January 6th, 2011
By: Kerry Burke and James Fanelli
His voice intact and his dignity restored, a Brooklyn-born panhandler returned to his hometown Thursday morning – and used his golden voice to open the “Today” show.
“From NBC News, this is ‘Today’ with Matt Lauer and Meredith Viera, live from Studio 1A in Rockefeller Plaza,” said Ted Williams, the homeless recovering alcoholic turned media star.
Williams, 53, arrived at the morning network show’s W. 48th St. studios with a big smile. Just three days ago, he was begging for change from motorists in Columbus, Ohio.
“It’s delightful, just delightful,” Williams said of his instant celebrity. “I’m just happy to meet Matt Lauer, see my mom and be back in New York!”
The new star sported an old wardrobe: A green camouflage jacket, green T-shirt and jeans. He sipped from a coffee in one hand and a water bottle in the other.
Williams said it was unclear when he would reunite with his mother, Julia Williams, for the first time in more than a decade.
“I don’t know when I’ll see her,” he said before sitting for a nationally-televised interview.
Julia Williams, 92, told WCBS Channel 2 News that drugs “destroyed my whole family.”
When she sees her son, she has a simple message for him: “Please get God in your life and what’s right.”
Williams’ luck turned when a local newspaper video of the one-time radio announcer’s striking vocal talent went viral. It produced a whirlwind of media attention and a pile of voice-over opportunities, including one to work for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In between sifting through job offers on Wednesday, a tearful Williams told CBS’ “The Early Show” the best gift of his newfound fame was the chance to visit his mom.
“I apologize. I’m getting a little emotional. I haven’t seen my mom in a great deal of time,” said Williams.
“One of my biggest prayers that I sent out was that she would live long enough for me to see me rebound or whatever, and I guess God kept her around and kept my pipes around to maybe just have one more shot,” he said.
Williams’ ex-wife, Patricia Kirtley, told the Daily News that she called his mom – who still lives in the East Flatbush apartment where she raised her kids – to explain her son’s stunning reversal of fortune.
“She didn’t believe it until I called her. She is so overwhelmed,” said Kirtley, 58, who had five children with Williams. “I think she does not want him to mess it up. She said this is an opportunity and a second chance.”
Their reunion was delayed after Williams was turned away from a flight because he lacked proper identification, according to TMZ.
Kirtley met Williams when he was 18 – and even then he had dreams of becoming a radio personality.
“I was about to melt,” she said of first hearing his voice. “He does have a God-given gift. He was always the entertainer. He always played music. He was like the deejay.”
Kirtley said Williams had a promising radio career in the 1980s – first as an overnight deejay in Johnstown, Ohio, and later on a morning show in Columbus, where he nicknamed himself Teddy Bear.
Aside from his radio gigs, Williams would act as an emcee for entertainers who came through Columbus. Kirtley said her ex didn’t handle fame well and got caught up with women, booze and drugs.
“He started messing up,” she said. “He had a lot of groupies. I think it was a whole lot for him to try and handle that. A lot of things were going wrong in his life.”
Williams’ career and marriage collapsed. His addiction led to a string of arrests for forgery and theft, records show.
That all turned around when a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch found Williams begging for money with a sign saying he had a “God-given gift of a great voice.” In the video, he does pitch-perfect station identifications.
Williams told the “Early Show” he hoped someone might spot his talents, but he never expected the outpouring of job offers and media attention.
“It’s like almost winning the Mega Ball lottery or something. It’s just phenomenal.”