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Prince of the Cinema: Treat Williams (1951-2023)

"Prince of the City"

The fact that Treat Williams was not one of Hollywood's biggest movie stars has to rank as one of its most egregious failures. Here was a guy who had all the qualifications one might look for in such a person—the looks, the charisma, and the sheer, unquestionable talent—and while he worked steadily until his tragic death on June 12 at the age of 71 in a motorcycle accident, he never quite became the top-shelf star that, by all rights, he should have been. If there's anything resembling a bright side to such a horrific event, it's that the interest brought about by his passing may inspire people to take another look at his career, to discover for themselves why Williams was indeed one of the great actors of our time.

He was born in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1951 and made his first splash as an actor on Broadway in “Grease,” where he began as an understudy and eventually took over the lead role of Danny Zuko. He made his screen debut in 1975 with a supporting role in the low-budget cop drama “Deadly Hero,” and in the next year, he turned up in small parts in “The Ritz,” “Marathon Man,” and “The Eagle Has Landed.” The public may not have noticed him, but Hollywood certainly did because before long, he found himself in two of the most eagerly anticipated projects being made at that time—Milos Forman’s screen adaptation of the long-running and enormously successful stage musical Hair and “1941,” Steven Spielberg’s epic-sized follow-up to “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

In “Hair,” he played George Berger, the de facto leader of a group of hippies in New York who befriended an Oklahoma kid (John Savage) who is exploring the city in the days before his appointment with the draft board and his eventual shipment to Vietnam. As anyone who has seen both the original stage show and the film can attest, the movie is quite different from its largely plotless original incarnation. There have been many debates over the years about whether the changes made to Forman’s version helped it or hurt it. However, what has never been debated is the force of Williams’s performance as Berger. Although the entire cast is strong and impressive as a whole, Williams is so charismatic and compelling—especially during his show-stopping performance of “I Got Life”—that whenever he's on the screen, you can't take your eyes off of him. Thanks largely to his work, a film that could have just been a cynical piece of empty nostalgia was just as fresh, vibrant, and alive as the stage show when it debuted a decade earlier.

"1941"

In “1941,” Williams was part of an all-star cast—ranging from John Belushi to Toshiro Mifune to Slim Pickens—in one of the most gargantuan productions ever attempted by Hollywood, a loopy slapstick comedy chronicling the bizarre chaos that overtakes the increasingly panicky Los Angeles area a week after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In it, Williams played Corporal Chuck Sitarski, a short-tempered, egg-hating member of a tank crew helping to shore up the coastal defense against possible further attacks. His character, however, is far more interested in making time with innocent USO hostess Betty (Dianne Kay), much to the consternation of her boyfriend, dance-crazy dishwasher Wally (Bobby Di Cicco). This conflict builds until it finally explodes on the dance floor at the USO in an exquisitely choreographed sequence that eventually transforms into a full-scale riot in what remains one of the most astonishing sequences in Spielberg’s entire career. Williams is quite funny throughout, but he also manages to transform the charm that he demonstrated in “Hair” into something uglier—in a cast full of undeniably goofy and cartoonish characters, he was, with the single exception of the Nazi commandant played by Christopher Lee, the bad guy of "1941" and he certainly commits to that throughout.

And yet, despite the enormous hype surrounding them when they finally arrived in theaters, neither “Hair” nor “1941” made much of an impact and were written off as expensive and indulgent flops. In subsequent years, both would undergo significant critical reevaluations. At no point was it suggested that Williams was to blame—he received the first of his three Golden Globe nominations for his performance in “Hair”—but to be connected with two misfires like that probably did not do much good to his rise to fame. The next year, he actually turned up in the year’s biggest film, “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back,” albeit in a blink-and-miss-it cameo as one of the Rebel soldiers during the Hoth sequence. That same year, he also appeared in “Why Would I Lie?,” a whimsical romantic comedy in which he plays a compulsive liar named Cletus. The film is nowhere near as charming as it thinks, and the miscast Williams comes across as too intense for the nonsense surrounding them.

In the fall of 1981, Williams found himself front and center in two major films that, once again, floundered upon release. In the case of “The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper,” this was not much of a shock as the film, a speculative look at what might have happened infamous hijacker who seemingly vanished after jumping from the back of an airliner with $200,000 in 1971, was a trouble-plagued production that went through no less than four directors by the time it was finally completed. While the resulting film may not be as dreadful as its reputation suggests, the whole thing is, perhaps inevitably, a mess of clashing tones and messy storytelling. The Williams performance is one of the more successful aspects of the project, I suppose, but he doesn’t quite fit in with the more cutesy take on the character and his escapades—he makes you wish that he could play the same character in a more serious-minded take on his story.

His other film that year was Prince of the City,” an adaptation of the 1978 book by Robert Daley about corruption in the ranks of the NYPD. Originally conceived as a project for Brian De Palma and Robert De Niro, it eventually found its way to Sidney Lumet, who didn't casting a big star in the central role of Danny Ciello, a narcotics cop who agrees to participate in an internal affairs investigation of police corruption but is in over his head. Instead, he chose Williams, and the result was not just the best performance of Williams' entire career but one of the all-time great screen performances. The film runs nearly three hours long, and Williams is on screen for virtually every second, never less than mesmerizing. Watching him essay Ciello as he goes from being a slick cop who thinks he can get himself and his friends through the IA process unscathed, to a man haunted by the betrayals he finds himself forced to commit to get out of his situation, is a master class in acting. In a just world, his work here would have put him up there on the same level as Brando, De Niro, and Pacino. Alas, while Williams did receive a second Golden Globe nomination, and though the film is now regularly hailed as a masterpiece and one of Lumet’s best, audiences stayed away in droves. 

At this point, Hollywood evidently decided that Williams was not leading man material and no longer sought him out for the showy star parts and projects that he had been getting to that point. On television, he portrayed boxer Jack Dempsey in “Dempsey” (1983). He received his third Golden Globe nomination for playing Stanley Kowalski in a 1984 TV version of A Streetcar Named Desire opposite Ann-Margaret and his “Hair” co-star Beverly D’Angelo. He turned up in a nifty supporting role as a corrupt Teamsters boss in Sergio Leone’s sprawling and ultimately doomed gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984). In the same year, he co-starred with Kris Kristofferson in Flashpoint(1984), a nifty, underrated thriller in which the two play a pair of Border Patrol agents who discover a Jeep buried in the sand containing a skeleton, $800,000 in cash, and a sniper rifle that may be connected with nothing less than the Kennedy assassination. 

"Smooth Talk"

In 1985, Williams turned in another one of his great performances in “Smooth Talk,” Joyce Chopra’s adaption of a Joyce Carol Oates short story in which he plays Arnold Friend, a smooth-talking sleaze who comes into the life of a restless 15-year-old girl (Laura Dern) at exactly the wrong time and ends up changing her over the course of one afternoon. The film is a brutally intense work—all the more so because we can never quite pin down what ultimately occurs between the two—and makes perfect use of Williams’ ability to move between outward charm and quiet malevolence with such deftness that you hardly even notice the shift until it is too late. It's one of the most quietly terrifying films you will ever see—despite not necessarily being a horror film per se—and you'll never forget it or his performance.

For most of his remaining career, Williams bounced between films, mostly in supporting character roles and television appearances. While the projects might not have always been as sophisticated or as challenging as the ones he had done thus far but even in the silliest things (such as the string of direct-to-video sequels to The Substitute,” where he played an ex-mercenary who always found himself going undercover as a substitute teacher), he still gave it his all. Among the more high-profile turns during this time was “Dead Heat” (1988), a bizarre 1988 horror-comedy where he played a murdered cop (named Roger Mortis, ha-ha) brought back to life to help partner Joe Piscopo bring down the bad guys who are trying to create a zombie army to carry out armed robberies. Then there was “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead,” a 1995 Tarantino knockoff in which he plays a boxer whose hair-trigger temper winds up causing all sorts of problems, and “The Phantom” (1996), an underrated screen adaptation of the comic strip superhero in which he delivered a genuinely inspired and cheerfully hammy performance as the villainous Xander Drax. 

Williams even landed the lead role in Deep Rising,” a goofball 1998 action-horror hybrid that starts as a heist film involving the attempted robbery of a luxury ocean liner at sea and becomes much more complicated with the arrival of a giant sea creature. The film is dumb as can be but undeniably entertaining—it has become a bit of a cult favorite—and Williams is clearly having a blast throughout. He also turned up as super agent Mike Ovitz in “The Late Shift,” a 1996 cable film chronicling the battle between Jay Leno and David Letterman to succeed Johnny Carson as the host of “The Tonight Show.” He earned an Emmy nomination for his work.

In 2002, Williams appeared as a sleazy Hollywood bigwig in Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending and while the film as a whole was a bit tepid (this was the one where Allen plays a filmmaker who tries to direct a project while secretly suffering from hysterical blindness), he was quite funny in his scenes. That same year, he played the role of Dr. Andy Brown, a man who relocates his family from Manhattan to a small Colorado town in the wake of the death of his wife, on the television series “Everwood.” The show lasted four seasons and was generally well-received by viewers and critics alike. Although he still appeared in movies during and after the show’s run (he played James Franco’s father in 127 Hours (2010) and appeared in the 2018 Jennifer Lopez rom-com Second Act”), he was more likely to be seen on television via appearances in such shows as “Brothers & Sisters,” “The Simpsons” (as himself, no less), “Chicago Fire” and “Blue Bloods,” where he had a recurring role since 2016. 

Throughout his career, Treat Williams appeared in some genuine masterpieces and some projects that were, to put it charitably, bad. However, no matter the quality of the movie, you never really saw him slumming—he was one of those actors whose mere presence could enhance a project every time he appeared on the screen. If he never achieved the superstar status that seemed to be his destiny at one point, Williams nevertheless accumulated a collection of performances that would be the envy of nearly all of his acting peers. Stardom inevitably fades, but the power of Williams' best performances will continue to be felt for as long as people are around to watch them.

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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