In mid-October, a homeless man was standing at the intersection of Hudson Street and Interstate 71 in Columbus, Ohio. A sign around his neck proclaimed that he had a "gift of voice" and had "fallen on hard times."
The man was spotted by a videographer for the Columbus Dispatch who conducted a couple of brief interviews, gave him a few bucks, and finally posted the video on the newspaper's website on Jan. 3. In less than two days, the homeless man, Ted Williams, was lifted from panhandling obscurity to YouTube sensation thanks to a 97-second clip that showcased his astonishingly resonant voice.
And within just days after that, Williams became a post-holiday, feel-good tale of redemption as the 53-year-old man made the rounds on the networks' early morning shows and, later, on daytime programs like "Dr. Phil." Well wishes and job offers tumbled in as organizations and companies lined up to extend a hand to the golden-voiced homeless man.
But, less than two months later, Williams' flash of national celebrity has dimmed. The relentless news cycle has largely moved on from Williams, but not before revealing a criminal record that included theft and forgery, drug and alcohol addictions, and his failure to care for nine children. Today, he is living in a halfway house in Los Angeles and said he is shopping a reality series.
"We like the idea that someone who threw it all away is now finding redemption," said Aaron Brown, a former anchor at CNN who is now a professor of journalism at Arizona State University. "The fact that he did nothing to earn it and probably cannot stand the pressure of it is totally irrelevant to the people telling the story … that is a different story."
The explosion of attention that once engulfed him has left even Williams trying to understand why he was singled out for instant acclaim. "I have no idea," said Williams in a recent interview at a West Hollywood malt shop where he was promoting a new, original milkshake, a mix of Oreo cookies, bananas, strawberries, vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. "I was just a homeless person who had a beautiful voice I guess."
Williams' odyssey to short-lived national fame really began on Jan. 5 when he did a satellite interview for CBS' "The Early Show." The very next day he was flown to New York by NBC and given a coveted spot on the couch with "Today" co-hosts Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira. There was even an embarrassing tug of war between CBS and NBC over who had dibs to a joint-interview with Williams and his 92-year-old mother, Julia.
"There's a lot of cutthroat in this business," said Williams who once had a radio career, but lost it to substance abuse problems.
That same week Williams did voice-over work for Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and the cable news channel MSNBC, which explained, "Williams' remarkable story of overcoming difficult circumstances and turning his life around embodies the very same American ideals" that the network's 'Lean Forward' "campaign seeks to highlight." Williams also introduced the guests on NBC's "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon."
Also eager to hire Williams were the Cleveland Cavaliers and the NFL. "We loved his voice, we loved his story," exclaimed Tracey Marek, the senior vice president of marketing for the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team. Even Oprah Winfrey got in the act, telling "Inside Edition" that it would be "fantastic to hear him say, 'The Oprah Winfrey Network.' "
Although coverage of Williams didn't ignore how he came to end up on the streets, the media's desire to play up the heartening elements of the story certainly led them to downplay its less inspiring aspects. On NBC's "Today," neither Lauer nor Vieira pressed Williams on why he was still homeless if he'd really been sober for two years as he claimed. Vieira even joked that one day perhaps she'd be working for Williams.
It was a similar story on ABC's "Good Morning America." Williams would talk about his recovery without any details about what — besides holding a sign on the side of the road — he'd been doing to seek work. Co-host Robin Roberts enthused to Williams, "We appreciate all that you've done."
Often the hosts asked Williams to perform, something which he seemed only too happy to oblige. "Ted, just read something," "Early Show" co-anchor Chris Wragge asked Williams on the Jan. 5 program.
"Everybody was treating him as a pet or science experiment," said daytime television personality Wendy Williams, in an interview. One of the few TV personalities who was not gushing over the Ted Williams story, she questioned the media's obsession with him and told her audience, "I give it a year before he messes this up."
It seemed the toughest questions about Williams came from his own mother, who asked her panhandling son on NBC's "Today" how he could "get so low to do a thing like that." He responded that his mother, "didn't seem to feel as bad about theft as she did about me holding that sign."
The producers of "Today" and CBS' "Early Show" defended their decisions to give Williams so much airplay. "It became the kind of thing that was water cooler talk everywhere," said Jim Bell, executive producer of "Today." As for whether "Today" glossed over Williams' past to create more a Horatio Alger-type story, Bell said "the premise that Ted Williams is going to live happily ever after is far from a foregone conclusion."
Added David Friedman, an "Early Show" executive producer: "It looked like it was a fairy tale … that was the angle we were most interested in." (He noted that the network did go back and update the story with details of the more sordid elements of Williams' story.)
Just a little over a month after making national news, Williams said he has permanently relocated to Los Angeles and — when not still making appearances — trying to focus on his sobriety. Meanwhile, MSNBC yanked its ad featuring Williams, the Cavaliers are taking a wait-and-see attitude, and Kraft has no plans for future spots. Williams and his manager Al Battle say there are talks of a reality show and other things in the works including starting a charity dedicated to giving people second chances.
"We're looking for an invitation to the White House," Williams cracked.