Crooner Andy Williams dead from cancer at 84

Easy-listening entertainer beloved for decades on TV and on stage. Photo: AP file

BRANSON, Mo., September 26, 2012 – Easy-listening heartthrob Andy Williams, 84, died Tuesday evening at his home in Branson, Missouri. He had been suffering from bladder cancer and reportedly succumbed to  complications from that disease.

Williams first rocketed to fame due to a single song—“Moon River”—the theme song from the 1961 hit film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which starred Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard. After his rendition of the tune at the 1962 Academy Awards ceremonies turned the Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer song into a bona-fide hit, Williams’ fame was quickly assured. He later made use of this signature song as the opening theme for his popular comedy-music-variety program, “The Andy Williams Show,” which became a beloved TV tradition during the 1960s.

Andy Williams in the 1960s, escorting then-wife Claudine Longet. (AP file)

Williams’ long running show proved surprisingly enduring  throughout that tumultuous decade, becoming a reliably wholesome family alternative to the edgier entertainment fare, like “Laugh In” and “The Smothers Brothers” comedy hour that characterized the new face of TV. In keeping with his mellower format, Williams’ guest roster generally included older Hollywood stars. But he later introduced some newer ones, including the well-scrubbed Osmond Brothers whose career trajectory was arguably launched by the singer.

Williams’ later shows and TV Christmas Specials carried on this family tradition, although he wasn’t exactly a stick in the mud, either. For example, he was unafraid to invite contemporary pop favorites like the Mamas and the Papas and Elton John to appear on his shows. Nonetheless, his regular show departed from TV in 1971.

Andy Williams was born in rural Wall Lake, Iowa, and grew up singing in a local church choir with his older brothers. The brothers also copped occasional singing gigs on Midwestern radio outlets, billing themselves, unsurprisingly, as the Williams Brothers.

Eventually beloved as a crooner in the tradition of Bing Crosby, it’s not surprising that Williams’ career was helped by an early association with Der Bingle himself. Around the end of World War II, Crosby had employed Andy and his brothers as backup singers on one of his recordings, giving their struggling act a boost.

But they never really broke out, even after that recording. As a result, Williams’ brothers eventually decided to leave show business in the early 1950s. But their younger brother Andy decided to give it another go and struck out on his own.

After the act broke up, Williams tried to make it on his own, traveling to New York and checking out the still-new medium of television. He got lucky and appeared on Steve Allen’s then brand-new “Tonight”—which originated in the Big Apple and remained there for many years before successor host Johnny Carson decided to transplant the show to LA. This and other appearances kept Williams’ career alive until his breakout with “Moon River” in the early 1960s.

Although Williams became well known for his image as a family man, domestic tranquility wasn’t always firmly within his grasp. After a fourteen-year marriage to the wispy, exquisitely beautiful Claudine Longet, a French singer with whom he had two sons and a daughter, the couple divorced in 1975.

Not long after, Longet was embroiled in a juicy international scandal when she shot and killed a popular Russian ski champion, Spider Sabitch, in trendy Aspen Colorado where the couple were carrying on a tempestuous affair. She claimed that the shooting was accidental.

During her later trial for homicide, Williams gallantly took his ex-wife’s side in court. She was eventually found guilty of a lesser charge, serving only a month in jail.

Later in his career, Williams became a fixture in Las Vegas, headlining shows where he sang “Moon River” and other movie hit songs, such as the theme songs from “Days of Wine and Roses,” “Charade,” “Love Story,” and “The Way We Were.” His record albums accumulated three platinum and eighteen gold album awards, assuring his continuing popularity, particularly among members of the Greatest Generation who considered him something of a national entertainment treasure.

Although he was popular in Vegas, Williams discovered the mellower music city of Branson, Missouri in the early 1990s. The family-oriented entertainment scene there appealed to Williams’ own low-key background and style. He eventually took his act there, building his own Andy Williams Moon River Theater in that town to serve as his new performance home and buying a home in Branson as well. He continued to maintain a second residence in California.

Although a life-long Republican, Williams was a close friend of the late Senator Robert Kennedy, and sang at the Senator’s funeral after his 1968 assassination. More recently, he had been vociferous in his opposition to the politics of the current U.S. President, Barack Obama.

Long after his divorce from Claudine Longet, Williams remarried in the early 1990s, this time to a professional woman named Debbie Haas. She survives him as do two of his brothers, his three children by Claudine Longet, and several grandchildren. Plans for funeral services were unavailable.


Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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