Character actor John Goodman may well become a leading man to reckon with. Like Danny DeVito, Goodman has cemented his popularity on tv, but the rotund thesp also carried his weight in films like “Raising Arizona,” “Sea Of Love” and “Arachnophobia.”

Now Goodman is carrying a whole picture. He stars as a Las Vegas lounge singer who becomes king of England in writer-director David Ward’s comedy “King Ralph,” for which Universal has high hopes.

Clearly, the Universal marketing department has been having a good time with this campaign. About 2,000 members of the press have been getting promo gifts in the mail – not an unusual studio procedure. But, in this case, much thought and postage has been expended on a total of five mailings.

A built-in joke

The trick with the advertising, says David Sameth, Universal’s senior v.p. of marketing/creative advertising, “was to find a way to tell the joke correctly. The joke is built into his name and the title, a strong concept.”

“From day one we talked about a one-sheet of John Goodman sitting on the throne,” says “King” producer Jack Brodsky, who promoted his share of comedies during his marketing days.

The campaign kicked off with the Universal Pictures Palace invitation to the coronation of King Ralph, complete with a photo of the blue-jeaned Goodman wearing robe and crown and the microchip melody “Hail Brittania.” This was followed three King Ralph commemorative stamps, a Pimplex Royal Family Guide by Lady Marmoset Catatonia-Anthrax and an “In Ralph We Trust” commemorative coin and plate.

“We wanted to communicate a sense of fun,” says Universal pub/promo chief Sally Van Slyke.

Universal is also exploiting John Goodman’s exuberant cover of “Good Golly Miss Molly” with a musicvid in MTV rotation.

The studio hosted a press junket in New Orleans when Goodman visited during Mardi Gras. Not surprisingly, says Slyke, “the junket was jammed,” even though co-star Peter O’Toole was unavailable.

The portly Goodman also is busting out all over the press: He was recently profiled in The New York Times Magazine and interviewed by Barbara Walters on her latest ABC special.

In the pic, Goodman hankers for an American hamburger and visits a London Burger King. The British-based company pursued a major promotion with Universal and has mounted a four-week extensive media buy, which began 10 days before the Feb. 15 opening. The Burger King promotion is valued at $8 million.

Though Universal is aiming its media buys at young males, the studio believes the picture has wide appeal and is therefore targeting several audience groups. “Some of the tv spots play up physical comedy,” says Sameth, “jokes about knowledge of English manners. One spot is geared more to O’Toole.”

“It’s a brilliant campaign,” says Twentieth Century Fox distribution chief Tom Sherak, who has worked on many pictures with Brodsky over the years. “Because of the times, people want to forget their problems, the recession and the war.”

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