Willard Scott, TV’s Clown Prince of Sun and Showers, Is Dead at 87
Willard Scott, the antic longtime weather forecaster on the “Today” show, whose work, by his own cheerful acknowledgment, made it clear that you …
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, Sally Marie Swiatek and John Willard Swiatek.
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.”
Michael Levenson contributed reporting.