On Oct. 17, 1981, Saturday Night Live viewers got their final glimpse of one of the show’s most popular — and most unlucky — characters, Mr. Bill.
Before the Play-Doh character became SNL’s unlikely breakout star, he was the creation of Walter Williams, an amateur filmmaker from New Orleans.
“I wanted to do this bad animation thing,” Williams recalled decades later. “[Cartoons] kind of kept getting progressively less and less motion. I was thinking pretty soon you’d be able to see the hands moving the thing around. That’s kind of where the characters came from. The hands could accidentally drop the character.”
“Then I decided I want to set it as kind of a kids show type motif,” he continued. “I knew that I didn’t want to start beating up Mr. Bill right away. He doesn’t enjoy it. People mistake it as some kind of masochistic thing. He’s always complaining, but he just can’t get away. He’s kind of a victim of his form of animation.”
Williams sent his first Mr. Bill creation to producer Lorne Michaels in 1976.
“Saturday Night Live came on the first season and somebody mentioned to me they had this contest where you could send in your home movies,” Williams explained. “I sent a reel of films in, one of which was my first Mr. Bill film. That’s the one they picked and put it on the air.”
Watch the Original Mr. Bill Short
To everyone’s surprise, the initial short was well-received. Michaels asked Williams to make more Mr. Bill sketches, which he was happy to do. “There was a demand for it and they asked me to do more,” Williams admitted. “I just kept making more and more.”
One appearance in season one led to two appearances in season two. Fans continued clamoring for more Mr. Bill, so the frequency kept increasing. By season four, Williams was a full-time SNL writer. Of the 20 shows to air that season, Mr. Bill appeared in nine.
“By the peak of Saturday Night Live, I was going through the 55-gallon drums of Play-Doh,” Williams revealed. “They don’t last too long.”
Naturally, Mr. Bill’s popularity led to merchandising. And while Williams didn’t pursue such avenues, many bootleggers did. Dolls, poster, pins and coffee mugs were some of the many illegitimate items to feature Mr. Bill’s likeness. Eventually, Williams signed off on a select few official items to help maintain his copyright over the character.
Following the conclusion of season five, Michaels, the SNL writing staff and the entire cast left the show. Season six would be tumultuous for the show, with further changes in front of and behind the camera. The last episode of the season saw Chevy Chase return to the show as unofficial host. In the cold open, the actor would be seen going through an old SNL storage space, reminiscing about the show’s heyday. He’d stumble upon Mr. Bill, who Chase would engage in a brief conversation before accidentally crushing him with a bookshelf.
On Oct. 17, 1981, Mr. Bill would appear on SNL for the final time. The sketch found the claymation character now living in Los Angeles, lounging poolside and attending a party hosted by Barbie and Ken. Naturally, bad luck followed Mr. Bill to the west coast. In his final scene, the Play-Doh character was seen being crushed within the San Andreas fault.
Watch the Final Mr. Bill ‘Saturday Night Live’ Short