“I like to demonstrate a sense of fun and leadership on the set when I’m there.” — Treat Williams

It’s his birthday today. His death is such a loss!

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 of Lumet’s choice. Williams owns that movie.

Williams said in a 2011 interview, “It’s a big film. It’s big emotionally. It’s operatic. It’s a great, great film, I think. I wish I’d had more experience and been a little older when I did it, but it’s the best I could do at the time, and I’m very proud of it.”

More after the jump!


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. 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, 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 pursuit (i.e. stalking). The film takes place in a condensed period of time. A weekend. He is as relentless a predator/tracker as Robert Mitchum 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, as well as frozen in terror, trauma altering her brain chemistry, forever probablyW 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 in the world. She’s innocent. And so she “attracted” this monster, this man who will not leave her alone. 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 very difficult material. It is an actor’s DREAM, to get to play a scene like this.

It’s a pas de deux. The partners must 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 the disparity worked beautifully in the disturbing context. You are left with the terrifying image of his face, pressing up against the flimsy screen door, a 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.

Treat Williams 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.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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