The title of “Happy Days” star Anson Williams’ new memoir, “Singing to a Bulldog,” not only recounts quirky incidents from the actor’s early days on the long-running sitcom, but also kind of captures the essence of what he tried to communicate.
“The last thing I wanted to do was write a book by an ex-sitcom guy — ‘and here’s some cute stories,’ ” said Williams during a recent phone call. “I really wanted it hopefully to offer more, to let people know there’s a bigger story to the underlying story of my life.”
Williams will be in our area this weekend, making appearances at the Lynfred Winery in Roselle from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday and at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville on Sunday.
The title came about when Williams pitched “Happy Days” creator Garry Marshall on the idea of the show having a band, in which he would sing. When Williams assured Marshall he could “sing good,” the TV exec said, “I’ll have ya sing to a bulldog. If you’re not good, I’ll get laughs, and if you’re good, I’ll still get laughs.”
Williams said that anecdote is just another example of what he has learned in life: You just never give up, but keep throwing out ideas to see what sticks and what might work.
He traces so much back to a man named Willie Turner, Williams’ first boss in Leonard’s Department Store in Burbank, California, where the future star worked as an assistant janitor.
“The real undertone of the whole book is also about never judging — ever. You never know where you’re going to get the answers. It’s not necessarily going to be from some well-educated guru or mentor. It can be from some out-of-the-box person who might not have all the credentials but has the voice to make the right connections to your life,” said Williams.
Having grown up in modest circumstances, at age 15 Williams said he was totally lacking in self-confidence. “I had no idea of what I could do. But thank God for Willie,” he said.
“Who would have thought when I got this assistant janitor job that this illiterate, African-American, 50-something-year-old man, who was really a functioning alcoholic, would teach me such important lessons for my life? Without Willie, there’d be no stories. We wouldn’t be talking right now,” Williams said.
Turner gave Williams the confidence to trust himself, to take chances and to think beyond the moment.
“While he probably was better at giving others good advice than taking it himself, he taught me that you make your luck, and as I say in the dedication to Willie at the front of the book, people need to ‘stop looking at their mountain and start climbing it.’ ”
Throughout “Singing to a Bulldog,” Williams shares funny stories, ranging from hanging out with former first daughter Susan Ford at the White House to many tales about the making of “Happy Days.” But some of the more inspiring and amusing tales are like the one he recounted about a summerstock job. He auditioned by singing the title song of the musical “Mame” but promptly forgot the words as he started. That didn’t stop the budding actor, who “just began making up my own,” writes Williams, including a sample: “You charm my tux right off in the morn,’ Mame!”
The audacious move worked. The producers hired him to his first professional job, and Williams was on his way.
One thing Williams has learned from rubbing shoulders with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars — from his “Happy Days” crewmates Ron Howard and Henry Winkler to Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Marlon Brando. “The one thing you realize is that flaws make stars,” he said. “So many people were nerds in high school. They weren’t popular or gorgeous. In many cases they bloomed later. By having not been born stars, they were given the drive to succeed and overcome those early disappointments.
“Hell, in high school Robert Redford’s face was full of zits and he couldn’t get a date! … Having been the underdog and not the winner starting out is a good thing,” added Williams. “All that pain is what gives you humility and the tools to stick it out and stay in there. That’s what makes you overcome whatever adversity you have to face in life.
“I want people to get that from this book, because it applies to all things — not just show business.”