the ad people wanted to film a completely natural conversation between the two men. The encounter was to come off with no script, no preparation at all. According to this creative notion, the film crew would capture the spontaneous sparks of the two nimble minds accustomed to turning on vast audiences. Just let these two giants toss the verbal ball around and the commercial would all but drop into the can--so went the theory. For the paltry few seconds needed for the actual commercial, the ad experts would only have to cull out the choice highlights of the bon mots that were sure to fly through the air. It was a natural.

It didn't work.

"These two egos walked in and Lee was upset right away," says Bill Winn, an eyewitness and one of Iacocca's oldest buddies. Winn was merely uncomfortable during the filming, most of the other participants were "petrified" by the palpable tension, Winn recalls.

"Lee had no preparation and Sinatra worked with different ground rules. He had cue cards."

Like sturdy troopers, the two lions wrestled for half a day but brought forth no roars, even though some cue cards were finally scribbled for Iacocca in the course of the session.

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