The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Treat Williams

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Every now and then, I always learn something new about the original Star Wars trilogy. Most of the time, I would be on the internet and discover some mind-blowing tidbit about things that went on behind the scenes or some well-known actor appearing in an uncredited role. The latter happened to be true last week when I was looking up trivia on the 1997 Harrison Ford thriller, The Devil’s Own, and I discovered that he and his co-star Treat Williams shared one thing in common: Both actors appeared in The Empire Strikes Back. After a quick Google search, I found set pics of him in a Rebel snow uniform hanging out with the legendary Carrie Fisher. While the details of where he exactly appeared in the film are still up to debate, this crazy trivia inspired me to get back into my underrated actors special so I can talk about this wonderful actor.

Born in Rowayton, CT, Williams was given the first name “Treat” because of his maternal relative, Robert Treat Paine, whose was a signatory on the Declaration of Independence. Senator William Henry Barnum of Connecticut was his maternal great-great-grandfather was the third cousin of P.T. Barnum. He spent his early years in prep-school playing football before he made the switch to acting at the Kent School and later graduated from Franklin and Marshall College. In the summer months, Williams worked various dramas and musicals at the Fulton Repertory Theatre in Lancaster, PA.

In the early 1970s, Williams took his talents to Broadway where he became an understudy for Grease in the Danny Zuko role. Subsequent productions included Over Here! and Once in a Lifetime. Though he made his film debut as a police officer in 1975’s Deadly Hero, it was the following year when Williams got some notices for his performance as high-pitched P.I. Michael Brick in the film adaptation of Terence McNally’s play, The Ritz. Working alongside acting heavyweights such as Jack Weston and Rita Moreno, Williams took the role from Stephen Collins who originated it in the play and he worked closely with director Richard Lester to give a standout comedic performance. That same year, Williams played Larry Hagman’s young deputy in the World War II film, The Eagle Has Landed.

1979 was Williams’ breakout year with two high profile blockbusters: Milos Forman’s film adaptation of Hair and Steven Spielberg’s epic disaster comedy, 1941. Hair saw Williams as hippie leader George Berger which he had to audition multiple times to get and had to compete with Jim Ragni, the original actor from the musical. Williams went as far as ‘wrestling’ Ragni during an audition when he lost his cool after repeating the same song over and over. Forman gave Williams the role because of his youth and it not only became his best experience on film ever but it also earned him a Golden Globe nomination. 1941 saw Williams as a bully corporal in a M3 Lee tank crew opposite such stars as Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, and Tim Matheson. Though the film was considered Spielberg’s first box office bomb, it not only helped in getting him in the same circles as his co-stars but it also made him a top consideration for Indiana Jones when Spielberg was casting Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Though Williams was considered a hot prospect in Hollywood, he still remained relatively unknown to the general public. This would change in 1981 with the police drama, Prince of the City. Based on the Robert Daley novel, Prince originated as a Brian De Palma project with the likes of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and John Travolta in the running for the lead role of Detective Danny Ciello, a narcotics cop who finds himself working with an anti-corruption commission that puts him at odds with fellow officers. Orion Pictures, however, felt the project was better suited for director Sidney Lumet who previously tackled police corruption in 1973’s Serpico and forced De Palma off the project to get him. Lumet pushed for an unknown actor to carry the film and he hired Williams as Ciello after three weeks of talks and script read-throughs. Williams spent months working with real NYPD officers including Detective Robert Leuci who was the inspiration for the Ciello character. Unlike the rebellious nature of Serpico, Prince of the City was an emotional journey of a film dealing with a cop struggling to undo his dirty past and Williams’ performance had realistic moments of fear and despair when he finds himself unable to control his situation. He was once again nominated for a Golden Globe.

Williams worked steadily throughout the 80s, but he never broke into the same A-list leading man status as his contemporaries like Harrison Ford. Some of his highlights during the era included Prohibition union boss Jimmy O’Donnell in Sergio Leone’s final masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in America and a seductive stranger opposite Laura Dern in the indie drama, Smooth Talk. He earned another Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in a television adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1984. Williams was also a frequent face in many HBO original movies during the 80s with such films as Flashpoint with Kris Kristofferson and Third Degree Burn with Virginia Madsen.

Most of the early 1990s saw Williams do a wide variety of made-for-television movies while also being typecast in villain roles on the silver screen. He played the moody criminal, Critical Bill, in 1995’s Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead; a blackmailing army colonel in 1996’s Mulholland Falls; and an Irish-American gangster in 1997’s The Devil’s Own. One of his stand out villain roles came in the part of Xander Drax in the film adaptation of The Phantom which was Williams’ twist on the Clark Gable image of the 1930s. While not a hit film, Williams relished in the 30s-style acting of the period.

Williams’ next most notable role came in real life Hollywood super-agent Michael Ovitz in the HBO movie, The Late Shift. This was a true signature role for Williams as the extremely confident dealmaker who helped get David Letterman to move away from his NBC late night show to stand out on his own at CBS. He earned Primetime Emmy and Satellite award nominations for his performance.

An unlikely franchise came Williams’ way in 1998 when he took over from Tom Berenger in the sequel to his sleeper hit, The Substitute. Williams seemed like an out of the box choice to play an ex-military hero who kicks criminal ass out of the classroom. Yet, the fact that three sequels were made said something about the guilty pleasure appeal it had on cable viewers.

After his Substitute days were over, Williams settled into TV dad status with the WB series, Everwood, where he played the neurosurgeon patriarch who settles his New York family into life in Colorado. It was one of the few television dramas of the new millennium that tackled the father/son dilemma on a weekly basis and it build a loyal fanbase for four years. He also made guest spots on hit shows such as Law & Order: SVU, CSI, and The Simpsons where he played himself! Outside of acting, Williams did some directing work, continues to perform on stage, and in 2010 he wrote a children’s book about being in an airshow experience with Air Show!

Now 65, Williams appears to enjoy the life as a working character actor in film, television, and theater. As for the Star Wars story, Williams took the extra role for fun and was not paid. For an actor who appeared to be on the verge of superstardom at the time, he was just happy having fun doing what he loved.

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