Willard Scott has died. As the long-time weatherman for NBC’s The Today Show, Scott famously kicked off American mornings for multiple decades, rattling off birthdays, meteorological facts, and unrepentantly corny jokes with the effusive good cheer of a man who seemed almost relentlessly happy that the sun had come up again. A veteran showman, Scott was also the man who first played McDonald’s mascot Ronald McDonald, building on experience built playing Bozo The Clown in the 1960s. Per Variety, Scott—whose death was confirmed this afternoon by his friend and successor, Al Roker—died of natural causes. He was 87.
Scott first came to prominence on the radio, performing with college friend Ed Parker as The Joy Boys over the Washington D.C. airwaves in the 1960s. At the same time, he was breaking into local children’s TV, most notably as Bozo—and then, later, as Ronald McDonald, in the first three commercials featuring the “Hamburger-Happy Clown.” (Scott also claimed, in his memoirs, to have created the character, although there are competing claims to that particular title.)
Scott rose to national attention, though, in 1980, when NBC tapped him to become the new weatherman for its flagship morning broadcast, The Today Show. Scott had no experience in meteorology, but he did have an inveterate showman’s instinct, a booming voice, and the kind of giant smile that made him a huge part of the identity of the program for years after “Uncle Willard” eventually retired in 1996. Highlights from the series show Scott as its most human-interested face, broadcasting from local festivals, dressing in drag, and—perhaps most famously—wishing regular happy birthdays to anyone in America turning 100 years old or older.
Scott’s material—undeniably, about as broad as his own wide, expressive face—was not always to everyone, or even to his co-worker’s, tastes; an infamous leaked memo written by Bryant Gumbel in 1989 said Scott “holds the show hostage to his assortment of whims, wishes, birthdays and bad taste.” (By all accounts, Gumbel and Scott later reconciled.) And it’s not like Gumbel’s criticisms were wrong, per se: Scott cut a deliberately hokey figure, casting himself as a sort of national uncle, cracking the worst jokes imaginable, and playing to the back of every room he happened to be standing in.
But, looking back at Scott’s career, it’s hard not to be a little over-awed by the sheer joy he seemed to bring to every day of work. Perhaps the ultimate pop-culture morning person, he radiated a sort of benevolent presence that was rare on the airwaves in the ’80s and ’90s, and feels rarer still now, and he seemed to get a genuine kick out of doing what he did. Per Roker (who described Scott as his “second dad” on more than one occasion), Scott died this morning, “surrounded by family, including his daughters Sally and Mary and his lovely wife, Paris.”