The prince of the city rides high in Hollywood again with roles as Mike Ovitz and the phantom’s nemesis.
By Roger D. Friedman
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
Photo Editor: Jennifer Crandall
On an unusually warm and sunny April afternoon in New York, actor treat Williams –who’s had a commercial pilot’s license for 15 years and is a flight instructor- is fuming about the recent death of 7-year-old Jessica Dubroff behind the controls of a small plane. “I am angry about it,” Williams says. “Two men in the airplane had obviously not made decisions appropriate to that flight.” He is genuinely upset.” An instructor,” he says, “can let things go very far before he gets the airplane back and says ‘I’ve got it.’”
There is an uneasy parallel between Williams’ observation and his own life; it’s only recently that he’s pulled his career out of a nose dive. Since November he has turned in much-praised performances as the comically charged psycho killer Critical Bill in Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead and as former Hollywood uber-agent Mike Ovitz in HBO’s The Late Shift. This spring he co-starred in the period crime drama Mulholland Falls, and he’s currently playing the campy villain Xander Drax in the live-action film of The Phantom comic strip.
But it was only a short time ago that Williams was, in Hollywood terms, nowhere. “Let’s talk about what nowhere means to me,” Williams says over tea in a restaurant a few blocks from the Upper West Side apartment he shares with his wife, Pam, and their 4 1/2-year-old son, Gill. (They also have a small farm in southern Vermont, where Williams was photographed for this story.) "To others, nowhere means not being on the big screen, not being in magazines, not being seen at public events. For me, that was seven years of analysis and growing up."
Seventeen years ago, Treat Williams was the hottest young actor of his day. He starred in Milos Forman's 1979 turn version of Hair and in the successful Broadway restaging of The Pirates of Penzance. His role as the whistle‑blower in 1981's police corruption drama Prince of the City seemed to lock in Williams' success. In 1984, he became the first actor since Marlon Brando to play Stanley Kowalski on screen, in a TV version of A Streetcar Named Desire, opposite Ann‑Margret. He also
starred as the sexy stranger menacing Laura Dern in 1985's Smooth Talk.
And then it all began to unravel, as his career foundered in European‑made B movies and in TV features. He evaluates a list of his more pedestrian credits between 1987 and 1993: "Third Degree Burn ‑ an HBO mystery with Virginia Madsen, heavy on the sex. Russicum - me and Danny Aiello and F. Murray Abraham. You explain to me what it's about and I'll be happy to know."
He knows people are interested in his fallow period. "There are so many actors who did so well, you wonder where they went,” he says. "They didn't do anything wrong. They just fell out of favor." At 44, Williams seems leaner than in his early days. His peppery hair has found its salt but it looks thicker than ever and is swept back to reveal a tautness around his jaw. His voice sounds permanently hoarse; Williams calls it "soft and raspy." Sidney Lumet, who directed him in Prince of the City, says, "It's hard for actors in their 30s. I think Treat is just now growing into his face."
Williams is the first to admit he undermined his initial shot at success. "I was out late a lot. I was doing the party scene," he says with understatement. He and his girlfriend of four years, Dana Delany, were part of a group of actors whose social life revolved around an early 1980s New York hot spot, Cafe Central. Bruce Willis was a sometime bartender; Al Pacino was a regular, as was RoboCop's Peter Weller, with whom Williams later opened a spinoff restaurant. But no one enjoyed the scene more than Williams. "I was the guy," he says with a wink, “who locked the door at night.
"It was a heady time," he continues. Cocaine, the Rollerblades of the '80s, was the common sport among friends. Williams, who never had a dependency serious enough to require rehab, looks back without anger. "The truth is, I was young and unfocused. The biggest drug of all was the newfound success."
Williams in New York on the set of “Hair,” in which he starred as Berger.
Born Richard Treat Williams in 1951, he grew up with his two sisters in an unpretentious home where his folks still live, in upper‑middle‑class Rowayton, Conn. His mother has been an antiques dealer for 25 years. His father is a retired executive of the Olin Corp., a chemical manufacturing company, and Williams based his portrayal of Mike Ovitz on his dad. "He's the best businessman I ever met," he says proudly.
"God, they were normal people," says 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney, a longtime neighbor. Rooney's son Brian, now an ABC News correspondent, remembers Williams' trouncing him at football. "He was big," he says, "even when he was little." After a year at a local high school, Williams moved on to the Kent School, in northwest Connecticut. "That prep' school stuff creates a lot of demons. Those upperclassmen have absolute power over you. It's like Lord of the Flies. There's a reason that book got written." He graduated from Franklin and Marshall College and moved to New York. Once he hit Broadway as Danny Zuko in Grease, in 1976, the future looked secure.
"It's much easier when you're young," says Williams. "You have youth and beauty and a certain kind of newness. Young actors think it's all going to last. That's the great danger."
"I know it's been hard for him," observes Sidney Lumet. "Whenever I'm doing a picture I think of him. We'll hit it again."
During the years when Williams was largely absent from movie screens, he was transformed by several life‑changing events: his 1988 marriage to actress Pamela Van Sant, whom he met when she was waitressing in a New York restaurant; the birth of his son; and the death in 1995 of his best friend and business partner, Henry Urgoiti. Williams and Urgoiti ‑father of three sons himself‑ operated CineFlight, a West Coast company that supplies planes and pilots to Hollywood studios." His death has made me very aware of how precious each day with my son is," says Williams.
Another longtime friend, playwright David Mamet, has also profoundly affected the actor's life. After Williams appeared in several of his productions, Mamet scripted a 1994 Showtime feature called Texan, which marked the actor's debut as a director. "I called David and said,’ I have the opportunity to direct a film but only if you write it,'" says Williams. "He said, 'Uh, good, Treat. What do you want it to be about?' Three weeks later this script came in the mail. I love him. It's very simple." The playwright is equally effusive about Williams. "I love him, too. He's a terrific actor and a great guy," Mamet says. "When the producer wanted to make changes in Texan, Treat just stood his ground and said no. It was very brave of him."
In 1993, while acting in Mamet's play Oleanna, Williams moonlighted on an independent film called Handgun and was jolted out of his TV‑movie malaise. "All of a sudden there was an awareness of me as someone unpredictable, like I'd been in Hair," he says.
With his son, Gill, in Vermont. “There was pressure to go to Hollywood,” he says, “but I love the East Coast.”
A change in agents ‑ to J.J. Harris of United Talent Agency, who nurtured Kevin Costner's career through Dances With Wolves ‑ brought Williams the offer for Things to Do in Denver, which started to turn things around again. He has just finished shooting Devil's Own with Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford, due this fall. And in April, Williams accepted an offer of $1 million to play the hero in Deep Rising, an action‑adventure he describes as "Raiders of the Lost Arkmeets The Poseidon Adventure, without Shelley [Winters].' Lately he's been placed in the position of elder statesman, of all things. Of his Devil's Own co‑star Pitt, now in the young Turk spotlight Williams once occupied, he says, "Brad is extraordinary. I said to him, 'I wish my head had been screwed on so straight when I was your age."
Suddenly, Williams' wife, Pam, arrives with Gill, an articulate and cherubic child with a crown of blond curls. Asked how old he is, Gill holds up four fingers. "But I still feel like 3," he says. His mother laughs. "This is what it's all about," Williams says. Besides family, his obsessions now are two restored Chevys from the 1950s, an antique plane, a six‑seat private jet and his haven in Vermont. "I like to walk around on what I own," he says.
Did he ever lose heart during his downtime? "You betcha!" he says. "There were times when I woke up and said, 'I better put my boots on and go.' I try to make everything positive. I look in the mirror and say,'You don't like this movie? You don't like this dialogue? Then work harder, pal. There's a thousand other guys who'd like to be in your shoes. So be careful. Do the best work you can do."' .
Roger D. Friedman interviewed Laurence Fishburne for the January issue of 'US.'