POSTED: 06:02 a.m. HST, Jan 27, 2014
LAST UPDATED: 01:37 p.m. HST, Jan 27, 2014
LOS ANGELES >> When it came to portraying the rugged western outdoorsman who helped transform a pack of filtered cigarettes into the world's most popular brand, Marlboro Man Eric Lawson was the real deal.
Ruggedly handsome, the actor could ride a horse through the wide-open spaces of the Southwest, from Texas to Colorado to Arizona or wherever else the Phillip Morris tobacco company sent him to light up while representing a true American icon, the cowboy. And he really did smoke Marlboro cigarettes, as many as three packs a day.
Lawson was still smoking in 2006 when he was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He died of the disease at his home in San Luis Obispo on Jan. 10. He was 72.
For three years in the late 1970s and early '80s, Lawson portrayed one of the most iconic figures in both advertising and popular culture.
And for the past several years, Lawson had spoken out fiercely about the hazards of smoking, doing a public service announcement for the American Cancer Society in the 1990s, years before he was able to bring himself to quit.
"He tried to speak to the kids, telling them don't start smoking," his wife, Susan Lawson, told The Associated Press. "He already knew cigarettes had a hold on him."
Exactly how many rugged he-man types portrayed the Marlboro Man over the years isn't clear, although Lawson was one of dozens.
His wife said Monday he was friendly with some of the others, including Wayne McLaren, a former rodeo rider who died in 1992 of lung cancer that he blamed on his lifelong smoking habit.
Like Lawson, McLaren spent his final years advocating against smoking. So did David McLean, who died in 1995 of lung cancer that he also blamed on smoking. He was 73.
As the Marlboro Man, Lawson and the others helped turn a brand that had once been marketed as a mild women's cigarette into the ultimate symbol of American machismo.
Not every Marlboro Man was a cowboy -- there were also pilots, hunters, weight lifters, miners and other macho characters. But cowboys were clearly the most popular and the most often used.
"The most powerful -- and in some quarters, most hated -- brand image of the century, the Marlboro Man stands worldwide as the ultimate American cowboy and masculine trademark, helping establish Marlboro as the best-selling cigarette in the world," the industry publication Advertising Age declared in 1999.
Part of the reason for the brand's success was that Phillip Morris' ad agency went to great pains to track down real cowboys, who not only looked rugged but could really do things like rope and ride.
"He had to go out and ride, he needed to prove himself as a cowboy," Lawson's wife recalled of her husband's audition to become a Marlboro Man.
By the time he got the job in 1978, cigarette advertising was no longer allowed on U.S. television, so Lawson appeared in print and billboard ads. His wife still has one from Time magazine.
The ads, often filmed in stunning, picturesque settings in the West always emphasized that it was a real man, not in any way a wimp, who smoked a Marlboro.
Lawson was perfect for the part. The veteran actor had appeared in such Western films and TV shows as "The Shooter," ''Walker, Texas Ranger," ''Tall Tale," ''Bonanza: Under Attack" and "The A Team."
Later, he also became a perfect role model who made a difference in the lives of the people he kept from smoking simply by pointing out what it did to him, said John Seffrin, chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society.
"That's important," Seffrin said, "because people stop and think if that happens to Eric Lawson it could happen to me."
In addition to his wife, Lawson is survived by six children, 18 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
Associated Press Writer Daisy Nguyen contributed to this story.