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Willard Scott Is Blowing His Top

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A spouse watch was in effect. Mary Scott, Willard’s smaller half, started to turn the color of thunderclouds. When Mary gets mad—and if you believe Willard, it is mostly at him—prudent persons grab small children and personal treasures and head for the storm cellars.

“I was up all night, rehearsing all the beautifully controlled things I was going to say…” she began.

“…you mean,” Willard interrupted, “not use the word prick?”

Mary ignored him. She probably does that a lot too. Willard, sitting beside her in a sedan, was smiling with pleasure for one of the few times all week. He has a cartoon smile, his eyes opening wide and his face getting rounder and goofier, like a happy-face balloon, and he was contemplating the upcoming retribution. By the time Mary finished with Bryant Gumbel, there would be two members of the Today show needing toupees.

Two days earlier, Gumbel’s infamous critique of the show had appeared in a New York newspaper, Newsday, ending the network charade that viewers were witnessing a loving family in Bryant, Jane and Uncle Willard. Among the staff evaluations sent by Gumbel to the executive producer of the show, Marty Ryan, was a complaint that Willard “holds the show hostage to his assortment of whims, wishes, birthdays and bad taste.” Lightning flashed in Mary Scott’s eyes.

“My mother raised me to be a lady,” Mary began again, “but this may push me too far. I think Bryant has major problems. He does not understand what Willard is about. Bryant is obviously not the success that Willard is personally, and he can’t stand it. This is nothing but jealousy to the nth degree. I have pity for him. He has his devils, no two ways about it.”

The confidential memo was apparently written last fall at the urging of Ryan. That it contained few positive comments about the staff of the Today show is not surprising, for as Gumbel himself said a few months ago, “I’m always crabby.” Yet the memo shows a shocking lack of sensitivity, portrays Gumbel as a man of little compassion, reveals a surprising ignorance of the chemistry that has made the Today show the top-rated morning program, and demonstrates a level of hubris unusual even for a TV star.

Gumbel’s criticism of Gene Shalit’s interviews (“aren’t very good”) and David Horowitz’s consumer reports (“a walking cliché”) were mild compared to his evaluation of Willard. The memo went on: “This guy is killing us, and no one’s even trying to rein him in.” He recommended “nuking” Willard’s 72-year-old assistant, Morrison Krus, the man who gathers up the centenarian birthday pictures, the county fair promotional mugs and all the other paraphernalia that Willard enthusiastically displays on the air. He suggested cutting Willard out of the first half hour of the show, the most news-oriented segment, explaining, “…all he does is take up three valuable minutes (when we’re lucky)…. Yes, Willard will be pissed…so what?…What’s he going to do, walk away? He’s got a contract that pays him more than anyone in their rite [sic] mind should…. He can’t leave this job and couldn’t get a better one.” It was everything bad a man could say about Willard, except calling him fat.

“Why does he do these things?” Willard wonders. “He’s young, intelligent, good-looking and sharp as a tack. People love him. Why does he have to cause all of us to be unhappy?”

The first Willard heard about the memo was on Sunday, Feb. 26, two days before it was published. “Gumbel put a message on my answering machine,” said Willard. “He said, ‘We have an imminent crisis. Try to call me.’ He was on vacation, and I never reached him.” Four days later Willard put a message on this writer’s answering machine. He said two things:

1. “Yes, it’s been an exciting week.”

2. “No, I’m not going to kill the son of a bitch.”

A few hours later Willard was in a Manhattan studio, taping promotional spots for upcoming Today shows. He looked at the camera and said, “Hi, start the morning with Bryant Gumbel and me, beating each other to death with baseball bats.” Then he went to his Upper East Side apartment to pick up Mary and head out of town, back home to the comforting suburbs of Washington, D.C., and on to Florida for vacation. He and Gumbel still had not spoken and were not expected to be together in the New York studio again until this Monday (March 13).

Willard was still making jokes: “I know how I’ll drive him crazy—I won’t stop talking. Every time he looks my way during the show, I’ll say, ‘I’m not finished yet.’ ” Willard says many silly things, most of them amusing, which is why he is on the second year of a five-year contract from NBC that will pay him more than $5 million dollars, why he gets $10,000 per speech and why he commands between $250,000 and $500,000 to be a pitchman for a product. Add it all up, though, and it’s still less than Gumbel makes from NBC alone. There’s a guy making more than $2 million a year talking about me making too much,” Willard says.

Willard makes a great deal of money for behaving as though there is nothing he won’t do for money. He seems to be 285 lbs. of self-confidence, but the truth is that nothing rolls off Willard, regardless of his shape. “It’s hurting,” he says. “It’s not family or sickness, but other than that it’s the most serious incident of my career. I’d like somebody to ask him, ‘What can I do to make you happy?’ From the memo, nothing short of me leaving would help.”

Across the country, the instinctive reaction to Gumbel’s memo was disapproval of the man who wrote it. USA Today conducted a phone-in poll in which readers were invited to vote on whether Willard helps or hurts the show. The response was 27,300 in favor of Willard, 854 against. It’s likely that Willard, who is way beyond thrifty and would hesitate to spend 50 cents on a phone call, did not vote even once. The poll, however, was not scientific, and the callers were probably reacting as much to the ugliness of the note as they were to Willard’s usefulness.

As Willard himself said, Gumbel is not stupid. While the memo is shocking for its revelation of ego and ambition, the content also is interesting. Does Gumbel have a point? Should a man who tangoed to fame by dressing as Carmen Miranda be given a daily forum on network TV? Can the U.S. be taken seriously as a nation as long as Willard Scott is one of our major media stars? Those are the questions. Who on Today is objective enough to answer them?

Not Gumbel, that’s for sure. How about Jane Pauley?

She and Willard are a less fascinating couple than Willard and Bryant. As Willard says, “Jane and I get along fine, but there is no byplay.” Gumbel, at least, laughs at some of Willard’s routines. Jane usually just sits there blankly, although her reaction is perhaps the one every well-bred woman should have to Willard Scott. Yet Willard yearns for her approval.

“I’m from a generation of women that can call themselves feminists, so Willard and I might be a little out of sync,” she says. “There’s not necessarily that much in common. What we do have in common is that both of us think that Willard Scott is underappreciated.”

She looks pensive.

“I recognize that he doesn’t recognize that. All these years, and I don’t know how to tell him.”

What must be said about Willard is that even though he is paid about $1 million a year to forecast the weather, he is not a weatherman. He has been doing the weather for decades, yet he was recently overheard double-checking with an assistant that the Santa Ana winds are in Southern California. He is far from dumb. He just doesn’t seem interested.

What he is, above all, is a fundamentalist. He loves his God, his country and his family. He also loves weddings, marching bands, Jaycees, the disabled (especially when they triumph over adversity) and Thanksgiving (which he likes even more than Christmas). And there is one thing that always commands his attention: food. “When I’m eating breakfast, I’m thinking about dinner,” he admits.

Willard’s idea of a great meal is the next one, and a conversation with him cannot go more than a few seconds without fond reminiscences of the courses he has consumed. Here he is speaking of his ancestors: “Our family settled in Wilkes County, North Carolina—yum, minced-barbecue country—in about 1750, and my father was the first to leave the farm.” Pause. “You know, when I was working in Washington and I was in a barbecue mood, I’d go to the Dixie Pig in Alexandria and have six of those sandwiches with four long-necked Budweisers….”

He says the Pioneer Club in Lake Charles, La., served him “the best meal I ever ate.” It was 14 courses, which could account for his fondness. The first time he ever ate an oyster he ate 45 of them, and he fondly remembers devouring a whole box of Krispy Kreme do-nuts in eight minutes. On a visit to a Paris bistro last year, he demonstrated international flair, ordering “mucho chocolata” for dessert. Out came four ice cream-filled, chocolate-covered profiteroles, each the size of a cannonball. He points out that he is not always to blame for his eating habits, that people see him coming and immediately start slaughtering livestock. “Nobody ever forces a lemon pie down a little guy,” he complains.

Willard’s first memory is of a birthday cake. It came from a bakery in Alexandria, Va., where he was born 55 years ago, and he liked it so much he had cake from the same bakery at every birthday from age 1 through 40. He was an only child, his father “strong-willed and crude,” his mother a loving woman “who treated me like a prince—I guess I’m too much of a pussycat, too much mother in me and not enough father.”

He and Mary were married almost 30 years ago and have raised two daughters, Mary Scott Herriott, 27, and Sally, 24. “He was a real cool dad,” Mary says. “I can remember only two times when he blew his stack, and it’s a sight I never want to see again. He gets very calm and that makes me nervous because my dad is not a calm kind of guy. His face gets red, his voice gets low and shaky, and he starts out, ‘As long as you live under this roof…’ ”

Willard was still in high school when he started in radio, playing host on a show called High School Hit Parade. He has hardly spent a day out of broadcasting since. Even while serving in the U.S. Navy in the mid-’50s, he worked as a disc jockey in his spare time, earning $99 a month from the government and $165 a week from the station. He was 22, drove a 1956 T-bird around Norfolk, Va., and weighed in at 225 lbs. “I wasn’t very good-looking but I had hair,” he says. “I was the Tom Selleck of the low-priced field.” He broke into TV in 1953, got his big break as Bozo the Clown in 1959, created the character of Ronald McDonald for the hamburger chain in 1963, became a staff weatherman for WRC-TV in Washington in 1967 and moved to New York to be on the Today show in 1980.

His act, as he calls it, started while he was a Washington weatherman. There is not much a weatherman can do, other than decide whether to describe a day as partly cloudy or partly sunny. Willard decided to transform the job into folk art. He wore a barrel on April 15, emerged from a manhole on Groundhog Day, dressed up as a woman “with grapefruits for boobs” during the height of the feminist movement (and later apologized for it). His most famous moment came on the Today show when he pranced on as Carmen Miranda, wearing a dress and a fruit-topped hat.

“I became a household word,” says Willard, “but I know, even if the rest of the world doesn’t, that buffooning is not what has made me work. I work because people know I love them. I also know that just the fact that I’m alive offends some people. I’m big, overpowering, flamboyant and loud. That’s a turnoff, but some people see a heart to this beast. I might put my foot in my mouth five times out of six, but the sixth time, I strike a chord, and people respond.”

He and Gumbel seem to strike only wrong notes. About a year ago Gumbel complained about excessive laughter from the stage crew while Willard was performing and set out to halt the distraction. “It was more of a studio problem than a problem between Willard and me,” Gumbel said. “We have one very irresponsible person in the studio who lacks demeanor. It’s one thing to laugh, another to guffaw.” Willard felt that telling anybody not to laugh was a direct threat to his act, but he and Gumbel quickly made peace. NBC executives moved just as quickly to placate Willard, opening up contract negotiations a year early and giving him everything he wanted, including the right to remain home and work from a studio in Washington on Mondays and Fridays. “They weren’t sure Bryant was going to renew, and they wanted to be sure they had some semblance of the old show,” Willard says. “I put my hand out to Bryant and thanked him for the new contract he got me.”

There is a little of Animal House in the struggle between Willard, a Bluto-type character if there ever was one, and Bryant, the epitome of the buttoned-down disciplinarian. Bryant is the guy who organizes the campus hop. Willard is the guy who falls into the punch bowl. It can’t be easy for Bryant to watch Willard going 30 seconds over his time limit just to wish happy birthday to some codger in Cleveland. A small and basically unsuccessful attempt at reconciliation took place about a week after the memo was publicized, one day before Bryant’s return to the air. He called Willard in Florida, but he didn’t quite apologize. “Not in the classic sense,” laughs Willard. “He sounded like Eastern Airlines advising passengers, ‘We regret the inconvenience.’ ” Nor did he apologize on the show, even when prodded to do so during an awkward satellite hookup in celebration of Willard’s 55th birthday. Bryant’s only reference to the problems caused by his memo: “We are together, and hopefully we will be…long after recent headlines are forgotten. Enough said.”

Well, not quite.

It’s only fair that Mary Scott gets the last word, just as she does at home. Because the answer to Gumbel’s complaint is that the Today show is very good when he and Jane are on it, but it is only different from everything else on network TV when Willard is on it. Bryant hasn’t learned this and perhaps never will. “Every time he attacks Willard, he looks worse and Willard looks better,” Mary says. “He must be a slow learner.”