Tom Willett’s tutorial on “How to Eat a Watermelon” posted on YouTube earlier this week has gone viral, being picked up by countless blogs and even more well-known websites like the Huffington Post and NBC’s Today show blog.
The video is a bit of comedy by Willett — although he keeps a straight face the whole time, which he said wouldn’t be comedy otherwise. Why it has gained a spike in traction on the Web, Willett can’t say. The video really took off when it was mentioned by a Reddit commenter and picked up by Buzzfeed, although he said in an interview with TheBlaze, “I’m not really sure what those two sites are.”
Watch the video to see what all the hype is about:
Willett would not consider himself tech savvy.
“I’m not all that high tech,” he said, noting how he doesn’t know how to work smartphones or GPS.
But the fact that he has posted more than 400 videos on YouTube with more than 3.2 million views in total and films and edits nearly all of the footage he takes himself may speak to the contrary. He acknowledges the fact that he maintains several websites and has such a presence on YouTube may be a bit of an incongruity considering his age — 74. He has nearly 14,000 subscribers to his Featureman channel.
Although his online alter ego may be Featureman, you may actually recognize Tom Willett’s name — or his face — from the television show “Dear John,” a sitcom on NBC that ran from 1988 through 1992.
Born and raised in the Midwest, Willett first knew he had a thing for entertaining when he realized he loved the applause he received at the end of a play in the second grade.
“I found I was a bit of a ham,” he said.
In his early teens, he solidified his ambition to be an entertainer and began working at a gas station to buy a Greyhound bus ticket to Hollywood. Making the cross country trip at age 17, Willett knew no one in Los Angeles when he arrived. That was April of 1956. It wouldn’t be for another two decades, moving to New York City and then to Las Vegas, before he would get his first foot into the film industry as an extra on “The Electric Horseman.”
After appearing as an extra in several other films, at age 50, Willett auditioned for “Dear John” and received the role of “Tom,” who was largely silent and was only slated to appear in the pilot episode. But they liked his character enough that he became a regular member of the cast.
“I was amazed all the time that I was on ‘Dear John,’” Willett said. “I kept thinking ‘why are they paying me what I would not only do for free but I would pay them?’”
But like all television shows, they have an end. Although Willett said he made enough from the show, its syndication, and gigs he received after that due to his experience and notoriety, he didn’t stop working.
It was in the early 2000s that Willett said he realized the Web was the place to be. He noted the advantage of new, affordable technology that is still relatively high quality allowing him to make his own a one-man show. Even with the advances though, he says he admires what special effects were like in old-time movies because filmmakers had to work at it.
“I’m always impressed with people that did amazing tech things at a time when they didn’t really know how to do it,” Willett said noting the ingenuity that had to go into special effects before computer imagery and stock footage.
This is not to say that Willett isn’t a huge fan of stock footage or the shortcuts that technology gives him these days. In fact, one of his favorite videos made by himself uses a tech feature that easily splices two separate conversations and footage together to work in one film. The example he gives is a YouTube video posted of a woman who wanted to date everyone on YouTube. On her end, she filmed her own one-sided conversation. Other people would film the other side of the conversation, as if they were on the date with her and splice the footage together. Then you’d have what looks like a cohesive scene filmed in one place.
Watch Willett in The Great Date:
What Willett says he likes most about his work being on the Web is the comments.
“Any comment adds to the success of the video — whether negative or positive,” he said.
He said the commenters point out things he didn’t think himself would be funny and even add to the hilarity by expounding further on his jokes.
When asked why he continues to film videos of his skits, comedic news broadcasts and songs instead of “retiring,” he said it’s because he hasn’t changed from the 14 year old who decided to throw all of his ambition into being an entertainer.
“I’m basically the same person I was when I was 14 — inside. I haven’t changed what I like and I never do what you’re supposed to do. I do what feels right.”
The watermelon video, for example, makes him especially pleased because he knows he would have liked it just as well when he was 14.
“I found that everything I wanted was basically the idea of what I’m doing on YouTube right now.”
To learn more about Willett, here’s his own self introduction: