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Prolific actor Treat Williams went from early success on Broadway to starring roles in highly anticipated film projects before ultimately earning a reputation as a versatile performer capable of playing the hero, villain, or later in his career, sturdy father figure. After establishing a commanding screen presence with diverse performances in Milos Forman's underrated musical "Hair" (1979) and Sidney Lumet's superior cop drama "Prince of the City" (1981), Williams seemed poised to enter the ranks of A-list actors. However, a series of poor career choices and bad luck at the box office relegated him to made-for-television projects and low-budget thrillers for a number of years. There were occasional bright spots, such as a supporting role in Sergio Leone's massive gangster drama "Once Upon a Time in America" (1984) and a noteworthy turn as a crazy criminal in the thriller "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead" (1995). On television Williams earned an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of agent Michael Ovitz in "The Late Shift" (HBO, 1996), and won acclaim as the lead of the drama series "Everwood" (The WB, 2002-06). Although cast more frequently in the role of patriarch at this point in his...
Prolific actor Treat Williams went from early success on Broadway to starring roles in highly anticipated film projects before ultimately earning a reputation as a versatile performer capable of playing the hero, villain, or later in his career, sturdy father figure. After establishing a commanding screen presence with diverse performances in Milos Forman's underrated musical "Hair" (1979) and Sidney Lumet's superior cop drama "Prince of the City" (1981), Williams seemed poised to enter the ranks of A-list actors. However, a series of poor career choices and bad luck at the box office relegated him to made-for-television projects and low-budget thrillers for a number of years. There were occasional bright spots, such as a supporting role in Sergio Leone's massive gangster drama "Once Upon a Time in America" (1984) and a noteworthy turn as a crazy criminal in the thriller "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead" (1995). On television Williams earned an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of agent Michael Ovitz in "The Late Shift" (HBO, 1996), and won acclaim as the lead of the drama series "Everwood" (The WB, 2002-06). Although cast more frequently in the role of patriarch at this point in his career, Williams had long since proven his versatility as one of the most dependable actors in Hollywood.
Born Richard Treat Williams on Dec. 1, 1951 in Rowayton, CT, he was the son of parents Marion, an antiques dealer, and Richard Norman, a chemical engineer and business executive. Williams - a descendent of Declaration of Independence signer Robert Treat Paine - enjoyed a comfortable upper-middleclass upbringing, which included enrollment in Connecticut's Kent School, the prestigious co-educational preparatory academy. Adventurous from a young age, he earned his pilot's license by the age of 17. After graduation, Williams studied theater at Franklin & Marshall College in nearby Pennsylvania, where he earned his BA. Ready to pursue his craft in earnest, Williams moved to New York shortly after graduation, where he was immediately cast as an understudy to John Travolta in the long-running Broadway musical "Grease" in 1973. Williams eventually assumed the leading role of Danny Zuko before moving the following year to a supporting role alongside Travolta in "Over Here!" another musical. More stage roles and positive notices followed before he segued into feature films, starting with his debut as a cop in the low-budget crime thriller "Deadly Hero" (1976). That same year he made more noticeable appearances in the Richard Lester-helmed gay farce "The Ritz" (1976) and "The Eagle Has Landed" (1976), a WWII action adventure starring Michael Caine.
Despite his aggressive jump into the movies, it would be three years before his next film role; this one would fully utilize Williams' impressive musical theater background. What should have been his big break came when director Milos Forman cast Williams as Berger, the charismatic hippie leader in "Hair" (1979), the cinematic adaptation of the hit Broadway musical. The project was a mixed blessing for Williams - who was nominated for a New Star of the Year Golden Globe for his performance - when it garnered largely favorable reviews, but ultimately disappointed at the box office. Not helping matters was his appearance Steven Spielberg's spectacularly messy WWII comedy "1941" (1979), in which Williams played a hot-tempered, egg-hating soldier opposite John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. After the romantic comedy "Why Would I Lie?" (1980) came and went without notice Williams entertained the idea of giving up acting and working as a commercial pilot. He was pulled back from the brink, however, when he was cast almost simultaneously for the lead in two films. Williams showed his true range as an actor with an intense performance as a New York police detective-turned-Justice Department informant in Sidney Lumet's "Prince of the City" (1981). Unfortunately, the film's length and admittedly complicated story undercut its appeal with audiences, although once again, Williams received critical nods for a film that underperformed theatrically.
Garnering none of the acclaim of "Prince of the City" and even more disinterest from audiences was William's other movie that year, the loosely based in fact adventure "The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper" (1981), in which he played the titular hijacker opposite Robert Duvall as the man obsessed with catching him. Much more rewarding was Williams' return to the Broadway stage when he took over the role of the Pirate King from his friend Kevin Kline in the long-running musical "The Pirates of Penzance" that same year. He made an impressive television debut as the legendary boxer in the biopic "Dempsey" (CBS, 1983), and turned in an admirable performance as Stanley Kowalski opposite Ann-Margaret's Blanche DuBois in "A Streetcar Named Desire" (ABC, 1984). Maintaining a hectic schedule, Williams played a 1930s union boss in Sergio Leone's sweeping gangster epic "Once Upon a Time in America" (1984), alongside Robert De Niro and James Woods, and even managed to co-star with Kris Kristofferson in the conspiracy thriller "Flashpoint" (1984). The following year, he was at his charming best with a sexily menacing performance as Arnold Friend in Joyce Chopra's romantic thriller "Smooth Talk" (1985). As busy as the actor was, none of the projects - admittedly of varying merit - would propel him to the upper ranks of filmdom that many felt Williams surely belonged.
As the 1980s drew to a close, Williams increasingly turned to television productions and smaller features for his roles. These included a turn as the controversial former director of the F.B.I. in "J. Edgar Hoover" (Showtime, 1987), and an undead cop battling zombies with partner Joe Piscopo in the schlocky actioner "Dead Heat" (1988). On cable he starred opposite Virginia Madsen as a hard luck private eye framed for murder in the sexy noir "Third Degree Burn" (HBO, 1989), and a Holocaust survivor aiding Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal in "Max and Helen" (TNT, 1990). Williams gave weekly TV a try when he co-starred in two short-lived series: the legal drama "Eddie Dodd" (ABC, 1991), followed by a sitcom pairing with Shelley Long called "Good Advice" (CBS, 1993-94). Critics sat up and took notice of his unhinged portrayal of psychopathic career criminal "Critical" Bill in "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead" (1995), a crime thriller starring Andy Garcia. He followed with two more villainous portrayals; first, in the L.A. noir mystery "Mulholland Falls" (1996), as a corrupt Army colonel, and secondly, as Xander Drax, the nemesis of Billy Zane's jungle hero "The Phantom" (1996). Although Williams' feature film efforts left much to be desired, he gave an impressive turn as David Letterman's agent Michael Ovitz in "The Late Shift" (HBO, 1996). The fly-on-the-wall expose of the back-stabbing machinations behind the battle to take over Johnny Carson's gig on "The Tonight Show" earned Williams an Emmy nomination as Best Supporting Actor.
Williams continued with his recent string of bad guy roles opposite Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt in Alan J. Pakula's muddled IRA thriller "The Devil's Own" (1997). He switched to hero mode the following year when he took over the title role originated by Tom Berenger in the revenge thriller "The Substitute 2: School's Out" (HBO, 1998). Williams would revive the character of the troubled mercenary for HBO twice more in 1999 and 2000. He played another gun-totting protagonist in the high seas monster movie "Deep Rising" (1998), a guilty pleasure helmed by first time director Stephen Sommers. Williams put his weapons down long enough to exercise his dramatic muscles opposite Michelle Pfeiffer in "The Deep End of the Ocean" (1999), a melodrama about a couple who discover their missing son living in their neighborhood 10 years after he had been kidnapped. Action and adventure called once more, when he played a geology professor descending into the bowels of the planet for the miniseries "Journey to the Center of the Earth" (USA, 1999). Williams then landed his most prominent role in years on the family drama "Everwood" (The WB, 2002-06), a series about a famed neurosurgeon (Williams) who moves from New York to small-town Colorado with his son after the death of his wife. For his work on the well-regarded program the veteran actor was nominated for two consecutive SAG Awards for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in 2003 and 2004.
Possibly concerned that "Everwood" would be another failed series, Williams racked up a lengthy list of low-budget TV and direct-to-DVD credits, in addition to an appearance in the disappointing Woody Allen farce "Hollywood Endings" (2002) during the show's first season. He also managed to squeeze in a turn as an FBI director in "Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous" (2005), the sequel to the surprising Sandra Bullock comedy hit five years prior. In the hope that lightning might strike twice, Williams jumped from "Everwood" to the cast of basic cable's "Heartland" (TNT, 2006-07). Unfortunately, the short-lived medical drama would not provide the continued steady work he sought when it was canceled after nine episodes. Williams never broke stride, however, continuing to appear in television projects and feature films, frequently in the role of a family patriarch, as he did in the romantic comedy "What Happens in Vegas" (2008), as Ashton Kutcher's exasperated dad. Late in the decade he had back-to-back roles in a pair of films starring the indefatigable James Franco. Williams portrayed scholar and writer Mark Schorer in the Allen Ginsburg (Franco) biopic "Howl" (2010), immediately followed by a cameo as Franco's father in the grueling survival tale "127 Hours" (2010).
By Bryce Coleman
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