Begin playback in London, 1982:
Wagg, then a 33-year-old record-company
executive, is putting together an MTV-style
music-video series for Britian's trendy Channel
4. Since he hopes to market the show abroad,
Wagg hits upon the notion of hosting it with a
computerized creature who would appeal to
techno-freaks of all nations. Wagg turns to
George Stone, an advertising copywriter, and
Rocky Morton and Annabelle Jankel, a pair of
ingenious computer-graphic animators. Together
the three hatch Max.
To play their creation's human template (Max is
actually a flesh-and-blood actor whose image has
been manipulated by electronic trickery), Wagg
settles on Canada's Matt Frewer, who, with his
blandly handsome visage and mid-Atlantic accent,
seems ideally exportable. Frewer decides to
model Max's personality after the smarmy,
self-important goofiness of "The Mary Tyler Moore
Ted Baxter. "I particularly wanted to get
that phony bonhomie of Baxter," recalls the
actor. "Max always assumes a decadelong
friendship on the first meeting. At first sight
he'll ask about that blackhead on your nose."
Wagg has forbidden Frewer to discuss precisely how he's transformed into Headroom for fear of diminishing Max's mystique. ("If we tell you how to do it from A to Z," says the actor, "anybody could make Max. Add one egg, oregano, and you have Headroom Alfonso.") Despite such understandable reticence, this much can be disclosed. During a two-hour makeup session, Frewer dons a latex mask, shocking-blue contact lenses, a yellow, rubberized wig and a fibre-glass suit. His image is then processed through a kind of computer-graphic Cuisinart that electronically alters his features. Max's jerky vocal inflections are the product of a voice synthesizer.
The series' first episode opens with Max introducing a weird German video with an equally-weird, fractured-German sentence. "Everybody was scared stiff, " recalls Wagg of the premiere. But within a month more than a million viewers are turning in, nearly doubling Channel 4's ratings for the time slot. To maximize his star's appeal, Wagg begins cutting back on the music and bringing on such celebrity guests as Boy George, Simon LeBon and Jack Lemmon. By the eighth episode, Max has made his first public appearance--opening a furniture store in Belfast. From then on, says Wagg, "he was unstoppable."
Fast-forward to the States: The Cinemax pay-cable service, which has helped finance Max's launch in Britian, unleashes his series on the American audience. By now Max's ego--inflated, no doubt, by his worshipful press reviews--is roughly the size of a satellite dish, while his attention span has shrunk to microsecond dimensions. In short, he's become the perfect talk-show host. His run on Cinemax is rife with indelicate moments: Max introducing hair stylist Vidal Sassoon as "V.D. Sassoon"; Max listening to Sting go on about his "art" and suddenly breaking into an exaggerated yawn; Max greeting Michael Caine by saying, "OK, Michael, fire away ... What have you always wanted to ask me?" The show instantly enraptures young viewers. Max, after all, speaks their language: computer literate, media-wise and gleefully disrespectful. In shopping malls and homerooms, the coolest kids suddenly discover a new way to convulse each other. They begn t-t-talking like th-th-this.
Insert new cassette, courtesy of Coke: The ever-ambitious Wagg realizes that he still needs something to give the "Maxhead" cult a mass spin. The Coca-Cola Co., meanwhile, is looking for a way to get the message about its New Coke to the teenagers they created it for. It's a marriage made in promotional heaven, the first real occasion in which a commercial spokesperson for a major corporation becomes a national celebrity as a result of his commercial performances.
Max's "C-C-Catch the wave" spots for Coke, two of which were directed by Ridley Scott, may be the most cleverly constructed pitches ever aimed at the under-30 viewer. In the most lavish, a massive assemblage of young "Cokeologists" gather in a cavernous hall and chant, Max, Max, Max!" as their hero appears on a giant video screen. The payoff for the company, according to Coca-Cola senior vice president John C. Reid, has been historic. "Max has broken almost every record for awareness of commercials," says Reid. "We did some consumer research and were startled to find out that 76 percent of all teenagers in this country had heard of Max after our first flight of ads."
Max even made it onto the cover of Mad Magazine, in a parody of a certain other newsweekly's Man of the Year issue.
Coke's next step is to tailor special Max commercials for black and Hispanic viewers, who make up two of the fastest-growing segments of the soft-drink market. One such shot shows pro-basketball superstar Michael Jordan using Max's screen image as a backboard for a spectacular slam-dunk. In another, Latin actress Lucia Mendez catches Max ogling her sizzling dance routine and plants a moist kiss smack on his monitor. As his latex tan turns crimson, Max sputters out, "Agarra la onda" (a loose Spanish translation of "Catch the wave"). So determined is Coke to hype the character into a household head that it has begun sending five-minute question-and-answer videos to local TV stations that want to "interview" Max. As the station's Robin Leach reads one of the questions from the script prepared by Coke, his electronic guest playfully leans forward to the bottom of the screen and exclaims, "Nice socks!"