Q&A with Treat Williams
Updated: Mar 22, 2022
By Joshua Sherman, M.D
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY TREAT WILLIAMS
Listen to the Interview at Oldmillroadrecording.com/vt-voices.
Treat Williams, a 4-time Golden Globe® Award nominee and Emmy® Award nominee, is an actor, singer, and aviator who calls Manchester, Vermont “home.” Over the course of his prolific and multi-faceted career, Williams has starred as the lead in Grease on Broadway, as well as television series such as Everwood, Chicago Fire, Blue Bloods, and Chesapeake Shores. He has also starred in dozens of films, including Hair, Prince of the City, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, and Once Upon a Time in America.
Sherman: Thanks so much for joining us on VT Voices, Treat! Let’s start out with the basics. Where were you born, and what was your childhood like?
Williams: I was born in Stamford, Connecticut. My dad was a WWII veteran. He served in the occupying forces in Japan as a paratrooper. After the war, he came back and married my mom. They then moved to New Jersey, where he worked for the Merck Chemical Corporation. Three years after I was born, we moved to Rowayton, Connecticut, right on the water. Looking back on my younger years, I had an idyllic childhood, but I didn’t initially realize how idyllic it truly was until I grew older. Our backyard was the Long Island Sound. My mother had a little sailing and swimming school. I taught at her school, and I used to race “blue jay” and “lightning” boats on the Long Island Sound. I left home at 14 to attend prep school. I went to the Kent School in Connecticut. After that, I never lived at home again, except to visit there during the summer, but I had a wonderful childhood. My dad and my mom were really wonderful, funny, charming people.
Sherman: How did you first become involved in the performing arts?
Williams: I got my start in acting in seventh grade. I wasn’t particularly funny in school, but I remember that there was a comedy show that was put on by my school’s theatre program. My mother made a big pile of tuna sandwiches as props for the play, and I also had a Coca-Cola with me. I was nervous, and I poured the Coca-Cola partially into the glass, and I slammed the coke bottle down on the table. It got this huge laugh. I remember loving the feeling of that laughter coming from the audience. I was also very interested in music at the time. I was learning to play guitar and singing a lot. When I first got to Kent School, my grades weren’t good enough to be in theatre. Eventually, I did an Edward Albee play called American Dream. I played a character called “The Young Man.” At one point in the play, a grandmother hits on this young man. I remember staring at the grandmother character with our profiles faced towards the audience. After she started hitting on me, I just did a look out to the house, a kind of a fearful look like, “What’s happening to me?” Again, that same laughter came back, and I thought “Boy, I really like this!” I think that was the real beginning for me. I sort of unconsciously knew that this was something I was going to do. After that, my mother suggested that I try out for West Side Story in Stamford at a little theatre company called Stage Door for Youth. I made some very strong friendships there, including my friendship with Wayne Cilento, who would later star in A Chorus Line and choreograph Tommy and Wicked. Another friend of mine who I met there, Tony Spinelli, went on to become a very famous model for a while. We were all Jets and Sharks at the Stage Door for Youth together. By that time, the bug had hit me. When I got to college at Franklin and Marshall (after playing football for my first season), I realized that I was going to be an actor. I told the football coach that I was no longer going to be playing football. It was very hard for me to do, because I loved football very much, but I didn’t think you could be a jock and be in the theatre company at the same time. At that point, I started to get serious about learning as much as possible about the craft of acting in my freshman year at college.
Sherman: Were there any early mentors who helped to shape the trajectory of your career after you got serious about your acting ambitions?
Williams: The house that I grew up in was owned by a woman named Judy Abbott, who was the daughter of George Abbott, who was the most successful director of Broadway musicals for the first part of the 20th century. Down the street from our house, there was a guy named Bobby
Griffith, who was Hal Prince’s creative partner, and down the street the other way was Richard Bissell, who wrote Pajama Game. Their friends would all come up in the summer to visit. Stephen Sondheim would come - and they would all play charades and drink together. It was a great little summer retreat. When I got to college, Judy Abbott was working for William Morris Agency. At the time, I was doing three college shows: a comedy, a Shakespeare and a musical. She came down and saw the shows, and she told me, “I’ll represent you.” It was a very big “in” for me, but of course, I still had to prove myself. I’m incredibly grateful to Judy for getting me my first auditions and exposing me to the process early on. There was another person who really influenced the direction my career took, and her name was Phyllis Grandy. She was a musical accompanist. One day, Phyllis said to me, “Do you sing rock and roll?” I said, “That’s all that I did in college.” She said, “I’m going to take you over to the Royale Theatre. They’re auditioning for a road company of Grease. I think that you should go over there and sing for them.” I went over, and I sang “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” by Neil Sedaka. Louis St. Louis was the musical director. He said, “That’s very nice. Would you sing it a third higher for me?” I sang it a third higher, and he said, “Let me have it a third even higher.” I sang it, going into my falsetto range. He said, “That’s very good. Come back next week, and don’t bring your guitar.” I came back and they put me on Broadway as the understudy to four of the male leads, including John Travolta and Jeff Conaway. I covered Teen Angel, Doody, Danny Zuko, and Roger. Within two weeks, I was on Broadway performing. It was a baptism by fire, but it was great.
Sherman: How did you end up becoming the lead in Grease?
Williams: I did Grease as an understudy for a while, and then I did a show with Ann Reinking and Marilu Henner called Over Here. We performed with the Andrews Sisters, and we did the show for six months. It was a wonderful experience. It was the first big Broadway musical that I starred in. It came to an end when the Andrews Sisters just didn’t want to perform anymore. At the end of the performance run, we did a final two weeks down at the Municipal Opera House in St. Louis, Missouri. After that, I was an out-of-work actor again. I did a play, I did a bunch of commercials, and then something happened. I got a call, and got invited to go on as Danny Zuko in Grease on Broadway. I went on twice, and I didn’t perform well. I was just stiff and I didn’t own the role. Tommy Smith (who was the stage manager who directed all of the touring productions) asked me if I wanted to take over the last two weeks of a summer tour of Grease. I accepted the offer, and then we had two weeks of rehearsals. Everyone was new to the show. We weren’t being told what to do by the old pros. We were all young, and we all wanted to be good. It was just a fun, crazy, wild production of Grease with great young energy. After several weeks of performances, two producers came down and saw it, then came backstage and told me that my performance was great. Three days later, I got a call asking if I wanted to take over the role of Danny Zuko as the lead in Grease on Broadway. That ended up being my job for the next three years. I also did my first few film roles during that time, and I started going to acting classes to further improve my skills.
Sherman: What were your biggest takeaways from the acting classes that you attended during the Grease era?
Williams: I wanted to make sure that I was well-rounded as an actor. I read Death of a Salesman when I was 16, and that had an incredible impact on my development as an actor. In college, I studied everything from Shakespeare to Albee and Chekhov. I knew that I had good basic acting skills, but I didn’t think that I knew as much about the craft of acting as I should have. One night, I ended up at a party, and a guy said to me, “You know, my wife teaches a class. She’s a member of the Actor’s Studio. I think you might like it. You should go.” I went to one class and I fell in love with it. Christopher Reeve, Carol Kane, and Mickey Rourke were also in the class. I went to the class for three or four years, until one time in class I felt that the teacher wasn’t giving me as much advice as before. I said to her, “You’re not giving me as much help as you used to.” She said, “Treat, you have the tools. Go out and use them.” The name of the woman who ran the class was Sandra Seacat. She was a wonderful teacher.
Sherman: A lot of people don’t necessarily know about all of the hard work and discipline that goes into performing a Broadway show. How did you manage to keep things fresh and stay motivated during that time?
Williams: I had grown up learning all of the songs from West Side Story, so I was aware of what a big deal “Broadway” was. When I got my first little dressing room at the Royale Theatre up on the sixth floor looking down on 45th Street, I thought, “I’ve arrived. I’m here. This is fantastic!” I never lost the thrill that I would get from arriving at the theatre and getting ready for a show. It was a physically demanding show, and we all put a lot of effort into warming up. I already had the part under my belt. I really owned it. I spent the first four or five months finding where my humor was and what my Danny Zuko was like. The thing that people don’t realize is that there are Sunday matinees where you think, “I don’t know how to get through this. I’m just not in the mood to go to that high-energy place” Still, every time you’d hear that audience out there, and hear the kids that were coming in to see Grease on Broadway for the first time from New Jersey or from California or from the Midwest, you could feel how excited they were to be in a Broadway theater. Every time that curtain came up, I always knew that it was a brand-new group of people. That was the best part of Broadway. Every day and every time you performed was a completely new audience. The audience served almost like a wave that would lift us up on the tougher days. Every night after the show finished, I was always the last one to leave the theatre. I loved being there and soaking up the energy. I would leave my dressing room and I’d walk across the stage and I would just stand there. I could feel that the air was still pulsating with the energy of the actors and the audience.
Sherman: How did your career transition from Broadway into film?
Williams: I had already starred in several films by the end of my run with Grease. One of them was a film called Deadly Hero, which was the first film that James Earl Jones and I did together. I didn’t have any scenes with Jimmy, but we worked together later on Everwood. That was my first real film role. I played a young cop and I was just so excited to be in front of the camera. After that, I went to London to do a play that Rita Moreno, Jack Weston, and Jerry Stiller were starring in called The Ritz. We also did a film version with Richard Lester, who directed the Beatles movies and some other very, very good films. While I was there, I met the director John Sturges, and ended up playing a nice little part in The Eagle Has Landed with Michael Caine. I already knew how to act by then, but I started learning what it was like to be on a movie set. Michael Caine was really a wonderful role model. He didn’t mentor me directly, but he mentored me by just doing what he did and letting me watch and learn from him. After The Eagle Has Landed wrapped, I was told to go to Los Angeles, and I was out there for six months. I was miserable there. I went to my agent’s office and I said, “I can’t do this. I don’t want to drive around this big city waiting in rooms for an hour and a half – just to go in and try and prove that I’m good at something I already know I’m pretty good at.” I didn’t like auditioning, so I went home to take some time away from it. Just as I was getting home, the lead actor in Grease broke his leg, so I went back into Grease again. Not long after that, I found out that they were auditioning people for the film version of Hair. That was a very difficult and long four or five-month period of proving to them that I was the right guy for the role.
Sherman: What was the sequence of events that led to you finally landing your starring role in Hair?
Williams: It was amazing to be a part of that film, because growing up in the late 1960s, I would drive around in my mother’s convertible Mustang singing along to the album from the Broadway production of Hair on her eight-track player. I had to prove that I was ready for the role. I didn’t just have to prove it to the director, Miloš Forman. I also had to prove it to the musical director, and Galt McDermot (who wrote the music), as well as Gerome Ragni and Jim Rado. They all had different opinions of who they wanted and what they were looking for. Lastly, I had to prove it to the choreographer, Twyla Tharp, who was a real taskmaster. By the end of my audition for her, I was completely exhausted, but I knew I was proving to her that I would give her a work ethic that she could work with, because I was not a dancer by any means. The last audition for Hair was especially strange. It was my twelfth audition. I had to do the monologue from the theatre version,
because there was no monologue in the movie. I had the monologue memorized, so I went in to do the audition with confidence. As I started the monologue, I started removing all of my clothing. At the end of the monologue, I was standing stark naked in front of them. After the monologue, they applauded, and I told them, “This is all that I’ve got, I don’t know what else I can give you.” Miloš came up to me after I walked out and told me that he was going to give me the part. That was the final audition, and I finally had the part.
Sherman: That sounds like a truly formative experience. If you had any advice to give people who are interested in entering the entertainment industry, what would it be?
Williams: I think you have to learn to play the game to a certain degree. I think we all learn that an important part of acting is the ability to not let people know that you’ve had a terrible day. It’s not my job to bring a bad day into an interview. I think I learned that part of the business early on. I’ve always been really lazy about the agent and manager aspects of it. I do think that there is a time for management and press agents and lawyers. I had all of that at one time. However, as your career evolves, you don’t need all of those things. You don’t work for as much money and you don’t need a manager telling you what you should be doing next, or telling you where you need to be. I do think that it’s hard to give advice on that aspect of career management, because at certain points in an actor’s career, you really do need people around you to protect you and to guide you. I can say that most actors are not always happy with their agents or management teams. They’re always going to complain. There’s a great thing that Liza Minnelli said. She’s an old friend of mine. She told me that someone once said to her, “your childhood must have been wonderful. It must have been amazing to be present at those dinner parties with Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and all of those wonderful actors that came over to your house on the weekends.” Liza said, “No. Hollywood was just a small town where a bunch of people came over, got drunk, and complained about their careers.” I was very lucky. I think New York was the right place for me, not Hollywood.
Sherman: How did you meet Liza Minelli?
Williams: We were socializing in the same circles. My friend, Wayne Cilento, was one of her dancers. I was starring on Broadway, and Studio 54 was a mecca for when you wanted to go out. We all knew each other, and it was a fun time.
Sherman: What was it like being a part of that closely-knit group of actors who have now all risen to prominence, and how did you handle the pressures of fame?
Williams: Things get different when you start working with some of the better-known people in the industry. After I did Once Upon a Time in America with Robert DeNiro, I reconnected with some of the younger people I knew from the days I spent as a cast member of Grease. On one of those occasions, I mentioned how I had flown Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken down to Cuba for a film festival, and I casually referred to him as “Bobby DeNiro.” Someone said, “Oh, you call him Bobby now? Bobby DeNiro is your buddy?” One of the hardest things about gaining prominence in your career is that other people start to get intimidated by the fact that you know other prominent actors. That’s never an easy thing. There’s a lot of artful navigation that goes into it.
Sherman: Speaking of Once Upon a Time in America, Sergio Leone is a legendary filmmaker. What was it like working with him?
Williams: In terms of my relationships with directors, I always felt like the kid that sat at the foot of the gods. It’s not that I wanted to become a director. I just found myself fascinated by the directors that I worked with. They would tell me stories about the actors I revered. It started with John Sturges. I would go to dinner with him and I would say, “so what was Tracy like?” He said, “Spence was a good guy.” You got a chance to hear their perspective of these actors that you idolized. I used to go to Sergio’s house and we’d open a bottle of wine and he would show me a screening room. He’d say, “Would you like to hear the music for the movie?” I remember at one point when we were listening to the score, he said, “This is a guy named Zamfir.” And I said, “Who’s Zamfir?” He said, “He plays a very special flute.” It was that same pan flute sound that became Morricone’s primary sound on the score for Once Upon a Time in America. It’s very haunting and very beautiful. Sergio would also tell me stories, and they were funny stories. I don’t think they were always true. He would tell me about Clint Eastwood’s early years, and the times that they spent on the set together. He had a great sense of humor. It was a very pleasant and fun experience to be on the set with him.
Sherman: Another great film that you starred in is The Late Shift, which you received an Emmy© nomination for. How did that opportunity come about?
Williams: I was sitting at a party for the Dorset Theatre Festival, and I got a call from someone who told me that I had been offered the role of Mike Ovitz in The Late Shift. I asked them what I had to do, and they told me that shooting started in two days. Two days later, I was in front of a camera. That was another baptism by fire, but the director, Betty Thomas, was wonderful. She gave me my own office space where I could go work on the scene where I asked David Letterman to become my client in the film. I found out that Ovitz believed in the philosophy of The Art of War, which was one of his favorite books. I decided to be very Zen, polite, and quiet in the scene, and tell him what I was going to do for him. It worked out well. It was a lot of fun. The director really let me run with it.
Sherman: Michael Ovitz must have been an incredibly interesting character to play given his impact on the entertainment industry. Did you ever know Mike personally?
Williams: I didn’t know him personally, but he called me up after he saw the movie. He said, “I don’t know if this is self-serving, but I wanted to tell you something. I thought you were very good in the film, but there are two things I do have a problem with: first, I never wear white suits. Second, you have nicer hair than I do.” I said, “Well, I apologize for both, but I can’t help the second thing you mentioned.” That was the last time we talked, but I saw him once again in a restaurant, and he sent me a Mickey Mouse watch because he was working for Disney at the time that the film was released.
Sherman: You’ve been nominated for four Golden Globe® Awards over the course of your career. One of those nominations was for your performance as Stanley Kowalski in the 1984 remake of A Streetcar Named Desire. What was it like taking on such an iconic role?
Williams: Part of being an actor is being willing to fail, and growth is taking roles that you know that you should play at that age. I had not seen Brando in the film. I love Brando’s work, but it was On the Waterfront that I knew him from. I had never seen Streetcar, and I decided when I was offered it that I wouldn’t see Streetcar. We were working with some very inexperienced people who were not theatre people. And they said, “Well, you know, why don’t you wear this wristband and this t-shirt?” I said, “I don’t think the wristband works for me.” They said, “Well, that’s what Brando wore in the film.” I said, “Well, what does that matter? What does that have to do with our production of Streetcar?” Someone said, “well, we’re making a remake of this movie.” I said, “No, no, no. You don’t understand. We are making a production of A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s our director’s vision of the play. It’s a combination of the art direction and the direction and what we think is important. And Alec Baldwin has a Stanley that’s different than my Stanley, which is different than Brando’s Stanley. All of the actors took the project very seriously. Ann-Margret was wonderful and Beverly D’Angelo was great. I was working out like crazy, and we were rehearsing a lot. We had a two-week rehearsal period, which is unheard of for television.
Sherman: You’ve starred in a large number of films over the course of your career, many of which are incredibly gritty and intense. Recently, you’ve starred in Chesapeake Shores on the Hallmark Channel, and also in Dolly Parton’s recent Christmas special, Christmas on the Square. Has it been difficult to relax into roles that are more lighthearted and easygoing?
Williams: I think if you forget you’ve done those other things, you can get frustrated in certain roles. I like to think I’ve already proven myself on the “crazy meter” and the “dramatic meter” with Prince of the City or with Hair. If you’ve done those roles where you’ve gone the distance, why not just relax and know that you have the chance to do a two-page scene every third day. I like to demonstrate a sense of fun and leadership on the set when I’m there. The crew always seems happy when I walk in and say good morning to everybody. We have a lot of fun making whatever we make. I love my job on Hallmark. There’s a reason people binge-watch Hallmark. They don’t have to feel bad. They can feel good for two hours, and they can forget their troubles. There is a place for that, I think, particularly right now in this world.
Sherman: You’re also an avid aviator. Tell me more. Any favorite memories?
Williams: I actually gave John Travolta his first ride in a small plane back when we were doing Grease. I’ve been flying for 50 years, but it feels like yesterday that I was doing my first solo flight in Connecticut. It’s always been my way to cope with the stress of working in an industry that has so many ups and downs. It also gives me something to be interested in outside of acting and waiting for the next job. The fact that I have a skill and can fly an airplane and do it well with great training and great care gives me a great sense of pride.
Sherman: It’s always great to find something that brings you joy and peace and allows you to find fulfillment. Speaking of which, when did you first come to Vermont, and what made you want to move here and raise a family here with your wife, Pam?
Williams: I’ve been a skier all my life. We would come and ski in Vermont as a family when I was growing up, and we would stay at a place in Peru when I was five years old called the Russell Inn. It’s across the street from a wonderfully renovated general store up there. I have extraordinarily happy memories of Christmas vacations up here in Vermont. Eventually, my dad bought a house in Weston and I started going up there all the time. I just fell in love with Vermont, and I fell equally in love with Weston. My wife Pam and I used my parents’ house in Weston while we were courting. We started skiing together up here. I called my lawyer and said, “I’m overusing my parents’ house. I think I’d like to rent a house.” He said, “No. Why don’t you buy one? You can afford one.” I bought the house that we’re in 35 years ago. I’ve always had an enormous love for Vermont, both in winter and summer. There was something incredibly special about it to me, and the people here are incredibly honest, real, and good-humored. There’s also always something new to discover somewhere on a dirt road that you’ve never traveled on before. Every day I wake up so grateful to see the view that I see out of my window and to be living up here. I think very few people are lucky as I am to say, “I love where I live.” I don’t have any fantasies of being somewhere else. I have everything I want and need in Vermont. I’ve been all over the world, and I’ve never seen a place as beautiful as Vermont.
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