ow, Bruzzy Willders is just another factory worker again, making $5.75 an hour on the graveyard shift, with 30 minutes for lunch, two 15-minute breaks and one week of vacation. But he was a big man on his block for a little while during the campaign days of 1980, when the Republican Party, seeking to change its fat-cat image, plucked him from the unemployment line and put him on national television as the Unemployed American Factory Worker.
He was so cool and believable on the tube that his friends said he was Hollywood-bound. The media sophisticates of the GOP loved him as well, or at least said they did. They said that his commercial--the one where he was seen walking through his closed-down Baltimore plant in blue jeans and a T-shirt and heard saying, "If the Democrats are for the working man, how come we're not working?"--was one of the best of the year. It was seen by tens of millions.
But the fame was fleeting, followed hard by disillusionment. He thought the pols who discovered him and fussed over him would help him get a job at the post office.
"They said, 'Yeah, we'll see what we can do. We'll let you know,' " Willders recalled the other day. "I felt like I was bothering them. I went down and took the test. I was put on a list and I never heard no more about it."
He thought he would get a special invitation to Ronald Reagan's inaugural festivities. All he got was an 11-by-14-inch card that warned, "Please Note: This is a commemorative invitation and does not constitute admission to any of the inaugural events." At first Willders, known in his working-class northeast Baltimore neighborhood as the man who was inauguration-bound, thought the invitation was real.
"I said, 'Yeah, I got one, I really got one!' Then I looked at it and I said, 'What is this?' I was really disappointed. Here I am telling everybody I'm going to the inauguration."
He showed the commemorative invitation to his father, a Democrat who worked 26 years for Armco Steel and died last fall of diabetes. "I said, 'Look what they sent me, pop. This is the president.' He said, 'That's your man. You worked for him.' "
Willders' friends are equally unsympathetic. A lot of them are still out of work--more of them than ever, in fact--and they now findWillders a convenient scapegoat for their condition. "They tell me, 'Hell, it's your fault 'cause Reagan's in there. Talk to your buddy, Ron. Tell him to help us out,' " he said. "They think I go over to his house or something. I say,'Hey, I'm on the outside, too, looking in.' "
Willders, a 34-year-old bachelor, is a Democrat who voted Republican for the first time when he cast his ballot for Ronald Reagan. The former movie star from California won't get his vote a second time, Willders says. "He had his shot. The first year I said, 'Give him a chance.' But around here, A&P and Pantry Pride are closing up. General Motors: no work. Bethlehem Steel: no work. Big layoffs. Something's gotta be done."
The most recent Baltimore unemployment figure, for March, is 10.8 percent--higher than the national 9.4 percent--with 117,700 people out of work. When the commercial was released in September 1980, the figure was 7.3 percent, with 76,889 unemployed. Willders joined the ranks of the unemployed two years ago when Weyerhauser Co. closed its Baltimore plant, where he made $5.75 an hour, the same salary he makes today, for printing labels on corrugated cardboard boxes.
The National Republican Congressional Committee found him by asking the local unemployment office to call plant employes who had been laid off and offer them a tryout for a $50-an-hour job in the commercial. Willders was a natural. But a day or two before the commercial was shot, he found a $4.10-an-hour job at Moldcraft, the plastics factory where he works today. The party decided to go ahead with the commercial anyway.
For his role, Willders, a long-haired, bearded, nonsmoker, cut his hair, shaved his beard and stuffed a pack of Lucky Strikes in the pocket of hisT-shirt. "Everyone was congratulating me on my poise," he said.
Steve Sandler, the committee's communications director, said at the time: "We wanted a real slice-of-life commercial, not actors, but the real feelings of a person who's actually out of work." Willders earned $3,465.62: $550 for the shooting, plus residuals he collected each time the ad was broadcast.
"They showed it on Monday Night Football, and then it all started happening," he recalled. "All the TV stations came around and interviewed me. A lady in Atlanta did a magazine article on me. A lot of people came up to me and said, 'Hey, you did great.' I was in the bank and a lady said, 'Hey, didn't you do that commercial?' A few people asked me for autographs. People said it could be my big chance, people said it might lead to Hollywood.. . . I was waiting to see what would happen. But nothing ever came about."
He still lives on the same street where he was raised, in the Armistead Gardens neighborhood--built around the time of World War II as housing for steelworkers. Disappointed though he is by the Republicans, Bruzzy Willders is exactly what they were looking for during the campaign. "Just a simple guy," he calls himself. He enlisted in the Army after high school and is a Vietnam veteran. He plays in the outfield for the Garden Beef and Beer slow-pitch softball team. His big fling after the television commercial was an overnight trip to Ocean City. He does not own a car. He rents a two-bedroom cinder-block house for $220 a month. He hopes someday to buy a Volkswagen Beetle and a house in the neighborhood for about $15,000.
He got his first job when he was 15, cleaning windshields at a gas station for 90 cents an hour, and has worked ever since.
"I feel like I'm wasted if I'm not working," he said. He daydreams about finding money. "I always look around. You hear stories about kids finding briefcases full of money. I found a wallet one time, but it was empty. I turned it in, and the guy accused me of stealing the money. That's gratitude."
His hobby is drawing cartoon characters, his favorite being Spiderman, the misunderstood hero. "I can relate to him. He's always getting kicked around."
That's how the Republicans treated him, Willders says. "After it all went down, I said, 'That's politics.' I was just a pawn in their chess game."
Rich Galen, press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee, says no one promised Willders anything, not a job or an invitation to the inaugural festivities.
"You can't promise a job. It's against the law," Galen said. "The closest anyone can remember is a sort of discussion during the shooting, something like a job at a printing plant is what they can remember. It was back a couple years ago and nobody's too clear anymore. They went so far as to call and find out the procedure . . . . By the time we got back to him, he seemed happy with the job he had."
Willders said he never mentioned a job at a printing plant. As for Willders' inaugural hopes, Galen said: "Nobody can remember anything about that. He might have said, 'Well, I'd like to go to the inauguration' and somebody may have said, 'We'll see if we can handle it for you. . . .' Some of these discussions happen in passing."
The Republicans did give him a 1980 Christmas gift: a paperweight and key chain engraved with a picture of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Building (headquarters of the Republican National Committee) and a letter from then-Republican Party campaign chairman Bill Brock that said: "During this Holiday Season, the Republicans have a lot to celebrate and much to be thankful for . . . . You have my sincere thanks for an outstanding job well done!"
In answer to his request for one of the many photographs that were taken during the shooting of the commercial, he received an out-of-focus black-and-white picture signed by Ronald Reagan ("With appreciation and best regards"). Willders, who proudly displays on a living room table a color snapshot of himself with his idol, boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard, hid the picture in a drawer and complained, with some accuracy: "It's a lousy picture of me. They got my bad side."
It wasn't just the Republicans who didn't come through for Bruzzy Willders. Nobody did.
"The Today Show called within a week after they released the commercial," he said. "They said they wanted me to come to New York. They said they'd have a ticket and everything. They said they'd call back. They never called back, so I guess I got bumped. I was really looking forward to it."
A Baltimore television reporter got his name wrong--on the air. "He kept calling me Buzzy. I said 'No, it's Bruzzy.' So we go on, and he says, 'I'm here talking to Buzzy Willders.' I felt like hitting him."
Last August, Willders returned briefly to the limelight when the Republicans paid him $300 to do a radio commercial in support of Reagan's tax cut. His lines: "I'm Jim Willders from Baltimore, Maryland. I'm tired of hearing the Democrats in Congress talking about what working people want. I'll tell you what we want: Lower prices and lower taxes. That's why so many of us voted for President Reagan. Tell your congressman to stop playing politics and vote for the president's tax cut. That's what I told mine."
There was only one problem: "I told them I'd never actually met my congressman," Willders said. "I told them, 'How can I say this all in honesty?' They said 'Well, isn't that what you'd say if you did meet him?' I had to sign an affidavit."
Galen, the committee's press secretary, said: "We have people playing Jimmy Carter and Tip O'Neill, and it doesn't mean they've talked to or even met them. He was being paid as an actor. Actors read lines. If he felt a moral repugnance, he shouldn't have done it."
Bruzzy Willders had his moment of fame, and now it is gone. Fame didn't change him, he says. With his beard and longish hair grown back, he is the same old Bruzzy Willders, "still here in oblivion in Baltimore."