Fearing Today Was Too Dry, NBC Threw in Willard Scott, the Clown Prince of Weathermen
09/01/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT
He may be a throwback to J. Fred Muggs, but he's now won over Tom Brokaw
The forecast had never been stormier for NBC's Today show. Its frothier ABC rival, Good Morning America, had just ended Today's 28-year autocracy of the breakfast table. So would the network respond by bouncing Jane Pauley? Would Tom Brokaw go back to straight news? Not yet, anyway. Last March Today tried an even more dramatic personnel shift, hiring Willard Scott, 46, a fat, toupéed and gap-toothed weatherman who is sort of a one-man Hee Haw. Scott will typically lighten his predictions by plugging a corn boil in Illinois, showing off homemade jam or blowing birthday kisses to a 103-year-old fan. "I've always had a reputation as a buffoon," laughs Willard, whose reports are prepared by two professional meteorologists. "Viewers figure, 'Uncle Willard doesn't know any more about the weather than I do.' They're right."
Such sorghumed candor may be slowly improving Today's ratings, but the audience reaction was immediate. Scott now draws 1,000 letters weekly, compared to Brokaw's 600. But so many at first were negative that NBC hid them from him. An indication that the tide is now turning is Willard's elevation to the anchor desk beside Tom and Jane—and the unabashed affection he quickly inspired in his new colleagues. "Frankly, I was suspicious," Pauley admits of Scott's antics, "but Willard is a man who walks into a room and turns the lights on. He is beloved here." Concurs Brokaw: "He has an unalloyed sense of joy."
That's no surprise in Washington, D.C., where Willard had achieved monument status as a local weatherman and town crier for 13 years. He once appeared on-camera taking a bath, another time showed up on the set in a dress, and on April 14 wore only a barrel to remind viewers to pay their taxes. He sometimes forgot to mention the weather, but never failed to plug a good cause. That frivolity aside, it was NBC News president William Small who personally recruited Scott for his network shot last spring. "For me this has been a lucky break," confesses Willard. "When you get to be 46, usually it's another woman, a job change, a pistol or a bottle."
Not that Scott would ever seriously consider those other options. A devout Baptist turned Episcopalian, he sometimes can sound like another Washington Southerner. "I personally believe in the Devil, whether he has a fork and horns or fire," says Scott. "I think the Devil can also take on the form of too much booze or sex. A lot of people are unhappy because they let themselves go to hell, literally."
His own life, certainly, is a testament to that old-time religion. Born in Alexandria, Va. to a telephone operator and an insurance salesman ("As an only child, I never felt insecure and always had total love"), Willard had by age 8 started his own basement radio station, with a range of 150 yards. "We actually made money with 25-cent commercials for merchants on the block," he remembers. "I can't stand anything that doesn't produce." At 16 he was a page at NBC's local radio affiliate, WRC, beginning a 30-year association with the network. "I'm an NBC man," he says. "If I were Japanese I'd be out there every morning screaming the company song."
After graduating as class president from George Washington High School, he entered D.C.'s American University, thought briefly of the ministry, but began a comedy radio show (inspired by idol Arthur Godfrey) with a blind classmate, Ed Walker. The duo—billed as "the Joy Boys"—shared a popular local show for 17 years, becoming, says Willard, closer than "blood brothers." Scott made his TV debut in a 1953 kiddie show (with Muppets creator Jim Henson) and later worked as D.C.'s Bozo the Clown. That character evolved into Ronald McDonald of hamburger fame, and Willard's still disappointed about not being chosen as the national Ronald. "It was the only thing I ever got shafted on," he sighs. But then he became a "temporary" replacement for a TV weatherman who quit, and by the time Today beckoned he was already earning the estimated $200,000 salary NBC offered.
All that dough had allowed Willard and Mary, 44, his wife of 21 years, to move with daughters Mary, 19, and Sally, 15, to an idyllic 15-acre farm near Middleburg, Va., five years ago. They grow fruits and vegetables, cure a dozen hams yearly in the smokehouse, make homemade wine from their 35 grapevines and have a pony, a burro, 14 cats and three aging dogs for company. For a while Scott hosted kids' parties at "Willard's Birthday Farm," driving the visiting (and paying) moppets in his golf cart between the pool, the spring, the well and the pony rides.
To cut down on his weekly commutes for Today, he and Mary (she still handles his checkbook) recently bought a one-bedroom apartment on New York's East Side. And though he has gained 10 pounds in Manhattan's fancy restaurants, there's little danger Willard will get citified. For one thing, he still has three ambitions to satisfy in the big time. "I'd like to do Saturday Night Live," Willard admits. "I'd like to do Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade," he continues. And the third? "I'd like to be lowered in a bosun's chair onto Times Square on New Year's Eve wearing a diaper—like a big baby."