May 19, 2008 12:00 PM

When Montel Williams stepped onstage for his very first show on May 15, 1991, the ex-naval officer and motivational speaker had plenty to say. He just didn’t know quite where to say it. “Nobody told me that the red light on top of the camera meant it was on,” he says with a laugh. “I was looking at the wrong camera the whole time!”

He may not have known where to look, but Williams always knew in what direction to go. While scores of talk shows came and went in the 1990s, the bald guy with three earrings persevered by tackling tough issues, including AIDS, child abuse and racism. “From day one, I said, ‘We’re going to respect the living rooms that we’re going into,'” Williams says. His tearful final show was taped in March and airs May 16. “I’m sure he’s going to miss it,” says his mother, Marjorie, 76, who sat in the front row at the finale. “You don’t leave 17 years of personal contact without feeling it.” But Williams, 51, a father of four who married Tara, 37, last October, prefers to look ahead: He says he’s doing well in his battle with multiple sclerosis and has plans to produce. Eventually, “politics is in my future,” he says. One thing he can be sure of? He’ll have no trouble dealing with the cameras.

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