Mr. Scott, who played both Bozo the Clown and the original Ronald McDonald on television, was a longtime weather forecaster on the “Today” show who emphasized showmanship over science.
Willard Scott in 1980, when he was hired to help NBC
Willard Scott, the antic longtime weather forecaster on the “Today” show, whose work, by his own cheerful acknowledgment, made it clear that you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, died on Saturday at his farm in Delaplane, Va. He was 87.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Paris Keena Scott. She did not specify a cause, saying only that he had died after a brief illness.
Mr. Scott, who had earlier played both Bozo the Clown and the original Ronald McDonald on television, was among the first of a generation of television weathermen who stressed showmanship over science. Throughout the late 20th century, he was also a ubiquitous television pitchman.
A garrulous, gaptoothed, boutonnière-wearing, funny-hatted, sometimes toupee-clad, larger-than-life American Everyman (in his prime, he stood 6-foot-3 and weighed nearly 300 pounds), Mr. Scott was hired in 1980 to help NBC’s “Today” compete with its chief rival, ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Joining “Today” that March, Mr. Scott went on to sport a string of outré outfits, spout a cornucopia of cornpone humor and wish happy birthday to a spate of American centenarians, all while talking about the forecast every so often, until his retirement in 2015.
Though he was meant to represent the new, late-model television weatherman, Mr. Scott brought to the job a brand of shtick that harked back to earlier times. He seemed simultaneously to embody the jovial, backslapping Rotarian of the mid-20th century, the midway barker of the 19th and, in the opinion of at least some critics, the court jester of the Middle Ages.
There was the time, for instance, that he delivered the forecast dressed as Boy George. There was the time he did so dressed as Carmen Miranda, the “Brazilian bombshell” of an earlier era, dancing before the weather map in high heels, ruffled pink gown, copious jewelry and vast fruited hat. There was the time, reporting from an outdoor event, that he kissed a pig on camera.
The pig did not take kindly to being kissed and squealed mightily.
Mr. Scott, who began his career in radio before becoming a weatherman at WRC-TV, an NBC affiliate in Washington, had no background in meteorology or any allied science. But as he readily acknowledged, the weatherman’s job as reconstructed for the postmodern age did not require any.
“A trained gorilla could do it,” Mr. Scott said in 1975, while he was at WRC.
The only scientific asset one actually needed, he pointed out, was the telephone number of the National Weather Service.
In more than three decades with “Today,” Mr. Scott traversed the country, delivering the weather on location at county fairs, town parades and quaint byways across America, as well as from NBC’s studios in New York.
A frequent guest on late-night TV, he was a spokesman for a range of charitable causes and a commercial pitchman with wide television exposure — too wide, some critics maintained.
The concerns he endorsed included Howard Johnson Motor Lodges, True Value Hardware, Burger King, Lipton tea, Maxwell House coffee, the American Dairy Association, the Florida Citrus Commission, Diet Coke, USA Today and many others.
“A huckster for all seasons,” The New York Times called him in 1987.
Mr. Scott’s onscreen persona — by his own account little different from his offscreen persona — divided viewers. Some adored him, inundating him with gifts, which he might display on the air. (Among them, the 1987 article in The Times reported, was “an airplane built out of Diet Coke cans.”)
In January 1989, the country’s new first lady, Barbara Bush, broke ranks from the inaugural parade for her husband, George H.W. Bush, to dart over to Mr. Scott, broadcasting from the sidelines, and plant an impromptu kiss on his cheek.
“I don’t know Willard Scott,” Mrs. Bush explained afterward. “I just love that face.”
Then again, as The Boston Globe reported in 1975, there was this incident, from Mr. Scott’s days at WRC: “He was pushing a shopping cart in a Virginia supermarket recently when a little old lady charged by and smacked him with her umbrella. ‘I can’t stand you,’ she said.”
The son of Willard Herman Scott, an insurance salesman, and Thelma (Phillips) Scott, a telephone operator, Willard Herman Scott Jr. was born on March 7, 1934, in Alexandria, Va.
He was smitten with broadcasting from the time he was a boy, and at 16 he became a $12-a-week page at WRC-TV. After he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religion from American University, Mr. Scott and a classmate, Ed Walker, took to the Washington airwaves with a comic radio show, “The Joy Boys.”
With time out from 1956 to 1958 for Mr. Scott’s Navy service, “The Joy Boys” was broadcast on WRC-AM from 1955 to 1972 and on WWDC-AM in Washington from 1972 to 1974. Featuring humorous improvisation and topical satire, it won a large following.
From 1952 to 1962, Mr. Scott also played the title character on “Bozo the Clown,” the WRC-TV version of a syndicated children’s show. In the early ’60s, on the strength of his Bozo, McDonald’s asked him to develop a clown character to be used in its advertising.
As Ronald McDonald, Mr. Scott did several local TV commercials for the franchise but was passed over — in consequence of his corpulence, he later said — as its national representative.
In 1967, he started doing the weather on WRC-TV. There, his exploits included emerging from a manhole one Groundhog Day dressed as an astoundingly large groundhog.
When Mr. Scott was hired by “Today,” he supplanted the meteorologist Bob Ryan, who was fired to make way for him. Mr. Ryan, who held a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s in atmospheric science, had previously worked as a cloud physicist.
Mr. Scott’s early weeks at “Today,” he later recalled, were “touch and go.”
But by 1987, The Times reported, “his tenure there” was “credited with helping to catapult the show past ‘Good Morning America’ into first place in the breakfast-time sweepstakes.”
Not all of Mr. Scott’s colleagues approved of his modus operandi. In 1988, Bryant Gumbel, a co-host of “Today,” wrote a confidential memorandum to an NBC executive in which he castigated the work of several colleagues, notably Mr. Scott.
The memo, leaked to New York Newsday the next year, charged that Mr. Scott “holds the show hostage to his assortment of whims, wishes, birthdays and bad taste.”
Though Mr. Scott publicly forgave Mr. Gumbel, giving him a conciliatory kiss on the cheek on a “Today” segment soon afterward, he said elsewhere that the memo had “cut like a knife.”
With NBC colleagues, Mr. Scott shared three Daytime Emmys in the 1990s for coverage of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. He went into semiretirement in 1996, ceding regular forecasting to Al Roker while continuing to deliver birthday tributes.
Mr. Scott’s first wife, Mary (Dwyer) Scott, whom he married in 1959, died in 2002. He married Paris Keena Scott, his second wife, in 2014. In addition to her, he is survived by two daughters from his first marriage, Sally Scott Swiatek and Mare Scott, and two grandchildren.
Mr. Scott was the author of several books, including “Willard Scott’s Down Home Stories” (1984) and “Willard Scott’s All-American Cookbook” (1986).
For all its burlesque jocularity, Mr. Scott asserted, his job was no less taxing as a result.
“Everything I do looks like it just falls into place,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1988. “Part of what I do is make it fall into place. You have to work at being a buffoon.”
Originally known as half of the “Joy Boys,” Mr. Scott made his name as an irrepressible radio comedian in Washington, D.C., who traded in schtick and satire. On local television, he was the first Ronald McDonald — the hamburger chain later replaced the bulb-nosed clown mascot with a thinner actor for the national campaign — and also worked as a weather forecaster and as Bozo the Clown, among other roles.
Over the course of his six-decade broadcasting career, he was best known for his role on “Today,” the popular NBC weekday morning show. He made his stage debut in 1980 and immediately made his presence known by donning outrageous costumes to fit his 6-foot-3 frame. In the past, he has dressed up as Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian entertainer who is known for her outré fruit-covered hats and outrageous dresses. On Groundhog Day, he took on the role of the rodent.
Hugh Downs and other “Today” show colleagues and predecessors, including Mr. Scott, were privately amused by his antics, but Mr. Scott remained unapologetic. “People thought I was a complete moron for doing it,” he told the New York Times. “Well, I’ve been a buffoon for the majority of my life. That is my performance.”
After a friend approached Mr. Scott about wishing his uncle a happy 100th birthday live and in color, the centenarian segment got underway shortly after he began working on the show. Mr. Scott went ahead with the plan despite the opposition of NBC executives. He soon found himself dealing with approximately 200 requests per week.
He was dubbed a “big friendly man who has become a national folk hero” by the Los Angeles Times before he had even completed his first year on “Today.” When “Today” went on the road, which it did frequently, Mr. Scott was routinely surrounded by well-wishers and people looking for autographs. He kissed babies and pressed the flesh on a regular basis, as well.
Because of his sunny disposition and jovial personality, he quickly became a favorite on Madison Avenue and on the lecture circuit, where he still appears today. Providing upbeat speeches to trade associations and promoting products ranging from Diet Coke to Florida oranges brought in a small fortune for him.
He once described himself as a “human after-dinner mint” when compared to the more polished anchors on the show, such as Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley, who preferred to conduct serious-minded sit-downs with world figures, such as President Barack Obama.
His co-hosts, on the other hand, did not find him to be a breath of fresh air, in contrast to the audience, who appreciated his sincerity and warmth. Pauley once publicly referred to him as “an alien being,” and he was embarrassment to Gumbel in a public fight that he had to endure.
When “Today” began to lag behind ABC’s “Good Morning America” in the ratings for the first time in 1989, Gumbel sent a stinging memorandum to his superiors at the network. It was quickly leaked to various media outlets.
Gumbel slammed Mr. Scott in the memo, accusing him of “holding the show hostage to his assortment of whims, wishes, birthdays, and bad taste.” This individual is causing us great harm, and no one is even attempting to restrain him.” (“Today” host Bryant Gumbel, widely regarded by colleagues as distant and haughty, made disparaging remarks about other “Today” show personnel, including film critic Gene Shalit, noting that his reviews “are frequently late and his interviews aren’t very good.”)
NBC executives insisted that Mr. Scott and Gumbel reconcile, and they did so relatively quickly, at least publicly. It was Mr. Scott who had the last laugh after telling a reporter that the memo “cut like a knife.” In no time, the weatherman was earning a salary of $1 million per year from NBC, despite the fact that he was rarely on the air for more than three minutes per hour. In addition, a call-in poll published in USA Today, conducted shortly after the uproar erupted, revealed that 27,300 people believed Mr. Scott’s weather segments were beneficial to the show. Only 854 people had a negative opinion of him, according to the poll.
In his own words, Mr. Scott professed to be a “country boy at heart,” and he was the first to admit that his on-air persona was a little cheesy. As he liked to joke, NBC had finally found a worthy successor to J. Fred Muggs, the chimpanzee who was a mainstay on “Today” in the 1950s and 1960s.
“If you pay attention, you will notice that I am attempting to weave a web of love,” he told an interviewer for Time magazine in 1980. “I want the entire country to feel as if we are one united front. It’s possible that I’m a complete moron, but I’m still me — not some sophisticated, slick New York wazoo act.”
Willard Herman Scott Jr. was born on March 7, 1934, in Alexandria, Virginia, to Willard Herman Scott Sr. and Mary Scott. His father worked in the insurance industry. His mother worked as a telephone operator before becoming a stay-at-home mother after the birth of her only child.
Mr. Scott was raised as a fundamentalist Christian, and he has maintained that belief to this day. He seriously considered becoming a minister before a series of serendipitous events thrust him into the world of public radio in Washington, DC.
Mr. Scott was a member of a radio club on his block when he was younger. On Friday nights, when he was a teenager, he worked at the local radio station WPIK. Mr. Scott became friends with an announcer, who then allowed him to help launch a high school show called “Lady Make Believe,” for which Mr. Scott served as the announcer.
Following the success of that program, three additional youth-oriented shows were broadcast on local radio stations. In the meantime, he attended American University, where he received his bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy in 1955. He went on to serve in the Navy after that.
At the AU campus radio station, he met Ed Walker, a fellow student, and the two of them collaborated on a comedy show that became known as “The Joy Boys.” In one skit, they referred to NBC’s flagship news program, “The Huntley-Brinkley Report,” as “The Washer-Dryer Report.” They worked for a long time at WRC, which was owned by NBC, and were well-known for their work there. They also created a fictitious soap opera called “As the Worm Turns.”
Their satirical program was moved to WWDC-AM in 1972, but it was quickly canceled when the station switched to a rock music format in 1973. Walker passed away in 2015.
Mr. Scott made a name for himself as a television personality in Washington, making product pitches, appearing at ribbon-cutting ceremonies, and filling in as a weatherman on WRC-TV in 1967 when the incumbent abruptly resigned. When the phone rang, he was in the middle of his day-to-day work.
In 1996, he went into semi-retirement and was replaced by Al Roker on the show. Mr. Scott officially retired in 2015. In the wake of his final performance, there was 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 after a battle with cancer. There are two daughters from his first marriage, Mare Scott and Sally Swiatek, and two grandchildren left to mourn his passing. His second wife, the former Paris Keena, was a former producer at WRC who he married in 2014; and two grandchildren.
The following is an excerpt from Mr. Scott’s 1982 autobiography, “The Joy of Living.” “If you were to look at my resume,” he wrote in his 1982 autobiography, “The Joy of Living,” “you would 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 in the fact that I was able to beat the system,” he continued.