Mr. Bill Doesn’t Say NOOOO To Awareness Campaign

August 1, 2008       Don McNamara      

Mr. Bill is getting another day in the sun.

The clay figure who endeared himself to millions by being clobbered in every possible way on the television show Saturday Night Live finally has found salvation in the culmination of a new television commercial being aired for the debit MasterCard.

The money Mr. Bill’s creator Walter Williams receives from the arrangement helps to support his awareness-raising efforts for restoring lost wetlands around New Orleans and helping the city try to recover from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.

Mr. Bill, who was bopped, bounced and buffeted by life, usually in the form of the hulking Sluggo or Mr. Hands, achieves something in the commercial that he never did in his appearances on SNL – getting home safe and sound at the end of the day, which is what Williams is working toward with New Orleans.

Before that, well, he encounters the typical Mr. Bill experiences. The joys of day-to-day business life in New York City, intensified as usual for Mr. Bill, are woven into the by-now famous scenario of ads for MasterCard: "Coffee, $2" – and the piping-hot coffee pours all over Mr. Bill; "Gym, $59 a month" – and Mr. Bill goes flying off a treadmill; "Briefcase, $120" Ð and an attache case is opened, sending Mr. Bill flying out the window of an office high-rise and onto the windshield of a bus. He lands safely on the windshield, however, and stays there quiet and unharmed, and smiling broadly, on his way home, for the "Priceless" ending.

Mr. Bill started taking a beating more than 30 years ago, and he shows little sign of stopping. His appearances on the nationally broadcast television comedy show delighted viewers during the late 1970s, and his continued travails have proven to be equally amusing to generations who watch commercials for Burger King, Ramada Inn, Pringles, Lexus and Subway.

Yes, no matter how badly life hits Mr. Bill, audiences just can’t get enough. He comes back for more, and people come back to watch more.

Public relations representatives of MasterCard referred inquiries about the commercials to Williams, who parlayed his home movies into a spot on SNL and finally a job as a writer for the show and went on to become an independent filmmaker, director and writer.

Many of the films that Williams has been making lately concern the place where he was born and raised, New Orleans, and the Mr. Bill-like buffeting that benighted city has taken, especially since, but not entirely because of, Hurricane Katrina.

Maybe that’s somehow fitting, that New Orleans is also the birthplace of Mr. Bill. It is where Williams was living when he made home movies of his clay figure for local viewing and eventually submitted them to SNL.

Williams admitted that after the success of Mr. Bill caused the SNL brain trust to offer him a full-time job, he was "flying by the seat of my pants." But, Williams had the seat of his pants firmly in the director’s chair for the MasterCard commercials.

"They (MasterCard) came up with the idea," Williams said. "I came up to New York for a creative meeting and agreed to do it. I directed it."

Williams was involved in each stage of the commercial, including seeing the final version, and said he is pleased with it. He also confirmed that it is strictly a licensing arrangement he has with MasterCard, not an affinity deal.

The undisclosed amount Williams receives from the arrangement helps to support his awareness-raising efforts for restoring lost wetlands around New Orleans and helping the city try to recover from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.

He does this through his filmmaking, such as public service announcements for wetlands restoration and hurricane protection. Because of this, Williams was reluctant to discuss monetary figures for any of his work.

"I’m not a fundraiser," he said, noting that his efforts are devoted to his filmmaking, much of which is aimed at awareness efforts.

After living in New York and Los Angeles pursuing his career, Williams moved back to New Orleans in 2001 to raise awareness about the destruction of wetlands around the city. He also made a PBS documentary in 2002, New Orleans: The Natural History.

He has been active with a group named the Gulf Restoration Network, a coalition of environmental, social justice and citizens’ groups and individuals committed to restoring the Gulf of Mexico ecologically and biologically, which was formed in 1994.

Williams estimated that since 1930 Louisiana has lost 2,1000 square miles of coast, more than the size of the state of Delaware, a loss he blames on the effects of oil and gas companies’ equipment, such as pipelines. He is making a film Restoring Our Coast to show what damage has been done and what can be done to rectify the problem.

One of the public service announcements Williams made showed Mr. Bill standing on the roof of a flooded-out house in New Orleans – and he made that piece a year before Katrina hit.

That spot was part of Williams’ consciousness-raising endeavors: spreading word that wetlands provide a buffer that can substantially mitigate the effects of a hurricane by reducing the swelling of the ocean above its normal level. He maintains that sufficient wetlands in place when Katrina arrived would have prevented it from becoming the disaster it was, making it not much more than a bad windstorm with some rain.

To further increase awareness of his efforts, Williams created a set of clay creatures to accompany Mr. Bill, an alligator, a water moccasin, a dolphin, a starfish, an eagle, a raccoon, a mudcat (catfish) and a shrimp.

Although the Mr. Bill MasterCard ads are not directly connected to Williams’ efforts to restore the Louisiana coast, Williams said that it is possible Mr. Bill will be uttering another high-pitched "Oh noooo!" or two in the cause of coastal restoration.

He believes that even if oil companies agree to pay the $50 billion or more that will be needed to restore coastal land, it will take years, and the New Orleans area doesn’t have much time.

"I’m trying to use Mr. Bill to make as much noise as I can," he said. "I’m desperate to do something quickly." NPT