Los Angeles — Celebrity gawkers fall for Phil Boroff every time. Whether he's sitting in a restaurant or walking down the street, gaggles of the curious point, nudge each other, and ask, "Isn't that? . . ." Yes, they inevitably decide as they approach to ask for an autograph, it ism Woody Allen.
No, it's not. It's a case of mistaken face -- and in Mr. Boroff's case the face just happens to be the spittin' image of the famous comedian. "It's like having the fame without the fortune," he notes wryly.
Since last March, however, Boroff, an actor and director himself, has been cashing in on some of the fortune -- or at least some of the pocket money. Being a look-alike, he's found, can pay off, especially if you sign up your visage with Ron Smith Celebrity Look-Alikes.
Phil Boroff isn't alone. In the four years since Ron Smith started his business, over 1,000 look-alikes have signed up, ranging the star spectrum from Bo Derek and Clint Eastwood and Queen Elizabeth and Ronald Reagan.
"The key to success of this company is that everybody in the world looks like somebody," says Mr. Smith. "Of course, it may be the ice cream man down the street or a shoe salesman. . . . But look-alikes were around before this business began.
"What we've done," he likes to say, "is take an illusion of an illusion and marketed it. Because, after all, nobody really knows what a star is like. He's just an illusion to the average person. And so a look-alike is an illusion of an illusion."
Because Smith is scrupulously correct about identifying his "stars" as look-alikes -- and firing anybody on his roster who tries to pass his or her face off as the real thing -- he claims he has never received a complaint from a legitimate celebrity.
His clients, whose popularity fluctuates with the notoriety of the real star, are hired for commercials, cameo spots on television shows and in movies, speaking engagements, and appearances at industrial trade shows. They even make benefit appearances on telethons and at high school and college campuses.
"People that can't afford to hire celebrities call us," Smith says, for 1 to 2 percent of the megabucks fees commanded by big-name stars, small firms can get the impact of a famous face that they otherwise wouldn't be able to afford.
Smith says he gets 100 to 200 requests a week for his clients but follows through on only about 50 percent of those inquiries because "we don't do anything that we think would embarrass the celebrity, we like to keep it in good taste." Nonetheless, business is good -- so good, in fact, that profits have doubled in each of the past two years, he says.
While Smith and his associates, Jaeson Cayne, say they like to stay above the political fray, they did provide the talent for a commercial for Ronald Reagan in the recent presidential campaign.
The television spot featured look-alikes of the Shah of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, an Arab sheikh, and several other people meant to represent weak points in the Carter administration's policies. The commercial, however, never aired; Reagan strategists reportedly decided it might be in bad taste.
With offices in New York and Los Angeles -- and representatives across the country and around the world -- Smith is always on the lookout for new look-alikes.
Although most of his clients earn their livings in regular 9 to 5 jobs, they can pick up an extra $100 an hour, or more, in their celebrity assignments. The work sometimes involves all-expenses-paid travel abroad and even star treatment -- transportation by limousine, for example, and even a body guard or two, if the look-alike resembles an especially important celebrity.
Right now, Smith says he would like to get his hands on a good Babe Ruth, a Frank Sinatra, A Paul Newman, and even a Duke of Edinburgh -- the latter to join the circle of royal family look-alikes which already includes the Queen, Prince Charles, and Princesses Anne and Margaret.
"And," he says, "we could always use another Ronald Reagan."