Whenever he gets off a plane at Albany International Airport and begins heading north toward his home in Manchester, Vermont, Treat Williams always feel a little tug pulling him westward.
“I have a very strong connection to Schenectady,” said Williams, who is starring in David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” at the Dorset Theatre Festival, opening Friday and running through Sept. 2. “Since the time I was born I would go there to see Aunt Gigi and my two uncles. They lived at 808 Harrison Avenue. I’ll never forget the address.”
The star of major motion pictures such as “Hair” and “Prince of the City,” Williams recently concluded filming the second season of “Chesapeake Shores” for the Hallmark Channel. While he and his wife, Pam Van Sant, have spent much of their 32-year marriage between Vermont, New York City and Utah, they have been permanent residents of Manchester for almost 10 years now.
“We kept our home in Utah until my son graduated from high school, and then we moved into what had been our weekend home when we were living in New York City,” said Williams. “We love Vermont, and I’ve made it a point to remain as incognito as possible around Manchester. I just love flipping around town without being a celebrity. This is just where I live.”
Williams hasn’t been to Schenectady since his uncle died more than 20 years ago. But he has plenty of memories of the city where his father, Richard Norman Williams, was born on May 6, 1923.
“If my parents went on vacation or a business trip, I would stay with my Aunt Gigi and she would take very good care of me,” said Williams. “I can remember being 7 or 8, and heading downtown and also seeing my Uncle Charles. I remember going through the house, and going through my dad’s old desk and all his things. I remember it all very clearly.”
Williams’ father grew up in the Bellevue neighborhood of Schenectady and was a graduate of Yale University and a World War II veteran. He was trained as a chemical engineer and became a very successful corporate executive in Rowayton, Connecticut, where Treat was born in December of 1951.
“My father’s mother died when he was very young, and single men didn’t raise children back then,” said Williams.
“So he grew up with my aunt, but the odd thing was that he thought his aunt was his mother. It wasn’t until one of his sixth-grade classmates told him that he learned he was being raised by his aunt and two of his uncles. But it didn’t seem to have a profound effect on him. He grew up to be very successful and became one of the greatest dads in the world.”
Clockwise from top left: Treat Williams is pictured in “Hair,” “Once Upon a Time in America,” “Everwood” and “Chesapeake Shores.” (Photos provided)
Treat Williams grew up in Rowayton, not too far from New York City and the Long Island Sound. He played high school football as well as one year in college during his freshman year at Franklin & Marshall in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
“I had three things that were very important to me in high school,” said Williams. “Girls were No. 1, football No. 2, and possibly doing something in the theater was No. 3. I was working at a place in Stamford called Stage Door for Youth, and just had a pretty good season of football at Franklin & Marshall. But I realized that football was a full-time occupation in college, and I also realized that I wasn’t going to put on 150 pounds and be an NFL lineman. So, I decided to pursue acting.”
His acting aspirations didn’t originally include any big successes in Hollywood.
“I did live theater,” he said. “I didn’t have any objection to being on TV or in film, but it’s not like I was watching Steve McQueen films and saying that’s what I wanted to do. I was listening to albums of British actors like Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson. I felt like I would be lucky to get some job with a repertory company somewhere. I had no big plans.”
Williams wasn’t a struggling professional actor for long. After landing a job as the understudy for the role of Danny Zuko in “Grease,” in 1975 Williams started playing the lead. That gig led to an even bigger triumph when he was noticed by Hollywood director Milos Forman.
“I did it on Broadway for three years, and that led to ‘Hair,’ ” said Williams. “Milos said something to me, he said, ‘You do something few actors do. You go overboard.’ I’m still not sure if he meant it as a compliment or not, but he eventually hired me to play George Berger and that was the beginning of my film career.”
When the movie came out in 1979, it was a huge hit and universally acclaimed by critics. In his New York Times review, Vincent Canby wrote that the film was “a rollicking musical memoir, as much a recollection of the show as of the period, a film that has the charm of a fable and the slickness of Broadway show biz at its breathless best.”
Written for Broadway in 1968 by James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot, “Hair” was classified as an “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.” Set in New York City in the turbulent 1960s, the story followed a small group of young, politically active hippies led by Williams’ character, George Berger. The film also starred John Savage, who had just made “The Deer Hunter.”
“Imagine being a young kid just coming off a Broadway musical, who gets to throw on some clothes and head over to Central Park to do some film work,” said Williams. “I got to work with John Savage. It was a great experience, and I put everything in me into it. It’s probably in the top three of things that I’ve done. I was very happy with it, but that’s not the right word. I was grateful and honored to be a part of something like that.”
In 1981, Williams had another huge hit in “Prince of the City,” in which he played Daniel Ciello, a New York City police officer who cooperates with a special commission investigating police corruption. Some of his other favorites include “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984) ” A Streetcar Named Desire” (1984) and “Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead” (1999).
Williams has made countless appearances on television and plays a single father in his current gig, “Chesapeake Shores.” He also played the father in “Everwood,” a WB series about a doctor, played by Williams, who moves his family to a small town in Colorado following the death of his wife. The show ran from 2002 through 2006.
He says his character, Teach, in David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” is much more like George Berger than any of his two television dads.
“It’s a very funny and powerful play, it’s really worth revisiting, and I was thinking how if George Berger had lived, he would have been a lot like this guy, Teach,” said Williams, who is also a pilot and has authored a children’s book, “Air Show,” with artist Robert Neubecker. “He doesn’t like authority, doesn’t like to be told what to do. Makes his way by living on the edge of society. I think that might have been where George went.”
The Dorset Theatre Festival production of “American Buffalo” is being directed by John Gould Rubin and also stars Stephen Adly Guirgis as Donny and Oliver Palmer as Bobby.
“I usually don’t like to work in the summer,” said Williams, who was lured back to the stage by DTF artistic producer Dina Janis. “But when Dina came to me and said, ‘do you want to do ‘American Buffalo’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’ Then I read it again and David Mamet’s language is so rich. I felt like it was written for me.”
WHERE: Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, Vermont
WHEN: Opens 7:30 p.m. Friday and runs through Sept. 2; performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $52-$39
MORE INFO: (802) 867-2223, ext. 2, or visit www.dorsettheatrefestival.org