In 1957, William divorced first wife June Nelson and married model Susan Randall, Christopher’s mom. “He never felt right about leaving June — that was one thing he did regret,” Christopher says. “But he loved the hell out of my mom.”
Small-screen fame finally found him in 1971 when he was cast in the title role of an irascible detective in Cannon. “He was an everyman,” Christopher says of his father’s appeal as the character. “He was not particularly graceful, and America related.”
A few years after Cannon went off the air in 1976, Susan was diagnosed with breast cancer. “It was really hard — she was the most beautiful, proud, vivacious woman,” says Christopher. “My father loved her until the day she died” in 1979.
William struggled with his own health issues over the years. “He was always on a diet — he loved to eat and had little self-control over that,” says Christopher. “But he was always heavyset — it was his nature.” Hence the title of his final hit show, Jake and the Fatman, which ran from 1987 to 1992.
He died at 73 in 1994, but William lives on in the heart of his son. “My father said it was the most important thing to him that he be remembered as a kind man, a nice man,” recalls Christopher. “And he was. He was an amazing man.”
Bruce Fretts, with reporting by Amanda Champagne Meadows
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