LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Cal Worthington, an Oklahoma-born car dealer in a cowboy hat who become a pop culture figure in California with television advertisements that showed him standing on a flying plane or tussling with a tiger, has died at age 92, his attorney said.
Worthington passed away suddenly on Sunday while watching football at his ranch in Orland, in Northern California, said the lawyer Larry Miles. The cause of death appeared to be natural, he said.
A bomber pilot who flew combat missions over Europe during World War Two, Worthington moved to Southern California after leaving the U.S. Air Force and started in the car sales business.
He became a familiar face to Southern California television audiences starting in the 1950s, starring in advertisements for his auto dealerships that featured him performing stunts to the song “Go See Cal,” played to the tune of the children’s song “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”
In one advertisement, the aviation enthusiast stood affixed to the wings of a flying biplane, which turned upside down. Worthington often appeared with a wild animal that he called his “dog Spot,” even though the animal was in fact not a dog.
Over the years, the animals included a tiger, a bear, a pig, and a hippopotamus - everything except an actual dog. He also rode an elephant and a killer whale.
Worthington’s constant presence on the television set in Southern California brought him some Hollywood-style fame, and he made a couple appearances on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson in the 1970s. The 1993 comedy “Made in America” starred Ted Danson as a car dealer named Hal Jackson with a resemblance to Worthington’s television persona.
Worthington, who at one time owned over 20 dealerships in five states, went on to run his 11,100-acre (4.5-hectare) Big W Ranch in Orland and became a large producer of almonds and olives.
He continued to pilot planes until his death, flying a Learjet to his auto dealerships in Long Beach, California, and Anchorage, Alaska, according to his attorney.
Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Carol Bishopric