Anson Williams will always be known for creating the role of ‘Potsie Webber’ on the hit-classic television program, Happy Days. When Happy Days ended (after 10 seasons, and one of the few to remain throughout the series), Mr. Williams continued working in show business taking a seat behind the director’s chair on many well-known television series. He is a survivor, and as a result of a potentially life-threatening event, has become an inventor as well.
Eric Andrews-Katz: Who were your earliest influences in becoming a performer?
Anson Williams: I would say, as a young kid, it would have to be Gene Kelly and Al Jolson. Those in musical performances. Somehow they inspired me, and I connected with them as a kid. It wasn’t for obvious reasons, either. Mine was a lower-middle-class family, with no one in show business. But something about that kind of work inspired me.
Andrews-Katz: When did singing become an important factor in your life?
Williams: It was there for a long time – even as a young person, but I just kept it quiet. I really didn’t know what to do with it. It wasn’t part of my life, my arena or my friends. After High School, I had this urge to start singing. I started taking singing lessons, and at the time, I bought sheet music. I would go to different clubs/restaurants around L.A., auditioning. Those types of clubs would let anyone sing, and that’s how I got better. They had a piano player, and I’d sing; sort of like an early karaoke. I went to Jack Kelly’s, The Little Club, Knickerbocker Hotel, and one thing led to another. I finally heard about summer stock. It was under the Equity Union. There were always two lines at auditions. They saw the Equity line first and then the non-equity line which anyone could stand in to audition. As I got closer in line, I kept hearing these big, wonderful voices, and I was ready to leave and call it quits. When my turn starts, I started to sing Mame. I got so nervous that all the words went south, so I made them up. (Maybe that’s how the comedy thing got started?) When I finished, I realized I got to sing more than the average four bars, and they didn’t stop me. They asked if I could dance. I said sure (but I can’t dance. I’m less than a bad dancer; I have no ability at all). When they told me I had a Call Back, I had to ask what that was. When I went back, they were doing this Bob Fosse like routine, and I thought, “Are you kidding me?” So I decided to do it for laughs. It worked, and they were hysterical. They asked me to wait, and I honestly thought they were going to tell me never to audition again! I got hired, and they said that if I did well, then I’d earn my Equity Card by the summer’s end.
Andrews-Katz: How did the role of Potsie Webber come about?
Williams: There were actually two pilots. The first was called “Love and the Happy Days,” and it was on the television show Love, American Style. I was on the way to the audition when my car broke down. I had to wait forever for the auto club (this was pre-cell phones, remember), but I made it in looking like a drowned rat. I heard the casting director mutter, ‘You’re lucky we haven’t found a Potsie.’ I asked what a ‘Potsie’ was. I read the script and tried to impersonate a friend of mine. I heard them say, ‘He’s perfect!’ They called Garry Marshall in, and I read for him. The first thing he said was, “Do you play softball” (I think he wanted the softball league together as much as the production). They had already cast Ron Howard, and so he came in so we could read together. Next, the network came in, and we did another reading. By the time I got home, the phone was ringing, and it was the agent saying I got the job.
Andrews-Katz: What sparked your interest in directing opposed to acting?
Williams: I knew early on that I had a knack for comedy acting, but I felt I wasn’t that talented. It was limited for me. I’ve always written and had a natural inclination to being behind the camera. I wrote a story called ‘Skyward,’ and it was filmed starring Bette Davis. Garry Marshall set it up for me to shadow several directors on the sets so I could learn from them such as Polanski, and others, never mind Ron Howard. I also found that I had a talent for it. I love being a storyteller. I wrote and directed, and stared in No Greater Gift. I co-wrote The Lone Star Kid, which starred James Earl Jones, and also served as Executive Director. I started being taken seriously by working for other people.
Andrews-Katz: How did being an actor make you a better director?
Williams: Actors are paramount to any project. The sets are wonderful, but it is the actors (along with the writer) that are the real storytellers. By understanding what the actors are going through, their perplexities etc., it gives you as director so many better tools, and that helps to get a better performance. It’s a much more organic relationship.
Andrews-Katz: How does being a colon cancer survivor change your outlook on life?
Williams: That was something. It’s funny now. When I was diagnosed with I had a doctor that didn’t have the greatest bedside manner. He said, “The bad news is you have [colon cancer] it. The good news is you got the [good kind of] cancer to get. I feel better. I know I was very lucky that I was able to get that out of me, and not have any future problems. The actress Louise Dreyfus said, ‘I can’t put it into words; it’s not bad, it’s good but I feel different.’ It’s true; I feel different. The outcome is fantastic but some of it was horrendous. Every cliché is true; at the time you don’t think about stardom, or a big house, or popularity, you’re thinking about your kids, your family and how precious life can be, it’s all there. I would say the final answer is it made me a better person.
Andrews-Katz: How did the invention of Alert Drops come into being?
Williams: That came out of a situation. Many years ago there was a show called Slap Maxwell. We were filming outside of L.A. in the desert. It was hot, and I was exhausted. On the way home, I blacked out from exhaustion. I woke up bouncing around in the desert. I’m lucky I didn’t kill myself. It just happened. The next thing I know I woke up and got the car under control. My cousin (I call him my Uncle) is Dr. Heimlich, of the ‘Heimlich Maneuver,’ and I spoke to him about it. He knows all about the body and suggested that when I’m exhausted, I have cut lemons. When you start to feel tired, bite into them. The citrus acid will hit, and a release of adrenalin happens. You’re up and alert without caffeine. I did that for years without any problems. Eventually, I researched ‘Drowsy Driving.’ There are more deaths, more damage or tragedy from drowsy driving, than medicated and drunk driving combined. No one talks about it. It’s a catastrophic problem in this country. I wanted to try to do something about that. I wanted to create something with the correct amount of citric acid to spray on your tongue. I called Dr. Heimlich, and we created ‘Alert Drops.’ They are all natural, no caffeine and it will [potentially] save your life. We’ve had incredible success at construction sites, and with drivers for the fire/police departments. It’s a simple way NOT to kill yourself. (You can find more information at http:///www.Alertdrops.com). It’s not expensive either. And if you don’t want to buy them, then cut up lemons and have them with you when you drive.
Andrews-Katz: What made you decide to write your autobiography, “Singing to the Bulldog”?
Williams: There’s a lot more about these auditions, more about the hows and whys. I wrote the book because of Willie Turner, he was my janitorial boss when I was in high school. Back then, I didn’t know where I was going. Willie was in his 50’s, African-American, and a functional alcoholic. He was the first person to talk to me and not at me. We had actual conversations, and he helped me find who I was in life. He died when I was 19, so he never got to see his contributions come to fruition in my life. When I had the chance, I wanted to pay it forward for Willie, and so I wrote the book. It’s not full of cute little anecdotes but something bigger that hopefully can help someone else. There are stories about chatting with Elvis in a parking lot in Louisiana. He had a ‘Willie’ in his life as well. I also talk about a certain President’s daughter kidnapping me in the White House.
Andrews-Katz: You’ve been an actor, singer, director, and author. Which do you enjoy most?
Williams: I just finished a screenplay. I love the act of ‘creation’ the most. Not acting, not performing. I like them, but I don’t need them. I have this creative passion to write, or to create a product that’s purposeful. That excites me; creating something is a part of me, and there’s something worthwhile knowing that will continue long after me.
Andrews-Katz: If you could go back and change something about your career, what would it be and why?
Williams: Here’s the thing; I thought there was a lot that I wanted to change, but I don’t. We all make mistakes and learn from them. We all go into this business a little needy. I think about maybe making certain situations better, or not being pig-headed. But if it hadn’t been for those mistakes, I wouldn’t have been able to climb the mountains I have or achieve what I’ve done. The past gave me the humility for success today. It teaches me how to balance life, and how to stay in balance. You need the challenges because so much greater good has come out of it.
After auditioning for the film American Graffiti (with the role going to Ron Howard), Anson Williams got his big break from a pilot episode, which appeared on the show Love, American Style. The skit (Love and the Happy Days) was a hit and evolved into the television show Happy Days. Since then, he’s moved to directing and worked on such prestigious shows as: Beverly Hills, 90210, Melrose Place, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Lizzie McGuire, and even Charmed. Along with Happy Days co-star Al Molinaro he opened the short-lived restaurant, Big Al’s. The Golden Globe Award winner (for Best Supporting Actor – Series, Miniseries or Television) currently lives in Los Angeles.