Bill Saluga, a Memorable Comedic Wiseguy, Is Dead at 85
Raymond J. Johnson Jr. was a wiseguy, dressed in a zoot suit and a wide-brimmed fedora and waving a cigar in his right hand.
When someone mentioned his name, the shtick took off.
“Ohhhh, you doesn’t have to call me Johnson,” he would say. “My name is Raymond J. Johnson Jr. Now, you can call me Ray, or you can call me Jay, or you can call me Johnny, or you can call me Sonny, or you can call me Junie, or you can call me Ray Jay, or you can call me R.J. Or you can call me R.J.J. Or you can call me R.J.J. Jr.
“But you doesn’t have to call me Johnson.”
And you can call his creator Bill Saluga, a diminutive comedian with a thick mustache who came up with Johnson while a member of the Ace Trucking Company, an improvisational sketch troupe whose most famous alumnus is Fred Willard. Mr. Saluga also played Johnson on various television series; on a disco record (“Dancin’ Johnson”); and, most memorably, in commercials for Anheuser-Busch’s Natural Light beer.
In 1979, at the peak of Mr. Saluga’s fame as a comedic one-hit wonder, Tom Shales of The Washington Post wrote that “now everybody and his brother are doing Saluga impressions throughout this very impressionable land of ours. He’s right up there with Steve Martin’s wild and crazy guy and Robin Williams’s madcap Mork.”
Bob Dylan played off Mr. Saluga’s Johnsonian wordplay, and his own name change, in his 1979 song “Gotta Serve Somebody.” He sang, in part:
You may call me Terry, you may call me Timmy
You may call me Bobby, you may call me Zimmy
You may call me R.J., you may call me Ray
You may call me anything but no matter what you say
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Mr. Saluga died of cardiopulmonary arrest on March 28 in a hospice in Los Angeles, his nephew, Scott Saluga, said. He was 85 and had been living in Burbank.
The Tribune Chronicle, a newspaper in Warren, Ohio, near Youngstown, where Mr. Saluga was born, first reported his death on April 8. But it did not become widely known until Hollywood trade publications published obituaries this month.
William Saluga was born on Sept. 16, 1937. When Billy, as his friends called him, was 10, his father, Joseph, was killed in an accident while working at the Republic Steel mill, and his mother, Helen (Yavorsky) Saluga, started working as a bookkeeper.
Billy was a class clown and a cheerleader in high school. After two years in the Navy, he became a performer. In the early and mid-1960s he was seen on a local TV station, with a sketch comedy group called the Thimble Theater and at the Youngstown Playhouse, where, for seven years, he played roles in numerous productions, including “Inherit the Wind” and “Guys and Dolls.”
In 1968, he became the talent coordinator for the comedian Steve Allen’s interview and entertainment show. “If you have a special or unusual talent,” a newspaper ad for the show read, “television needs you. Call Bill Saluga. 469-9011.”
In 1969, after replacing a member of the Ace Trucking Company, he created the Johnson character during a man-on-the-street sketch with Mr. Willard at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village, It became part of the troupe’s repertoire until he left in 1976. By then, the group had made numerous appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
Mr. Saluga appeared from 1976 to 1977 on the comedian Redd Foxx’s variety show and a comedy and variety series hosted by the comedian David Steinberg, on both of which he played Raymond J. Johnson. For the Steinberg show, he also portrayed a New York street guy named Vinnie de Milo.
“Billy was always doing Ray J.,” Mr. Steinberg, said by email. “He was relentless with it. I would say, ‘Mr. Johnson,’ and Billy would be off.” He added: “He did it everywhere. At parties. His timing and delivery were so funny every time.”
The character, with a delivery based in part on the con man Kingfish from the sitcom “Amos ‘n Andy,” appealed to Anheuser-Busch, which hoped to use him to distinguish Natural Light from a rival beer, Miller Lite. In 1978, the company teamed Mr. Saluga with Norm Crosby, the malaprop comedian, for a commercial set in a bar.
When a customer asks for an Anheuser-Busch Natural Light, Mr. Crosby counsels him to say, “Just say ‘Natural,’” which propels Mr. Saluga to say: “See, you doesn’t have to call it Anheuser-Busch Natural Light. And you doesn’t have to call it Anheuser Natural. And you doesn’t have to call it Busch Natural. Just say ‘Natural.’” And when Mr. Crosby says, “Johnson’s right,” Mr. Saluga says, “Ohhhh, you can call me Ray or you can call me Jay. … ”
The pair would go on to do a second spot. Eric Brenner, a friend of Mr. Saluga’s, said in a phone interview that Mr. Saluga had earned significant money in residuals from the two commercials, probably the most he made in his career.
For the next 40 years, he took regular acting jobs — including a hostile ticket taker at an opera house in a 1992 episode of “Seinfeld” and Louis Lewis, the comedian Richard Lewis’s fictional cousin, in three episodes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in 2005 — as well as reprising Raymond J. Johnson on the animated TV series “The Simpsons” (2002) and “King of the Hill” (2010).
“He played outrageous characters onstage, but offstage he was very reserved,” said Bill Minkin, a friend and fellow comedian. “It was that Midwest down-home thing.”
No immediate family members survive.
Mr. Saluga did not mind being known primarily as Raymond J. Johnson. In fact, he said, it gave him an agreeable anonymity when he stepped out of character.
“I would sit in restaurants and hear the people behind me in the booth talking about me, and I was right there,” he said on “Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast” in 2017. “They didn’t know who I was, which was great.”