Millions saw Louisiana contestant Archie Williams' "America's Got Talent" audition even before it aired on the show's season premiere Tuesday night.
The show's network, NBC, leaked the video clip of Williams' singing performance Friday through the all-ages talent competition series' social media accounts. By Tuesday, it had gotten 2.1 million views on YouTube alone.
The try-out is the realization of a long-held dream for the 59-year-old Williams, who said he followed the popular series while incarcerated, with dreams of one day making it to the big stage.
"I watched 'America's Got Talent' in prison, and I would visualize myself being there," he said. "I always desired to be on a stage like this, and now I'm here. Thank God. I know it's the chance of a lifetime."
In the nearly 10-minute segment, Williams related his story of being falsely accused for the rape and stabbing of a woman at her home in the Hundred Oaks area of Baton Rouge in 1983, then being convicted of the crimes and sentenced to life plus 80 years in prison at Angola with no chance of parole.
He was exonerated in March 2019, thanks to the help of the Innocence Project New Orleans, when improvements in evidence technology proved fingerprints taken at the scene of the crime belonged to another man — a serial rapist who went free while Williams was serving his sentence.
"DNA freed me," he proclaimed.
In the audition, Williams, who said praying and singing in prison is how he lived through it, showcased his vocal skills with a performance of the 1974 Elton John classic "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" that brought the show's four judges — Howie Mandel, Heidi Klum, Sofia Vergara and the notoriously blunt Simon Cowell — and the audience to their feet, amazed and tearful.
"I don't cry over a lot of things, but that did it to me," Klum said, wiping her eyes.
"Even though you did 37 years, that's 37 years that they didn't break you," Vergara, new to the "AGT" judges' table this season, told Williams.
"Archie, I will never, ever listen to that song in the same way ever again after you sang that. It took on a whole new meaning for me," Cowell said in his critique. "You're a very, very courageous person. By the way, you have a really good voice — you really, really do.
"This is an audition I will never forget for the whole of my life, Archie."
John himself took to Twitter after Williams sang his song, saying:
"I was moved to tears when I heard Archie’s story and saw him perform 'Don’t Let The Sun Go Down on Me.' The courage and forgiveness shown by him is truly inspiring. The same spirit that the world found so inspiring with Nelson Mandela. Love, E xx"
Cowell took his admiration for Williams and the Innocence Project's work a step further this week by becoming an official ambassador for the nonprofit organization.
“What happened to Archie is tragic. While Archie’s voice is extraordinary, unfortunately his experience of being sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit is much more common than most people realize," Cowell said.
Menawhile, "AGT's" audition episodes will continue to air over the next few weeks, leading up to the quarterfinal and then final rounds. Consequently, Williams likely won't appear on the show again until sometime in July, a show spokesman said Tuesday.
For this stage, the contestants are divided into groups and compete against each other with a new performance. The judges still give their critiques, and then viewers can vote for their favorites, with the highest vote-getters moving on in the competition. The winner gets $1 million.
Staff writer Lea Skene contributed to this report.
'America's Got Talent'
WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesdays
CHANNEL: WVLA, Channel 33 (cable Channel 3 in Baton Rouge, KLAF, Channel 15 (cable Channel 3 in Lafayette) and WDSU, Channel 6 (cable Channel 7 in New Orleans)