He is us and we are him and he is we and we are all together, but fortunately, he's the one who keeps getting his legs cut off.
He's just Mr. Bill, an ordinary guy . . . You'd squash him on the street and never notice him . . .
Mr. Bill does not give interviews. That is because when he finishes a film, he is rolled up into a ball and put back in the can.
And yet this ball, this blob, this lump of clay, this majestical good, fretted with golden fire, this foul and pestilent congretation of vapors is now a sensation, a pheuomenon, a hit, a smash, a fad, a hero, a superstar, and all those other cliches relating to patently inexplicable fame in the second half of the 20th century.
Mr. Bill is perhaps the only being who could have made the lists of the 25 Most Intriguing People and the 100 Needless Cases the same year.
He is existential symbol, national knickknack, TV personality, inescapable icon, endlessly tortured toy and telegenic totemic factotum. Why, there's no end to the amound of pretentious and vacuous analysis that could be lavished on a triumphant nothing like this!
The signs of his conquest over the fickle American imagination are everywhere: Mr. Bill T-shirts, selling by the hundreds of thousands. "The Mr. Bill Show Book," its first and second printings exhausted, its third on the way, its status now No. 2 national paperback best seller.
And then there are the children and the former children everywhere, on streets and in supermarkets, who daily and loudly greet disasters large and small with Mr. Bill's immortal cry of "Ooooh-noooooo!"
Mr. Bill, here's a small token of our esteem, this lovely trophy that -- oops! We seem to have crushed your little face again!
And now -- Mr. Bill's Story.
He made his first national appearance during the premiere season (1975-76) of NBC's trend-seeding "Saturday Night Live" when young Walter Williams, having second thoughts about becoming an accountant in New Orleans, sent in his Super-8 film, "The Mr. Bill Show," in answer to the producer's call for home movies from viewers.
One thing, as is one thing's won't led to another, and now "The Mr. Bill Show" is a regular "Saturday Night" feature, the budget grew from $20 a filmm to $5,000 ana Super-8 was supplanted with 16 mm. And yet, as "The All-New Mr. Bill Show" at the beginning of this season made clear, nothing about the Mr. Bill show ever changes.
He is still a feckless little clay figure perpetually at the mercy of Mr. Hands. 10 omnipotent fingers that embroil Mr. Bill in mayhem with his dog, Spot, and his tirelessly perverse archenemy, Sluggo. In the course of these altercations, Mr. Bill never emerges intact. He has been severed, butchered, dismembered, decapitated, burned to a turn and flattened like a pancake.
In these scenarlos, as ritualistic as Kabuki theater, Mr. Bill starts off on some mundane and innocuous adventure. Mr. Hands may offer him a milkshake. Mr. Bill may say, "Oh boy." But then Mr. Hands puts Mr. Bill right on the edge of the blender and R. Bill foresees certain disaster. bHe is never wrong about that. With a cry of "oooh nooo" he soon finds himself being mulched to bits.
In the book, Mr. Bill is run over by a car, punctured with a staple gun, electrocuted by a Christmas tree and gets half his head chopped off while having his hair cut by a hedge clipper.
"It's very sick," confesses Williams, now 26 and on the "Saturday Night" writing staff."But it's no sicker really than the Three Stooges, or Roadrunner cartoons. The difference is, everything happens to the hero rather than the villain."
Well well well well WELL! And isn't THAT a sign of the times! Williams doesn't know or seem to care whether it is or not. He, in fact, is hard put to explain why Mr. Bill is such a success that unauthorized T-shirts are selling like Farrah posters and radio stations even resound with "I'm Mr. Bill," a sado-maso reworking of the old Fleetwoods' hit "Mr. Blue.'"
Lorne Michaels, the gray-haired boy wonder of NBC and perpetually distracted producer of "Saturday Night Live," sounds more irked by Mr. Bill's majestical fame than pleased by it. Why has Mr. Bill commandeered the public's fancy?
"Because it's basic and repetitious and, as with 'Mork,' there are certain catch phrases that are easily said and done," says Michaels. "The voice is one which doesn't take an enormous amount of skill to imitate or duplicate, although we can't get Walter to do it around the office. We've tied him up, we've tottured him, we've tried everything and he won't do it for us.
"I guess people like it because it's the same week after week -- like the Coneheads or the Bees or the Samurai sketches we used to do. I'm continually arguing with the network over these things, because they want more of them and I want less. If there's anything annoying, it's when you do something you think is breathtakingly innovative and all people say is, they love Mr. Bill."
But they do love Mr. Bill. And why do they love Mr. Bill? Oh, if only Maragaret Mead were here! Williams not only doesn't fully comprehend the appeal of Mr. Bill, but he brazenly refuses to be drawn into lofty and contrived discussions about what Mr. Bill symbolizes in the modern world of today.
"I was just trying to make something funny," he says.
What doesn't strike him as funny is the way Mr. Bill has been ripped off for T-shirts and other items that he never authorized. "Mugs and jewelry and stuff like that," he says, "and I'm not getting a penny. I just spend a fortune in legal fees trying to fight the companies that have no right to the character."
Williams did write the book, and he has okayed one T-shirt, which can be identified by the copyright with his name on it. "But I haven't licensed a doll or anything. I don't think people really need that."
And as if all the assaults and batteries Mr. Bill sustains were not enough, Williams has now been slapped with Mr. Lawsuit -- a sure if unwelcome sign of show-biz success. Disc jockey Vance De Generes, who worked with Williams in New Orleans, is claiming co-authorship of the character and is asking for half of Mr. Bill's booty.
"I guess he wants to be a star," Williams says sadly of the former partner.
He does not want to discuss the suit or his countersuit which charges defamation and asks that his sole copyright be affirmed. But Williams does say he created Mr. Bill himself, that he has always been Mr. Bill's voice, and that the suit is one more reason he wonders whether should ever have created this Frankenstein's monster in the first place.
"I'm just disgusted and aggravated after making one of these films," he says. "I've just made the same film over and over for five years. This is ridiculous!"
He does make other films, including a funny commercial parody for "Saturday Night" in which "Elvis Presley's Coat" was revealed to be making a national personal-appearance tour, to the delighted testimony of alleged fans caught after one performance. One of the actors playing a fan was Williams' Uncle Walt, who "runs around New Jersey yelling at people for selling illegal Mr. Bill cookies."
Williams got the idea for the character from watching Popeye cartoons on TV. He noticed that the newer the cartoon, the less the drawn figures moved, because cartoons made for TV are much more cheaply done than those made years ago for theaters. So he thought it would be funny to take this one step further, or one step backward, and make an animated film so underanimated that viewers could actually see hands moving the characters about.
"The main joke, to me, was seeing the hands move the characters," he says. "I chose the name Mr. Bill because I like the way the name Bill sounds. Spot came along because, in the first film, I didn't want anything to happen to Mr. Bill right off the bat. It had to happen to someone else so I could postpone it a bit."
How simple it all souonds!
"Midway through the first film, I said, 'This is terrible,'" Williams recalls. It was not exactly esthetic criticism. "The Play-doh I use to make Mr. Bill is hard to work with. It kept breaking up. But I like the smell so I can't help using it."
This brings up one of the underlying motifs of this terribly complex creation -- as Michaels notes, "There's a certain kind of racial tension within it sometimes." Mr. Bill is vaguely speaking vaguely white, and Sluggo, the nasty villain, appears to be black. Heavily tanned, anyway.
"But he isn't black!" Williams says. "The only color of Play-doh I had left was dark blue, so that's what I used for Sluggo. It's certainly not supposed to be black and white, good and evil. Mr. Hands manipulates everything anyway and just uses Sluggo as an excuse.
"I have," Williams says meekly, "good intentions."
And what particular social and cross-cultural factors went into the development of the Mr. Bill ethos, we more or less asked.
"Well, I didn't watch any television until I was 6 years old; possibly that was an advantage," Williams says, "Jackie Vernon was one of my big favorites when I was a kid. And the Three Stooges -- I can hardly begin to compete with them as far as sickness is concerned. remember learning about nuclear attack when I was 3 years old, and then President Kennedy was killed, and that certainly makes you a bit insecure about the future.
"I've been a worrier since I was a child. I just try to make jokes about it. There are things that scare me, and maybe they should scare other people too."
Williams is chided about how charmingly, clumsily crude the early Mr. Bill films were. "That was just the best I could do," he says. "I thought they were really good." He is trying to make the films better, he says, and also has made enough money to be able to live in one place and make the films somewhere else; "My bed used to be right in the middle of the sets, and I just hated falling asleep every night with this burnt set all around me."
While he will concede that Mr. Bill is "a cartoon for today," Williams backs away from deiving into those, heh-heh-heh, Deeper Implications. But we know they're there. You don't have to be some kookie journalist to see the theological allegory, the comment on our helplessness in a world of Mr. Handses, a chilling political significance, or the unmistakable spiritual bond between Mr. Bill's "ooooooh nooooo" and the angst-ridden kisser of Edward Munch's panicked shrieker.
Has Williams perchance given a passing thought to the eventual demise of the seemingly indestructible and exceedingly existential Mr. Bill?
At this thought he brightens considerably.
"Oh yeah, yeah! I've got that planned. It's going to be either tomorrow or 10 years from now. Every day I debate whether today's the day to kill him. The thought of burying him alive appeals to me, but then, he might always come back to life, and I'd be stuck with Mr. Bill's reincarnation.
"There's really no way out.
"Maybe I'll just come on the screen myself one of these nights and say, 'It's all been a big hoax. It was never really funny.'"
And therein may lie the deepest Mr. Truth of all -- that the Mr. Bill fad is not even really a fad but a parody of a fad, just as Mr. Bill is a parody of a cartoon. The victory in this case is one over faddishness and the mania of the media for providing new sensations. Here is a fad so dopey and pointless that it trashes the fadmongers!
Besides, if television has proved anything, it's that the public is entitled to as much inanity as it can stand. Mr. Bill is inanity both celebrated and vanquished. And so, Walter Williams, you are just going to have to put up with the sounds of little boys and girls and their mommies and daddies imitating the imperiled whine of Mr. Bill everywhere you go, even if you do say, "There should be a lot better ways to spend their time."
And the final vicarious thrill of Mr. Bill has to do not only with seeing our childhood toys destroyed all over again, but also symbolically blitzing every dumb, schnooky contrivance that Hollywood, TV or Madison Avenue has tried to foist on us as "cute."
Each time we are Mr. Bill getting his arms pulled off or his torso impaled, it's as satisfying as seeing Ronald McDonald put up before a firing squad. Ready . . . aim . . . oooooh noooo!