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November 2010

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Anson Williams Interview: 'Happy Days' TV Icon and 'The Secret Life of the American Teenager' Director

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Anson Williams

Anson Williams was born Anson William Heimlich on September 25, 1949 in Los Angeles, California, and is best known as one of Richie Cunningham’s (Ron Howard) best friends on the ABC sitcom Happy Days (1974-1984). The series presented an idealized version of life in the 1950s and 1960s and also starred Donny Most (Ralph Malph) and Henry Winkler (Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli). Tom Bosley portrayed Howard “Mr. C” Cunningham and Marion Ross played wife, mother, and homemaker Marion “Mrs. C” Cunningham.

Soon after Happy Days ended, Williams switched from acting to directing and has directed episodes of popular television shows such as Diagnosis Murder, Xena: Warrior Princess, Melrose Place, Beverly Hills, 90210, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, 7th Heaven, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, Charmed, and Lizzie McGuire.

“Early on in acting I knew I wouldn’t be doing it as a career my whole life. I first started creating and writing shows and selling them as a producer. Then it was Ron Howard who said, “You really should direct.” I ended up attaching myself to shows that I had created because no one would give me a break as a director.”

Other directing efforts included the TV film Quiet Little Neighborhood, a Perfect Little Murder (1990, starred Teri Garr and Robert Urich), the direct to video thriller All-American Murder (1991, starred Christopher Walken and Charlie Schlatter), and episodes of New York Undercover, The Pretender, and The Love Boat: The Next Wave.

The actor director is also an entrepreneur and has founded two product companies, StarMaker Products and Physicians Prefer. Williams was determined to use his star power to philanthropic purpose and, as the father of five daughters, was moved to put women’s health issues high on Physicians Preferred agenda. The company developed Cool Flash, an alternative, natural approach that offers relief from hot flashes associated with chemotherapy or menopause.

Williams is currently directing episodes of the ABC Family teen drama The Secret Life of the American Teenager. The show has just completed its third season.

Anson Williams

Anson Williams (Courtesy of Anson Williams)

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Anson, were you involved with Secret Life from the beginning of the series?

Anson Williams: No, I was brought in during the first six episodes.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I spoke with India Eisley and she told me that there really aren’t many long hours on the set.

Anson Williams: She is so special, like a mirror image of her mom (Olivia Hussey). Yes, what’s so nice about our ensemble is no one has to work every day. I direct almost half and Keith Truesdell does the other half of the episodes.

We’re all very experienced and it’s amazing how much time you can save by just doing the job and having a great cast who’s prepared and a crew that’s incredibly brilliant and efficient. So it’s amazing how reasonable the hours can be. If more shows had the discipline we have there would be a lot less reality and more original programming on because it would be much more reasonable to produce.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It appears that the general thread of the show is sex and pregnancy. Do you receive any negative mail from parent’s groups?

Anson Williams: Well, I’m just a hired director, but I know that the studio and producers receive all positive mail. The storylines open up discussions on how to prevent it. It forms camaraderie around the television set for discussions. The show doesn’t pull any punches about teenage pregnancy not being glamorous.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You are saying that the pregnancy storylines are educational?

Anson Williams; Very educational. Parent’s groups love the show. Any parent who has intelligence will say, “Wow! This is helping to prevent it!” The show deals with it straight on. It says, “This is not cool because look what your responsibilities are going to be.” The show deals with teenage issues very honestly.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Parents do not feel the show is promoting promiscuous sex?

Anson Williams: No, it’s actually promoting not to have promiscuous sex. Instead of trying to skirt the issue it creates conversation and communication and communication helps to create change.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Promiscuous sex was basically a taboo subject on Happy Days.

Anson Williams: Well, actually there were a lot of risqué episodes (laughs). It was a different show than this one. But, the show that tackled the issues more than any other in the last 20 years was All in the Family. Look what they dealt with and look what Maude dealt with. Look at the stories Norman Lear told 30 years ago. These were pretty strong statements and it really opened up arenas that were taboo.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I remember that at least two episodes of Happy Days dealt with racism.

Anson Williams: Yes they did, head on, first season. There were the black neighbors who wanted to get married at the Cunningham home.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How much has censorship changed over the years in television shows?

Anson Williams: It’s such a different world now, Melissa. When I was doing Happy Days we had three major networks and now we have 200. We’ve taken our freedoms and used them in very questionable ways. I think many problems today have to do with people just getting their “fifteen minutes of fame.”

Someone can actually do a porn movie or leak a sex tape and become a star and have their faces plastered on national television. That disgusts me and I don’t think that’s a good message at all to send to the youth. I think we’ve become a sound bite society. Individuals need to realize the cause and effect of their actions. The paparazzi have become a billion dollar business.

Original Happy Days Cast

Original Happy Days cast (ABC)

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The paparazzi have certainly changed significantly over the last 30 years.

Anson Williams: Yes, now they’ll create scenarios because people eat that stuff up. They create situations and intrigue and you become what you think you are. If you have a mind full of junk, that’s what’s going to transpire in your life.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’ll bet the paparazzi didn’t follow you around in cars when you were on Happy Days.

Anson Williams: No, not at all. If you stayed away from it, they didn’t bother you. These days it’s a problem because it’s a business. Poor taste sells.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you always been more interested in directing than acting?

Anson Williams: Early on in acting I knew I wouldn’t be doing it as a career my whole life. I first started creating and writing shows and selling them as a producer. Then it was Ron Howard who said, “You really should direct.” I ended up attaching myself to shows that I had created because no one would give me a break as a director. But I love it. I’ve been directing since 1985 and it has been tremendous.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you stayed with television or also directed feature films?

Anson Williams: I’ve had feature films in development. I did something for Chris Walken for HBO. But, it has been 99.9% television.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you still in contact with the cast of Happy Days?

Anson Williams: Oh my gosh, yes. Everybody is very close.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you ever collaborated with Ron Howard on a project?

Anson Williams: We worked together a lot years and years ago. In fact, the first television film I created and Ron executive produced was one in 1980 starring Bette Davis and Marion Ross called Skyward. Ron, of course, is just one of those major artists in film, but we did lots of stuff together in the past.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What was it like working with Henry Winkler?

Anson Williams: Henry is the kindest, most decent person on earth. He’s so not the Fonz. He’s an intelligent, wonderful actor with an amazing heart and social conscience. You know, we could have had large egos. We had millions of people watching us every week and we were The Beatles for years, but it never went to our heads. We all used it constructively.

The cast is not only still in the business and contributing, but they’ve contributed to charities and back to society. All of that was inspired by Garry Marshall, the creator and our boss.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It was sad that Tom Bosley (Howard Cunningham) recently passed away on October 19.

Anson Williams: Yes, Tom was a true father figure. In fact, he helped negotiate my first mortgage. He didn’t want any of us young guys taken advantage of. Tom was much more than a talented actor, he was a very kind and giving friend.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you get the role of Potsie?

Anson Williams: First of all, I auditioned at the last minute. My agent sent me down and I got the part, but the pilot didn’t sell. They did a second pilot a year later after American Graffiti came out. Then I had a screen test with a bunch of people and it took a month of not knowing to finally get the part again. Hundreds of people tried out for the role of Potsie.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you find that you were typecast after that role?

Anson Williams: No, because I didn’t care. I own two national product companies so I’ve always been an entrepreneur and a realist. I didn’t care about typecasting and didn’t care about acting after Happy Days. I cared about working in a satisfying way and using what I had for positive things in future adventures and challenges for future profits so I was able to use that and develop a lot more than acting.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you ever pursue a career in singing?

Anson Williams: I did for over a decade. I co-headlined in Vegas and Reno, and then I became a realist there also. I thought, “Well, this part’s done, too. Let’s go to something else.” I saw limitations and I changed course.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I recently saw that vintage McDonald’s commercial on You Tube with a young Anson Williams and a young John Amos.

Anson Williams: That was one of the greatest breaks ever! It was the first time I was able to get some money. Through the years it became this iconic commercial where they would call up, renegotiate, and put it on the air again.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Has there been any talk about another Happy Days reunion (since the last one in 2005)?

Anson Williams: No. I don’t think there’ll be another one. It was fun, though.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Let’s talk about your product companies. You are involved with a product called Cool Flash for the Hot Flash.

Anson Williams: Yes, big time! While I was directing Melrose Place in 2000, the cast raved about these skin products in the makeup trailer. I met the lady that created these products and this particular woman, JoAnna Connell, created the skin care product for the actors before they went on camera. She created all this skin care for Baywatch. That’s where it started.

We created a business called StarMaker Products and became a nationwide company. We’ve been on QVC for 8 years. My uncle (he’s actually my cousin but I call him my uncle), Dr. Henry Heimlich (of the Heimlich Maneuver), is way into alternative medicine. His wife, Jane Heimlich, wrote the book What Your Doctor Won’t Tell You. So I’ve always been into alternative healing.

My business partner and I knew a group of doctors who were very concerned about hormonal treatments and they wanted to create alternative products that were clinically proven. We took the profits from StarMaker and funded it and the first product was called Cool Flash for the Hot flash. It’s a drug free, no hormone, no estrogen topical gel.

The minute you get a hot flash you put it on two places on your body – the back of your neck and the bottom of your neck in front. It’s 100% clinically proven, very safe, and absolutely relieves hot flashes. It has become quite a phenomenon. The product is in Costco, and on drugstore.com.

Women can basically use these liquid ice cubes instead of going through hormone treatments that cause cancer. It costs less than $10 and lasts about a month. This product is being used on thousands of chemotherapy patients because one of the side effects of that treatment is hot flashes. That just blows me away and it is one of the main reasons I’m so passionate about Cool Flash.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Sounds great Anson. You usually have some sayings by Buddha on your Facebook page. Are you a Buddhist?

Anson Williams: I guess you would call me a Unitarian, just like Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Madison, and Monroe. Our first presidents were deists. Deists have a great belief in God and natural law, cause and affect of your actions … polluted mind, polluted life, right?

I’m not any one religion. I gain something form everybody. When something just rings true, I don’t care what religion … if there’s something there that is real and connectable that will help people, that’s great. You can’t sit here and live your life in a limited ignorant way. It has been proven that your thoughts, good or bad, physically change the shape of your brain. They also show how it cuts off the immune system.

Positive thinking does just the opposite. It brings us back where we’re supposed to be and also the whole body goes back to being efficient. Your thoughts and your actions are huge. Even Thomas Jefferson said, “God is in us.” If we do something wrong, we immediately know it and feel it. You back step and you have a different action. I’m probably more into God than many people, but I’m not into religion.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Doctors have said that positive thoughts and feelings can positively affect the way you deal with illnesses and cancer.

Anson Williams: Negative thinking causes cancer. Our body is meant to beat everything. If your thoughts are wrong it’s going to affect your body and you’re going to get sick. It’s that simple, just common sense. Every action is a reaction. Negative thinking will have negative results. Positive thinking will have positive results. Your thoughts affect your entire body.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have other projects coming up, Anson?

Anson Williams: I have projects in development that I don’t want to talk about until they’re a go. Between Secret Life, which is most of the year, two product companies, and five daughters, I have no time (laughs). My life’s not my own.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are your daughters interested in show business?

Anson Williams: I have two eight year olds, a three year old, a twelve year old, and a twenty-one year old. I would say no. They’re all unique, but I don’t think anyone has a passion for show business and I don’t push it on them. I don’t think they’ve seen a whole episode of Happy Days.

I’m daddy and when I’m with them I’m with them. It’s their time and it’s not my time. It’s a very tough business. Writing may be a little easier, but being an actor is a very difficult road.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Child actors are different now than 30 years ago.

Anson Williams: Yes, there are many sad stories there. Most child actors have a terrible time because there is questionable parenting. Ron Howard is healthy because his parents were amazing and it was a balanced life. Numerous times it is not that way. The highs are too high and the lows are too low. I don’t recommend it.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Anson, in your opinion, what one thing would help the economy in these trying times?

Anson Williams: This country was built on innovation. Our Founding Fathers created the patent office because they knew this country was based on innovation and protecting inventors. The stimulus package … all these billions of taxpayer dollars … no one gave any money at all to the patent office.

The patent office absolutely knows what patents need to be funded to create jobs. Put together a team and go to the patent office and find the patents that need to be funded. Use public funds and then fund the invention the world needs. It will create millions of jobs. No one has ever looked in that direction.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why haven’t they ever looked in that direction?

Anson Williams: Because they aren’t entrepreneurial. They’re not educated in terms of human nature and in terms of what built this country. Read the letters of our Founding Fathers. That’s what I do. It’s very clear and right there in their own handwriting. The officials just don’t know what it is to create something.

They have great rhetoric and no life experience like our Founding Fathers had in terms of what’s going to secure this country. It isn’t government. It’s innovation. It kills me. Mildred needs another $100 a month. Well, Mildred might make a great lemon cake and I’ll bet she can sell ten cakes a month. Everybody has a talent that’s marketable. We have the freedom of commerce, of creation, of merchandising, of being able to create, sell, and survive.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you ever thought of running for political office?

Anson Williams: No, you are more powerful than a political office, Melissa. You have the written word. You have the media. I can do a lot more as a citizen. Honestly, this is not political, It is survival. I don’t need to get into politics to promote this. If you can inspire the public to pull its weight … they have a lot more power than they think they have.

You just need the people to have the backbone to stand up to what’s right and actually take the time to educate themselves and to force change. Remember that the country is a Republic. When Rome became a democracy it fell. Democracy will kill you. A republic will help you keep your rights. The word democracy was never written by our Founding Fathers.

People rule this country. Let’s create employment with innovation. You need to give people the hope of survival instead of this frame of mind like it’s all over.

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  1. Betty Romano

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