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Brian Williams is living his dream as "Nightly News" anchor
Asbury Park Press
MIDDLETOWN, N.J. — Brian Williams is so immaculately attired, so poised in front of a camera, so impeccably coiffed, you almost want to reach out and muss that anchor-perfect hair of his.
Mary Jane Esser has actually done that. Numerous times. He's her baby brother, after all.
Williams, who took over last month for the retiring Tom Brokaw as the anchor of "NBC Nightly News," may be television's man in the spotlight, but to Esser, who at 59 is 14 years older than her big-shot brother, he's still the same Brian who, as a little boy, left bite marks in the canapés at her wedding reception and put on shows for the family, standing on the hearth with a make-believe microphone.
The family moved to Middletown from Elmira, N.Y., when Brian, the youngest of four siblings, was 10 years old. He attended grade school, high school and college all locally. Along the way he bused tables at the Middletown Pancake House, sold menswear at Sears and was a volunteer firefighter.
Esser now owns the ranch house where her brother spent his formative years. "If I had to do it over again I would grow up in exactly the same spot," Williams, 45, says by phone. "I walked to everything. It was terrific."
Still No. 1
Brokaw's departure kindled new hopes over at rival ABC, where Peter Jennings has played perpetual Avis to Brokaw's Hertz. (CBS has been a relatively distant third for years.) But thus far in national ratings, Williams seems to have a firm — though not iron — grip on his predecessor's coattails.
For the month of December, "The NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams" scored a 7.4 rating. Some of that decline may be written off to decreased holiday viewing; Jennings on ABC stayed virtually unchanged with a 6.8.
So the gap has gotten a bit smaller, though not enough to topple NBC from its long-standing perch.
Network dreams early on
"I remember, as far back as high school, having a secret that I couldn't share with anyone," Williams continues. "And that was I firmly intended to at least try to get where I am today. It was so outlandish a goal that if I had ever said to my fellow firefighters at Old Village Firehouse that I intended to pursue a career as a network journalist, I think I would have been laughed out the front door — or off the back of the truck."
In fact, the idea had begun to germinate even before Williams moved to Middletown, perhaps as early as age 6, he says. His father was — and still is — a newshound. He read The New York Times daily, pored over the weekly newsmagazines and watched Walter Cronkite on CBS religiously.
"Remember, in the Cold War and Vietnam, the evening news was everything. It was the gateway to the American evening," Williams recalls. "We couldn't start the dinner meal until the evening news was over." Now 87, with a hearing aid in each ear, Gordon Williams lives at a senior residence in Red Bank, N.J.
From his mother, Dorothy, an avid community-theater actress who died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma 12 years ago, Williams developed a love of performing and an ease with being the center of attention.
"So Brian sort of got the best genes from both of them," says Esser, who is tall and gregarious like her youngest brother.
She and her other brothers, David and Richard, also had a hand in shaping him. There is a nine-year gap between Williams and the next youngest sibling, Richard, a 54-year-old former Kmart executive who is now in the homebuilding business in El Paso, Texas. Because of the age difference, Esser says, there was no real sibling rivalry.
"He had praise from everybody," she says. "Everybody thought he was great."
"I'm quite sure it made me more precocious," Williams retorts.
After graduating from his hometown community college, Williams attended Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where a dorm mate tipped him off that the White House was looking for interns to help screen President Carter's mail. Though Williams didn't own a suit, he got the job. He went to work at the White House wearing the only sport coat he had — a blue blazer he bought at Sears with his employee discount. When the White House internship ended, Williams got a clerical job with the National Association of Broadcasters, an industry group. While he was in that job, he shared his secret ambition with his boss, who introduced him to a friend who owned a television station in Kansas, KOAM. Williams wound up getting a job on the CBS affiliate's news staff.
His next big break came subbing for Maury Povich, who at the time was the host of a serious, policy-oriented talk show in Washington, D.C. The temp job proved fortuitous in two regards: Williams' work led to offers from a number of network executives, and he also met his future wife, Jane Stoddard, on the set. She was Povich's executive producer. The couple, who live in New Canaan, Conn., have two teenage children.
Today in the corner bedroom where America's newest anchorman played with his toys, read books and dreamed of a future on network TV is an unframed photograph of Esser's brother. It's fairly recent and very unanchorlike: He's wearing a fleece sweater and hugging a stuffed animal. "That's the Brian I know," Esser says, beaming. On the other hand, watching her brother on TV is a "surreal experience," she says.
"It's a completely different person," Esser insists. That Brian is formal and super-serious, while the real Brian is a laid-back cut-up. "He's one of the funniest people I know," Esser says.
As for sitting in Brokaw's chair: "I've filled in for Tom for a decade, so you have to hope and assume that regular viewers were long since introduced to me," Williams says of his debut as anchor.
"But I'm not delusional," he adds. "... I walk in a long line of great men. It's very personal for me. I never want to disappoint Tom, so he will be in my mind, along with family members I wish could be around to see this."
Seattle Times TV critic Kay McFadden and researcher David Turim contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company