You would have thought that the word “stroke” might have come up in the last few posts, but denial, as I said becomes your best friend and is all too prevalent when you are not ready to face truths and reality. Having had the stroke while on the set of Paramount block buster “Witness” and being as close to Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis as anyone could be since I was his stand-in and was with him daily, I wanted to keep it as quiet as possible so as to not lose my job. St. Josephs Hospital in Lancaster, didn’t keep my secret and announced that Harrison’s stand in and double had a stroke. Apparently, it was somewhat a big deal for them, and the press placed the notice in the paper that “Harrison Ford’s Stand-In Has Stroke”. Back in 1985, before the social media, rumors could be squelched and/or modified. There was also the possibility that I MAY have Multiple Sclerosis as I had failed the Visual Evoked Response test and they would do further testing.
Having been questioned by the Doctors at the Emergency room, the questions being posed while trying to figure out why my face was twisted, had difficulty articulating words, numbness in my left hand and left leg, and a few other symptoms I was given the battery of tests including spinal tap, oxygen, and blood work. The first questions from the neurologist and other resident was “Do You Smoke”? “How much do you smoke”? ” Of course”, was my response since they had heard that I was not only Harrison Fords stand-in but also the Winston Man. “ahha” was their response. “We thought you looked familiar”. The only thing I fibbed about was the number of cigs I consumed in a day. Telling them I was 2-3 packs a day would have been foolish in my opinion, so I told them about a pack a day. Certainly wasn’t in the mood to be scolded by these medical people, as I had been hearing a lot about cancer, strokes heart disease, black lungs, and emphysema from my kids for Pete’s sake.
The other dilemma was what to do with my Winston Man campaign. Would my agents and RJ Reynolds keep me on if they knew I had a stroke? Should I lie? Should I tell them I had M/S? Should I tell them that it was something else? What to do? What to do? I had been saying that a lot lately and wasn’t getting any good answers. If I kept the news to myself and my family, maybe I could keep it hush hush and go back to normal.
I never went back to the film as I was replaced for the last week or so of the movie, but I could probably continue my Winston Man duties if I kept my mouth shut and minimized what had happened to me during filming of the movie. That’s exactly what I did, and in 1985 smack dab in the middle of my Winston Man campaign, I began shooting more ads for billboards and magazines, never letting on, that the dude hanging off the mountain, flying helicopters, appearing macho, tough, rugged and robust was actually recovering from a stroke.
As I continued my successful campaign as “America’s Best” and helping to move market shares up, up, up; I still had to deal with my brother’s cancer and my kid’s constant begging, which came to a head in June of 1988 with my son’s revelation that I would probably die like Uncle Bobby. On that day, I made a decision albeit an uncomfortable one to tell my kid(s) that I would quit smoking. You need to remember that, up to this point having had my stroke 3 years earlier, and my brother twice going through remission, I had thought about quitting almost everyday and that you really do think a lot more about dying pushing 40 than you do at 13, 14, 15 or 16 when most smokers start. By the way, that’s a fact, that over 90% of new smokers start as teens. Hmm, who knew? I don’t know many adults who never used tobacco, who decide to start at 25 or 30 years old. Just sayin’.
Once I made a decision to quit smoking, I now had a new problem. I had already told my family that I was quitting, but now what? I had to quit. I told my 10 year old son!!! You don’t tell a 10 year old you are going to do something and THEN not do it. They do have terrific memories and will not forget. It was time to start a plan even if it was a half-baked plan. How do you plan a life change like this? Is it a habit or an addiction? Will I succeed or fail? Who can I talk to? Did I really want to quit? I was paid to smoke for God’s sake ! I was the “freakin ” WINSTON MAN.