“Ohh Noo…”: Night Flight fondly remembers Mr. Bill, one of our 80s TV show’s favorite features

By on September 20, 2016

One of the highlights of of our “History of Night Flight” episode — it originally aired on June 4, 1987, and you can now watch it in its entirety on our Night Flight Plus channel — is an appearance by Mr. Bill, the colorful Play-Doh character whose familiar high-pitched cry of “Ohh Noo…” usually preceded his unfortunately gruesome death at the hands of a giant pair of hands, a.k.a. Mr. Hands, or he sometimes befell the same sad destruction whenever his path crossed his nemesis, Mr. Sluggo.

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Some of you reading this may remember that Mr. Bill was a regular feature of “Night Flight”, with brand new episodes debuting on our USA network TV show in late February 1985 (the first Mr. Bill segments, titled “Mr. Bill’s Hollywood Report,” aired on the 22nd and 23rd of that month after “Night Flight” had been airing repeats of his regular adventures for a month prior).

Mr. Bill had been knocking around (and was getting knocked around) for over a decade by that point, after first being created by a nineteen-year-old filmmaker Walter Williams in 1974.

Williams — an accounting school dropout living in New Orleans, Louisiana, at the time, working as a part-time night watchman and deejaying at a bar in the French Quarter — was just having fun, making Super 8mm films for his own amusement, when he decided to create the clay character in a crude parody of something you might see on a cheapo children’s show.

He originally created Mr. Bill as the kiddie TV host of “The Mr. Bill Show,” which takes place in the fictional world of “Sluggoville.”

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It was pretty apparent that Williams also had quite a sense of humor, as he had already been doing sketches, some over local radio, with his friend Vance DeGeneres, who would play the role of “Mr. Hands” in the short films, while Williams provided Mr. Bill’s shrill, high-pitched cartoonish voice.

DeGeneres — who played bass in a New Orleans rock band — had become friends with Williams and they eventually became roommates too, and he would occasionally help Williams with the short films he was making, the two of them coming up with wicked ways for Mr. Bill to meet his demise and then filming them right there in the living room of their apartment.

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The extremely low-budget short films were being shown at the bar where Williams deejayed, and other local clubs, and we can imagine bar patrons yucking it up at Mr. Bill getting squashed on a regular basis while they pounded down their hurricanes (or whatever it is they drink in the French Quarter).

Eventually they became so popular locally that Williams managed to get them aired on a local UHF TV show of his own, but then he heard about a contest held by “Saturday Night Live”, which was announced during the show’s first season in the fall of 1975, and since “SNL” said they were looking for submissions of home movies from the fans watching the new sketch comedy show at home, Williams submitted his homemade movie starring Mr. Bill and, of course, he ended up winning the contest.

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Mr. Bill made his first appearance on “Saturday Night Live” on the February 28, 1976 episode, near the end of the show (actress Jill Clayburgh was the host). He was an immediate smash hit — appropriate for a clayman who frequently gets smashed.

Williams has said that the film’s entire budget was less than twenty dollars.

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Producer Lorne Michaels requested more of Williams’ Super 8 films — as the show’s audience grew, and got younger, fans of the show would claim that after John Belushi, Mr. Bill was their favorite regular on “SNL” — and so Mr. Bill appeared once again in the second season and then twice more in the third, and by the fall of 1978, Michaels had decided to put Walter Williams under full-time contract as a staff writer to keep the Mr. Bills coming.

Williams and DeGeneres borrowed $3000 and moved to New York City, finding an apartment to share, and Williams began started writing more elaborate plots for the twenty scheduled episodes, and eventually he was spending about $1,500 for each one, no matter what fate happened to befall the figurine.

After a few months, DeGeneres — who was trying to be more of an equal partner, despite Williams’ desire to keep the ideas for Mr. Bill purely his own creations — moved back to New Orleans, where he tried to develop a TV comedy project.

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The episodes expanded in length and began featuring a whole cast of clay characters, including Mr. Bill’s dog Spot; a girlfriend named Miss Sally (she would eventually be his wife in a few episodes); his Mom; a son named Billy; and Sluggo, his enemy, and the show’s villain, who was responsible for many of the deaths Mr. Bill endured over the years.

While employed as a staff writer, Williams would also contribute other sketches and films as well, including “Elvis Presley’s Coat,” but his main focus was always Mr. Bill.

Williams has said that at the peak of his “SNL” success he was getting at least fifty phone calls a day and receiving dozens of letters from marketing firms and people who wanted Mr. Bill to hawk their products. At the time, Williams didn’t want to exploit Mr. Bill that way and he turned down their requests, although he finally did authorize an official Mr. Bill t-shirt because he needed to establish his legal rights to the character.

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Of course, not having the permission to use Mr. Bill’s likeness didn’t stop lots and lots of unauthorized products from flooding the marketplace, and Williams never saw a dime from these non-legit sales, although he did finally hire a full-time attorney to at least threaten legal action against the pirates who were using his clay creation to sell their umbrellas or whatever.

Williams also eventually ended up having to deal with a lawsuit filed by his old friend Vance DeGeneres, who by this time had joined the Marines.

According to an article in People magazine in 1980, he was stationed in Yuma, Arizona, near the California border, when the Mr. Bill phenomenon had taken off and was hurt when his Marine buddies laughed at him when he told them that he’d helped create Mr. Bill with his roommate down in New Orleans. They didn’t believe him.

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When a law student he knew told him that he should seek a legal remedy to his problem, DeGeneres hired a lawyer, David Oestreicher, who advised him that part-ownership of the character Mr. Bill could result in a financial windfall for his client, but DeGeneres mostly just wanted the credit for co-creating the little red-white-and-blue Mr. Bill and his clay figure friends and enemies.

In 1980, the same year that the lawsuit was resolved, Mr. Bill’s appearances on “Saturday Night Live” came to an end as well, and Williams would depart the show along with Lorne Michaels and the rest of the original cast (Michaels, of course, would return, and continues as “SNL”‘s head honcho to this day, of course).

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Williams kept busy, however, and there were a number of successful Mr. Bill products released over the years that kept his creation alive (so to speak), including a VHS compilation of his appearances on “Saturday Night Live”, as well as a New York Times best-selling paperback book, coffee mugs, t-shirts and lots and lots of other items, authorized and pirated.

Thanks to our contributor Josh Hadley for the vintage Night Flight clip!

By the time Mr. Bill was appearing in our Anniversary special in 1987, he had already been featured — a year earlier — on a Showtime cable movie, Mr. Bill’s Real Life Adventures (co-starrring Shelley Duvall and Peter Scolari as “Mr. Bill”).

By this time, Williams had formed a production company, Real Good Productions, based in New York City, who were making the new Mr. Bill episodes which you saw on “Night Flight,” including “Cooking with Mr. Bill” and “Mr. Bill’s Safety Tips.”

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Mr. Bill would continue to show up on “Night Flight” until the show ended its run on USA, and the next time he was seen was in a series of anti-drug announcements in 1988 which showed him engaging in various activities until Sluggo would bury him under a bunch of pills, in which the tagline would be “Say OH NO! to drugs.” (He’d also made a cameo appearance during the 1981 “Get High On Yourself” NBC-TV anti-drug campaign).

He then went on to star in a short film called Mr. Bill Goes to Washington — a spoof of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — which was screened along with the 1993 theatrical release of Ernest Rides Again.

In 1998, Mr. Bill would make more than forty appearances on the Fox Family Channel’s TV series “Ohh Noo! Mr. Bill Presents.” He appeared on Public Service Announcements, and in 2004, was a key figure who helped educate people about the loss of Louisiana’s coastal marches and swamps with a film called New Orleans – The Natural History.

This film included ten new Mr. Bill adventures in a campaign to help save the wetlands, and predicted the effects of a hurricane on New Orleans before the devastation of Katrina took place. Williams reigned as King of the Krewe du Vieux for the first New Orleans Mardi Gras parade after Katrina.

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Williams — still based in the New Orleans area — has performed as a stand up comedian, and produced a number of advertisements for such companies as Pizza Hut (featuring the Mr. Bill-esque “Pizza Head character) and his creation Mr. Bill has appeared in commercials produced for Lexus, Burger King, Ramada Inn, MasterCard, Wonderful Pistachios and quite possibly hundreds more. A complete list of Mr. Bill-related projects would be almost nearly impossible to compile at this point.

Williams has continued to make comedic short films, which have aired on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno”, and a number of other TV shows, and he’s written screenplays and directed hundreds of shorts and shows for television (years before Williams had also directed the Fox show “TV,” which had been conceived by fellow “Saturday Night Live” head writer, Michael O’Donoghue, which starred Rutger Hauer, Kelly Lynch and Brian Keith; he’d previously created a special padded-out “Mr. Bill Show” episode for O’Donoghue’s 1979 feature-length film Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video, which we told you about here.

Check out the full-length 1987 Anniversary “History of Night Flight” episode over on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.