Afterlife of the Marlboro Man

Rugged, handsome and at home with horses, Bruce Adams was a natural choice to play Australia's Marlboro Man. But the toughest thing he ever did was to quit his 80-a-day habit and join the National Heart Council.
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"You don't smoke, do you?" Bruce Adams asks, flashing me a piercing look across the kitchen table at his mock-colonial house in rural New South Wales. "That's good," he says, on receiving a reply in the negative. "Otherwise I might have to give you a little lecture."

It seems a bit rich, being quizzed about one's tobacco consumption by a man who earned a small fortune from glamorising cigarettes. For Bruce Adams is, or was, Australia's Marlboro Man. It was his rugged features, wreathed in smoke, that gazed out from advertising hoardings, his moleskin- clad figure that galloped intrepidly across cinema and television screens. If a generation of Australians thought smoking was sexy and macho, it was largely down to Bruce.

But now the icon of the tobacco industry has recanted. It is not just that he has given up cigarettes - "filthy habit", he hisses at his wife, Gloria, who has just confessed that she enjoys a quiet smoke in the evening along with her glass of wine. No, Bruce has gone right over to the other side. He has been recruited as an ambassador by the National Heart Council to deliver the anti-smoking message to the youth of Australia.

"Did you know," he demands, wagging a weather-beaten finger, "that more people die from smoking-related diseases in this country than from anything else? My father's 80 and he still drives trucks, never had a smoke in his life. The moral is not to start. Then you don't have to stop."

One can only nod mutely at such self-evident truths. But Bruce, despite his missionary fervour, is not an entirely reformed character. A former 80-a-day man, he always kept two packets in reserve, "otherwise I'd get the jitters". He says, with a sigh: "It's a shame that smoking is such a killer. I loved the smell, I loved the flavour, I loved the taste."

Marlboro Man, recently voted the century's most significant advertising image, did not reach Australian shores until relatively late in the day. But the scouts from the advertising agency picked the right man when they walked into the Hunter Valley Hotel Motel in 1972, looking for a model for an Australian campaign.

"I was standing at the bar, having a beer with the boys, when they came over and introduced themselves," says Bruce, who grew up in Muswellbrook, a small country town in the Hunter Valley, one of the country's premier wine-growing regions.

Bruce Adams, 29 at the time, not only looked the part, with his chiselled features, muscular build and wavy brown hair. He was a real- life cowboy who grew up surrounded by horses. "Love of my life," he says. "One of them, anyway." Asked how old he was when he learned to ride, he replies: "I can't recall. It just came naturally."

At first he thought the scouts were pulling his leg. But he let them take some shots of him, and a few days later a film crew turned up to do a screen test. Then followed the shoot itself, three days of filming on a stud farm near Scone, 70 miles away.

"It was fabulous, I was treated like royalty," he says. "I had a make- up artist, a hairdresser, a Spanish chef, everything."

Bruce was not a complete novice. While helping his father to run the family's milk distribution business, he had done some catwalk modelling on the side, "but only for the Wool Board fashion award ceremonies in Muswellbrook". The Marlboro shoot, which resulted in posters, television commercials and an eight-minute cinema advertisement, made his face famous overnight.

In 1974, though, the Australian government banned cigarette advertising on television and Malboro Man was grounded, although the cinema commercials continued to be shown for two decades. "I was kind of annoyed at the time," says Bruce, "because I'd just got the job and suddenly it was all over. After that, I didn't really bother. I'd like to have done more TV, but I was just a boy from the bush. You needed to be out knocking on doors all the time."

For the Marlboro shoot, he earned $4,500 in Australian dollars, a tidy sum in those days. He and Gloria, who had married young and had three children, paid off the mortgage and moved to their present home in nearby Maitland. They bought a burnt-out building in the town, renovated it and opened a women's fashion boutique. By the time they sold the business, they had five shops around the Hunter Valley.

I tell Bruce that I find it difficult to picture him selling women's clothes. "Versatile, aren't I?" he replies with a wink. "I've pinned up many a dress in my time." Marlboro Man's moustache is shot through with silver now, and his face is deeply lined. But at 56, Bruce Adams is still a fine figure of a man, 6ft 4in tall, with smouldering blue eyes, cheekbones to die for and a smile that could melt the iciest female heart. And he is still every inch a cowboy, in his tight jeans, cotton shirt and scuffed brown leather boots. His passion for the past 20 years has been the thoroughbred trotters that he breeds and trains to compete in harness races in Sydney and around New South Wales.

Bruce leads the way to the stables at the back of the house, where one young horse emerges to greet him, nibbling his cheek in an enthusiastic display of affection. "This is Shadow," he says with undisguised pleasure. "I call him that because he used to follow me around when he was a baby. He's nearly two years old now. He's a beautiful horse."

The brood mares and young foals are kept on a 100-acre property that Bruce owns on the outskirts of Maitland. As we bounce across the paddocks in his rusting pick-up truck, he scours the horizon for kangaroos. "Should be some around," he says, peering into a clump of trees. "Probably all asleep in the shade."

A clip from one of the Marlboro commercials, which now seems absurdly dated, shows Bruce rescuing a foal that has fallen down the steep banks of a creek and carrying it to safety in his arms. On the way to the creek, he pauses to light a cigarette. As he draws on it heavily, the narrator says: "This is Marlboro Country. Out here, a man looks for flavour in his cigarette. The flavours he knows he will find in Marlboro."

Bruce, who gave up smoking 14 years ago, offered his services to the National Heart Council after taking part in a fundraising swim. For the charity, signing up Marlboro Man to preach the evils of tobacco was a publicity coup beyond its wildest dreams "on a par with enlisting Ronald McDonald to promote vegetarianism, or Genghis Khan to champion peace on earth".

For Bruce, it is a chance to make amends for past sins. "I have quite a conscience about doing the Marlboro ads," he says. "If it hadn't been me, it would have been someone else, but I do regret that it was me. I wonder how many people I'm responsible for starting to smoke. That's a big question mark I would like to correct."