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The actor: Since making his motion-picture debut in the 1976 comedy The Ritz, Treat Williams has rarely been without work, shifting between the big and small screens with relative ease and starring in genres ranging from cop dramas (Prince Of The City) to musicals (Hair) to comic-book adaptations (The Phantom). After spending four years ensconced in Everwood, Williams returned to film, making the most of a small but memorable role in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, but now he’s come back to television, playing the patriarch of a family of policemen on the new Lifetime series Against The Wall.
Against The Wall (2011-present)—“Don Kowalski”
Treat Williams: Great fun, great writing, and it kind of bookends Prince Of The City for me. You know, I was the young kid cop, baby face. Now they call me “Old Face.” [Laughs.] It’s fun to play the patriarch of these four cops, and working with Kathy Baker is extraordinary. I think it’ll surprise people, because, I know, what do we need with another police procedural? But this is really a terrific family drama, and it’s very funny, and I like doing it. I can’t say enough about it. Plus, I need it to be on the air because I love what I’m doing. So I need people to watch it, so I can go back next year and do more of it. [Laughs.]
The A.V. Club: It must’ve impressed you if it was enough to bring you back to series television.
TW: Well, I think all actors aspire to series television. I mean, a lot of us do, anyway. I did, I think, four or five features in the last two years, so I do a lot of them. But another thing about series television for Lifetime is that it’s only 13 episodes, so you don’t burn out. Twenty-three burns you out. You don’t want to see a camera until the day you start shooting again the next season. But this is just so delightful, and not being a lead character gives me an opportunity to rest. Series television means you get to spend more time with your family, you’re in one place for a while, you’re not a gypsy, and you get a chance to really play and develop a character, and stay with that character for a while. When you finish a film, sometimes you kind of go, “You know, I wish I could go back and shoot it again now that I’ve figured out the character.” But this has been great. I’ve really enjoyed it.
The Ritz (1976)—“Michael Brick”
TW: [Adopts a high-pitched voice.] I love that. That’s actually my real voice. [Laughs.] I had so much fun with that, and I was so honored, because Richard Lester had directed two of the greatest movies as a kid that I ever saw: A Hard Day’s Night and Help! So working with Lester was, like, mind-blowingly exciting to me. I mean, he’d worked with The Beatles! And he was a great comedic director, and the play had been a great success on Broadway. Terrence McNally is one of the great playwrights, and it was really interesting, because I had not done the original stage play. Oddly enough, Stephen Collins had played it on Broadway, but he for whatever reason was not available, so I took on the role. So I got to create the role with Richard Lester. Everybody else had pretty much found what they were going to do, but Richard and I had a blast trying to find the comedic stuff, because for me it was just starting fresh. I had a great time.
AVC: It was a pretty interesting cast, too.
TW: Jack Weston was really one of the great American comedians, and Jerry Stiller and Rita Moreno… what a cast.
AVC: How was it working with them? It’s your first film, and here you are working with these well-established actors and comedians.
TW: Well, you know, I had to stake a little territory. [Laughs.] It was tough, you know? It was tough because they had a lot of laughs that they were used to getting, and it was, like, “Listen, I got a laugh here, so don’t move on this.” And I was like, “Welcome to the big leagues.” I was getting shoved around a little bit, so I had to stake some territory. Luckily, Richard and I enjoyed each other’s company, and I think the whole thing turned out all right. F. Murray Abraham was wonderful to work with, and we ended up working together again [in The Third Solution]. But it really was a fun experience. Once I kind of brought it to the table, I think the cast pretty much accepted me as one of them, and it started to get really fun.
Everwood (2002-2006)—“Dr. Andrew ‘Andy’ Brown”
TW: Great experience. I think that environment that Greg Berlanti created is as close to Capra in the present that I’ve seen. It was very Capra-esque, and I’m an extraordinarily devoted Capra fan. I just loved the whole idea—even though some critics hated it, I loved the concept of having a narrator create an environment for us on each show. It was heartfelt, and it was really interesting to play somebody who was basically brokenhearted and broken down, who’s creating a new life for himself with these two children with whom he’s having enormous issues. He’s got a son who’s lost his mother and is full of rage for having been torn away not only from his mother but also from his New York environment. I thought those first two seasons were some of the greatest work I’ve ever been given to do. I just really love that show. I’m very proud of it.
AVC: What did you think of your character developing a relationship with Amanda Hayes (played by Anne Heche) while her husband was effectively comatose?
TW: I hated that. To tell you honestly, I hated it. When things changed and shifted after Greg left, I didn’t understand why Andy Brown would be having sex with a woman while her husband was downstairs in a wheelchair. And the critics asked me that, and I said, “I didn’t write this, and I don’t like it.” And I didn’t like the fact that Andy Brown sent some girl that had gotten pregnant by his son off to another town to have the baby. I felt that my character changed, and to be honest with you, I was not happy about it. But I’m a team player, and I did the best I could to try and find some way to adjust to this new concept. Basically, the show shifted gears, and you notice in those last two seasons after Greg left. Greg worked very hard to protect the completeness of the show, in terms of the older characters, but once Greg left, I think the show became a teen show. I had a very nice paycheck, and I came to work and was happy to have a job, but it was not the Everwood that I had signed on to do.
AVC: So when it ended after season four, then, were you not as upset as you otherwise might’ve been?
TW: I would’ve liked another season. My son was about to go to college. [Laughs.] And I had come to terms with it. Rina Mimoun, who was the new show-runner, was very kind to me, and I asked her if she wouldn’t mind if we could just kind of keep the kindness in Andy. But I think there was great pressure from the network to focus on the kids, because that’s what that network did at the time. I was quite comfortable that last season, after we got away from that third season, where Andy Brown was just very weird with all of that stuff. There was less of me, so I got more time with my family, and what they did give me was not unpleasant to do. I would’ve liked another season very much. I liked my castmates very much. I liked going to work with them. I loved the crew. So there was a family that I had there that I was happy to be with. But when the network became The CW, they just had no interest in the show, and they dropped it. Which surprised us. But that’s life if you want to work in Hollywood. It’s a tough town, baby. [Laughs.]
Dead Heat (1988)—“Det. Roger Mortis”
TW: An, uh, interesting experiment. [Laughs.] Joe Piscopo. First-time director. Great editor. But, you know, we tried something that I don’t think quite hit the mark. But we had fun. You know, you’ve got to do everything once. I think that’s a film one, uh, rebuilds from a little bit. [Laughs.] But it has this cult following! It’s bizarre. Great special effects, though. Very cool. All the Chinese food coming alive? One of the funniest sequences. Very, very funny. So there’s some fun stuff in it. And I’ve got to say that I did laugh a lot with Joe Piscopo. He’s a very, very funny man, and I was a big fan of his from Saturday Night Live. So there were fond memories to be had.
Also, during that film, I asked my wife to marry me. We lived in a little house in Beverly Hills and were very, very happy there, as people who are about to get married tend to be. So my life at the time, interestingly, was really wonderful. I remember my parents came to visit, we told them during that movie that we were getting married, and they were thrilled about it, because they loved my wife. So there’s always good things happening in life even when some films, uh, don’t turn out quite the way you hope. [Laughs.] But, you know, you do the best you can on anything. It was a weird thing, but you never know what’s going to do well or what’s not. Also, I got work with some of the greatest and most iconic horror film actors in history. I worked with Number One Son [Keye Luke], and I worked with the great…oh, God, what’s his name? It just went out of my head. The Pit And The Pendulum. He was the voice for the Michael Jackson video.
AVC: Vincent Price?
TW: Yes! Vincent Price was in it! So there was some very fun stuff about it. I try to remember the good things. [Laughs.] Come on, pick some good ones!
127 Hours (2010)—Aron’s Dad
TW: Danny Boyle. I liked working for him. I would’ve gone and swept the floors for Danny. I’d work with Danny Boyle anytime. He said, “You want to come down and do a couple of scenes?” Interestingly, there were a bunch of scenes and characters that were cut. When James frees himself, he goes back to his sister’s wedding, and there’s a press conference, and a speech at the wedding that I gave. And Danny said, “You know, Treat, the minute that he separated himself from his hand, the movie was over. And I didn’t realize that until I put it together and saw that. The movie can’t go on. It’s just done. He’s been through too much. The audience has been through too much.” But I was happy to be in it. I mean, it’s interesting, because literally what was left of what I did was one moment—that gorgeous, gorgeous sunrise shot of us sitting on a rock—but it became an almost iconic part of the film. I was really honored to work with Danny. I think he’s an extremely gifted director and cares very much about his art. That was cool. And I love James, too. Franco’s great, a really good guy. That’s actually the second film we’ve done together. We also did Howl, which was fun.
The Substitute 2: School’s Out (1998) / The Substitute 3: Winner Takes All (1999) / The Substitute: Failure Is Not An Option (2001) – Karl Thomasson
TW: Fun, fun, fun. Got really good at the yo-yo. [Laughs.] Just really fun. I loved doing that. And I’ll tell you, I grew up in New York, up in Harlem, and folks up there really enjoyed those films. So I had a really good time doing that. A fun little group of films to do. I think the second one, the one right after Tom Berenger left, was the best of the ones I did.
AVC: What was it like stepping into Tom Berenger’s shoes? Because I’m sure you realize that there are quite a few people out there who remain convinced that you two are actually the same person.
TW: I think Tom Berenger is one of the greatest actors in America. I think one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen on film is his performance in Platoon. I also really honor the fact that I followed Tom Berenger, because he and Kevin Kline and I…well, actually, I’ve followed both Tom and Kevin, because I followed Kevin in The Pirates Of Penzance. But during auditions at the beginnings of our careers, we would hang around and tell jokes together and were not competitive. We just enjoyed the fact that we were on this road together, so we kind of threw away all of that competitive stuff and just enjoyed each other’s company. I’m honored by that time we had together. So they were tough shoes to fill, but I hope I filled them. [Laughs.]
Deep Rising (1998)—“John Finnegan”
TW: Fun. Just fun. I loved that movie. Just six months of freezing cold water up in Vancouver, Canada. [Laughs.] But a great cast, some of whom have become very big movie stars since then, and a wonderful director with a great mind, Stephen Sommers. Just a really terrific, great guy. Probably the most energetic director I’ve ever come across. I’m proud of that film! I think that film’s fun. Unfortunately, it came out right on the heels of Titanic. Once you’ve seen one boat sink…
Hair (1979)—“George Berger”
TW: Probably the greatest film experience of my life. You know, throw on a pair of jeans and a vest and walk out of my apartment, walk into Central Park, and start shooting. It was so cool. I mean, a lot of prep, a lot of hard work on the singing and the dancing and all, but once we had that down, we started working in the park, and it was just really, really fun. I loved John Savage and Beverly D’Angelo, and Milos Forman is one of the great filmmakers of all time. That was really an honor to be a part of.
AVC: How do you think it holds up?
TW: I think it holds up very well, actually. I watched it recently. A lot of films I’m in don’t, but the music is so good, and the fact that it has a storyline keeps it… you know, it isn’t a ’60s film, and it isn’t a kitschy ’70s film. It was made by a great filmmaker in 1979, so it really isn’t caught up in some period-type style of filmmaking. It’s just good filmmaking. So I think it holds up very, very well. I mean, it’s one of the films that I’m in that I can actually watch again. [Laughs.] I watched Prince Of The City, and that was very hard for me to sit through. But Hair was different. Easier. But, of course, it’s a musical, which helps.
Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead (1995)—“Critical Bill”
TW: Probably one of the most iconic, interesting scripts. Scott [Rosenberg’s] script, he created a new language that I just thought was amazing. And Gary Fleder, with whom I’ve remained very good friends, he’s a wonderful director. Great guy. In fact, we just texted each other yesterday. He knows about [Against The Wall]. He’s always aware what’s going on. In fact, I actually did a pilot for him last year. I adore him, and he let me try stuff and create things. When I came in and said, “I think Critical Bill doesn’t have a bathroom in the apartment, but he has to pee, so how about he pees in plastic bottles?” And someone said, “What if we have the plastic bottles lined up?” So everybody had these kind of weird, fun ideas, and then Andy [Garcia] started playing with the idea that the apartment smelled, so he’s got the handkerchief through the whole scene. We just had a blast. It was a really fun, creative, open environment, and without Gary and Andy, I don’t think Critical Bill would’ve come to life. But it really was one of my most fun roles. I’m really proud of that character. He was really fun to play. It’s very difficult to make it work when someone’s that far out on the edge of reality, but I think as a team we kind of pulled it off. And, I mean, look, you’ve got Andy, Christopher Walken, Jack Warden. Oh, man, Jack Warden. Who gets to work with Jack Warden? That was so cool. To have Jack Warden actually describing your character to the audience? That’s one of the greatest honors I’ve ever had in film. I just watched Being There again. He’s so wonderful as the president.
The Late Shift (1996)—“Michael Ovitz”
TW: Fun. Great stuff. [Betty Thomas] is a wonderful director. She let me go on and work out my stuff. We used Ivan Reitman’s office for Mike’s office. [Laughs.] So I went in, and Betty said, “Why don’t you spend the weekend and figure it out?” So I really had a chance to work that stuff out, and I heard that Michael Ovitz would be quite good at seeming subservient and being almost Eastern in his philosophy and ways. So it was really fun. Again, a great acting experience. Really joyous.
AVC: Did you ever hear from Michael Ovitz on your performance?
TW: I did. He called me. He said, “I want to tell you I liked your performance, but I have two things I don’t like: I don’t wear white suits, and you have nicer hair than I do.” [Laughs.] Otherwise, he was very kind.
The Phantom (1996)—“Xander Drax”
TW: Fun! You can see my teeth marks all over the screen. I chewed it up. [Laughs.] But I had a blast. I mean, I don’t think the film quite works, but I love Simon Wincer, the director, and Billy Zane was a lot of fun. The thing that was fun about that was that I’m a fan of the ’30s screwball comedies and ’30s-style acting, which was that balls-to-the-wall, all-American acting. It reminds me of the guy who starred in the original King Kong, where everybody’s, like, “Say! We’re gonna do this! Hey, let’s take this bar and turn it into a theater!” You know? I always thought that Xander Drax was kind of like Clark Gable on acid. [Laughs.] So I had a lot of fun with that. Again, I was given a lot of leeway, and I just had a blast, saying stuff like, “The skulls of Touganda!” All that stuff was so much fun. If I’m not having fun, I don’t really want to do it.
Prince Of The City (1981)—“Daniel Ciello”
TW: You know, I was very young, but it’s an extraordinary journey into the dark side. I realized seeing it 30 years later, as difficult as it is to see myself learning my craft on film… [Laughs.] It really was an American tragedy, watching this guy try and find his way back from being corrupt. But you can’t go back. You cannot undo it. And by trying to undo it and control it, he brought down the entire Special Investigations unit, and the New York Police Department changed. It’s really an extraordinary job on Sidney [Lumet’s] part. It’s a great study in the human condition. 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. I was very honored to be asked to go see it at Lincoln Center last Sunday when they did a tribute to Sidney. It was great.