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Campaign against smoking is child’s play for actor

An eighth grader at Treasure Mountain Middle School is one of the new faces of a statewide anti-smoking campaign that will air on primetime TV for the next year.

The first commercial aired on Nov. 10, the day Davis Johnson turned 14. The five Utah Department of Health commercials will reach almost 900,000 households and are designed to squelch the rise in smoking among teenage boys in the Beehive State. Almost one in 10 males in the state smokes cigarettes, according to health department statistics.

Each 20-second spot shows Davis and friends playing with a masked action figure that has a cigarette dangling from his lips.

Unlike traditional superheroes, Davis’ Smoker Man can’t disarm a bomb, catch speeding trains or rescue women from burning buildings. Tobacco has left him short of breath, weak and funky smelling. The commercials are meant to parody action-figure advertisements with scintillating music and oodles of pre-teen enthusiasm. The boys wave their figurines as though they are sparklers: Power Man is strong; Speedy Man is fast.

"Smoker Man has . . . inferior lung capacity?" Davis moans, casting his eyes down.

In another spot, Davis exhorts his plastic anti-hero to diffuse a bomb disguised as an alarm clock. It reads 11:59. Because of his bad habits, Smoker Man isn’t up to snuff. "What’s wrong Smokerman?" Davis asks. "Is it your yellow teeth? Your prematurely wrinkled face? That smell?"

The world ends up exploding, but things are just getting started for Davis, who said his off-screen revulsion to smoking prepared him for the role. "I’m pretty sensitive to cigarette smoke," he explained. "So I thought the part would be good for me."

Now, health officials are banking on the fact that other kids will follow Davis’ lead. They spent about $32,000 producing the ads and another $87,000 getting them on the air. With the ad buy, health officials say they will reach 99 percent of the households in Utah. The commercials will air during episodes of "The Simpsons" as well as movies such as "The Incredibles," according to TRUTH spokesman David Neville.

"We really want the commercials to open up a dialogue between parents and kids," Neville said. The ads are meant to point out the immediate and long-term effects of smoking. "We also like to talk about the contents of cigarettes," he added. Some of the most noxious ingredients are arsenic, rat poison and formaldehyde, a chemical used to preserve dead bodies. "We don’t want kids to try smoking even once," he said.

Davis started acting in first grade, but he didn’t decide to do it professionally until August. He landed the Smoker Man gig after just four professional auditions. He will also appear in another commercial role with the LIVE campaign that promotes healthy living. The spot begins airing on television networks at the end of November and runs through the year.

For Davis, acting is a family affair. He and his brother, Mason, 10, performed together in the Egyptian’s YouTheatre production of "Frog and Toad All Year" in July. Davis played the Toad and Mason was a mouse. They had been in school plays, and took singing and music lessons, but only after the Egyptian show did the Johnson boys approach their mom, CJ, about acquiring an agent.

At first she was hesitant, she said, but positive feedback warmed her to the idea. "The Egyptian is wonderful," Johnson said. "We had so many people tell them that they were really great."

Soon, she was piling the boys in the car to visit a talent agency in Salt Lake City. Agents told the Johnsons on the spot that they would represent them. "I think the meeting surprised me," Johnson said. "We had been told how competitive it was to get picked up and that they turned most people away."

Three months later, Johnson said she is just trying to keep up with her kids. While Davis has enjoyed early success in television, Mason has won a part on the stage. He will play Winthrop Paroo in "Music Man" at the Egyptian Theatre. Winthrop, a sweet kid with a lisp, overcomes his shyness and learns to trust the whimsical Professor Harold Hill. A young Ron Howard played the role in the seminal 1962 film.

Davis also plans to take to the stage at the Egyptian Theatre. He plays the title character in the YouTheatre production of "You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown" that runs in mid-December. "Right now these boys are pretty darn tired from all the rehearsal, auditions and productions, but they are so happy," Johnson wrote in an email. "Keeping up with their schedules is exhausting, but moments when they perform and I am in the audience looking up at them, I feel like the luckiest mom around."

Check out the Utah Health Department’s Smoker Man ads at http://www.fighttheugly.com . For a schedule of "Charlie Brown" and "Music Man" show times, visit http://www.egyptiantheatrecompany.org.


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