Ted Williams’ life was forever altered when Columbus Dispatch reporter Doral Chenoweth approached him, uttering with the slightest touch of condescension: “I’m going to make you work for your dollar.” It was perhaps the most honest work Williams had done in years.
When the world first encountered Williams panhandling on that I-71 on-ramp 18 months ago, we knew he had faced a rocky road. The toll of years of homelessness was evident in his unkempt hair, his deteriorating teeth, his overly earnest gratitude for spare change from passers-by. But once that buttery rich voice emerged from his mouth, his history, no matter how checkered, became irrelevant. He was an instant star. More than three million watched the YouTube clip of Chenoweth’s encounter with Williams in its first 48 hours online. Corporations clamored to offer the homeless man sponsorships and recording contracts.
But Williams, who sat down with TIME for an interview in the video above, is eager to emphasize that those days — both the squalid homelessness and the sudden fame — are behind him. When I asked him how he’s enjoying his new home in Columbus, the 54-year-old was quick to correct me in promoting his newfound fortune. “Actually I live in Dublin,” he says. “It’s in the suburbs,” he adds with a face-wide grin punctuated by his new gleaming white teeth.
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Just two days after the video went online, the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team became the first to offer him full-time voice work, which he accepted with gusto. But the pressures of the media circus he was thrust into quickly took a toll on an already fragile man. He was whisked around the country to sit on talk-show couches next to Matt Lauer and Dr. Phil. It was on the TV doctor’s show, in fact, that he faced the toughest public questions about his sobriety – and after a drunken scuffle with his estranged daughter in L.A. just a week after he was discovered, he was hustled off to rehab for drug and alcohol addiction. He would leave before the program was complete but re-enter in May with problems that were “all emotional,” his manager claimed. Since then, Williams says he’s kept on a narrow path, scoring announcing deals with Kraft and the New England Cable News network. He delivered the intro to NBC’s Today show, a gig about which most radio announcers can only dream. But by far his favorite job these days is the one that allows him to share his story and inspire others who are battling the demon of addiction.
He’s written a new memoir, A Golden Voice (Gotham Books, $26) that’s as cleaned up and candid as he is. (In the book, he self-censors every expletive, even d*mn). Released in early May, A Golden Voice tells the story of Williams’ early triumphs and later tribulations, and shares his message of faith and redemption with others who might be fighting addiction – while leaving plenty of room for a follow-up. In fact, the fairytale story of Williams’ life post-YouTube is condensed into just 12 pages in the book’s epilogue. Instead, much of the book focuses on the Bad Years — when he lived on the streets and spent nearly every penny he could panhandle or con on more hit of crack. But as Williams told TIME, he always kept his eye on the future, and never lost his faith. Prayer and religion, he says, gave him the strength to envision a life without drugs, should the opportunity to pull himself predicament arrive. And what an opportunity he received.
Watch the video that originally launched Williams to fame: