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Willard Scott, the clown prince of weathermen and patron saint of centenarians who spent 65 years at NBC, the last 35 of those as a regular on the Today show, has died. He was 87.
The good-natured Scott, a favorite son of the Washington area who created and portrayed the original Ronald McDonald, died Saturday, current Today weatherman Al Roker said.
“We lost a beloved member of our @todayshow family this morning,” Roker shared on Instagram. “Willard Scott passed peacefully at the age of 87 surrounded by family, including his daughters Sally and Mary and his lovely wife, Paris. He was truly my second dad and am where I am today because of his generous spirit. Willard was a man of his times, the ultimate broadcaster. There will never be anyone quite like him.”
Scott announced his retirement from the Today show in December 2015 but still appeared periodically to wish a fond “Happy Birthday” to those viewers who had turned 100 (and more), continuing a triple-digit tradition that he began in 1983.
In 1980, when ABC’s Good Morning America was besting the Today show in the ratings for the first time in almost three decades, NBC News president William Small retaliated by hiring the gap-toothed, overweight Scott to replace weatherman Bob Ryan. He joined Tom Brokaw and Jane Pauley on the broadcast.
Scott, 6-foot-3 and at times approaching 300 pounds, had spent the previous 13 years as the folksy weather guy at WRC-TV, NBC’s station in D.C. Audiences in the nation’s capital saw Scott appear on camera taking a bath, emerge from a manhole on Groundhog Day and wear only a barrel to remind viewers that it was Tax Day.
On the Today show, he came on the air clad in a dress, large earnings, platform shoes and a fruit-topped hat a la singer Carmen Miranda; he also was made up as Boy George and Cupid (for Valentine’s Day). On The Tonight Show, he removed his toupee and showed Jay Leno his bald head.
It didn’t matter that Scott was not really an expert on the weather. A People magazine story in 1980 noted that his reports were prepared by two professional meteorologists.
“I became a household word,” Willard said in 1989, “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.”
An only child, Scott was born on March 7, 1934, in Alexandria, Virginia. His mother was a telephone operator and his father a life insurance salesman. At age 8, he had his own radio station (in the basement of the family home) that actually sold ads, and by 1950 he had landed a job as a page at WRC for $12 a week.
While attending D.C.’s American University, where he would earn degrees in philosophy and religion, Scott began a comedy radio show with a blind classmate, Ed Walker; they billed themselves as The Joy Boys and performed locally for nearly two decades.
In 1955, Scott made his TV debut as a host on the show Afternoon, also featuring a teenage Jim Henson and the Muppets, then played Bozo the Clown five days a week on another show starting in 1959. As the famous clown, he appeared in commercials for the first McDonald’s in the area.
“When Bozo went off the air,” he wrote in his 1983 book The Joy of Living, “the local McDonald’s people asked me to come up with a new character to take Bozo’s place. So I sat down and created Ronald McDonald.”
As Ronald, he sported a paper cup on his nose and a cardboard carry-out tray on his head during commercials. When McDonald’s introduced the character to a nationwide audience, it chose a clown from the Ringling Brothers circus to play Ronald, and Scott was very disappointed.
Scott served as the Today show’s No. 1 weatherman until he stepped aside for Roker in 1996. In the years since, he really endeared himself to viewers of all ages with his salutes (sponsored by Smucker’s) to centenarians.
Here’s how one segment went in 2014: “Millie, I love you, you are so sweet. Millie Kuperman is from Staten Island, New York, and she is 101 years old today. She loves to play the piano. I bet she knows all the old songs. … This is Knut Einarsen, and he is from Kenmore, Washington state. He’s 100 years old today, and you know something? He can drink two pots of coffee every single day!”
Survivors include his wife, Paris, whom he wed in 2014, and the two daughters from his first marriage to Mary Dwyer Scott; they were married from 1959 until her death in 2002.
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