The fall and rise and fall of Ted Williams

The viral sensation has gone from homelessness to "Dr. Phil" to rehab in a few days -- and we can't stop watching

Mary Elizabeth Williams
January 14, 2011 9:15PM (UTC)

It seems like it was just last week Ted Williams was panhandling on an Ohio highway. It seems like only a few days ago he was a media darling and the toast of the Internet.  It seems like only yesterday he was going into rehab. Oh, wait, it was.

Less than two weeks ago, Williams, the "golden-throated" former DJ, gained instant fame when a video of him discussing his plight in those distinctive dulcet tones went viral. His seemed the classic tale of the diamond in the rough, the man who fell from grace and found one last shot at redemption. It's the stuff of great Hollywood drama and a holding-out-for-a-hero public ate it up. Williams played the part of the humbled but hopeful survivor perfectly, admitting his struggles with addiction, alluding discreetly to his rocky relationship with the family he's disappointed repeatedly in the past, and graciously expressing gratitude for the outpouring of attention and support. Overnight, Williams went from begging for spare change to fielding job offers from the Cleveland Cavaliers.


But just as quickly as his life turned around, it turned around again. Even as Williams was introducing the "Today" show and showing off his cleaned-up new haircut, the Smoking Gun was digging up his lengthy rap sheet.  By Monday, he was in police custody again, along with his daughter Janey, after an altercation in Los Angeles.

He'd been in town for "The Dr. Phil Show," and by Tuesday Williams' feel-good triumph was suddenly looking like something out of "Intervention." Though the admitted alcoholic and drug addict had said in multiple interviews that he'd been sober for over two years, Williams' family disputed his claim, and he eventually confessed to Dr. Phil McGraw that he'd been drinking recently. And so Dr. Phil, who noted that Williams had been a no-show for a meeting with him earlier in the week, promptly busted out his trademark tough love and shipped Williams off to the Origins Treatment Center in Texas.

Sudden fame is not all limousines and job offers and hanging out with Matt Lauer. It's a cataclysmic upheaval that can be devastatingly stressful, as the shaky stardom of instant celebs like Susan Boyle proves. One day, your identity and your talents belong to you; and then in a moment, they belong to the world. Now imagine compounding that pressure with the one-day-at-a-time struggle of someone battling addiction, whose comfort zone, for a long time, involved sleeping under bridges. A month ago, Ted Williams didn't have a home, but he didn't have a boss to answer to, didn't have his arrest record all over the Internet, and didn't have his family itemizing his grievously disappointing behavior on national television. But in the plus column, he also didn't have so many people rooting for his success.


Most of us with any goodness in our hearts want people to succeed. And many of us have our own Ted Williamses in our lives -- the family member with a not-so-secret drinking problem, the wonderful, kind lover whose addictions keep sabotaging the relationship, the once so promising friend whose life is disintegrating before our eyes. How can we not want someone who has suffered and who has stumbled to pick himself up and make something positive out of all that hardship? How can we not hope that this time, Ted Williams will find the help he needs to live the life that's so close within his grasp? He says, "I want to be different," but the question remains whether wanting to be different can turn into being different, and how much a "God-given gift of voice" matters when someone also has the gift of alcoholism and addiction. And though Dr. Phil may dispense platitudes aplenty in his job, he's right on the money when he says of Williams -- and so many others -- "How many times in life have you said, I wish I had a second chance? The real tragedy is if you get a second chance and you blow it again."

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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