As one might imagine, these were not the preferred after-school activities of his peers, who saw him, one former classmate says, as a “geek.” Nor was there much empathy for his bond with nature in the grown-up world. “Adults acted like it was something strange,” says Schwartz. “But when you have that kind of love of weather as a child, it’s a gift.”
Schwartz stayed the course: His Central High School yearbook prediction is “meteorologist”; when a hurricane prevented him from making it to his Penn State graduation, it seemed like divine intervention. But love of weather and model good looks don’t necessarily come hand-in-hand, and as television news was becoming more about looks and personality and less about skill, Schwartz, a five-foot-six bespectacled nerd with a strong Philly accent, was having a hard time fitting in. The Albert Brooks character in Broadcast News would have empathized with his early work: There he is during Hurricane Elena, hunched around the microphone, a baseball cap pulled down over his thick, black-framed glasses, his small body being buffeted by 100-mile-an-hour winds. (Hence the nickname “Hurricane.”) Several times, he was fired — from stations in Cincinnati, New York and Raleigh — for, he says, “not being pretty enough.”
It wasn’t until NBC 10 executive Steve Doerr — the self-same producer who would, years later, encourage former Philly anchor Sharon Reed to pose in a nude group photo shoot in Cleveland during sweeps week — called in 1995 to offer him a job that he was able to embrace his nerdiness. “We’ve got this guy up here, John Bolaris,” Schwartz recalls Doerr saying. “He wears these $2,000 suits, he’s so good-looking he could be on the cover of GQ, all the women love him.” Pause. “I see you as the anti-Bolaris.” Schwartz giggles again.
Schwartz became George to Bolaris’s Jerry — literally, in the Seinfeld-themed commercials the station ran to promote the duo. Playing the clown came naturally to him; it was something he learned he could do in the fifth or sixth grade, when he tripped and fell on his face in the school auditorium during an assembly. “Five hundred kids laughed,” he says, leaning forward in the booth at Chops, “and I liked it.” His zest for humiliation notwithstanding, the memory of having been misunderstood as a child and undervalued as an adult seems to have instilled in him a desire for redress. Project H.O.P.E.S., for instance, a club he founded for minority children, seeks to lessen the stigma of being a “weather nerd” by bringing kids who have a passion for weather together with like-minded souls. “Other kids might tease us about it,” he says of his group, with whom he meets once a month, “but we have each other. And there are thousands of us out there.”
When Bolaris fled to New York in 2001, it seemed for a while that Schwartz, who was promoted to replace him, might soon go the way of Jason Alexander. Instead, he has come into his own. He’s beloved by his audience, and with global warming on the international radar, he has carved out a respectable place for himself as the local go-to person for talks about climate change.
And now, of course, there’s the novel.
THE WEATHERMAKER — THE concept for which Hurricane says came to him fully formed one night shortly before he separated from Wynette — is being shopped to publishing houses as a “thriller featuring tornadoes, hurricanes and floods all over the planet, a romance between a classically handsome TV personality and a famous actress, and a story of personal, ethical and moral conflicts.” In the first installment of what Schwartz says will be a four-part series, a handsome young Philadelphia meteorologist named Neil Stephenson discovers he has the ability to control the weather. One of his early acts is to bring snow to Philadelphia to save his station, USB 8, from embarrassment after a storm it has hyped appears to be moving away.
It’s tempting to imagine Schwartz as the hero of his own wish-fulfillment saga, a kind of Walter Mitty of meteorology whose innermost fantasies are about controlling the elements. Schwartz says this isn’t the case, and that Neil is actually based partly on his younger co-star and station-buddy Doug Kammerer, who has lately taken over the station’s role of resident hot guy. Schwartz says he himself is more like Phil, the older meteorologist in the book. A reading of a few chapters bears this out.
Phil shook his head. “I was wondering what took her so long. I can’t believe all the women who are after you. You can have anyone you want. I wonder what it would be like.”
Neil looked pleased, but surprised. “It wasn’t always like this. Sure, there would be girls who would flirt with me at parties or bars, but now that I’m on TV, it’s gotten crazy. I get several pictures each year from women who are totally naked and spread-eagled, with attached notes saying ‘Come get it anytime.’ Hot women just come up to me at these bars and rub into me, grab my ass, whisper or lick my ear, and directly proposition me. Some of them even put their hands down my pants and grab my package. Others put their hands down their own pants and say, ‘This could be you.’ I love this attention, and I have certainly taken more than a few of these girls up on their offers, but I’d never want to marry one of them. I prefer the ones who are shy and need some coaxing, and they hardly exist anymore.”