R.I.P. Treat Williams

This is devastating news.

In Sydney Lumet’s Making Movies, he talked about the choice to cast Treat Williams in Prince of the City:

I wasn’t sure whether we were in drama or tragedy territory [with Prince of the City]. knew I wanted to wind up somewhere between the two, leaning towards the tragic. Tragedy, when it works, leaves no room for tears. Tears would have been too easy in that movie. The classic definition of tragedy still works: pity and terror or awe, arriving at catharsis. That sense of awe requires a certain distance.

It’s hard to be in awe of someone you know well. The first thing affected was casting. If the leading role of Danny Ciello was played by DeNiro or Pacino, all ambivalence would disappear. By their nature, stars invite your faculty of identification. You empathize with them immediately, even if they’re playing monsters. A major star would defeat the picture with just the advertising.

I chose a superb but not very well known actor, Treat Williams. This may have defeated the commerciality of the movie, but it was the right choice dramatically.

Then I went further. I cast as many new faces as possible. If the actor had done lots of movies, I didn’t use him. In fact, for the first time in one of my pictures, out of 125 speaking parts, I cast 52 of them from “civilians” — people who had never acted before. This helped enormously in two areas: first, in distancing the audience by not giving them actors with whom they had associations; and second, in giving the picture a disguised “naturalism”, which would be slowly eroded as the picture went on.

If you’ve seen Prince of the City, and for a long time it was very hard to see – which is why I held on to my battered VHS tape – then you know the intelligence and correct-ness of Lumet’s choice. Williams owns that movie.

For many, of course, he will always be Berger in Miloš Forman’s 1979 film adaptation of the late 1960s musical Hair, with his long hair and “hippie” digs, his exuberant body language, his sense of mischief and humor, his sexiness.

But what I think of when I think of Hair is the heart-shattering final scene, as Berger marches into the maw of an airplane, surrounded by other draftees, all in US Army greens. Terror on his face. Exuberance and freedom and youth ripped away in a flash.

I was honored to write the booklet essay for Olive Films restoration of Hair, now available at Amazon, and etc. and so forth.

Treat Williams never stopped working. He was a series regular on many television shows and a regular feature in Hallmark movies. I want to point the way, though, to Joyce Chopra’s harrowing Smooth Talk, a nearly-forgotten film – although NEVER forgotten by anyone who saw it when it first came out. Thank goodness Criterion brought out a generous restoration in 2021, which introduced a lot of people to this film, and igniting a lot of chatter. Long overdue. Chopra adapted the short story by Joyce Carol Oates, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, which details a 30something predator’s attempted seduction of a young girl (not a young WOMAN. A teenage GIRL). Smooth Talk was Chopra’s first feature, and what a first feature it is. Williams’ Arnold Friend catches a glimpse of teenage Connie (Laura Dern), and decides: “I’m going to have that.”

This was Dern’s first starring role. She is achingly young. Connie is a 15-year-old girl sneaking out to go to the mall with her friends, putting on a little too much makeup, and being “flirty”, and trying to act grownup, as teenage girls do. Arnold Friend sees her out and about, senses immediately her vulnerability and innocence, and starts his relentless pursuit (stalking). The film takes place in a condensed period of time. A weekend, I think? He is as relentless a predator/tracker as Robert Mitchum is in Night of the Hunter (the two films would make an amazing double bill).

The center piece of Smooth Talk is an incredible 20-minute-long two-hander scene, where Arnold Friend stands outside the screen door of her house – a flimsy door he could easily kick through – and Dern stands inside – refusing to let him in, and yet … she is conflicted. Frozen in terror, more like. He’s so strong, and so frightening, it seems like it’s impossible to refuse him. The scene is gut-wrenching, and plays out in real time.

It’s one of those scenes people say stupid shit about. “why doesn’t she kick him in the shins?” “why doesn’t she scream?” Well, she’s terrified. People freeze when they’re terrified. She’s also probably ashamed, because she put on a lot of makeup and was TRYING To attract boys – “boys” being the operative word, not some scary full-grown MAN. She didn’t know there were predators. She’s innocent. And so she attracted this monster, this man who will not leave her alone, so even within her may be a feeling of “Well, I asked for this, didn’t I.” His eyes are like the pinwheeling eyes of the cobra in Rikki Tikki Tavi, and she’s afraid to look away. If she takes her eyes off of him for a millisecond, he will be ON her. She knows he can bust the door down. So does he.

So why doesn’t he bust the door down?

Because he’s a sick fuck, that’s why, and he wants it to be HER choice. He wants her to CHOOSE being raped. He wants her to succumb, he wants to see her CAVE. He doesn’t want to have to attack her. He wants her to have already given up.

The scene is beyond sick, and both actors commit to it fully. It is very difficult material, and it is an actor’s DREAM, to get to play a scene like this.

Scenes like this are a pas de deux. The partners have to be equally matched. They need to read each other, pay close attention, give and take. It’s a partnership. The scene is an event, created by the two actors. Williams was an experienced actor, and Laura Dern was young and green – and this disparity worked beautifully in the disturbing context.

The first thing I thought of when I woke up to this sad news, was the terrifying image of his face, pressing up against that screen door, a small fragile hook the only thing keeping him from pouncing on the terrified riveted teenage girl on the other side.

Arnold Friend. I have goosebumps just thinking of the name.

What a huge loss.

He seemed like a genuinely good person. I know a couple of people who knew him, who really loved him. He was happy to be working and a good collaborator.

Favorite roles?

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16 Responses to R.I.P. Treat Williams

  1. Jimmy Ray Flynn says:

    A huge loss indeed. Thank you, Sheila.

    For my money, his performance in “Prince of the City” is TOP NOTCH. I believe he is in every scene in the movie, it’s such a great film. EPIC.

    I had the good fortune to work with Treat on the series “Eddie Dodd” in 1991. From sitting in make-up talking with him to being on set, the man was the best. A good guy who was such a pro. He made it all look so easy in the process, sweet memories for me.

    My condolences to his family and friends. If you’ve not visited his twitter page there is a beautiful photo posted on the afternoon that he died. A picture of his freshly cut lawn with the caption “Mowing today. Wish I could bottle the scent” Perfect.

    God Bless Treat Williams. May he Rest in Peace.

    • sheila says:

      Jimmy – oh my gosh, that Twitter post. I hadn’t seen that. I’m just gasping. If that’s your final public statement before “you go” … life is a good thing. Smell the roses and the cut grass.

      This loss has really hit me. I’m not sure if you saw Melissa Gilbert’s Instagram post, of her memory of him, and how he stepped up for her, when he didn’t even KNOW her?

      Seems like a really good guy.

      I love that you have those memories of him!

      and Prince of the City!! I still remember renting it from a video store – back in the day – a big old VIDEO TAPE – of this INCREDIBLE movie which blew me AWAY. after that it was fairly hard to find. I just noticed it’s streaming on Amazon, so THAT’S good. It’s one of the great NY cop movies, and one of Lumet’s best as well. as you say: EPIC.

  2. KathyB says:

    My first thought of Williams as Berger is always that final haunting scene. Vietnam is always too much with me. My brother was there when I was a senior in high school.

    His tv show Everwood was appointment television for me. Loved that he even did the show. Gentle drama of life in a small Colorado town. Bereft widower. One of the kids on the show was Chris Pratt as a goofy guy who so wanted to be cool. Well before Hollywood pumped him up.

    Too shocking that we have lost Treat Williams in the blink of an eye.

    • sheila says:

      I need to check out Everwood, KathyB – thanks, it sounds lovely.

      It’s very sad. Edgar Wright posted a clip from 1941 – Treat Williams’ great scene in that – makes me want to watch that again.

      RIP Berger.

  3. There was a proto-superhero film in the 1990s called THE PHANTOM, which was based on an old character from the radio drama days, if I recall correctly. It’s mostly forgotten now, though unfairly in my opinion; it had a pre-TITANIC Billy Zane as the hero, and Treat Williams was notable as the villain. He sank his teeth into that part, chewing the scenery with gusto as a pretty memorable bad guy. If you’re familiar with the genre you know that a common trope is the bad guy punishing an underling for either betrayal or just screwing up, and THE PHANTOM has a VERY memorable such scene. It involves a microscope with blades in the eyepieces….

    What a fine, fine actor he was. And to tweet about the scent of newly-mown grass just hours before someone didn’t see him on his motorcycle and turned in front of him…damn.

    • sheila says:

      Kelly – oh wait, I think I saw the Phantom! that microscope rings a definitely disturbing bell.

      We were just talking on FB about how – he could be so soft, a soft masculine type – the openness he had in Hair – such a macho physique but soft in terms of emotions. You wouldn’t expect someone who looked and moved like that to be so vulnerable. And then when he removed that softness – he could be SO disturbing, almost the perfect villain. I compared him in Smooth Talk to Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter – they were similar actors. Mitchum too – was this big imposing macho-looking guy – but one of his distinguishing characteristics was how soft/tender he could be – it’s CRUSHING when he’s tender. But then when he removes that capability entirely – he is the most frightening of villains – as he was in Night of the Hunter.

      Treat Williams was 100% believable as a leading man – but also 100% believable as a heavy. this is not always the case. I love Prince of the City because it got to be all about compromise and corruption, so he got to be at war with those different aspects of himself.

      and yeah, his final Tweet is haunting me. It’s beautiful in a very sad way. He was appreciating his life. :(

  4. “Smooth Talk” is one of those movies that absolutely terrified me- I watched it frozen in my seat. Williams completely occupied that role, and it is a tribute to his range that he could play that monster as seemingly effortlessly as he did as the gentle father in Everwood. What a shocking loss

    • sheila says:

      Smooth Talk is terrifying!! He is SO good in it and I love Dern’s memories of him working with her – because she was like 15 years old – and he treated her like an equal. It is tough tough material and both of them needed to be able to really “go there”.

      It’s shocking and sad.

  5. Todd Restler says:

    The passing of Treat Williams crushed me. I’m glad you led with that Lumet quote and Prince of the City, it’s one of my favorite movies and performances. Gonna probably go long on this one, fair warning.

    I saw it in the theater when I was 11 or 12 and it blew me away. To this day it’s the single best moral dilemma I have ever seen a character find himself in. This movie may have informed my “world view” more than any other.

    Most movies have good guys or bad guys. I like Star Wars plenty. But Prince of the City has no antagonist. He’s his own antagonist. What is the “right” move? To protect his dirty partners out of loyalty and friendship? Or follow the law to the letter and cooperate with investigators?

    To this day the debate rages on about whether Robert Leuci (the real life cop Williams was playing, named Daniel Ciello in the movie) was a hero or rat. There is no correct answer. (Love the name Ciello by the way, it’s a logical transformation of the real life person, but also tells us he is an instrument being played.)

    This movie also woke me up to the idea that our “institutions” are just people, and that the systems and laws designed to make everything work smoothly are deeply flawed at best. One cop named Alvarez played by Tony Page (also in Godfather 2, “yeah, the family had lotsa buffers”), lays it out bluntly for the prosecutors investigating corruption :” I don’t get you guys. Don’t you know case 1 never got made without an illegal wiretap?”

    In order to catch the crooks, the cops routinely, daily, had to break the law. Was it worth it? In the greater good? Or just old fashioned corruption? As with everything in this movie, (and life?) the truth is somewhere in that grey area in between. There are no blacks and whites. The drug dealers and mafioso in this movie seem more honorable than the cops and prosecutors. At least they don’t lie about what they do or who they are.

    As the D.A. says late in the film, “The decision whether or not to charge Daniel Ciello with perjury rests entirely with me.” Decisions like that should be “by the book”, but boy is it complicated. This scene Ebert refers to, with actors like Bob Balaban and Norman Parker passionately summing up the issues, is one of my all time favorites. This is from Roger Ebert’s review:

    “There is a sustained scene in this movie that is one of the most spellbinding I can imagine, and it consists entirely of government lawyers debating whether a given situation justifies a charge of perjury. ”

    Scenes where characters just sit in a room and talk aren’t generally thought of as “cinematic”, but this movie refutes all that. There is very little to no “action” in the film, yet the tension is off the charts. When the movie ends, you aren’t sure how you’re supposed to feel. It asks you to look at these events and consider them deeply. It provides no answer. It solves nothing. But it terms of showing how things REALLY work, there is no better film

    And this cast! Jerry Orbach is to me the most New York actor of all time. He’s amazing here. I’ve always loved Lindsay Crouse too. As Lumet mentioned at the time most of the cast were largely unknown, but this film is absolutely loaded with great character actors. Lance Henriksen, Lane Smith, Peter Friedman, James Tolkan, Cynthia Nixon, Mathew Laurance, Paul Roebling, and I could go on. It’s so fun to watch from that perspective.

    All of that is preamble to the Treat Williams performance, which I loved at the time, has only grown better in my mind as time has gone on, and I now consider one of the best I have ever seen. I read an interview with him not long ago where he said he was proud of the film and his work, but wishes he’d had more acting experience at the time. NO!!! The whole greatness of the work is that he is playing a character that is in over his head. If Williams was unsure how to act or behave at certain points, well, so was Ciello.

    It’s important to remember he was playing a real person, the story is based on actual events, including dialogue lifted straight from police recordings. In a way this movie is a biopic.

    Leuci, in real life, was a “character”. I’ve read the book Prince of the City by Robert Daley, and that was how he behaved. He was a blowhard. A braggart. A guy who walked around with bravado and swagger even while wearing a hidden wire. He was constantly telling his coworkers, “Will you stop looking for the rat, I’ve told you a hundred times I’m the rat!” Whether this represented tactics, a weird desire to confess, unbridled machismo, or some combination was not really clear, even to Leuci himself.

    This was a really hard part to play. It’s a man coming apart at the seams. Whereas someone like De Niro may have “internalized” this, in real life Leuci was a walking mess, laughing one minute, crying the next, wanting to tell everyone everything than changing his mind fives times. Williams plays this all out in the open for us to see, and it’s absolutely devastating.

    There is a scene in a backyard with his partners, long after he’s turned (but they don’t know it yet), where he starts to tell a funny story, but gets all wound up, and eventually starts crying, and it’s the best acting of it’s kind I can think of.

    Can you think of a better representation on film of a person coming apart at the seams? The only things that come to my mind are films like Mulholland Drive and Jacob’s Ladder with a supernatural or mystical element? But in a straight drama? I think this is as good as it gets.

    So as to why I am especially crushed, I hadn’t seen Prince of the City in a very long time, it’s never on, and I’ve never owned a DVD. So I bought it on Amazon Prime about two months ago, I was in the mood to watch it again based on current events. Not only is it as good as I remembered, but it’s incredibly timely and relevant.

    Someone mentioned Treat Williams’ Twitter feed, which was an oasis inside the cesspool of Twitter. Rarely has someone seemed as happy and content as Treat Williams on his farm in Vermont. On May 5th this year, he posted an old photo of himself studying a script with this caption:

    “Unobserved, Uninhibited,
    Study” Peter Otoole .
    Working on Prince Of The City at the Ukrainian Hall on second Avenue.
    Which now holds so much more meaning for me”

    Since I had just seen the film again, I replied “Top 10 all time American film performance. Bravo.” He was kind enough to reply “Thanks”.

    I enjoy these little Twitter exchanges that sometime happen. It made me feel good that he saw that, and that he knew his work was appreciated. That was on May 5th.

    He seemed like not just a “good guy”, but an EXCEPTIONAL guy. The words coming out now from coworkers and friends make that really clear. It’s hard to explain why the tragic passing of a man I have never met has left me absolutely crushed, but like many of us, I feel like I did know this man, and I understand what the world just lost.

    P.S. Other performances I liked of his that have not been mentioned : Once Upon a Time in America, Flashpoint, The Deep End of the Ocean

    P.P.S. Prince of the City is good companion viewing for Reality (the Reality Winner movie) which I just watched. Many of the same themes.

    • Jimmy Ray Flynn says:

      Man, that is an exceptional piece of writing. Thank you, Todd.

      You hit so many of the notes regarding my own feelings with Prince of the City. I have a wonderful memory of seeing the movie, on the opening day, at The Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. I couldn’t wait! To experience that story, with those actors on that BIG SCREEN was pure bliss.

      Again, one of my all time favorite movies. Treat Williams delivered the goods and then some. The supporting cast was magnificent. The Mighty Sidney Lumet, a brilliant artist, who understood what was required to make it all work. I can’t praise him enough. Filmmaking at its absolute best.

      God, how I miss those days of going to the show. It was all so grand.

      Take care.

      • sheila says:

        // I have a wonderful memory of seeing the movie, on the opening day, at The Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. //

        awesome, Jimmy! and I agree- nothing like going to the show. I MISS it.

    • sheila says:

      Todd – this is amazing!!

      // This movie may have informed my “world view” more than any other. //

      Isn’t that incredible, how that happens sometimes? It’s so interesting that it would be this one – and it’s a really good one – because it;s all about that ambiguity – the grey areas – the true moral and ethical dilemma the film embodies. (I love all of Lumet’s quotes about making this movie. I saw it I think when I was in high school – I still remember the over-sized really beat-up VHS tape of it I had – and when I read Lumet’s book some years later I was amazed at all the thought that went into it – color schemes, and shot construction – stuff I wasn’t looking for at all when I was a teenage kid. It felt invisible – Lumet’s style often does.)

      // This scene Ebert refers to, with actors like Bob Balaban and Norman Parker passionately summing up the issues, is one of my all time favorites. //

      Absolutely. I still remember that Ebert quote!! I remember thinking – YES. EXACTLY.

      // There is a scene in a backyard with his partners, long after he’s turned (but they don’t know it yet), where he starts to tell a funny story, but gets all wound up, and eventually starts crying, and it’s the best acting of it’s kind I can think of. //

      Oh GOD that scene.

      and you’re right – the rawness of him, the “inexperience” – adds to the thrill of the experience. I can’t remember the timeline – what my first introduction to him was. I am pretty sure I saw Hair first. Not on its first run of course – but I was a big musical theatre kid, and I loved the music to Hair – and I know that movie like I know the back of my hand, so I think I saw it first. But I don’t think I put it together that it was the same actor as Prince of the City. I was too young and there was no Imdb. so I just came to him fresh.

      Later, I caught Smooth Talk – I saw it in the theatre – I was old enough then – and by then, I had his career in my mind a little bit – and I found him absolutely THRILLING. By that point too I was already studying acting seriously – as a kid – I had discovered Pacino and James Dean – etc. – so I was a student of the game – and Smooth Talk is one of the all-time great two-handers in cinema. I’m so glad it’s back in circulation now.

      // Since I had just seen the film again, I replied “Top 10 all time American film performance. Bravo.” He was kind enough to reply “Thanks”. //

      Oh, that touches my heart.

      Thank you for all this, Todd. Time to re-watch Prince of the City – it was unseeable for SO LONG – and so happy it’s on Amazon Prime now.

      • Todd Restler says:

        Thanks Sheila. Movies sometimes hit people at certain ages and times when the material is able to make maximum impact. I know you have written quite a bit about how seeing another Lumet film, Dog Day Afternoon at a young age, had a similar effect. Along with Network and Serpico, this is my favorite batch of films by any Director ever. They are what I would call “Man vs. the Machine” movies, and they’re as relevant today as ever.

        “and you’re right – the rawness of him, the “inexperience” – adds to the thrill of the experience. ”

        It’s not always about getting the best actor, but the past actor for the part, and Lumet’s instincts were perfect here. Casting Williams may not have helped the box office, but it made the film.

        • sheila says:

          Seriously – Lumet in the 70s/80s – nobody could really touch him. Nobody was doing it like he was. I still think he has barely any heirs – which is sad. But New York has changed so much – it’s still just as messed up and corrupt – but … it’s almost WORSE now! New York needs another Lumet!!

          One of the reasons I cherish Lumet’s movies – and Scorsese’s 70s movies – is how it captures New York in that wild wild west dirty era. I still sometimes get a glimpse of that New York even though everything has changed so much – you can still see it sometimes.

  6. Todd Restler says:

    Thank you Jimmy Ray, I appreciate it. This movie means so much to me. I’ve thought long and hard, and Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross is the only other performance I can think of that approaches this type of human unraveling. It’s my favorite Lemmon, but that’s a supporting part, whereas Williams had to carry this project.

    The movie is also amazing for it’s clarity and efficiency, given the 120+ speaking parts and complex legal and investigative issues, it’s never confusing, not for a second.

    * Tony Page was NOT in Godfather 2, I could’ve sworn that was him but I was wrong.

    • sheila says:

      // Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross is the only other performance I can think of that approaches this type of human unraveling. //

      Oh God. Yes.

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