A Mellow Treat Williams Lightens His Heavy Image

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Times Staff Writer

Treat Williams strode through the lobby of the Sunset Marquis Hotel looking like somebody’s dad, dressed in a gray tweed jacket and plaid shirt, and mused about the hotel’s reputation.

“This hotel is popular with rock stars,” he said, making his way outside. “I used to come here years ago when there’d be parties all night. Now the rock stars come back, they’ve got kids, they complain if there’s any noise going on after 10 p.m.”

He laughed, picked an orange blossom from a tree and inhaled deeply. “Ahhh,” he sighed. “Takes me to a completely different place.”


As the rock stars have mellowed, so has Williams. The once-confused actor who years ago dropped out of sight to take a job flying planes is gone, replaced by Treat Williams, mild-mannered nice guy.

Now, at 36, he has an image problem of a different sort: Letting people know he does more than play heavies.

He thinks he’ll succeed with “Dead Heat,” a new comedy-action-thriller cop movie opening Friday that co-stars former “Saturday Night Live-r” and beer pitchman Joe Piscopo. Williams plays up-tight detective Roger Mortis, who gets bumped off in a decompression chamber but is brought back to life via a reanimation machine.

But the zombie life has its drawbacks; Williams has a few hours to live, and his body decomposes as he and his partner, Piscopo, try to find the villain while battling reanimated thugs, cow carcasses and headless chickens.

If it’s not the kind of movie you’d expect to find the star of “Prince of the City” and “Smooth Talk” in, Williams wants it that way.

“Because of the strength of ‘Prince of the City’ (in which Williams portrayed New York detective-turned-snitch Robert Leuci, who was called Danny Ciello in the movie), there was a strong feeling that I was a kind of weighty and dark and serious actor. I read this film and thought it was a kind of a wonderful, strange and bizarre story. I thought it was time to do a comedy. But it’s very difficult because when it comes to comedy, they’re going to call Tom Hanks or Billy Crystal. They just would never think of me.


“It’s just the way things are now,” he continued. “When Hollywood had a studio system, actors were nurtured and learned their craft by doing two or three pictures a year.”

Without old-style studio contracts, actors like Williams often take jobs abroad. He’s done four movies in Italy (one American production, “Once Upon a Time in America”) and played a Neopolitan in a TV comedy.

“It’s been a wonderful kind of second home over there,” he said during lunch (a Virgin Mary and fruit plate) at the hotel. “Whether or not the films I did will be translated to English, I don’t know. A lot of American actors work there; more than you know, because you don’t see the pictures. I’m very happy when I’m there. And I work hard and care about the films I do over there. But I’m more particular, I must admit, here in the States about the films I would do and not do.

“But you don’t have to worry quite so much about the success or failure (of a film in Europe). They don’t give so much weight to success and failure. If a film fails, it doesn’t mean the actor’s career is over. It’s not a disgusting thing if somebody falls on their face. For some reason this country has a hard time dealing with that. I think it’s a natural part of the growth process.”

Williams has had his share of flops, including Milos Forman’s “Hair,” which didn’t turn Williams into the major star that he hoped then to become. In addition, Williams had a featured role in Steven Spielberg’s unsuccessful “1941” and the lead opposite Robert Duvall in “The Pursuit of D. B. Cooper,” which also failed to become a breakthrough hit.

Neither did “Prince of the City.” He received critical raves for “Smooth Talk,” in which he portrayed bad-boy charmer Arnold Friend, but it wasn’t enough to make it a sleeper hit. His versatility is evident (TV’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Broadway’s “Grease”), but the Big One still eludes him.


“Having a smash is very important to me. . . ,” he said, his hands folded neatly in his lap. “Without (a hit) you’re not what they call a ‘bankable actor.’ I’ve been connected with films that have been artistically acclaimed. But I don’t think a 3 1/2-hour-long movie about police corruption is something that can really run away with the entire country. Without it I can’t get films made that I want to. Well, I can get them made but it’s a lot more difficult. It would be nice. We’d all love it. Ask Robin Williams what it feels like. I’m sure he feels very nice about it.”

“Prince of the City” director Sidney Lumet said Williams’ dilemma is “very simple. You’re better off being adequate in a smash hit than being brilliant in a mildly successful movie or a flop. And Treat hasn’t had the great big grosser ever in his career. I was hoping it would happen with ‘Prince.’ I say this to actors all the time: ‘If they hope things are going to happen with a career, just pray for the success of the picture.’ ”

Lumet became interested in Williams after seeing him in “Hair” but wasn’t sure that the man who danced and sang his way through that film could carry off something more somber. The director had Williams read for the part three times before picking him for the lead role.

“I picked him because I thought he was so funny in ‘Hair,’ ” recalled Lumet from his New York office. “I knew the character needed this complete ability to charm you. Bob Leuci could walk into a room and in five minutes you’d be laughing and figure he’s the most charming person you’d met, and then in half an hour you’d find your underwear missing. When I saw Treat in ‘Hair,’ he had that kind of sweetness and charm.”

Those same qualities led director Joyce Chopra to choose Williams for “Smooth Talk.”

“He’s a gifted comic, and I think that came through in the role,” she said. “He took a painfully menacing part and gave it an edge of comedy. He had a true feeling for the film we were making. He doesn’t arrive blind on the set. We first fooled around with the script when I was at Sundance (Institute, Robert Redford’s Utah film workshop). He came up for a week to work with the part. I had heard he was this high-strung actor, but he wasn’t like that at all. He really cared about the film and was very helpful to the other actors.”

Williams admitted to a bout of “confusion” following the release of “Hair” in 1979, his first taste of success. “I became successful and all of a sudden I thought to myself ‘Gee, this isn’t doing for me what I thought it was going to do.’ I thought I’d be happier. I thought success would bring happiness. You always think, ‘Once I get there, boy, am I going to feel good about everything.’ And I didn’t. I was even more confused than ever after the opening of the movie. So I started working for this airline because I wanted to do something that was more solid.”


He became a co-pilot with a small airline in Los Angeles, a stint that lasted six months, when he got the call from Lumet.

Williams still flies (he owns a small plane), an avocation that gives him “total control,” unlike acting, he said, laughing. “Acting is pretty frightening; you never know if you’re going to get it right. Flying gives me an incredible sense of accomplishment. When I make a good landing, I feel great. I feel like I just did something terrific. It’s a very instantaneous sense of pleasure. And, of course, being up there is like a religious experience for me. When you fly well you know it, and the passengers know it, and there’s no critic who’s going to say you stunk!”

If the critics aren’t taken with Williams in “Dead Heat,” they’ll get another chance to look him over in “Heart of Dixie,” a story, filming now, of a group of young women at the University of Mississippi on the eve of the civil rights movement. Williams plays the former football hero who leaves town, becomes a photojournalist and returns 10 years later. Co-starring with Ally Sheedy and Phoebe Cates, Williams joked that he’s “the old man in the cast.”

In September he’ll play real-life bridegroom when he and his fiancee, actress-dancer Pamela Van Sant, tie the knot. They’ve bought a house in a remote section of Vermont, and Williams can’t wait to see what flowers the spring thaw has revealed.

He sounds domesticated already. “I’m not much of a planner,” he said, gazing up over the Sunset Marquis pool at a plane buzzing by. “I’m very directed and ambitious, yet I’m not goal-oriented.

“My ambitions are pretty immediate--I would like to work much more in this country, and that’s something I’m working very hard on. But I guess you get up each day and make it the best you can. Because it ain’t easy sometimes, but it can be a lot of fun.”