It’s a little sad that he didn’t live to be a hundred. I’m sure I’m far from the only person to have this thought. He himself told the story of the woman in her twenties who once saw him in an airport and yelled, “Hey, Willard, will you report on my hundredth birthday?” To which he responded, “Sure, if you live that long!” He started the tradition in 1983, and for many of us, that’s how we remember him. I, for one, genuinely do not remember his ever reporting on the weather—well, when my mom was still watching The Today Show, I was more interested in local weather. But centenaries? Those, we remember.
Still, it was not an unproductive 87 years. By sixteen, he was already working as a page in a radio station, having worked out early what he wanted to do with his life. In 1955, he started appearing on a show called The Joy Boys, which would run until 1974, interrupted only by Scott’s two-year stint in the Navy. He was friends with cohost Ed Walker until Walker did a few years ago and said they were closer than brothers. Still, even that wasn’t all he did of note.
In the 1960s, he started doing children’s TV. He was, for a while, the Washington, DC, version of Bozo the Clown; he also played a character called “Captain Retro” that I definitely want more details about. The local McDonald’s franchise saw him as Bozo and asked him to create a clown to help sell their food. This made him the first Ronald McDonald. Contrary to what some have said, he wasn’t replaced because of his weight. He himself said that he stopped doing the job because he was extremely busy.
In 1970, he started working as weatherman for WRC-TV, an NBC affiliate. Presumably it was this job, possibly combined with his work on NASA’s The Space Story, that made the network executives tap him to replace Bob Ryan. Who, strangely, went on to replace Scott at WRC. I don’t know what the deal is there. Anyway, Scott worked steadily on the show until 1996, when he semi-retired. He continued to do the birthdays and would occasionally do the weather report until his full retirement in 2015.
I think Bryant Gumbel’s problem was that he somehow managed to be on a show for fifteen years without realizing what kind of show it was. The Today Show is not hard journalism. Yes, the show gave a lot of airtime to Scott’s clowning around, but really, it was a morning show. The television equivalent of “the zoo crew,” that much-parodied morning drive time radio programming. If there was a lot of goofing around, well, that’s the nature of the programming. At least Willard Scott seems to have been better than, let’s say, at least one other person who spent a long time on The Today Show.