“Before I die I want to do what I can to leave a world free of cancer for my six children.”—Actor William Talman, in a commercial for the American Cancer Society, broadcast a month after his death from lung cancer, quoted in “Legacy,” New Castle News, September 14, 1968
Most viewers of old-time TV know William Talman, born in Detroit on this date a century ago, as District Attorney Hamilton Burger, perennial loser to defense attorney Perry Mason. So did I, when I started watching the classic TV noir based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s classic novels as a child back in the late Sixties. That made it all the more stunning when I first saw this one-minute public service commercial.
Nowadays, it’s commonplace for anti-smoking ads featuring real people, in all their excruciating pain, to air. It was not so at the tail-end of the Mad Men era. You can imagine, then, the extraordinary impact of an actor on one of the most popular TV dramas for nine seasons, not only saying he was dying but announcing his killer: the cigarette habit he had picked up at age 12.
The actor had been able to give up heavy drinking after his third marriage, but not the three packs of cigarettes a day he had reached. In 1967, a year after the end of his show’s run, Talman learned that inoperable lung cancer meant his life would be running out, too.
A November 2001 Boston Globe article by Columbia University historian Barron H. Lerner (reprinted on the History News Network Website) discussed the compelling circumstances behind the commercial’s making: how the actor approached the American Cancer Society with the idea for the ad; then, how Talman, gaunt and frequently foggy from morphine to dull his pain, summoned his strength long enough to warn the public from repeating his mistake (“I’ve got lung cancer. So take some advice about smoking and losing from someone who’s been doing both for years: If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, quit. Don’t be a loser.”).
It says something about the initial seductiveness of cigarettes—then, its tight grip on human biochemistry—that the actor’s family, try as it might after witnessing his final agony, could not take his advice. His son Tim took up the habit before finally quitting. Wife Peggy was more tragic. After quitting at her husband’s urging—and even after speaking out on behalf of the American Cancer Society in the early 1970s—she began smoking again. Thirty years later, she, too, was found to have inoperable lung cancer.