The History of Mr. Bill


The following comes from "A Backstage History Of Saturday Night Live" written by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad and is presented here with the permission of Walter Williams.

Walter Williams was the creator (and namesake) of the little Play-Doh doll, Mr. Bill. In every film, Mr. Bill was dismembered and smashed by the vicious Mr. Sluggo with the help of evil Mr. Hands. Not exactly the height of adult comedy, but Mr. Bill was undoubtedly one of Saturday Night's most popular characters ever.

Mr. Bill started as one of the home movies submitted by viewers in the first season of Saturday Night Live. Williams, an accounting-school student and part time security guard in New Orleans, had created the character in 1974 when he was making Super 8 films in his living room. Mr. Bill was an intentionally crude parody of cheap TV cartoons; the first Mr. Bill film to air on Saturday Night was put together in one night and cost less than $20 to make.

Mr. Bill appeared once again in the second season and then twice more in the third. He was such a hit that in the fourth and fifth seasons, Lorne Michaels (producer of Saturday Night) put Walter Williams under full time contract to keep the Mr. Bills coming. Williams' films gradually grew more detailed, reflecting the fact that he was spending about $1, 500 on each one; but the "plot" never changed.

As Saturday Night grew ever more popular in its third and forth years the new and generally younger fans adopted Bellushi as their favorite. Besides Bellushi, their favorite character was Mr. Bill. The studio audience went wild whenever a Mr. Bill film came on, and many times, fans would greet the Saturday Night performers on the street by shouting "Ohhhhh nooooo, Mr. Bill!"

A strange twist of fate befell Mr. Bill. Walter Williams, Mr. Bill's creator, was contrary to the tone of the films he created, and an extremely sweet, mild-mannered man. He was also an innocent in the ways of business. In the fourth season, Williams says he was getting no fewer than 50 calls and dozens of letters a day from people wanting to cash in on Mr. Bill. At first he turned them all down. He didn't want to exploit a character he loved dearly, nor did he have time to manage a sales empire. Finally he did authorize an official Mr. Bill T-shirt, in part because he was told he should do something to establish his legal rights to the character.

In the meantime, he saw every imaginable variety of Mr. Bill pins, Mr. Bill posters, Mr. Bill coffee mugs, and even Mr. Bill umbrellas. Although he hated to see his character cheapened, Williams at first ignored the majority of these products. After a while he did sue a few people, again primarily to protect his copyright. Eventually he was forced to hire a full-time lawyer just to threaten legal action against the pirates.

Just before the beginning of the fifth season, Williams got a call stating the "threat" had been resolved. So Williams went on with the development of the Mr. Bill character. Over the years Williams has very selectively authorized the use of Mr. Bill on various products. The Mr. Bill video which is available on the World Wide Web is a compilation of all of the Mr. Bill films shown on Saturday Night Live. Very soon another Mr. Bill video will be released with new Mr. Bill Material.