SECOND GRADE. Every day after school I watch Happy Days reruns with my neighbor, Steffie Dougal.
“Fonz is the coolest,” I tell her.
“Pff,” I scoff. “Who’s cooler than the Fonz?”
“Potsie,” Steffie says, in a voice that’s sure. “He’s cuter, and plus he can sing.”
Baffled, I turn back to the action on screen. “Yeah,” I agree. “Sings to dogs.”
Flash forward, 2014. How many Happy Days episodes have I seen in my life? I cannot begin to imagine. Steffie was half right. The coolest guy on Happy Days is not The Fonz. But after Mr. C.? Potsie.
And I’m about to talk to him on the phone.
I know, I know. I’ll actually be talking to Anson Williams, the guy who played Potsie and has a great new memoir out called, Singing to a Bulldog. And Anson has enjoyed a long and successful career after Happy Days, as an entertainer, entrepreneur and director of such classic television shows as Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, The Secret Life of the American Teenager and Charmed. He’s even quite possibly partly responsible for saving millions of lives.
But when you grew up watching a character on TV, that’s not how your brain works. In my mind, I’m calling Arnold’s Drive-In, that payphone on the wall by the jukebox. Richie is sitting in the booth with Ralph Malph and Chachi is somewhere close by. Fonzie’s combing his hair in the bathroom and Potsie Weber himself picks up on the third ring…
Do people still call you Potsie in public?
Oh, sure. You know my buddy Ron Howard, the Academy Award winner? Well, people still call him Richie. Actually, Ron has two. He’s Richie and Opie. He told me once, “You earn your name.” So it just means people remember your work. I consider it a compliment. If people call me Potsie that just means I hit their heart. They know me.
Quote from your book: “Ron Howard never lets his ego rule.” What does that mean?
Ron was already famous before Happy Days so he was the leader, but he was always willing to step back and do what was best for the show. That’s why he was such a great influence – because of his work ethic, his commitment to the big picture and lack of ego. Just unbelievable, to have that sort of character at such a young age. So rare. Ron was a huge influence on all of us. It’s no accident he’s as big as he is today. Quiet strength. Ron’s like a brother. Once he’s your friend, he’s there for life.
Your memoir traces your life story back to an unlikely mentor – an alcoholic department store janitor who took you under his wing. Tell me a little about Willie and his influence on your life.
I was 15, growing up lower middle class, three bedroom house with one bath, G.I. Bill and a dad who came out of World War II with all those scars still attached. So it was a bit of a harsh upbringing, and I wasn’t the most confident young guy in the world. Really, I was a mess. If I wanted anything in life I had to work for it and I was fortunate enough to get a job as assistant janitor at Leonard’s Department Store in Burbank and the head janitor was an African-American gentleman named Willie Turner. Willie was in his fifties, a functioning alcoholic and mostly illiterate, but he had the heart and the magic to see what I was about, to find what I was good at. We would sit on two oil drums in this tiny janitorial room and he would just talk to me. Nothing fancy. Just simple, basic tools for a life of purpose. But I would have never found me without Willie Turner. I would not be talking to you right now.
Can you share a bit of his wisdom?
Sure. You never know who was sent to help you find your way. It’s rarely the person you think. It’s not the millionaire or the celebrity. It comes from left field. So never judge. Ever. We cut ourselves off from so much when we judge.
I had a pretty basic contract when Happy Days started. We weren’t making tons of money. I was seeing the Partridge Family out there doing well, David Cassidy. The Brady Bunch were out doing concerts. I thought, Hmm, I can sing, somewhat. We’ve got cars, girls – Happy Days needs a band. Then I could make side money doing gigs.
I pitched the idea to Garry (Marshall, producer) and he said, “Yeah… a band! Okay, pick a good song.” Then he turns back and adds, “But I’m gonna put you singing to a bulldog. That way, if you’re good, I get laughs. And if you’re bad, I get laughs.”
So we played a frat house party, and I sang “All Shook Up” to a bulldog. There it was: national exposure as a singer, just that quick. But it brought up so many more opportunities, opened so many doors. And Garry was very complimentary. He said, “Hey, good job. Instead of complaining, you found a way to make it work for you.” So Singing to a Bulldog represents making the most of your opportunities, moving things forward.
We were all friends, so I would say the best memories were off show. Playing with the Happy Days baseball team, traveling the world. Standing on the balcony of that castle in Germany, looking over the Seine River and singing “Splish Splash” with Henry and Donny and Ron. That was a good one.
On set, the first time we went in front of a live audience was crazy. And the day Robin Williams came on and just shocked the world.
Robin was a gift from the Heavens, man. He made you laugh, he made you think. But what I don’t think people realize is just how kind he was. He wasn’t a manic guy behind the scenes. He was quiet and caring. If he had one fault, he cared too much. He felt too much. And Jamie, that’s the truth. The press wants to pick out the dark side but let’s not miss the light side too. Robin Williams was a true mensch.
(laughs) Well, I don’t know if he was a fan . . . but he did come hangout on set with us and he told me (in Liverpudlian accent) “I like your singing, mate!” Are you kidding me? I was twelve years old listening to “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” in my friend’s garage and here’s John Lennon in person saying he likes my singing? Okay, Jamie – that was another best day, absolutely. But I’m sure he was just being nice….
Man, that was crazy. Again, such a kind man. I was doing a telethon in Monroe, Louisiana and Elvis was playing the Civic Center there. He took time out to meet with me and one of the sick kids from the telethon. We talked a little and Elvis told me he had a Willie-type character in his life too that had encouraged him in hard times. I don’t think that story’s ever been out there but that’s straight from Elvis’s mouth. He wasn’t looking too good that night but he was so sweet with that kid.
We thought it was a little corny, but fun. What could Henry do? The writers wrote it and they wanted that scene. I don’t remember anyone thinking it was really bad. People don’t realize that Happy Days went on strong for another three years after that.
So actually, that was not when Happy Days jumped the shark.
Not, not at all. That episode did well for us.
You’re real last name is Heimlich – and your uncle is Dr. Henry Heimlich, the guy who invented the maneuver. He was getting some resistance and you were able to use your Happy Days platform to help him get the message out.
I changed my legal name to Williams, but yes, I was born Heimlich. I was on the Merv Griffin Show and Uncle Hank was able to come with me. Bang, Griff calls him up. That was just a fluky situation but yeah, it was the first national exposure for the Heimlich Maneuver. But it comes back to what Willie would tell me. “Get outside yourself, boy. Look where you can use what you got to do good.”
She requested I sing “America the Beautiful” for the Azalea Festival where she was set to be crowned queen. When I met her she was actually quite rude. So I told the organizer to move me. I wasn’t going to sit at the same table. Again, a life lesson from Willie Turner. It doesn’t matter who it is, people have to earn your respect. But turned out I caught her in a bad moment and she apologized and was a really amazing person. So yes, we did go out but it was no big deal.
What’s the inside of the White House like? Not the tourist part, the area where people really live. I always wondered that.
Oh yeah, I did too! That was a total Forest Gump moment. Like, what am I doing here? I didn’t see much, really. The Solarium, some of the hallways. Her bedroom–
No, no. I saw it because I had to brush my teeth and she let me use her bathroom. But you know, the White House wasn’t that great. It was a little funky to tell you the truth.
No, really. It was not what you think. It’s like . . . living in some old place. I’m sure they’ve updated it now but even by 70s standards, it sure wasn’t some mansion in Santa Monica.
I’m a huge Sammy Davis Jr. fan – so if you have any Sammy story you can share….
Oh man! The greatest nightclub entertainer that ever lived. I mean the greatest. Ever. I was known as a teenybop singer and couldn’t get a break into the more adult venues. All the sudden I got a call that Sammy had to leave for four nights and approved me to be his replacement.
That was my first time in an adult venue. Opening night: I’m singing on stage. And there sits Sammy in the audience, cheering me on. Like, what? Again, Forest Gump. Total out-of-body experience. I felt like one of the Rat Pack.
Man, that’s a cool story.
And I’m in his dressing room! Sammy! Just such a sweetheart, such a good guy. Now get this — Sammy was Willie’s favorite singer. He used to play “Birth of the Blues” and say that when Sammy sang, his pain went away. He understood why Sammy was so good. But what Willie didn’t know was that the only time Sammy’s pain went away was when he was on stage. Sammy told me that. Sammy went through a lot of pain.
My man, Sammy.
He lived it.
He really did.
By the time Happy Days ended, I knew I would be going behind the camera. I was getting into production and then I went on to direct a lot of great shows. Star Trek Voyager, Deep Space Nine. The Sci-Fi stuff is fun. L.A. Law. Hercules, Xena. I spent five years on The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Right now I have the beauty product business and I’m hoping the book does well. I’d love to keep writing and work towards adapting that to film and television. TV is a wonderful opportunity but it’s really exhausting.
What’s the biggest life lesson you’ve learned along the way?
Move forward. Always keep moving. No matter where you are today, move up, move on.
Was I Davy Crockett?
No, you were a superhero in a yellow suit with a big F on it.
Oh my gosh, yes. I think there were a few different holiday episodes we did.
What was the F for?
I don’t know!