“I want to be famous.”
My grandson told me that when he was 6. I repeat: “6.”
It has always struck me as a vivid illustration of the way we’ve been transformed by the omnipresence of media. Time was, little boys dreamed of being cops, cowboys and superheroes. But that was long ago.
Fame itself is the dream now, the lingua franca of the media age, democratized to such a degree that every Tom, Dick and Snooki can be a star. If you’re not famous, you’re probably not really trying.
Fame, the thinking seems to be, is an end unto itself. It solves all problems, fixes all shortcomings, makes all things OK. Except that fame actually does none of those things. Fame does not change what you are; it only magnifies it.
Here, then, is Ted Williams, who is now famous. And if you think I mean the Hall of Fame baseball player, you’ve likely been out of the country a few days. That brief time span encompasses the entirety of this Ted Williams’ fame.
It began Jan. 3 when a videographer for the Columbus Dispatch posted online a startlingly incongruous video. This wild-haired homeless man with a hand-written sign is panhandling at a freeway off-ramp. But when he speaks, it is in the trained and manicured baritone of a professional announcer. Which, it turns out, he once was, before alcohol, crack, homelessness and petty crime reduced him to what the video captured.
That video went viral and made Williams, 53, a literal overnight sensation. By Jan. 6, he was on “Today.” He’s done “The Early Show,” “Jimmy Fallon,” “Dr. Phil,” “Entertainment Tonight” and has job offers from Kraft Foods, the Cleveland Cavaliers and MSNBC.
Then came Jan. 10. Williams was in L.A. to tape an episode of “Dr. Phil” reuniting him with the family he abandoned. He and one of his adult daughters were briefly detained by police after a violent argument at a hotel. Williams has said he was two years clean and sober, but his daughter said he was drinking again. He denied it. Until two days later, when he canceled all his engagements and announced that he was entering rehab.
And was any of this not sadly predictable?
One is reminded of how divers who ascend too quickly from the depths sometimes get the bends. To go from a freeway off-ramp to the “Today” show in three days is the metaphoric equivalent.
“It’s almost choking me,” he told the Dispatch.
“People in rehab,” he told “ET,” “we’re fragile. ... You jump out of this car, there’s a camera there, you roll down your window just to flip a cigarette out the window, and there’s somebody that points at you. ... Remember, I, a week ago, was holding a sign where people wouldn’t give me the time of day.”
Not that it’s surprising his story resonated. This is a nation of long shots and second chances; it is in our DNA to root for underdogs.
So Williams has become a sort of national reclamation project. But some of us, I suspect, unconsciously believe that fame — and its frequent companion, fortune — are enough to get the job done.
Williams himself seemed to buy into this. Consider a sequence from “Dr. Phil” where he faced the 29-year-old daughter he later had the argument with. Having left her behind for the joys of coke and booze when she was a child, he now promised to buy her a Louis Vuitton purse.
You don’t get to where Ted Williams got in his life unless you have some serious, as they say, issues — questions of character, dependency and emotional health. It is naive to believe those things can be fixed — for Williams or anyone who faces similar challenges — in a single lightning strike of overnight sensation.
Let us be glad Williams now has a second chance. But let us also hope his decision to go into rehab means he, at least, now understands better what fame can and cannot do.
It is nice to be famous. It is better to be whole.
— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CST each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.