Willard Scott, the ebullient former “Today” show weatherman, venerator of centenarians, pitchman extraordinaire and the original hamburger-hawking Ronald McDonald, died on Saturday, his successor on the morning show Al Roker said. He was 87.
Scott’s chatty, folksy manner covered up his lack of meteorological training during his time as American television’s most popular weatherman.
Roker tweeted that Scott died peacefully surrounded by family but released no further details. He described Scott as a broadcast icon.
Believing television weather forecasters needed to have some sort of shtick, Scott gave viewers a madcap, eager-to-please persona during a 35-year run on NBC’s “Today” that ended with his retirement on Dec. 15, 2015.
Scott was with NBC a total of 65 years.
His act was aided by a high threshold for embarrassment. He dressed as Cupid for one Valentine’s Day, came out of a manhole in a groundhog costume on Groundhog Day, had an on-the-air bar mitzvah (he was a Southern Baptist) and kissed a pig.
Most famously, he went on the air dressed as 1940s dancer Carmen Miranda – including dress, earrings, high heels and fruit-laden hat – to benefit a charity.
“People said I was a buffoon to do it,” Scott told the New York Times. “Well, all my life I’ve been a buffoon. That’s my act.”
At his peak popularity, Scott also was a well-paid, in-demand convention speaker and ubiquitous pitchman, promoting sodas and tea, oranges, cars, hotels, jelly, hardware and other products.
Scott was born and grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, a Washington suburb, and was a teenager when he took his first broadcast job as a page for an NBC station in Washington in 1950.
From Bozo to Ronald McDonald
While working in Washington TV and radio, Scott took a side job portraying Bozo the Clown on a children’s show, which led to another clown role that became one of the world’s best-known marketing characters.
A Washington-area McDonald’s franchise owner hired Scott in the early 1960s for ads for his restaurants as the first Ronald McDonald, the hamburger-loving clown. It was a crude costume – Scott wore a food box on his head and had a paper cup for a nose – but the people at McDonald’s headquarters liked it enough to take the character nationwide.
For the national ad campaign McDonald’s hired someone else to play Ronald, leaving Scott to think it was his size – he was 6-foot-3 and weighed close to 300 pounds at times – that cost him the job.
Scott’s success in Washington led to the weather job at “Today” in 1980 and his outsized personality, good ole boy demeanor and small-town values made him a fan favorite. Viewers sent him gifts and flocked to see him when he did the weather live from county fairs, parades and civic events around the country.
In 1983, Scott wished a happy 100th birthday to a woman on the air, starting a tradition that became one of the “Today” show’s most popular features. The show received hundreds of requests for 100th birthday shout-outs and Scott did them once a week on the show into 2015, long after he had turned over the full-time weather job. In all, he announced some 40,000 100th birthdays, NBC said.
Not everyone appreciated Scott’s on-air antics. In a 1989 internal memo that was leaked to the media, “Today” co-anchor Bryant Gumbel said Scott was holding the show “hostage to his assortment of whims, wishes, birthdays and bad taste.”
“This guy’s killing us and no one’s even trying to rein him in,” Gumbel wrote.
Scott was miffed but popular sentiment was on his side. More than 27,000 respondents to a USA Today phone-in poll said Scott was an asset to the show, with 854 saying he hurt it.
“I work because people know I love them,” Scott once told People magazine. “I also know that just the fact that I’m alive offends some people. I’m big, overpowering, flamboyant and loud … I might put my foot in my mouth five times out of six but the sixth time, I strike a chord and people respond.”
Scott, who wrote several books, also was a co-anchor of NBC’s coverage of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade from 1987 to 1997 and often appeared as Santa Claus at the White House.
Scott and his wife Mary were married from 1959 until her death in 2002 and had two daughters. Shortly after turning 80 in 2014, he married Paris Keena, whom he first met in 1977 at a Washington television station.