With Mary Alice Williams, NBC Has a Winner in the Great Anchor Sweepstakes

updated 08/07/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/07/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It was Mary Alice Williams's trial by fire. At 3:57 P.M. on July 19, United Airlines Flight 232 skidded across a cornfield in Sioux City, Iowa, and somersaulted into a ball of flame and debris. Back in New York, the writers and producers of NBC Nightly News shifted into high gear, banging out copy as reports poured in from affiliate stations. With two hours until air-time, Executive News Director Don Browne was concerned: New hire Mary Alice Williams was in her first full week sitting in for Tom Brokaw. Browne had seen veteran anchors flustered by less confusion than was unfolding that afternoon. "I looked up in the midst of this frenzy," says Browne, "and I saw Mary Alice with her sleeves rolled up, hustling and working the story alongside everybody else. All of a sudden it was 6:30. She took one step up off the newsroom floor, sat down at the anchor desk and, cool as a cucumber, said, 'Good evening. This is Mary Alice Williams.' We were on and off the air until 11:50 that night. Scripts were flying around, producers were yelling live updates into her ear. She never missed a beat. At the end of the broadcast, all the hard newsies stood up and applauded."

NBC took a gamble when it pulled Mary Alice Williams into last spring's high-stakes game of musical anchors, women's division. When Diane Sawyer jumped from CBS to ABC, and NBC's Connie Chung went to CBS, the peacock network hastily snatched up Williams, CNN's New York bureau chief, to replace Chung, for a reported $600,000 a year. Now that gamble is paying off. The new recruit has risen with enthusiasm to the demanding role of utility broadcaster. "The easiest answer to what I've been doing at NBC these last four months is that I have not done Saturday Night Live," she says. "I thought it would be impossible to work harder than I did at CNN, but in the first two weeks here I did every show generated by NBC News, much to the consternation of my mother, who kept calling from Minnesota saying, 'How can I keep track of when you're on?!' "

Mrs. Williams's task will be easier as of Wednesday, when her daughter debuts on NBC's new prime-time news program, Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow. The show, which will air Aug. 2, Aug. 23 and Sept. 13 as a pilot, uses the technique of dramatic re-creation to follow stories ranging from murders to new medical technologies through the past, present and future. State-of-the-art video wizardry will actually project Williams and co-hosts Maria Shriver and Chuck Scarborough inside historic film clips. "During the first show," says executive producer Sid Feders, "Chuck will walk from a farmhouse porch in Chicago in 1910 to a field in Woodstock in 1989. There he'll meet Mary Alice, who will then walk into a baby nursery where Maria is waiting. The effects will be dazzling."

Williams and Shriver couldn't meet in a more appropriate setting. Both women are pregnant, and for Williams, 40, the event is "a miracle." Married last year to CNN entertainment reporter Mark Haefeli, 34, Williams had been told that she would be unable to bear children. Pregnancy "immediately changed my priorities," she says. "Everything else is so up in the air. We have no idea if YTT will win a spot on prime time. I have no idea what programs I'm going to be doing at NBC News. About the only thing I'm certain of these days is that, come January, I'll still be a wife and, hopefully, the mother of a healthy, happy baby."

Born in St. Paul, Minn.—one of five children of George Williams, a psychiatrist who was dean of the University of Minnesota Medical School, and his wife, Alice-Williams landed her first job as a TV reporter for KSTP in St. Paul in 1968, the day after her high school graduation. "It was the age of campus protests and rock festivals. I was an 18-year-old, 185-lb. blond with a high soprano voice who didn't know enough about history to report any story," recalls the 5'9" Williams. "I think they were smart in wanting to hire somebody of the generation to monitor her peers."

After Williams graduated from Creighton University in Omaha, she returned to KSTP and was named producer of news at age 21. A year later, she packed her bags for New York. During one job interview at a network-owned station there, the vice president told her, "We don't have anything right now, but we could arrange something. Do you f—-?" Luckily, Williams's father, who died in 1982, had prepared her for such encounters. "He told me when I started," she recalls, " 'You know, if you go into television, people are going to react to you based on what they need to see—a sister, a mother, a daughter, a whore. It has nothing to do with you. You just make sure you know who you are.' "

Williams knew. She walked out of the vice president's office and across town to independent WPIX-TV, where she was hired as a cub reporter. A year later, she moved to WNBC-TV, the network's flagship station. Though she proved herself a talented, tough journalist, Williams was fired after six years by a new news director. "At the time I was devastated," she says. "I didn't know why I had been fired, and nobody would tell me. One of the executives had said that my eyes were such a strange blue that I belonged in horror films, not on television news. In retrospect, it was the luckiest break I ever got."

Williams signed on to be New York bureau chief for Ted Turner's brainchild, the fledgling Cable News Network. "We did 24-hour news, and we didn't have the budget, the equipment, the staff—we didn't have anything the networks had," says Williams, who was later made a CNN vice president. "We learned to do it lean and mean. If the production assistant couldn't get the script ripped on time, the VP would do it."

At CNN, Williams was assigned a young producer named Mark Haefeli. Recently separated from Scott Latham, a political consultant, she had thrown herself into her work and was reluctant to date Haefeli, six years her junior. "We'd do things occasionally, like go to Mass," says Williams. "I never thought they were dates. Mark did." Then, in 1986, Haefeli asked Williams to a Peter Allen concert. "That was our first after-dark date," says Haefeli. "I must have proposed to her a hundred times before she finally said yes. She had no choice. It was Christmas Day, 1987, and I was down on one knee with a diamond ring in my hand."

Two days after the air disaster, when NBC Nightly News wraps for the week, Williams rises from the anchor's chair and begins circulating around the room thanking the men and women who helped her. "This is a tough business," says Browne, observing her. "If an anchor's a jerk, or incompetent, there are ways people around here can break you. With Mary Alice, I can see them making sure that the mikes and cameras are right, that she's got the right information. You can sense that the people around here want to see her succeed."

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