Original publish date: September 11, 2015
Ten days before Christmas Willard Scott announced his retirement after a 65 year career. Yes, SIXTY-FIVE years! To be perfectly honest, I thought he retired decades ago but that probably says more about me than it does the indefatigable Mr. Scott. So, what’s the big deal about a TV weatherman retiring you ask? Well, not only was Willard Scott the weatherman for The Today Show for 35 years, he was Bozo the clown from 1959 to 1962 and he created the very first Ronald McDonald in 1963.
Scott was born in Alexandria, Virginia, on March 7, 1934. He began his career as a 16-year-old, working in 1950 as an NBC page at WRC-AM, NBC’s owned-and-operated radio station in Washington, D.C. Scott attended American University, where he met Ed Walker at the school’s radio station. From 1955 to 1972, Scott and Walker formed the Joy Boys show on WRC-AM Radio. For nearly two decades, the Joy Boys were DC’s version of the Bob & Tom show. From Ike to JFK to LBJ to Nixon, everyone listened to the Joy Boys. Scott spent his spare time balancing his night-time radio career with a daytime job as the host of WRC children’s television programs playing characters such as Commander Retro and Bozo the Clown.
From August 1959 to August 1962 Scott portrayed Bozo the Clown at WRC. When the TV station dropped the Bozo character, Scott wanted to keep his clown gig going. Willard thought that a clown bearing hamburgers would be irresistible to children. So he morphed his Bozo character into a clown he named Ronald McDonald for two locally owned DC area McDonald’s franchises. In 1963, he appeared in 3 DC area TV commercials using the catch phrase, “Ronald McDonald, the Hamburger-Happy Clown.” Scott’s character wore a a red and yellow striped suit, could magically pull as many as 3 hamburgers at a time out of his belt, and wears a nose made out of a McDonald’s cup. His hat, made of a tray holding a Styrofoam hamburger, a bag of fries and a milkshake, covered a shock of spaghetti-like hair .
Even though Willard Scott’s original Ronald more closely resembled a scarecrow than a clown, Ray Kroc liked the idea. So, in typical “Kroc-style”, he usurped the idea and hired another actor to portray the hamburger clown for his own national commercials. Scott wasn’t selected as spokesclown for the company’s ads because the agency thought Willard was too fat for the role of an “extremely active” Ronald McDonald. In time, Willard Scott’s brainchild would become one of the world’s best-known advertising icons. But Willard never missed a beat.
In 1970, Scott began appearing on WRC-TV as a weekday weatherman. In 1980, NBC asked Willard to become its weatherman for The Today Show. He soon became the archetype of all “wacky” weathermen to follow. Scott routinely did weather reports on the road, interviewing locals at community festivals and landmarks, a forerunner of today’s weather channel programming. NBC executives once insisted that the bald-headed Scott wear a hairpiece. He complied when in New York, but refused when outside of the studio, resulting in a strange dichotomy on the air. His toupee occasionally tilted or fell off on the air, ensuring Scott an eternal place in the TV blooper hall of fame.
In 1989, an internal memo from Today Show co-host Bryant Gumbel was leaked to the media. In the memo, Gumbel said Scott “holds 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.” The public backlash against Gumbel, battling a difficult and aloof label already, became a media firestorm. The next time they appeared on camera together Scott kissed Gumbel on the cheek to show he’d forgiven him, and also later said he hoped the whole thing would go away. One thing was certain, Willard, like the Ronald McDonald character he created, would change but not go away.
As Willard became the face of NBC Today Show weather, Ronald McDonald became the primary mascot of the McDonald’s fast-food restaurant chain. According to one survey found on stunning-stuff.com, 96% of all schoolchildren in the United States recognize Ronald. The character and costume evolved drastically over the years and continues to be a cornerstone of the McDonald’s corporation marketing campaigns to this day. Ray Kroc’s Ronald ditched the food tray hat and cup nose in favor of a painted white face and a bright red wig. He is dressed in yellow clothes, red and white striped shirt, yellow gloves, and red clown shoes with yellow laces to mirror the official McDonald’s colors.
In television commercials of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Ronald inhabited a fantasy world called McDonaldland where he had adventures with friends Mayor McCheese, the Hamburglar, Grimace, Birdie the Early Bird, and The Fry Kids. In recent years, McDonaldland has been largely phased out, and Ronald is portrayed interacting with families in their everyday lives.
In 1971, Ronald got a major makeover that found him wearing a yellow jumpsuit, red and white striped shirt and legs, yellow gloves, red shoes, red hair, whiteface makeup and a big red smile. The suit had three french fry bags for pockets, all of which read “McDonald’s”. That look would last for more than 40 years with only a few subtle changes to his hair style, sleeve length and pocket design. In 1998 the french fry pockets on Ronald’s jumpsuit were replaced with red seamed pockets, the stripes on the shirt became thicker, and the back of the suit featured the name “Ronald” like a sports jersey (the name would be removed by 2000).
In early 2014, Ronald’s jumpsuit was dropped in favor of a more athletic looking costume of yellow cargo pants, a vest and a red-and-white striped rugby shirt. His classic clown shoes remain part of the official uniform. The new look was designed to more favorably appeal to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Over the decades, Willard’s Hamburger-Happy clown has been played by at least ten different actors, whose names are recalled by only the most fervent of Ronald McDonald fans. Today, many people work full-time making appearances in the Ronald McDonald costume, visiting children in hospitals, attending restaurant grand openings and charity events.
From the late 1980s until the early 1990s, Scott served as spokesperson alongside Pat Summerall for True Value Hardware Stores. In 1992, Scott ironically recorded a TV commercial for McDonald’s arch-rival Burger King. (Take that Ray Kroc!) Scott left his daily gig as The Today Show weatherman in 1996 and was succeeded by Al Roker. Willard continued to substitute for Roker for the next decade until NBC acquired The Weather Channel in 2009. Weather channel meteorologists served as substitutes but Willard continued to appear twice a week on the morning program to wish centenarians a happy birthday. He remains the commercial voice of Smucker’s jellies, which sponsors his birthday tributes on Today.
True, to most, Willard Scott was that annoying weather guy on The Today Show endlessly wishing old folks well on their 100th birthday. In fact, Willard Scott himself once said, “I got more mail than anybody in the history of The Today Show, but half of it was to get me off the air.” But now you know, despite his NFL lineman size, there’s more than meets the eye when you’re talking about Willard Scott. Well, I guess you really can’t judge a book by the cover.