Talk-show host Montel Williams

”Folks!” Montel Williams yells from a sweltering makeshift set at the Wetlands, a cavernous club in lower Manhattan. ”We’ve got to do something. I’m dying.” Williams, whose press kit describes him as ”a cool head for hot talk,” is not talking about racism, suicide, AIDS, or any of the other grave topics he later brings up with this audience of 50 teens—he is pointing to his shiny, sweating head. The crowd giggles, an electric fan is brought in, and daytime talk host Williams continues taping his first prime-time special, Mountain! Get Out of My Way, which airs in syndication starting Aug. 24 (check local listings) and on MTV the week of Sept. 14. ”We want to know,” says Williams, half-teasingly, half-seriously, ”why are kids so messed up?”

Williams, 36, knows a lot about the problems facing youths—before his TV career, he spent three years speaking to high school students across the country as a motivatispeaker. His TV special includes group discussions and emotionally charged interviews with individuals who have troubled pasts. ”In each one of these cases,” he says, ”we tried to show people who have overcome these obstacles and who are willing to go outside of themselves to help others.”

The father of two daughters from his first marriage—Ashley, 8, and Maressa, 3—the recently remarried talk-show host is more reserved about his own adolescence. ”I did not grow up in a Brady Bunch family,” says the former naval intelligence officer who grew up in the Baltimore suburb of Glen Burnie, Md. ”But I had parents at home who instilled a very serious work ethic in me.” The discipline has paid off: Ratings for his syndicated daily The Montel Williams Show have increased steadily since its debut a year ago, and the show will relocate from L.A. to New York City’s Times Square Studios after Labor Day. He plans to keep moving to bigger and better things: ”Down the road,” he says, ”you may even see me doing a feature film.”