Willard Scott, the portly, toupee-sporting TV personality who spent 35 years enlivening the “Today” show as its weatherman and resident merrymaker, whether delivering the forecast dressed in drag or giving shout-outs to far-flung centenarians, died Sept. 4. He was 87.
The death was announced by NBC’s “Today” show, via a statement by Scott’s successor, Al Roker. Complete details were not immediately available.
Scott first made his name as an irrepressible comedian of Washington radio trading in shtick and satire as half of “The Joy Boys.” On local TV, he was the original Ronald McDonald – the hamburger chain went with a thinner actor for the bulb-nosed clown mascot in the national campaign – and had stints as a weather forecaster and Bozo the Clown.
In a broadcasting career spanning six decades, he was best known for his role on “Today,” the popular NBC weekday morning program. He debuted in 1980 and immediately made his presence known, draping his 6-foot-3 frame in outrageous costumes. He once dressed up as Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian entertainer known for her outré fruit-covered hats and garish dresses. On Groundhog Day, he appeared as the rodent.
His tomfoolery drew private scorn from “Today” show contemporaries and predecessors such as Hugh Downs, but Scott was unapologetic. “People said I was a buffoon to do it,” he told the New York Times. “Well, all my life I’ve been a buffoon. That’s my act.”
The centenarian segment began soon after he joined the show, when a friend asked Scott to wish a happy 100th birthday, live and in color, to his uncle. NBC bosses didn’t like the idea, but Scott went ahead with it. He was soon fielding about 200 requests a week.
Before his first year on “Today” was out, the Los Angeles Times called him a “big friendly man who’s become a national folk hero.” When “Today” went on the road, as it often did, Scott was routinely besieged by well-wishers and autograph seekers. Just as routinely, he kissed babies and pressed the flesh.
With his sunny disposition and jovial personality, he became a favorite of Madison Avenue and the lecture circuit. He reaped a small fortune giving upbeat talks to trade associations and promoting products from Diet Coke to Florida oranges.
He once described himself as a “human after-dinner mint” compared with the more polished anchors on the show, including Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley, who liked to conduct serious-minded sit-downs with world figures.
Unlike viewers who embraced Scott’s sincerity and warmth, his co-hosts did not find him refreshing. Pauley once publicly called him “an alien being,” and he endured an embarrassing public scrap with Gumbel.
In 1989, when “Today” had slipped behind ABC’s “Good Morning America” in the ratings for the first time, Gumbel wrote a stinging memorandum to his bosses. It was soon leaked to media outlets.
In the memo, Gumbel savaged Scott for holding “the show hostage to his assortment of whims, wishes, birthdays and bad taste. This guy is killing us and no one’s even trying to rein him in.” (Gumbel, widely regarded by colleagues as distant and haughty, issued scathing comments about other “Today” personnel, including film critic Gene Shalit, noting that his reviews “are often late and his interviews aren’t very good.”)
NBC brass insisted that Scott and Gumbel make up, and they soon did, at least publicly. Scott, who told a reporter that the memo “cut like a knife,” had the last laugh. The weatherman was soon earning $1 million a year from NBC, even though he was seldom on the air for more than three minutes an hour. And a call-in poll in USA Today, taken soon after the hubbub developed, reported that 27,300 people thought Scott’s weather segments helped the show. Only 854 took an unfavorable view of him.
Scott professed to being a country boy at heart, and he was the first to acknowledge that his on-air style was hokey. He liked to joke that, in him, NBC had finally found a successor to J. Fred Muggs, the chimpanzee who was a mainstay on “Today” in the 1950s.
“If you watch, you’ll see that I am trying to weave a web of love,” he told a Time magazine interviewer in 1980. “I want to make the whole country feel as if we are one. I may be a cornball, but I am me – not a sophisticated, slick New York wazoo act.”
Willard Herman Scott Jr. was born in Alexandria, Va., on March 7, 1934. His father was an insurance salesman. His mother worked as a telephone operator and became a homemaker when her only child was born.
Scott was raised and remained a fundamentalist Christian. He seriously considered becoming a minister before a series of right-place-right-time breaks vaulted him into Washington radio.
In his youth, Scott organized a radio club on his block. As a teenager, he spent time at local station WPIK on Friday nights. An announcer befriended him and allowed him to launch a high school show called “Lady Make Believe,” for which Scott was the announcer.
The success of that program led swiftly to three other youth-oriented shows on local stations. Meanwhile, he studied religion and philosophy at American University, where he graduated in 1955. He later served in the Navy.
He met Ed Walker, a fellow student, at the AU campus radio station, and they developed a comedy show that became “The Joy Boys.” They had a long tenure at WRC, an NBC-owned radio station, and in one skit mocked NBC’s flagship news program, “The Huntley-Brinkley Report,” as “The Washer-Dryer Report.” They also invented a bogus soap opera, “As the Worm Turns.”
Their satirical program moved in 1972 to WWDC-AM but was soon canceled as the station switched to a rock music format. Walker died in 2015.
Scott thrived as a Washington personality, doing product pitches, popping up at ribbon-cutting ceremonies and appearing as a fill-in weatherman on WRC-TV in 1967, when the incumbent suddenly walked off the job. He was doing the job full time when “Today” beckoned.
He went into semiretirement in 1996 and retired fully in 2015. His final show drew a chorus of good-natured protests, including a message from former first lady Barbara Bush.
His wife of 43 years, the former Mary Dwyer, died in 2002. Survivors include his second wife, the former Paris Keena, a onetime producer at WRC whom he married in 2014; and two daughters from his first marriage, Mary Phillips and Sally Scott.
“If you were to look at my resume,” Scott wrote in his 1982 autobiography, “The Joy of Living,” “you’d see that I’m . . . bald, I’m overweight, I don’t make all the smooth moves, and I dress like a slob.
“I take tremendous pride,” he added, “in the fact that I beat the system.”