From coast to coast, from playground to barroom, an enfeebled whine rings out across the land. All together now: "I've fallen . . . and I can't get up!"

Yes, once again America has fallen for a line.
"It's the big joke around here," reports an insider at Channel 12, one of many TV stations around the country that have flooded the airwaves with commercials for LifeCall, an emergency alert system that allows elderly users to call for help via a radio-transmitter pendant. "Whenever that commercial comes on, the halls echo with people saying, ~`I've fallen . . . and I can't get up!'"

The Valley station has no lock on the catch phrase. Since the commercial first aired last summer, the pathetic cry has turned up as a message on tee shirts and telephone-answering machines, and has provided material for standup comedians and at least two novelty records. Earlier this month, the irritating wail even inspired a star-studded party deemed "downtown New York's event of the season" by USA Today. The voice behind this much-mimed mantra? One 74-year-old Edith Fore, easily the unlikeliest candidate for fame since the late Clara Peller brayed "Where's the beef?" in a series of Wendy's commercials.

"They needed someone who had actually used the system," explains the retired school nurse in a recent telephone interview. A LifeCall customer of nearly two years, Fore had occasion to use the alert system following a tumble down the stairs of her New Jersey home in 1989. "I'm not an actress," she insists. "And I've never had any professional training."

Not that anybody who's ever seen the Ronco-esque commercial would doubt that. But thanks to her spectacularly inept delivery, the unassuming Fore has accomplished the near impossible. When was the last time you saw Katharine Hepburn wring a laugh out of geriatric jeopardy?

Everyone's favorite floor model originally nixed LifeCall's offer to do the testimonial. Laughing weakly, the widowed septuagenarian explains that she mistakenly believed she'd be expected to do her own stunt work during the commercial's stair-tumbling sequence. Says Fore, "I told them I wasn't interested because I'd taken enough falls in my lifetime."

Assured that a bewigged double would stand in for her (Fore's voice was dubbed in later), she agreed to take part in what would eventually become the most publicized fall this side of the Roman Empire.

Although Fore is identified in the TV spots as "Mrs. Fletcher," that charade didn't last long. "Of course I had no idea this would happen," says the bewildered Fore, still unable to fathom the public's interest in her domestic misadventures. Less than thrilled with celebrity (her daughter was forced into switchboard duty when the telephone began ringing off the hook with interview requests), Fore confesses she doesn't "feel famous."

"I'm just trying to have fun with everything that's happened so far," she says. "I try not to be obnoxious with it."

Ironically, Fore's fame hasn't translated into a financial windfall--either for her or for the company whose product she hawks. Because she accepted a one-time fee, Fore receives no residuals for the ad. And while her fluke celebrity has made LifeCall a household name, it hasn't done much to increase the company's sales.

"It's our generation and the college kids who are picking up on this commercial," reports Mindy Cooper, spokesperson for the Camden, New Jersey-based company. "If you ask someone who's a senior, they're not aware of the craze because it's the Arsenio Halls, the Johnny Carsons and the [New York shock deejay] Howard Sterns who are using the line." And there may be some confusion over similar commercials for Life Alert, a competitive system that claims to have masterminded the "I've fallen" line in 1985.

"There is no question," says Eric Bordo, advertising director for the California-based firm. "We created the commercial five years ago but originally it was a man who made the statement." Bordo says legal action over the quip's rightful ownership would be counterproductive.

Fore, meanwhile, insists that she coined the rejoinder while discussing her accident during a script conference. "I gave them a description of what happened and then they wrote it up for me so it made sense," she says. "But that line is mine."

Although Fore failed to demonstrate her faulty footwork while accepting a "Fallen Woman" award at Manhattan's Limelight disco several weeks ago, fans were not disappointed. "Everyone was hollering, `Say it! Say it!'" reports one partygoer who attended the ultrahip wingding. "When she finally said the line, the place went absolutely berserk."

Arranged as part of a birthday celebration for Village Voice gossip columnist Michael Musto, the Fore fete attracted more than 2,500 revelers who danced to "I've Fallen" beneath a canopy of orthopedic walkers. Later, the lady of the hour joined fellow "fallen women" Sukhreet Gabel, Roxanne Pulitzer, Joey Heatherton, and Judy Carne in a tribute to the birthday boy.

But from Fore's standpoint, the glitzy bash was a big bust. After expenses, she claims she actually lost money on the gig. "I've gotten a lot of offers from clubs, but they don't want to pay enough to make it worthwhile," she complains. Instead, the country's foremost fall gal would prefer to do what she does, well, second best.

"If the company asks me, I'd like to do more commercials," she says. "These gags and this other stuff, there's no money in it for me."

Oddly enough, Fore pooh-poohs the fateful plunge that catapulted her to stardom. "The fall they show on the commercial wasn't even my most serious fall," she says with a trace of disdain. "My most serious one was when I fell off a bus and broke my hip. That's a high step, you know."

That was way back in 1983. Since then, Fore says she's taken enough dives to keep LifeCall aficionados falling out of their chairs for the next ten years.

"Let's see now," she says, revving up for an accident-prone trip down memory lane. "I slipped outside once and broke a rib. Another time I fell in the basement--I fractured my spine on that one. I tripped over a bicycle and I've even fallen several times since I did the commercial." Pause. "It's getting hard to remember them all, though," she says. "I fall all the time."

Break a leg, Edith!

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Dewey Webb