Saturday, February 11, 2023

Willard Scott!

"I'm bald, I'm overweight, I don't make all the smooth moves and I dress like a slob.  I take tremendous pride in the fact that I beat the system."

Willard Herman Scott, Jr. was born in Alexandria, Virginia, on March 7, 1934. From an early age, he was very interested in broadcasting. When he was just eight years old, he walked into radio station WTOP in Washington, DC, and asked to observe the announcers. That day, he met CBS News Correspondent Eric Sevareid, who was telling his listening audience of a recent trip to Burma.  Willard was instantly hooked.

By 15, he was operating his own radio station out of his parents' basement.  A commercial endeavor, he charged his friends and neighbors ad time on the station, which was quickly gaining in popularity.  Unfortunately, his broadcast was also being picked up by commercial pilots at nearby Washington National Airport, so the FAA shut him down.  Within a few years however, he'd have his first real show, "Lady Make Believe," followed by other programs in the Washington market.

After completing his education at American University, Willard went right to work in Washington radio.  He teamed up with fellow graduate Ed Walker and created the Joy Boys radio program for WRC. Consisting mostly of sketch comedy, the series ran from 1955 until 1972.  That year, WRC changed its format to rock and roll, and the Joy Boys were shown the door.

Throughout the show's run, Willard was simultaneously making his first appearances on local television.  He hosted a number of children's shows, including Barn Party, in which he played "Farmer Willard."  He also co-hosted a series called Afternoon with fellow DC broadcast legend Mac McGarry.  The series introduced University of Maryland student and puppeteer Jim Henson and early versions of his Muppets characters.  In 1959, WRC-TV bought the local rights to Bozo the Clown, whom Willard would play for the next three years (right).

When Bozo was canceled in 1962, Willard could no longer legally play the character.  When approached by a Washington area McDonald's franchisee to do just that, Willard had to decline, but it gave him an idea.  Recognizing the great appeal that Bozo had, Willard suggested that they create a clown character of their own.  He ultimately created Ronald McDonald (below), who proved so popular that the company adopted him as their own, turning the character into an international marketing success. Willard played the character for four years, beginning with this first commercial in 1963.  The company let him go in 1967.

That same year, WRC-TV asked Willard to present the weather on a part-time basis after their meteorologist walked off the job.  The position became permanent in 1970, which Willard occupied for the next ten years. Then in 1980, NBC tapped Willard to become the new meteorologist on The Today Show, replacing established weatherman Bob Ryan. Ironically, the two would switch positions, as Ryan came to DC and WRC-TV. Willard stayed with the program on and off until his retirement in 2015.

Despite Willard's obvious commercial appeal, not everyone at Today was happy for his presence. In a letter to NBC executives in 1989, host Bryant Gumbel wrote that Willard "holds the show hostage to his assortment of whims, wishes, birthdays and bad taste...this guy is killing us and no one's even trying to rein him in."  The letter was publicly leaked and the backlash was instantaneous.  The public was clearly Team Willard, and the show's ratings declined. 

In 1996, Willard was replaced by meteorologist Al Roker, but he stayed with Today, continuing to produce segments for the show.  He was simultaneously flexing his pitchman muscles, endorsing such products as Maxwell House Coffee, USA Today, Diet Coke, and most significantly, McDonald's rival Burger King.  Hey, what goes around comes around.

In 2002, Willard's wife of 43 years, Mary Dwyer Scott, passed away.  The following year, he began dating WRC employee Paris Keena, whom he'd first met while working there in 1977.  The couple were married in 2014.  They relocated to Sanibel Island, Florida.

By 2021, Willard's health was in decline.  He ultimately passed of natural causes on September 4, 2021.  He was 87 years old.

Willard Scott was buried next to his first wife Mary at Leeds Community Cemetery in Markham, Virginia.

Rest in peace, Willard.


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