Anson Williams Interview: "Happy Days" Star Talks Drowsy Driving Remedy, Cancer Scare and Erin Moran
Image attributed to Anson Williams
Actor and director Anson Williams is known for his portrayal of Warren “Potsie” Weber on the ABC sitcom Happy Days (1974-1984) created by Garry Marshall and also starring Ron Howard, Marion Ross, Tom Bosley and Henry Winkler. He has directed many television programs such as Melrose Place, Beverly Hills, 90210, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Lizzie McGuire, 7th Heaven and The Secret Life of the American Teenager.
Because of a near-fatal car accident caused by Williams falling asleep at the wheel several years ago, he and his uncle, Dr. Henry Heimlich, the inventor of the Heimlich maneuver, discovered that biting into lemons would create a direct adrenalin-reflex-body response that would immediately make you alert. Williams, with enterprise partner JoAnna Connell, developed a lemon mixture into a spray called Alert Drops in 2015, and launched the caffeine-free product to the general public in 2017.
"I was driving back home and just fell asleep at the wheel. I ended up bouncing around in the Palmdale desert. Lucky as can be, I didn’t kill myself or run into a huge cactus. I just bounced around and scared the heck out of myself."
Williams is one of 100 TV stars from 14 different network and cable companies competing in the Battle of the Network Stars reboot, which premiered June 29, 2017 on ABC.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Anson, what started you on the path of finding a remedy for drowsy driving?
Anson Williams: It was about 15 years ago. I was directing and there’s a desert area not too far out of Los Angeles called Palmdale. It was a really hot day and I had directed for hours. I was driving back home and just fell asleep at the wheel. I ended up bouncing around in the Palmdale desert. Lucky as can be, I didn’t kill myself or run into a huge cactus. I just bounced around and scared the heck out of myself.
My uncle, Dr. Henry Heimlich, who created the Heimlich maneuver, was a tremendous influence in my life. In fact, when I went into the product business about 18 years ago, he was a big influence over what we did. Anyway, when Dr. Heimlich found out that I fell asleep at the wheel, he told me to just bite into lemons. He explained how the natural citric acid and sour taste from a lemon stimulates the tongue’s trigeminal nerve, which is the largest nerve in your cranial area, and one of the satellite nerves is called the lingual.
One of the purposes of the lingual nerve is for special tastes like hot pepper or super sour citrus. If any of those two tastes hit that nerve just on the top of the tongue, the body’s reaction is an immediate reflex reaction of adrenalin. It’s not even in your system and you’re awake! You’re up by your own body’s reflex action. So I never had a problem again. For years I had lemons in the car. Then a few years ago, my business partner JoAnna Connell and I were researching, and we discovered what a catastrophic problem drowsy driving is in this country. It’s worse than alcohol and driving on drugs. One out of five admit to falling asleep at the wheel. One out of five accidents at least are caused by this drowsy driving situation. Talk about unnecessary deaths. The average age of these deaths is 18 to 25 years old. It’s just tearing families apart.
I thought that since it’s not in your system and just on top of your tongue, why couldn’t we recreate a lemon in spray drops? Dr. Heimlich said, “Absolutely. That’ll work better.” So we worked with chemists, doctors and subject groups, and we created basically the perfect lemon in a spray with the perfect amount of citric acid and sour lemons that will hit the lingual nerve and will essentially make you awake. It’s called Alert Drops.
Dr. Heimlich unfortunately passed away in December 2016 at 96 years old, but in one of our last conversations, he said, “Anson, please get these Alert Drops out to everybody. It will save more lives than the Heimlich maneuver.” Dr. Heimlich’s philosophy was, “We’re all going to die. We need to leave something behind good that doesn’t.” That was a huge motivation for me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are the ingredients in Alert Drops?
Anson Williams: It’s so natural. It’s water, citric acid, natural lemon flavor which is specially formulated in New York, sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate. That is it. No caffeine, no stimulants. We have the only product patented and the only product in the world that will absolutely save your life from drowsy driving.
In this crazy time of our country, this crazy time of the violence and anger, it’s great we can do so many positive things and this is one of them. I want to concentrate on not seeing another family torn apart. That’s the reason for Alert Drops.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m personally glad you decided on the lemon flavor rather than hot peppers (laughs).
Anson Williams: Actually we did subject groups. The pepper works, but it is so uncivilized. The lemon is the combination of the citric acid and the sour lemon. Just once on the tongue and you are up safely. If you drink coffee, it takes 20 minutes to take affect, so it’s not going to save your life. If you drink enough coffee, it just makes you crazy. You don’t need that. You just need to be instantly alert safely. This is nothing new. It’s very old science. We just figured out a way of putting it into a civilized, easy way of dispensing it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I understand you had a health scare back in December, Anson.
Anson Williams: Big scare. Yeah, I did. I had colon cancer. Boy, what a wakeup call, huh? I’m great now. I was very lucky.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What were the signs that told you something was wrong?
Anson Williams: It was just so random. I never had anything serious. Ever. But for quite a while, I would get out of breath doing certain things. If I walked up and down a lot, like walking up hills, I’d get out of breath. I thought, “I’ve got to check this out.” I went into a local urgent care where there’s a doctor I like. You’re supposed to have about a 14 red blood cell count as the norm. I had a six. She said, “Anson, how can you be walking?” I didn’t realize what bad shape I was in. It turned out I was bleeding internally.
I had a colonoscopy seven years before. They said to come back in five years because I had a little polyp, but they took it out and it was nothing. So I hadn’t been back in seven years. They took tests and everything was normal. I went in for a colonoscopy and there it was. But I was very lucky. If you’re going to get colon cancer, it was in the place that was easiest to get out. I’m cancer free now and I feel so good. I was booked for the Battle of the Network Stars, and my goal was to be in good enough shape to do it and I did. But talk about a wakeup call. I found out right after Dr. Heimlich passed away.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): He didn’t know about the cancer?
Anson Williams: No. He passed away and a week later I found out about the cancer. The only complication I had was because of the hospital. It was unbelievable. I got through all of that. There was a mistake made and I had a taste for the other side. I could’ve gone there. It was nothing to do with the cancer. It was a mistake.
It worked out fine, but I said, “When I get out of here, I am going to get those Alert Drops going.” I was adamant about that and remembering my uncle’s words. I got a second chance and I’m going to use it to help people. I’m going to use the celebrity platform and my entrepreneurial skills because I’ve been in the product business a long time and we’ve done some wonderful things. I want to use these gifts for the greater good.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You mentioned the Battle of the Network Stars. Did you participate on the original show back in the 70s and 80s?
Anson Williams: No and that was so funny. I’d look at the camera and say, “It took me 40 years to get booked on this show and we’re winning.” The producer howled with laughter.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you surprised to find out which sporting events you excelled in?
Anson Williams: I found out that I was bad in a lot of things (laughs). I was good in the relay race and I was good in the tug of war. The kayaking was a total embarrassment because I went up against Ian Ziering whom I love. I directed him many times in 90210. We’re friends, but he works out on kayaks. I’d never been on one in my life. He was kicking my butt. But it was so much fun. What’s cool about it was I live in Malibu right by Pepperdine and that’s where they shot the show. I could walk to it, but they picked me up in a car because they wanted to show you coming out of a car.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Netflix has brought back some sitcoms, so why not Happy Days and perhaps have the original characters with their children and grandchildren?
Anson Williams: Maybe. When they did Fuller House, they had the same people. They’re doing Roseanne and they have the original cast. With us, I don’t know what the show would be. Ron won’t do it. Henry won’t do it. I probably wouldn’t do it. I don’t know how it would work other than us being older having kids. Maybe. I don’t know. They did a good job on Fuller House.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It’s hard to imagine that Happy Days started out as a failure because the pilot didn’t get picked up, and you almost missed the audition for Potsie because of car trouble. Did you have a fallback plan in case you didn’t get the role?
Anson Williams: Yeah. I was working a lot. I was playing the concerned boyfriend parts (laughs). Seriously. It was great. I was the best reactor in television. There’d be five pages of a scene and I had five lines, one a page. They’d cut to me nodding my head and smiling, waiting for my line, and the line would be, “I understand.” (laughs) Then I’d react on another page.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Sort of the boy next door type.
Anson Williams: Yeah. In fact, I was with Kay Lenz doing a movie, Lisa, Bright and Dark, in San Francisco when I got the call they were going to do a second Happy Days pilot.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Right after George Lucas cast Ron Howard in American Graffiti.
Anson Williams: Yes, and I auditioned for American Graffiti for the same part Ron got. He was much better than me. I was horrible (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It was such a tragedy that cancer took Erin Moran at only 56 years old.
Anson Williams: I’m still reeling from that. In Lisa, Bright and Dark, Erin played Kay’s sister. She was 12 years old and she was just adorable. When I was hired again for the second pilot of Happy Days, they were recasting Joanie and I recommended her. I said, “Hey, I just worked with this wonderful young actress.” They brought her in, read her and she got the part.
I don’t want to get into her personal life, but Erin had a really harsh upbringing. No child should have the family she had. She didn’t get the upbringing a child should have, which really makes life hard. She had a lot of problems for a lot of years, but then she and her wonderful husband Steve really straightened themselves out beautifully. They were really back on track when this cancer hit her. She couldn’t talk so we would text. I would give her encouragement. I really thought she was beating it. I was thrown for a loop when she passed. I just cried. It was devastating. But God bless Marion Ross.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): She seems to still be going strong at 88 years old!
Anson Williams: 88 and I wish I had her energy! She’s unbelievable. She decided to put together a very small, quiet party with no press or anything. Ron Howard was there. We were all there and it was a celebration for Erin. We went there to celebrate Erin’s life. It was a wonderful evening.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I found out that a then unknown Anson Williams appeared in a McDonald’s commercial in the 70s singing the “You Deserve a Break Today” jingle.
Anson Williams: Yeah. (singing) “You deserve a break today so get up and get away!” That commercial turned my life around. I was doing a small play in Hollywood and that commercial hit and finally gave me the money to be able to be full-time show business. It really changed my life.
It was 1971 and Happy Days went on the air in 1974. There’s a part of that song that goes, “Scrub the bottom and top.” I did the “and top.” That was my line. I was thrilled to be there. Howie Morris directed it. They thought I looked too young and he fought for me. John Amos was in it. I am so thankful for that commercial (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you doing any acting, directing or singing these days?
Anson Williams: I’ve been directing since 1985, but the last full-time directing job I did was The Secret Life of the American Teenager. I directed a third of all the episodes. Since then I stopped doing segment television. I have some really nice projects in development right now. I’m doing that and I’m really concentrating on my business side a lot more. Once in a while I’ll do motivational talks around the country. Don Most and I have a concert kind of video series thing. We’ll do these fun, cool shows for civic centers maybe six or seven times a year. That’s a lot of fun.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): On your Facebook page, I saw where you attended an LGBTQ event. Are you an outspoken activist?
Anson Williams: I went to that because a friend asked and I knew a lot of the people. I went there out of support. But I don’t really feel comfortable being vocal about things that I don’t know a hundred percent about, especially politically and all that. In my personal life I’m very committed to certain things, but I don’t think it’s right to go out there and try to manipulate people. I don’t have all the information. It kind of bugs me when celebrities take a platform and actually a real expert isn’t getting a platform.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Of course you’re entitled to your opinions like any other person.
Anson Williams: Oh yeah and I have them. I sure do. I use them as a citizen. I like to do things where I can actually make a difference. A lot of that is done in the community where I live. I can have a handle on it and get something done that’s positive.
I’m a huge advocate now for drowsy driving. I know about that. I’m educated on that. I have experts with me on that. I know what I’m talking about. I know I can save lives. I know that because of this product, a family’s not going to be torn apart. That is my kind of activism.
© 2017 Smashing Interviews Magazine. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the express written consent of the publisher.