Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Past Lives and Old Questions

Mary Lois Timbes, Merrell Williams Jr., The Glass Menagerie
I was scanning my online NY Times today when I came upon an obituary that hit my heart. Surprised, yes, in that it was of a man I'd known as a youth, with all the promise and energy that entails, a man who had lived a life quite different from the one we who knew him in those days would have dreamed.

Merrell Williams, Jr., of Jackson, MS, was the only one of our group at the Mississippi Southern Summer Theater Program whom I would have bet on as having what it takes to become a movie star. He was the most gifted among us, a natural in the James Dean mode, with a flair for comedy as well as easy access to his passionate nature, along with a lot of charm and ambition--surely as close to a guarantee of success on stage and screen as could be found. After the summer program, he enrolled at Baylor University, which was said to have one of the best theatre departments in the country. We knew his name was Merrell but he was known as Butch in those days.

A few years later I was living in New York and saw his picture in the Times in a coffeehouse production--all the rage in the early 1960s. I just assumed I'd soon see him somewhere onstage or on a big screen. I didn't hear of him again, however, until the late 1980s when he was mentioned on 60 Minutes as a whistleblower in the tobacco industry. I went to the movie The Insider, expecting to see something about him, but the movie was about Jeffrey Wigand, and played by Russell Crowe, who looked a little like Butch and also a little like Wigand. Apparently his life was spent not pounding the pavement looking for acting jobs, but instead riffling through files and copying documents to indict the tobacco industry, behind the scenes.
Merrill Williams Jr. in 1994

In a play early on, one write-up says, he portrayed a chain smoking ad executive, and found himself addicted to cigarettes by the end of it. His parents had both been heavy smokers and his father died young as a result. Butch was a driven sort of guy, and he apparently became obsessed with outing the corporations who profited from the sale of tobacco products, and did his part in exposing much of the corruption in the industry.

He died of a heart attack at his home in Ocean Springs, MS, known as a waterside resort, not unlike Fairhope AL, where I spent my childhood and went for another 20 years before moving back to the Northeast.

Our paths didn't cross again, but he was unforgettable. In many ways I'm proud of what he did do with his time on earth, and yet I get the feeling from what I read about him that he died an embittered man. Part of me wishes he had become a movie star.


  1. Thank you for writing such a true, candid story about my husband Merrell William Jr. Much appreciated.
    No, he didn't die embittered; he wanted to have had the time (and health) to have done much more. I miss him dearly.
    Thank you. Christina Daltro.

  2. So nice to hear from you, Christina. I have only pleasant memories of him and am pleased that his family saw this.