Willard Scott is a name synonymous with smile — the smile that he wore every time he was in front of a camera, and the smiles he’s put on millions of faces across an amazing career in radio and television.
Scott is an ebullient personality who’s almost larger than life. From his early days as Bozo the Clown (and creator of Ronald McDonald), to his years with the Today Show and several Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parades, to his still twice-a-week centennial birthday wishes on behalf of Smucker’s, Willard clearly qualifies as an American icon.
Each issue, “Take Five” poses five questions to a community personality that have not been shared in advance. Here, Willard Scott talks about his 60-plus years in entertainment and journalism, and his love of Sanibel.
You were probably America’s first celebrity weatherman — what was that like?
The only experience I had was reading weather on radio and I had the reputation of being somewhat of a clown. I was in Washington, D.C. at the time, and when an opening on a local channel came up for a weatherman, they put me on. I did a lot of silly things, dressed up as a groundhog and came out of a manhole cover in front of the White House, lots of silliness, and it worked! Tom Brokaw is a good friend of mine, he was also in D.C. as a White House correspondent before hosting the Today Show. The ratings were slipping, and he told them about me. That was 35 years ago. And of course, the centennial birthdays became such a big thing. I loved doing that and still do it twice a week, but this is my last year. I’m 81 years old, and it’s time to relax.
You were also the first Ronald McDonald.
You know, I was a real clown — Bozo the Clown, a syndicated show that lasted three or four years. I also worked for McDonald’s at the time doing appearances as Bozo, and they were big hits. So I said, let’s do our own clown, and they agreed, and it was gangbusters! I wanted to call him Donald, but they thought otherwise. Of course, Ronald remains a great spokesperson for them all over the world.
Across your career, is there a moment that stands out?
Definitely. One Easter week, we did the Today Show from Rome and five of us got to meet Pope John Paul. Now this is funny; I’m not a Catholic, and when the Pope came to me and shook my hand, he said in his broken English: “You’re the Baptist from Virginia.” Obviously, he had done his homework. Yes, I’ve had opportunities to meet many gracious, wonderful people.
What brought you to Southwest Florida and how much do you love it here?
We have a home in the mountains in Virginia, and I married a gal with a home in Connecticut, but oh my, we love it here on Sanibel. I first came here in 1972 at the suggestion of a neighbor, and I don’t think we’ve ever missed a year.
Who do you want wishing you a happy one-hundredth birthday?