Like a lot of delicacies out there, sometimes you must acquire a taste for them, even if you might not have loved them upon first nibble. Such is the case with today’s hunk, Mr. Treat Williams. He was just sort of there for me, a presence in several movies I’d either seen or seen parts of. Then one day someone introduced me to the film version of Hair and from then on, I was a Treat Tricker.
Richard Treat Williams was born in Norwalk, Connecticut in 1951. (Though some sources incorrectly attribute his middle name to that of a Declaration of Independence signer’s middle name, it is actually the last name of one of his Connecticut ancestors who was notable in his own right as a 17th century settler.) His father was an executive and his mother dealt in antiques.
During college, he kept busy with local repertory theatre and built a strong background playing all sorts of characters in classic and contemporary works. Following graduation, he headed to Manhattan where he understudied the lead in Grease. He then worked on The Andrews Sisters’ nostalgia musical Over Here! and landed his first film role in the feature film Deadly Hero, playing a fellow officer to the lead Don Murray, a model cop who heads down the tubes when one of his cases takes a nasty turn.
Things took off swiftly from here as he had a fleeting appearance in Marathon Man and then a featured part in the comedy The Ritz. The Ritz was a successful Broadway play (written by Terrence McNally) set in a gay bathhouse (!) and all about a man (Jack Weston) who hides out from his murder-minded brother-in-law in the steam and towel-laden title spot.
Blonde-dyed Treat played a detective forced to go undercover (or uncovered?) in pursuit of Weston and who catches the eye of the resident entertainer Googie Gomez, played on Broadway and in the film by Miss Rita Moreno. (Most of us know that Bette Midler got her start in the same vein, being accompanied on piano at one time by none other than Mr. Barry Manilow!)
The farcical and, to many, fondly remembered film retained many of its cast members from the stage version, though Treat was a replacement for Stephen Collins. (The role was played in a 1983 revival by porn star Casey Donovan!) Moreno won a Tony and was nominated for BAFTA and Golden Globe awards, but not the Oscar.
That same year, 1976, Williams appeared in still another movie, The Eagle Has Landed, a WWII adventure film about a plot to capture Winston Churchill. The primary stars were Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasance and Treat landed fairly low on the billing totem pole.
A hole in his resume thereafter is only party filled by another Broadway show, a comedy called Once in a Lifetime that included amongst its cast John Lithgow, Jayne Meadows Allen and Julia Duffy. Soon, however, he would be embarking on a major enterprise that, while it was not a success commercially, would give him a sensational showcase for his talent and his body.
The Broadway show Hair, which enjoyed a lengthy run and opened many eyes to some significant shifts in American society was belatedly adapted into a film version directed by Milos Foreman. 1979 was, in retrospect, not the year to be producing a 60s-oriented project focusing on hippies, the draft and interracial relations. However, the big problem for most viewers was the decision to inject an entirely different storyline into the work, thus rendering quite a few of the songs either nonsensical or obtrusive and making it doubly difficult for the actors to reach a believable through-line for their characters.
A large number of the now-legendary songs were retained, but fans of the original show were left confused, bewildered and, most importantly, annoyed by the differences in their context. Still, a raft of talented people took part in the film including choreographer Twyla Tharp and a host of skilled singers and dancers. (Betty Buckley lent her voice to one song, lip-synched onscreen by an Asian girl.) Thirty years after the fact, it’s a little bit easier to take, though diehards still detest it.
Thing is, Williams is so charismatic, full-on energetic and drop-dead sexy that I can forgive him almost anything! Always possessing eyebrows that look like they are about to enter a cocoon and reemerge later as two butterflies, they are framed here by a thick mop of unruly hair that makes him one of the hottest hippies ever. His character can be obnoxious, particularly at the start, but by the end of the film he has emerged as a caring, defenseless lamb. He earned a Golden Globe nomination for his work.
Treat does the kind of acrobatic singing that seems impossible to most mortals, but has been adopted in vocalists as recent as Adam Lambert. He screams several notes that may not even be notes on any registered scale! If you are a regular reader of this blog, then you already know what my two favorite scenes are. One is when he and a couple of others drop out of their clothes and go skinny-dipping in Central Park. The other is when, through machinations of the new plot, he is given a haircut and emerges as the most lickable treat anyone has ever seen, topped off by a scene in which he trades clothes with another actor and shows off his creamy smooth behind! Following this display, I was hooked forever. Do you think he has a Colin Farrell-ish quality in this shot with his shirt half on?
My biggest advice to people is to acquire the film’s soundtrack CD. It includes almost every song from the Broadway score, even if it didn’t make it into the film, and the arrangements (except for the title number, in my opinion) are terrific. You can forget the plot deviations and focus on the awesome music, much of which is sung very well and is free of the dialogue and ambient sounds in the film. (Nell Carter’s contributions cannot be overestimated and Cheryl Barnes completely nails Easy to Be Hard.) I have painted many a room or driven a long drive while enjoying this CD upon the advice of an Amazon.com reviewer.
Sadly, for Williams, this widely rejected film (which was the number one film of Hungary in 1980!) was followed up by an even bigger debacle. White-hot director Steven Spielberg delivered one of his rare misfires, the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink WWII comedy 1941. Utilizing his military-style haircut, he played a brawling Army Corporal in the big, loud, brash extravaganza, which not only was not a hit (compared to most of the directors other films), but was also reviled by many audiences then and now.
After filming an unbilled bit part for Spielberg in The Empire Strikes Back and making the (unreleased!) Why Would I Lie?, things looked a bit dim until he was selected by Sidney Lumet to star in the police drama Prince of the City.
Playing a cop who has indulged in some questionable behavior with his buddies, he is found out by Internal Affairs and asked to help inform on other officers in exchange for his own clean record. He agrees on the condition that he not have to rat out any of his close friends on the force, though eventually he is put to the test on that count.
In a fairly epic treatment (at nearly three hours long), he was given a meaty, challenging role and spent a month before filming absorbing the aura of NYC police detectives. By now, the ability to portray cocky obnoxiousness was easy for him, but he also had to demonstrate extreme duress and regret. One lucky actor got to strip Treat down in order to wire him for surveillance audio. In what would become a distressing pattern for Williams' films, Lumet agreed to direct only if the project could be at least three hours long, but it was whittled down to somewhat less than that.
Next up was the very troubled The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper, which went through three directors (including John Frankenheimer), numerous rewrites and re-shoots and eventually did so poorly in theaters that it went to video very swiftly. (In the early 80s, there was usually a mammoth wait between the cinema release and the home video release, often a year or more depending on the film.) He and his costar Robert Duvall have little, if anything, to say about their involvement with it. Based on a true story of a man who hijacked a plane and then jumped out with the loot while wearing a parachute, it fictionalized the ending since no one has ever learned what really became of the title character.
After appearing (almost unrecognizably at times!) as famed boxer Jack Dempsey in the TV movie Dempsey (as well as a stint on Broadway as The Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance), Williams joined the large cast of the sprawling Sergio Leone epic Once Upon a Time in America. The lavish, lengthy (the first cut of the film was over 6 hours long!) film, meticulously crafted by one of Italy’s premiere directors and featuring Robert De Niro, was hacked down to two hours and wound up making little sense, thus flopping at the box office. It seemed as if every time he was paired with a significant director, the film was either far below the director’s usual standard or otherwise marred in the editing room.
Williams’ stage roots served him well when he was chosen to play the famous role of Stanley Kowalski in a TV remake of A Streetcar Named Desire with Miss Ann-Margret. By now (1984), the original text could be played without the censorial restraints that had (mildly) plagued the first and most famous filmed version. Williams and his costars (who also included Beverly D’Angelo and Randy Quaid) earned decent reviews for their work. Still, no one was going to wipe out the memory of Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh (or Kim Hunter and Karl Malden, for that matter.) This was a more down to earth and less stylized portrayal of the material and for many viewers the original was preferable.
He next costarred with Laura Dern in Smooth Talk, about a fifteen year-old girl whose budding interest in sexuality is put through its paces when a sexy drifter with a tattoo and a convertible shows up at her family’s door. Williams played the mysterious and potentially dangerous suitor, a film that was more popular as a video rental than it was in theaters. Fans of the evocative book by Joyce Carol Oates weren't pleased with parts of the adaptation either (but, really, what percent of readers ARE pleased with movie adaptations?!)Treat showed off, perhaps, his shortest haircut ever in the 1986 film The Men’s Club. Very few people would see it, however, as the distasteful, talky, stationary and indulgent film sank like a stone at the box office. All about a group of men that included the rather impressive cast of David Dukes, Richard Jordan, Harvey Keitel, Frank Langella and Roy Scheider and depicted their attitudes and insights, the film went nowhere. Get a load of the outfits on these sleazy broads! I must say I love the way Treat looks in it, but I am a sucker for a man with close-cropped hair.
In what has to be a camp scream if I ever get the right to view it, Treat played the Prince in Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre rendition of The Little Mermaid with, get this, Pam Dawber as the title character! Also in the cast: Brian Dennehy, Donna McKechnie, Larraine Newman, Helen Mirren and Karen Black!!
By now segueing into more made-for-TV movies or smaller film projects, he found himself costarring with that incredible actor and cinema legend Joe Piscopo in the (often stupid) horror comedy Dead Heat. Playing (for the billionth time) a police officer who is killed in the line of duty, a device designed by Vincent Price turns him into a zombie so that he can solve his own murder! Yet another of his movies that was tampered with in the editing room prior to release (in this case to remove much of the gore), the end result didn’t please many audience members, though a cult following has sprung up, aided by a DVD release that restores some of the cut footage.
In 1989, Williams appeared as Ally Sheedy’s love interest in the film Heart of Dixie, which also featured Phoebe Cates and Virginia Madsen as women of the American south in the 1950s who are affected by the recently instituted integration of blacks and whites in schools and other public areas. Well-meaning, perhaps, but shallow (especially compared with the source novel), the movie had limited appeal and success.
Most of Williams’ better-received work during this time was in television, such as Max and Helen, about Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal (played by Martin Landau) and Final Verdict, about famed defense attorney Earl Rogers (whose daughter grew into the noted gossip columnist and author Adela Rogers St. John.)
In time, however, he began to appear again in big screen features, now more often than not in supporting parts. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Mulholland Falls, The Devil’s Own and The Phantom are a few of the more notable titles. In the last film, Treat’s debonair looks were used to good effect as he played the chief villain to Billy Zane’s purple-clad hero. Appearing with Williams as a villainess was Catherine Zeta-Jones, just on the verge of her zenith of fame. Williams also portrayed Michael Ovitz in the successful TV movie based on the war between Jay Leno and David Letterman to take over The Tonight Show called The Late Shift. This part earned him his only (to date) Emmy nomination.
In 1998, Treat starred in Deep Rising, a thriller in the Alien mold about a group of hijackers on board a luxury liner who are faced with gigantic octopus-like creatures who enjoy snacking on human beings. His snarky sense of humor that winked at the material helped Treat counter the ridiculousness of it all. He found work in a pretty large number of action and adventure style roles, but was able to inject personality into the stock characters. There was also a brief return to Broadway in 2001, playing Buddy in Stephen Sondheim's Follies.
He inherited Tom Berenger’s mantle for the series of TV sequels The Substitute 2: School’s Out, The Substitute 3: Winner Take All and The Substitute: Failure is Not an Option. We’re still waiting for the Charlie Brown-inspired fifth movie The Substitute: Wah Wah Waaah, Wah Waaah Wah.
He played Michelle Pfeiffer’s husband in The Deep End of the Ocean, which concerned the tormented parents of a kidnapped boy who must somehow readjust when he is found nine years later, alive and living in their town.
In 2002, Williams landed a successful series of his own called Everwood. Playing widowed brain surgeon Dr. Andy Brown, who has moved with his teenage children to The Rocky Mountains in order to raise them with the sort of care and environment that escaped them in New York City, he earned a whole new generation of fans. A core group of devoted viewers developed a very dedicated following for the program. He garnered two SAG nominations for his work on the show.
On a personal note, Mr. Williams was living in Salt Lake City (where this was filmed) during the production of the series with his wife and two children. In need of an experienced nanny/assistant, they offered the job to one of my good friends and she turned it down! She would have lived with them and enjoyed many of the perks that go along with such a position and when she told me she didn’t accept the position (because, ironically enough, there wasn’t enough to do and Mrs. Williams, who didn’t work, would be present nearly all the time), I wanted to strangle her! I could have flown out for a visit and gotten to meet my Treat!
After the cancellation of Everwood, Williams attempted another series called Heartland in which he played a heart surgeon. It only lasted nine episodes, though I would have gladly allowed him to put me under or open me up! Ha! He continues to stay busy (and I must say, looks like a handsome daddy) in a wide variety of TV projects and feature films with four films being released in 2010.
The chance to make it really big somehow eluded the versatile, hunky and charismatic Treat Williams. Admittedly, he had unconventional looks, a nose that it took a while to grow into and those distinctive brows. However, in The Underworld, he reigns supreme for his groovy, sex on a stick work in Hair. Now that he’s grown into his face, I still find him very attractive. Now pushing 60, there’s the feeling that he still hasn’t reached his full potential. Perhaps he’ll be granted a really decent role sometime soon for a man of his generation. If it can happen to Robert Forster…