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Montel Williams attracting a lot of attention


Los Angeles -- THERE'S a presence about Montel Williams that lets you know he was supposed to find the spotlight.

He thought it would happen when he left high school.

"I was going to be a rock star," Williams said of his senior year at Andover High, from which he graduated in 1974. His band, Front Row, played in clubs all over town and paid a high school student good money. "I applied to some colleges but I didn't even follow it up. Then two members of our band got busted and that ended that."

Williams, who is the son of Baltimore Commissioner of Transportation Herman Williams Jr., was born in Cherry Hill and moved to Glen Burnie as a youngster and ended up going into the Marine Corps. Seventeen years later, after time in the Marine Corps, four years at the Naval Academy, and a stint in the Navy, Williams has found the spotlight.

He hosts his own talk show, which is being test-marketed in nine cities across the country, including his hometown. "The Montel Williams Show" is broadcast at 11 a.m. weekdays on Channel 2 (WMAR).

The path that led directly to the talk show began for Williams in 1988, when he was stationed in Norfolk, Va. A friend asked him to speak at a black leadership conference in Kansas. He and a fellow officer gave talks. Teachers in the audience asked them to come to schools to speak.

"We told them to take responsibility for their own lives," Williams said of his message to the students. "Not to cop out, to drug out, to drop out, to let peer pressure push you out.

"That it doesn't matter who you are, where you come from, what color you are, that if you seize the opportunity you can't be stopped."

Much of his talk was an anti-drug message delivered just as the country was waking up to its drug problem. The offers to speak multiplied. Publicity followed. Williams was featured on NBC's "Today" show and its nightly news. A thousand phone calls hit the network the next day. The president took notice. Members of Congress began requesting that Williams' speak in their district.

"Things like that bypass the chain of command, and that doesn't make people in the Navy happy," Williams said. He was a lieutenant, eventually made lieutenant commander, but he thought that he had made too many people in the Navy mad.

"I'm not stupid. I knew there was no future there," he said. "And I was paying for all this speaking out of my own pocket. I went $40,000 in debt. Finally I had to start charging honorariums."

When he left the Navy in 1989, Williams set up a non-profit foundation in Denver, Colo., where his efforts had been encouraged by members of the governor's staff.

"I was traveling 26 days out of every month," Williams said of his speaking engagements. In Jacksonville, Fla., the school system wanted to televise his talk on a station owned by Gannett. Williams tacked a talk show onto the end of it. At the end of the year, that show won a Best of Gannett award.

Other TV specials, including one in Washington, followed. He did one in Denver about racism that won a local Emmy.

"I wasn't even a member of AFTRA," he said, referring to the television performers' union. "And I won this Emmy. That didn't sit too well with some people."

Some people in Hollywood took notice. Williams compiled a tape of his TV work. It made the rounds.

"It became a bidding war," the 35-year-old Williams said of what followed. Eventually he signed with Viacom.

"When I set out on this, it was to help kids," Williams said. "Now I'm talking to a larger audience. But if I can continue to help people through that box, then that's what I wanted to do."

When you meet him, you can certainly understand why Williams attracted such attention. With his shaved head, muscular body and in-your-face attitude that's reminiscent of Lou Gossett's drill instructor in "An Officer and a Gentleman," he has an undeniable physical charisma. It's the type that turns heads when he enters the room. But that's leavened by a big brother-like concern, visible in his eyes, audible in his voice, keeping his attitude from the threatening edge.

"Everybody wants to know why we need another talk show," Williams said of entering this crowded and competitive field. "I think it's time we have one that doesn't just titillate the libido, but that titillates the intellect.

"It's a TV show, and we know that we have to entertain, and we will do that. But you don't have to get down in the sleaze like the other talk shows.

"There's a great thirst out there for information that people aren't getting from those shows, and we're going to try to provide that.

"And remember, in the last three years, I've traveled all over this country speaking. I know what it's like to wake up in the Quality Inn, the five-star hotel in some towns. I've talked to people in those little towns in Texas and Tennessee. I know what they want to know, what questions they want answered. Phil, Oprah, Geraldo and Sally haven't done that."

Williams describes the 13 weeks of shows that he's making as an extended pilot, an opportunity to work the bugs out. He admits that he's still learning about television, about the pace and the mix of guests and the proper tone.

He's making six shows on a week, taping two a day every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at the CBS Television Center in L.A.

One day last week, the taping of a show about women carrying firearms got rather raucous.

"If they want entertainment, we certainly gave them that in the pistol-packing-momma show," he said.

An hour later, Williams was having trouble holding back tears as he discussed teen suicide with a panel that included a close friend whose son had taken his own life. The audience was made up mostly of high school students, some of whom had attempted suicide.

"I'm not sure I should've done that show when I did because I didn't have the distance I needed from the incident," he said.

Nevertheless, it made for a powerful hour of television. "And I do think we communicated a lot of information," he said.

Whether or not "The Montel Williams Show" finds enough customers to make it last longer than 13 weeks, you get the feeling that now that its host has made it to the spotlight, he's not going to leave it any time soon.

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