On Set With Dali

It was early in 1974 and the pressure was again on for Wells Rich Greene to come up with new creative for Alka-Seltzer.

My partner, Peter Murphy and I were given the assignment. Mary Wells Lawrence was asking for something unusual and, of course, fabulous. After a few celebrity presenter scripts were reviewed, she asked for a “talented” demonstration of how Alka-Seltzer worked.

As only Mary could do, she reserved a suite at the Plaza Hotel across the street from our offices in the GM Building and said, “Don’t come back until you’ve got something.”

Peter, who was as talented and sometimes bizarre as any writer I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, ordered from room service and we went to work.

We tossed around the idea of using Salvador Dali to paint a diagram on the body of a beautiful girl. What were we smoking?

A week later, I remember getting a call on the set of a Sunoco shoot in L.A. The client wanted to go ahead with Dali. Impossible! Now what?

Through his agent and our talent wrangler, Bart McHugh, we struck a deal. Dali’s one condition was that he wanted a share of the dramatic increase in profits due to the airing of his commercial. No problem.

After a couple of pre-production meetings at the King Cole bar in the St. Regis Hotel with producer Jeff Brown, it became clear that Dali, who was approaching his 70th birthday, had no understanding of the 30-second time frame. He assumed that the commercial would start when he did and end when he was finished. Four minutes, five minutes, whatever.

Dali was, as always, surrounded by several exquisite-looking transvestites. His wife, Gala, remained in the suite upstairs.

It was the week before Easter and we had cast top model Natividad Abascal, also from Spain, to be his canvas. We custom-made five white jumpsuits in a material that would accept acrylic paints. Dali specified the colors he wanted, and we built a special taboret to use on set. He also asked for a selection of spray paints and shaving cream. Huh?

We sent a car to the St. Regis the morning of the shoot and he had, of course, forgotten the date. Nevertheless, he managed to get himself together and on the way down, asked Bart to grab a handful of Easter lilies from a vase in the lobby. He had a plan.

Once the three cameras were rolling, everything went very well. He started by drawing a thick black line down the chest of the girl.

Then he used yellow and red spray paint to symbolize pain in the stomach. He then threw a bucket of yellow paint at her, followed by a bucket of black paint on her back. He then used a cooling blue spray to signify relief. The shaving cream was also used to outline areas of relief.

He finished the diagram or painting and planted the Easter lily on Natividad’s cheek to symbolize relief from the upset stomach. Brilliant. Then he signed it.

As we were preparing a second leotard for take two, he announced that he was late for lunch at Lagrenouille and had to be going. One take was all we got.

The following day, he came to the agency and spent a good four hours finishing the leotard on a dress dummy with intricate beads of paint and brilliant colors. It was really becoming a work of art.

Gala came to the agency as well. Dali would not release anything without Gala’s stamp of approval.

He asked that a tape of Wagner’s music be played while he worked.

Somehow, we were able to cut the footage into a 30-second commercial that actually made sense. It scored through the roof in research and it immediately went on the air.

After about one week, the chairman of Miles Laboratories received a letter from a woman in Ohio who objected to the commercial’s violent nature, especially after a time of war.

The opening scene shows Dali rushing across stage to the girl and stabbing her with a giant marker. Of course this was meant to dramatize the pain of heartburn, but the lady from Ohio didn’t see it that way. Even though we were able to re-cut the spot to remove the scene, cooler heads prevailed and it was pulled.

Throughout the entire experience, I gained enormous respect for Salvador Dali. Having been a Picasso/Matisse guy all my life, I realized that with all of his idiosyncrasies, he belongs right up there with the great ones.

The commercial was never to be seen again. Today it resides in the Museum of Television and Radio on 52nd Street in New York.