A Man’s Heart
Dick Burns revisits his privileged Mad Men advertising career that he says led to a stroke.
Thursday, July 26, 2012
Last week, AMC’s hit show Mad Men scored 17 Emmy nominations. The drama about ad men in 1960s Manhattan is familiar to Carmel’s Dick Burns, now 80. He lived in that world and it almost killed him.
“It was long hours, hard work,” he says. “It was dog-eat-dog. There was no such thing as an 8-hour day; you worked until the job was done. This was the way to get ahead.”
That Mad Men lifestyle, he says, brought on a cerebral hemorrhage, a stroke, which is the subject – along with his recovery and advice – of his book Live or Die: A Stroke of Luck, which he will talk about at a signing at The Barnyard this Saturday.
After he served in the Korean War, Burns worked in TV and advertising, first at San Francisco’s KPIX in the mid-1950s. In the ’60s he moved to Manhattan for the big time – as advertising vice president for the broadcast division of appliance, electricity and media conglomerate Westinghouse.
He refers to the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying as the archetype, except: “We drank too much, smoked too much, [got] no sleep, we had the world by the tail – we lived fast and hard.”
He created famous campaigns like the Fruit of the Loom characters.
“How the hell do you sell men’s underwear on TV?” he muses. “We met at the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel in New York. We decided to use humor.”
Women are famously marginalized in Mad Men, but Burns says although he and his male colleagues were called MCPs (male chauvinist pigs), women were “put on a pedestal.” There wasn’t as much womanizing, he says, and two of his copywriters were women.
During that Fruit of the Loom brainstorming session, Burns says, “[those] ladies smartly disappeared when the guys had too much to drink.”
“Mad Men is fantasy, a lot of sex and stuff,” Burns says. “I was happily married.”
It was his little daughter, in fact, who helped him conceive of another advertising icon back then: The famous smile under the nose of the PSA airlines planes, the precursor to US Airways.
But it all nearly ended with a sudden stroke – at 38 years old.
“We didn’t have therapy,” he says. “We didn’t have neurogenesis. I had to rewire my brain to make it work again. I took it step by step through the depression, pain, stress. Breathing, laughing, living. Each step I took to heal myself, I became a better person.”
Even today, he’s slower, his speech slurs when he’s tired, his thoughts are more philosophical. He says Live or Die, its chapters named after famous advertising slogans like Timex Watch’s “It Take a Licking and Keeps on Ticking,” is a chronicle and a how-to book of his fight to regain body and mind.
“The book is for any disease survivors,” he says. “Heart attack, TB, autism, Alzheimers. I’m on a mission. That’s why I was brought back, and that’s why I’m alive.”
Dick Burns signs Live or Die: A Stroke of Luck 11am-2pm Saturday, July 28, at Patrick James, The Barnyard, Carmel. Free. 303-694-9232, www.liveordieburns.com