Montel Williams is a jack-of-all-trades, and Los Angeles will help decide if he's a master of one: television talk-show host.
"The Montel Williams Show" debuts today at 4 p.m. on KCOP Channel 13 in a 13-week test for possible national syndication. Viacom Enterprises, Freddie Fields Productions and Chris Craft Industries Inc. have invested millions in the show, based on the belief that this former Navy intelligence officer is the Oprah of the '90s.
"Everybody's convinced this is a talk-show host who's going to be around for a long time," said Herman Rush, one of three executive producers and an industry veteran who was president of Columbia Pictures Television Group during the 1980s.
Williams clearly has the charisma and energy to do the job. For two years, he's been traveling around the country speaking to teens about staying in school and off drugs, and encouraging parents to guide and listen to their children.
He has also run up an impressive string of accomplishments, especially for a 35-year-old guy whose family was so poor that his mother worked two jobs during most of his childhood and his father worked three. He sings, writes songs and plays the trumpet and bass. He speaks Russian and Chinese. He deciphered military codes for the Navy and was decorated nine times during his 15-year career.
He resigned his active duty commission in 1989, although he's still a lieutenant commander in the reserves. He runs a nonprofit organization in Denver called REACH for the American Dream, which distributes college scholarships to students who can't afford school. He plans to continue speaking to kids and running the agency while taping his talk show three days a week.
"The ability to talk to kids and reach kids is a gift I've been given and I may as well use it," Williams said during an interview in his small, gray-and-black office at CBS Television City.
Williams' knack for communicating with teens, which emerged when he began giving motivational talks while still in the Navy, led him down the golden road to Hollywood. Pepsico, which had helped fund some of his speeches after he left active duty, chose him to do a short introduction to the film "Glory" for videos of the Civil War film it distributed to schools. When Freddie Fields, who produced "Glory," saw the one-minute intro, he thought Williams was a star.
"There are some people who carry their own set of lights," said Fields, another of the executive producers, who was once agent to Woody Allen, Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand and others. "You can put 20 beautiful girls on a stage and one jumps out at you. Montel certainly carries his own set of lights."
Fields, Rush and the third executive producer, Wesley Buford, a businessman and manager of the Boys Choir of Harlem, first considered building a dramatic series around Williams. But after watching a talk show special for which he won a local Emmy in Denver, they decided talk was the proper vehicle.
"It's amazing to see Montel get people to communicate and then plug in emotionally to them," Buford said. "He'll be talking to someone and in the middle of the show he'll be in tears."
The show's format is similar to Phil Donahue's and Oprah Winfrey's, with guests on stage and Williams chasing quotes around a studio audience. As on those shows, and those of Geraldo Rivera and Joan Rivers, topics range from the serious--the censorship of rock lyrics and music videos, the French abortion pill, televised executions and police brutality--to the not-so-serious, such as soap opera stars and "the secrets that men keep."
Williams' program will try to distinguish itself from the other daily syndicated one-hour talk shows by drawing the studio audience into skits and dramatizations that illustrate the issues being discussed.
During the show on police brutality, for example, a woman in the audience was wired to a heart monitor, handed a fake gun and placed in front of a police training film. Her heart raced as the film showed a woman being molested and the supposed rapist turning to shoot at her.
The other principal difference is Williams. Maybe it's because he shaves his head, which he has done since the stress of submarine living made some of his hair fall out. Maybe it's his disciplined posture. He calls the executive producers the Joint Chiefs of Staff and has a habit of referring to people as "Sir" and "Ma'am."
Or maybe it's just his palpable confidence. When asked about one executive's estimate that only 15% of new television shows succeed, Williams was undaunted.
"If I look back at my life, everything I've done has brought me here," he said. "I'm a talk-show host, I'm going to be a talk-show host. I'm going to tell you right now, quote me if you will: All four of the others better look out. I'm telling you, this is the talk show of the '90s."