James Wilders was sitting at home in Baltimore earlier this summer, unemployed and disillusioned, when a stranger called and asked if he wanted to earn $50 an hour making a commercial for the Republican Party.
A registered Democrat, Wilders recalls feeling a little suspicious at first, "but for that kind of money, I figured I'd be crazy if I said no." He said yes.
So began the transformation of James Wilders Jr. -- "Bruzzy" to his friends -- into the universal Unemployed American Factory Worker, now reaching tens of millions of homes as the star of the Republican Party's most effective advertisement in the $9 million "Vote Republican . . . For a Change" campaign.
Willders 32, lost his job last year when Weyerhaeuser Co. closed the Baltimore plant where he worked as a machinist trainee making corrugated cardboard boxes. He had at times considered himself a representative man for all unemployed people, their frustrations and indignities, but never enough to warrant 12 national network spots, with more yet to come.
In the political commercial, a wistful, mildly disgusted Willders strolls through his empty plant, slapping the old time clock, gazing over the idled machines and, in the end, asking: "If the Democrats are good for working people, how come so many people aren't working?" In market tests, it ranked as the most effective of all ads for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The story of how the Republicans and Bruzzy Wilders found each other provides an unusual glimpse into the inner workings of a multimillion-dollar political campaign. Months ago, the party had learned through polls that unemployment was "becoming a major factor in America's collective mind," said Steve Sandler, director of communications for the party's congressional campaign committee.
"We wanted a real slice-of-life commercial, not actors, but the real feelings of a person who's actually out of work." Sandler said.
The committee looked up and down the east coast until it found a closed plant owned by a company willing to open it up to the party. Then it asked the local unemployment office to call former plant employes who had been laid off and offer them a tryout for a job in the commercial.
The transformation of Willders began when he arrived for an interview at the unemployment office and was told that he probably wouldn't get the job because of his appearance. (He had a beard and longish hair).
"I said. 'What's my appearance got to do with it? What about me, the person'?" Willders recalled. "Then he told me it was for the Republicans again, and it all started to come together. The Republicans are clean-cut and all that."
Willders was one of four former Weyerhaeuser employes who showed up for the tryout. They all said they agreed in principle with the words in the ad, but none of them came across like Willders, a veteran and free-lance artist who believes the economy is in deep trouble. Sandler said.
"He really considers himself a spokesman for millions of unemployed Americans. That was one of the big reasons he was chosen," Sandler said. "When you shoot a commercial like that, it's very easy to spot if someone was just mounting lines. With him, there was an intensity of feeling about the fact that he was out out of work and that something was wrong in Washington."
Two weeks passed before Willders got the job offer, with one stipulation -- that he cut his hair and shave his beard and mustache. He kept his mustache but gave in on the other two requests.
"I figured," he later mused," that for that kind of money, it'll grow back."
"What we did was try to universalize him a little bit," Sandler said. "While his hair was right for Baltimore, we felt it was a little long for the rest of the country, and we were asking him to speak to the entire country."
A minor crisis arose a day or two before Willders was to be filmed in his starring role as the unemployed American: he got a job, this time in a plastics factory. But the party decided to go ahead with the commercial since so much had already been invested and since, Sandler said, Widers was still a symbol of those who had been laid off.
"Everything he says on the air is true -- the fact that he was thrown out of work," Sandler said. Willders signed an affidavit to that effect, also saying he agreed in principle with the words and philosophy of the spot.
Willders wore his real work clothes for the shooting, and had little trouble fitting into the role. "For some takes I had this smirk-like smile on my face and they said I'm supposed to be down because I lost my job. I'm supposed to be discusted," Willders said. "We did that five or six times and I got that down."
After the shooting, the spot was tested against others before sample audiences and then became one of several being used in attempt to reach the Republican Party's target population: Americans age 40 and younger, with household incomes of $25,000 or less, with less than 14 years of education -- the largest group of nonvoters. As such it has run during the Redskins-Cowboys game Monday night, "White Shadow," Hart to Hart" and the CBS late movie.
Willders received $550 ($350 after taxes) for the shooting, and said he expects to earn as much as $4,000, since he will be paid each time the ad is broadcast on the networks.
Willders and his friends and family have seen it many times. His sister, Cathy, says with a laugh that "it's going to his head. He thinks he's a celebrity." His mother says Willders has given her his autograph on a piece of toilet tissue. His friends say he looks good but they don't recognize him without his long hair and beard.
As for Willders, he doesn't see himself as a spokesman for the Republican Party as much as for the unemployed. He has never voted Republican in his life, he said, although he is considering it this time.
"I can relate to everything I said except for the rap on the Democrats. I just feel the unemployment issue should be applied to all the parties," Willders said, "But that's the Republican line; they're the ones making the commercial."