Only three days earlier, the man with the golden voice had been panhandling along an Ohio highway, bearing a ragged cardboard sign that touted his “God-given” gift.
Millions of YouTube views, many job offers, and one hastily-arranged plane flight later, Ted Williams was opening Thursday’s TODAY show in New York, displaying the mellifluous vocal talent that had taken him to a major career in radio before drugs and alcohol dragged him down into a life of petty crime and living in shelters — until a chance meeting with a local reporter made him an overnight sensation.
Clearly still trying to comprehend his stunning reversal of fortune, Williams revealed his riches-to-rags-to-redemption story to anchors Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira. “It’s outrageous, it’s just phenomenal,” the 53-year-old Williams said. “There’s no way in the world I could ever have imagined to have all of this, all of the sudden, just come into this portion of my life.”
‘Fallen on hard times’
Williams’ stroke of good fortune came late last month when, while begging for money from passing motorists off Interstate 71 in Columbus, he caught the eye of Doral Chenowerth III, a videographer for the Columbus Dispatch. Chenowerth was intrigued by Williams’s sign that read “I’m an ex-radio announcer who has fallen on hard times” and asked for a sample. Williams smiled and responded with a silky voiceover that could have come straight from a major-market AM station.
The Dispatch posted a video of Williams on its website, and then the power of the Internet came into play: The video went viral on YouTube, garnering nearly 12 million views as of Thursday morning. Williams went on local radio to tell his story, and then the job offers began pouring in.
The Cleveland Cavaliers of the National Basketball Association offered him an announcing job, and the National Football League’s film production office also sought him out. “My boss said to me, ‘If you don’t get him hired, you’re fired,’ ” NFL Films’ Kevin McLoughlin told the Dispatch. Local TV offers followed, and the Ohio Credit Union League put a $10,000 offer for voiceover work on the table.
But Williams seemed even more amazed about being flown to his native New York City for his TODAY appearance — though he quickly learned that for a homeless man, getting on a plane isn’t a simple matter.
“We had to go downtown and get a proof of residency,” he told Lauer and Vieira. “I had to go to a couple of homeless shelters to get that filled, and then I had to get a court injunction to prove who I was, because I didn’t have an ID, nothing.”
A colorful life
His formerly unkempt hair now tamed to a stylish coif, Williams told the TODAY anchors his tale. He was born and raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn and fell in love with radio as a teen after visiting a station where an announcer told him that the medium was “theater of mind.” He went to school for training and got on-air work.
The last time he’d been in New York, he revealed, was in 1986, watching the New Year’s Eve ball-drop in Times Square with his then-girlfriend. “I was doing fairly well then; I was working in radio,” he said.
He led a colorful life, fathering nine children — seven girls and two boys — but also succumbed to what he says was a long predisposition for drugs and alcohol. He said he drank a fifth of liquor a day while continuing to work.
“Alcohol had always been a part of my life; I did have an alcohol problem at an early age,” Williams said. But it wasn’t until he added drugs to the mix in 1993 that his radio career came to an end. “I started snorting cocaine and then I started smoking it; the crack and all of that,” he explained.
Williams wound up on the streets and skipping around homeless shelters in Columbus, the city of his last gainful employment. His mother tried to help him, as did his children; they would take him in, only to find him too hard to handle. “During my detox stages, I had a tendency to eat up everybody’s food,” Williams told the Associated Press. “I’m a grandfather, too, and I was eating what should have gone to their kids.”
To fuel his drug habit, Williams turned to crime: Website The Smoking Gun reported Williams’ arrest record includes robbery, theft, forgery and drug possession. He told Lauer and Vieira his arrests were “all thefts and fraud type things, no violent crime at all,” and that the criminal activity “was to just afford the drug habit.”
Mom and media
Lauer noted that despite Williams’s rough 17 years on the street, “there is this civility to you, this kindness, this grace about you.” Williams chalked it up to his upbringing: “My mom had raised me that way, to treat people the way you would want them to treat you; the Golden Rule, as she always put it.”
Williams broke down in tears as he spoke about his now 90-year-old mother, still alive in New York City, whom he hoped to meet again. “I always used to pray to God, “Lord, let my mom live to see another year; maybe this will be the year that somebody will say, ‘Hey man, do you want a job?’ ”
Despite the crack, the alcohol, and the many years on the streets, Williams retains his golden voice, and gave thanks for it. “I always said, ‘God, you’ve never seen fit to take my voice in spite of all the flames and everything that went down my throat.’ The voice still maintains some type of resonance.”
That may be an understatement. Media outlets, sports teams and product companies are so enamored with Williams’ vocal talent and dramatic story that he is fielding offers right and left. For one: “The fine people at Kraft Macaroni and Cheese have offered me to be their official voice of their product, so when I leave here today I will be doing some voices for the fine people at Kraft.”
And speaking later on TODAY with Ann Curry and Al Roker, Williams listed even more engagements that have come flooding in: voiceover spots for Ryan Seacrest’s radio show and TV’s “Access Hollywood”; a Thursday appearance on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” and an offer of an all-expense paid trip to Honolulu to do voiceover work for a radio station there.
The thrill of it all was so intense for Williams that he was glad to have happened to meet psychologist Dale Atkins backstage, who was appearing on another segment of TODAY Thursday. “She gave me this little exercise of breathing,” Williams told Curry and Roker. “I told her, ‘This is so crazy, being the recovering alcoholic and addict that I am.’ She says, ‘Meditate before medicate,’ because I told her I could use a nerve pill right now.”
Roker read Williams a statement from his mother, whom he hadn’t seen in 20 years: “This will be my day to see my son get up and help himself ... he came from a nice family and then he went poor-poor. Let him see that there’s more to life than hanging around with the wrong crowd and taking drugs.” Williams smiled and said, “That sounds like Mom.”
Clearly still stunned, he added, “It’s just outrageous how this has all come to be. I thought God blessed in increments, and he just gave me one big deluge of blessings. I feel like a million-dollar lottery winner, or Dorothy landing in Oz, or Susan Boyle; she must have felt the same way.”
Williams also gave thanks to his higher power in his earlier segment with Lauer and Vieira: “The difference between my successes of years gone by is that I didn’t acknowledge the Lord or thank him for anything before,” he told them. “This time around, I have God in my life, acknowledging him on a daily basis. I’ve found a new sense of spirituality now.”