You can call him "him," or you can call him "what's-his-name," or you can just call him the funny little man in the beer commercial. You doesn't has to call him Bill Saluga. But that's who he is, and he is now the kind of nationally fomous anonymous celebrity that only television can create.
Everyone knows him; hardly anyone knows his name. "I kind of like the anonymity," Saluga says. He also likes the fact that after 10 years of doing the character he calls Raymond J. Johnson Jr., it has become fabulously popular almost in an instant. He may not be a household name, but like many other TV creatures, real and unreal, he is a household pet.
His performance in the commercial consists mainly of his bulletins on the correct way to ask for this brank of beer -- "you doesn't has to call it Anheuser-Busch Natural Light," and so on. The whole beauty of it is in the marbled-mouthed, Kingfishy delivery. And now everybody and his brother are doing Saluga impressions throughout this very impressionable land of ours.
He's right up there with Steve Martin's wild and crazy guy and Robin William's madcap Mork. "I hear from everybody that their kids are doing it, which really breaks me up," Saluga says, "and my best friend David Steinberg's mother and aunts do it, and in a Yiddish accent to boot."
The imitation is flattering but there are more tangible benefits to this kind of stardom. "It's incredible what has happened from it," Saluga says. "I'm just getting offers for everything -- movies, television shows, a lot more commercials." He has been interviewed for the NBC Nightly News, signed up to do ads for a toy company, a carpet firm and a Cleveland concern he can't even remember the name of, and, naturally enough if you think about it, he's going to cut a disco single.
"I get calls from other agencies at least once a week asking about him," says account executive Perk Orthwein at the D'arcy MacManus and Masius ad agency in St. Louis."And we've received thousands of letters from people asking for pictures." So the agency and Anheuser-Busch will run magazine ads starting in March or April offering posters of Ray-Jay and costar Norm Crosby for $1. If the current actor's strike against commercial producers ends, Saluga will film another spot, dubbed "The Return of Ray-Jay," in February fo release in May.
Saluga, who is 41 and only two inches taller than Teng Hsiao-ping, says the Johnson character may have origins in burlesque, vaudeville and "Amos 'n'Andy," but he created him spontaneously while doing improvisations with Ace Trucking Company, a comedy troupe he left three years ago.
"One night at the Bitter End in the Village I just got up an started doing this blustery character," Saluga recalls. "The response was good, and one of the guys says, 'What's your name?' and I said 'Raymond Johnson.' It was just a name I threw out, and that was it. Then the next night I did the character again and this time I said, 'Raymond J. Johnson.' And pretty soon it was 'Raymond J. Johnson Jr.' I just stretched it out.
"Then he would call me Johnson and I'd say, "You doesn't has to call me Johnson.' And then, 'You can call me Ray, or you can call me Ray Jay, or you can call me R.J., or you can call me R.J. Junior, or you can call me R.J.J...." He laughs. "We never sat down and figured it all out: it just came out. That's really how it happened."
R.J.J. may come across like every old cigar-breath who ever button-holed you in a bar and told you more than you could possibly want to know about anything, but there's also something sweet and catchy about the character and his nearly musical refrain, and that's why doing Ray-Jay has caught on like doing the hustle. Saluga had played Ray-Jay dozens of times on TV before, but there's nothing like a 30-second spot to lob a message into your cranium. TV commercials are mnemonic drills.
The ad agency remembered Saluga's Ray-Jay routine from his year on the otherwise undistinguished "Redd Foxx Show" and thought it would make an ideal vehicle for correcting public confusion about the new light beer's mane; people didn't know how to ask for it, and this sent shivers through the St. Louis brewery. Some actors might actually resent the fact that after plugging away diligently for years their greatest fame comes from a TV commercial. Saluga does not.
"I don't resent it at all," he says. "I'm happy it's happening. The character stands up for himself. It's something I've been doing a long time, but I think he's coming across funny and making an impact he never made before, so it'd be silly not to appreciate that."
Saluga himself couldn't be less like the over-bearing Ray-Jay if he hid behind his white wicker couch. He lives in an unimposing 3-bedroom house on an imposing hill in Sherman Oaks and resists all temptations and pleading to twirl himself into Ray-Jay in private. Besides, if he's not in his zoot suit, he's not in the mood.
He started acting in his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, where his mother now beams when friends jokingly call her "Mrs. Johnson," and got a job at a local TV station -- first behind the comera, then in front of it. Everyone told him he should go to New York and be an actor. "So I went and I starved. I STARVED. I took every job I could get." That included doorman at the Bitter End where, thanks to people he met on their way in, including Rodney Dangerfield and Richard Pryor, he eventually began performing onstage and not just at the entrance. He was on his way up.
Saluga spent seven years with Ace Trucking Company and sailed through a galley of characters of whom Ray-Jay was only one. Another was a swish and vicious little constantly called for "makeup." When fellow Trucker Fred Willard, as the director, commanded him, "Come on, do it like a man," Saluga would call out, "Props!" However, network censors saw a double meaning there so on the "Tonight" show and other programs the line had to be canged to "Special effects!"
After leaving the group, Saluga was tempted to go looking for TV commercial joining "that rat race" put him off. Also, commercials were not quite so coveted as they are now. It used to be that there was a stigma associated with doing commercials. Now, ironically enough, there is more of a stigma about doing a TV series -- and commericals, thanks to the likes of Laurence Olivier, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart and Catherine Deneuve, are virtually guilt-free. Also, they pay very, very well.
And so Saluga is not sitting around waiting for someone to offer him a TV series. He thinks there is more honor in the ads.
"In television today," he says, "you can do a show and three weeks later it's off and gone, and then you, as an actor, are struggling for two more years to get back into the stream." Unless you're McLean Stevenson, of course.
"People don't seem to care about anything any more. It's just, 'Do it, let's get done, and get outta here.' whereas I want to put my time into something I care ABOUT AND FEEL IS GOOD, AND THAT FEELING DOESN'T EXIST HERE. When I did the "Redd Foxx Show," Redd was very nice and all that, but I'm an actor, I learned my lines. When we'd do the show, I'd be doing lines and I'd see Redd looking off and reading. It's hard to relate to someone who's doing that.
"But the people in television just don't want to put in the time. I'm an actor, not a reader. They're all guilty of it -- Bob Hope, that's all he does now. He reads. Because it's made easy for them, actors, being insecure, go along with it, and they come off looking terrible. It's amazing to me that they don't really care what they look like."
The Light Beer ad didn't take all that much time to shoot, however -- only three hours at a Westwood bar called The Jumpting Frog. "We finished so early that the catered lunch hadn't even arrived yet. We had to call them and say, 'Hurry up, bring it over.'" But Saluga had already had 10 years of rehearsals for this beig moment.
The immediate future includes a guest shot on a Cher special and work on three film scripts with pal Steinberg. Saluga says, "I'm enjoying this. It's fun. I'm in a nice position because I pick and choose what I want to do. I don't have a manager. I don't have an agent -- except for commercials. I don't even have an answering service."
There is the temptation, of course, to look in his refrigerator to see if he has any Anheuser-Busch Natural Light (or whatever they call it). After all, the FTC has said that people who say they consume products in ads really have to consume them at home.
"But I don't say I drink it -- I just tell you wehat to call it," Saluga says. "Actually, I like fine wines. I don't drink that much beer. Maybe I shouldn't be telling you this."