A Saturday Night Live Writer and a Deejay Fight Over the Battered Body Of, Oh No, Mr. Bill
DeGeneres says he phoned Williams—before the lawsuit—to give him a chance to settle and was rebuffed. "Walt said he was afraid that if my name was on the copyright I might try to come in and start changing things," DeGeneres reports. "He also said he didn't want Mr. Bill to be 'exploited' in any way. I think that's ridiculous, seeing as how Walter could make a fortune out of Mr. Bill products." Williams will not comment on the case, but he has filed copyright and defamation suits of his own. His lawyer insists that Mr. Bill was Williams' brainchild and that DeGeneres was just a midwife.
DeGeneres sees it differently. He says he was playing bass guitar for a New Orleans rock band in 1973 when he met Williams, an Ole Miss dropout working as a night watchman. They became friends, then roommates. DeGeneres was a radio jock by that time and collaborated with Williams on some comedy bits for his show. The two men then used Williams' 8-mm camera to make humorous films for a joint multimedia comedy act. It was while working on one of their movies, DeGeneres says, that they came up with the Mr. Bill concept. "We were sitting around the table one night and I started making a head out of Play-Doh and Walt started making a body for the head. Then we put it together and were just playing around—and somehow we started mutilating it. Then it hit us: If we did this right, it might make a film."
After shooting a few Mr. Bill shorts (Williams did and still does the head-liner's shrill, panicky voice), the team sent the film to Saturday Night Live—and it was accepted. Encouraged, they borrowed $3,000, drove to New York and rented an apartment. But after a few months DeGeneres decided to return to New Orleans. "Things had gotten a little touchy between Walt and myself," he recalls. "I wanted to insert more of my ideas into the act and he wanted to put more of his ideas in, and we came head to head on it."
Back home, a TV comedy project fell through, he and his girlfriend broke up, and DeGeneres impulsively decided to join the Marines. While he was stationed in Yuma, Ariz., Mr. Bill suddenly became a national celebrity, and expartner Williams was signed on by Saturday Night Live. When DeGeneres told some of his Marine buddies that he co-discovered Mr. Bill, he recalls, "They looked at me funny, like they were thinking, 'Oh yeah, sure, you helped create Mr. Bill and here you are now, a corporal in the Marines.' It was humiliating."
Discharged last spring, DeGeneres was told by a law student buddy to seek a legal remedy, and he did. "This suit could be worth a million dollars or more," says DeGeneres' lawyer, David Oestreicher. "I think Mr. Bill could turn out to be another Mickey Mouse or Popeye as far as products are concerned." Still, DeGeneres insists that while the money would be nice, it is secondary. "It's mostly a matter of personal pride," he says. "I want my name where it belongs: on the copyright."