Local character: Thrills, adventures with … a lawyer

Bankruptcy lawyer and local character Michael Clayton of Santa Maria keeps outdoing himself with his "big fairy-tale-book story"

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comMay 5, 2013 

Santa Maria-based attorney Michael Clayton is the star of an action hero commercial in which he does his own stunts including parachuting into a convertible.

DAVID MIDDLECAMP — dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

In his latest TV commercial, Michael Clayton jumps off Mayan ruins, plunges off a cliff, swims to a speedboat, skydives out of a plane and parachutes into a moving convertible — all while dressed like Indiana Jones.

The action-packed ad — five years in the making — doesn’t portray the typical day of a bankruptcy attorney. But Clayton prefers fantasy to reality.

“I can show you that I’m sitting here writing briefs and filing paperwork with the court,” he said. “But how boring is that?”

Filing paperwork is boring, but Clayton — whose home boasts a 65-foot pirate ship and a mini Old West town — offsets the doldrums of legal minutiae. The man who once made $350,000 on the Michael Jackson trial is constantly one-upping himself with grandiose ideas — be it with his award-winning Christmas light displays or his annual veterans barbecue, which has grown to 2,000 people.

“The whole ride, from 1989 — rolling into California — until now has been one big fairy-tale-book story,” Clayton said. “I’ve had a wonderful time.”

Early inspiration

While his commercials suggest a love of adventure, Clayton, 50, knew he wanted to be an attorney after watching the TV western “The Big Valley,” which featured an attorney named Jarrod Barkley. At the time, Clayton was 6 years old.

At age 9, his father took him to the nearby University of Arkansas School of Law and told him he’d end up there someday.

“He even showed me the lockers that we’d be using,” Clayton said.

Years later, he called his father from that law school, telling him, “Dad, I’m six lockers down from the locker you opened up.” (He’d tried to trade another student for the locker his dad had opened, but the other student wouldn’t budge.)

While he studied law, Clayton showed that he had an eye for enterprise. After moving close to the university’s football stadium, he rented out his yard for game-day parking — three bucks a car, 20 cars — an idea that would help him earn far more money years later.

After law school, he briefly worked with a firm in Arkansas. But soon, he followed his mother, who worked at Vandenberg Air Force Base, to the Central Coast, where he now practices bankruptcy, criminal and personal injury law. While he handles cases in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, his presence is most felt in Santa Maria, where he owns an office across the street from the courthouse.

In Santa Maria, he hosts Santa Claus on his office lawn ever year, participates in the annual Elks Parade and Rodeo (the 65-foot ship was a float he made for the parade), and puts on the annual veterans barbecue.

“He’s very dedicated in whatever he gets involved in,” said Chad Hulsey, club manager at the Elks lodge in Santa Maria, where Clayton was named Citizen of the Year in 2011. “He’s a very family-oriented person, too.”

The location of Clayton’s office not only puts him at the center of local events, but it also earned him that $350,000 during the Michael Jackson trial.

When Jackson was on trial on charges of child molestation in 2005, Clayton rented out his rooftop to various television media that wanted a good vantage point from which to film Jackson going to and from court.

Charging each media outlet $2,500 a day, Clayton was asked by a Reuters reporter whether he thought he was exploiting the trial.

“I said, ‘Damn right, I am,’ ” recalled Clayton, who thought Jackson was not guilty. “Only a fool for a business person wouldn’t rent their place out if they’re willing to pay it.”

The proceeds from a Coke machine placed on the property netted enough to take his entire office — and their families — on a cruise to Mexico.

Santa Maria star

While Clayton continues to be a public figure in Santa Maria — he’ll be grand marshal at this year’s Santa Maria Elks Parade and Rodeo — strangers will know him mostly from his commercials.

Since his first Indiana Jones-themed ad in 2004, Clayton has upped the ante, adding more action sequences each time.

“We try to do better than what we did before,” Clayton said.

The latest — with the theme, We’ll Go to the End of the World for You — began in 2008 when he and his family visited the Yucatan Peninsula.

“Before we left to go down there, my wife said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have the commercial start coming out of the Mayan ruins?’ ” Clayton remembered. “And I said, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ ”

A cliff jump and speedboat scene was filmed at Lake Nacimiento. And a friend with a crop duster helped him with the skydiving scene.

During law school, Clayton performed 52 jumps to get his mind off the books. But this time, he had a bigger challenge — to land in a moving Corvette.

On the fourth attempt, he made it.

While the commercial is currently airing on local TV, Clayton is now turning his sights toward other ventures, including his mini Old West village — named Fun Town — which he built at his Orcutt olive ranch.

“The people here at the office are like, ‘What’s next?’ ” Clayton said. “And I’m like, ‘You know what? We need to build a float to go down Broadway that’s like a spaceship that hovers above the ground.’”

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