Treat Williams: A Look Back At The Hallmark Star's Life

For over 40 years, Treat Williams was a staple of the stage, big screen, and small screen. The acting vet gained recognition for his diverse and unique performances, playing everyone from the iconic Danny Zuko on Broadway to embittered cops in gritty crime thrillers and, later, wholesome dads in Hallmark movies. Famed for his classic movie star aesthetic, albeit with his signature bushy brows, he was regarded as a versatile character actor. 

Playing rugged, intense characters in a number of films throughout the '80s, age did not hinder Williams' career prospects — he enjoyed a resurgence in middle age thanks to "Everwood." And his résumé continued to grow into his 60s and 70s, with the actor appearing in innumerable critically acclaimed TV shows before his life and career were cut tragically short.

The much-loved actor died in June 2023, aged 71. Gone but not forgotten, he leaves behind an illustrious legacy and a cross-generational appeal that leaves fans both young and old mourning. "He was the nicest guy," his longtime agent Barry McPherson told People. "He was so talented. He was an actor's actor. Filmmakers loved him. He's been the heart of Hollywood since the late 1970s. He was really proud of his performance this year." Suffice to say, the actor truly was a treat to watch.

Let's celebrate the late Treat Williams by taking a look back at the Hallmark star's life.

Treat Williams had a happy childhood

Treat Williams was born in 1951 in Stamford, Connecticut, the son of a WWII veteran father and a swimming instructor mother. Hailing from a middle-class family, he attended preparatory school and spent extended periods away from home. It was this prolonged absence that made him realize how lucky he was to have loving and supportive parents. "Looking back on my younger years, I had an idyllic childhood," he told Vermont Magazine, "but I didn't initially realize how idyllic it truly was until I grew older. ... My dad and my mom were really wonderful, funny, charming people."

He caught the acting bug early, telling My Devotional Thoughts that he appeared in a number of school plays in seventh grade. When he managed to make his fellow classmates laugh, he knew that acting was the right pathway for him. A double threat, he also exhibited an aptitude for singing and was president of the glee club.

After graduating from high school, he studied at Marshall College. Initially, however, he was pursuing a football career. "I loved football very much, but I didn't think you could be a jock and be in the theater company at the same time," he explained to Vermont Magazine. "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." Soon enough, he swapped the glare of the floodlights for the glitz of the studio lights.

Treat Williams started out in the theater

Treat Williams' acting career began at Stage Door for Youth, a small theater company in Stamford, where he performed in "West Side Story." Thereafter, he told his football coach that he was giving up the helmet for good and pursuing acting full-time. In 1972, he was assigned the role of an understudy to the four male leads of "Grease" on Broadway. But soon enough, he ended up scoring the lead of Danny Zuko after two producers who saw him perform were floored by his acting. It was a dream come true for Williams, who had a real love and passion for theater. "I read Death of a Salesman when I was 16, and that had an incredible impact on my development as an actor," he told Vermont Magazine. "In college, I studied everything from Shakespeare to Albee and Chekhov."

The actor went on to star in a number of other Broadway productions, including "Once in a Lifetime" in 1978, "The Pirates of Penzance" in 1981, and, in his stage comeback, the 2001 production of "Follies."

In an interview with Backstage, he offered some advice to actors looking to start out in the theater. "Whenever a young actor asks me, 'How long should I be trying to make it before giving up?' I say, 'Get out now,'" he warned. "If you're thinking about timetables, you shouldn't be doing it. You have to have that fire against all odds."

An acclaimed director gave Treat his big break

By the late '70s, Treat Williams was continuing his run as Danny Zuko when he caught the attention of venerated filmmaker Milos Forman. Intrigued by Williams' performance, Forman approached the young actor and offered him a role in the 1979 anti-war musical "Hair." "He said to me, 'Treat — I saw you in Grease and you do something very few American actors do: you go completely overboard,'" Williams recalled to Connecticut Public Radio. "I still to this day don't know was a compliment or just an observation, but that was the beginning of 12 auditions."

The film, which was based on the countercultural 1968 Broadway musical, saw Williams play anti-Nam hippie George Berger, a role that resonated with him deeply. The actor himself was very nearly drafted for Vietnam in the '60s — a prospect that terrified him."I remember sitting at my parents' kitchen table by myself with a six-pack of beer, and my number came up, 347, so I didn't have to go. I was terrified that night," he told WBUR.

A 1979 New York Times profile noted that Williams was keen to branch out into dramatic roles following his turn as the long-locked hippie leader. But he also conceded that he was grappling with his newfound celebrity status. "As an actor, you get nothing — and then you get overkill," he mused. "There've been the autograph seekers, and the other day there were 10 paparazzi photographing me. It's new to me, and it's difficult ... nobody ever gave me a second look before."

He soon landed gritty movie roles

Realizing his dream of scoring weighty dramatic roles, Treat Williams was cast as the lead in Sidney Lumet's crime drama "Prince of the City" in 1981. The gritty film saw Williams depicting a crooked narcotics cop, based on the real-life Detective Leuci, whose conscience gets the better of him. "It's my most complex and multifaceted role. At my age, I'm very pleased to have played it, and that Sidney trusted me," Williams, then 30, told The New York Times that year. "Most actors have to wait until they're in their 40's to play such a complex role."

Not many stars can count Sergio Leone among their earliest supporters (okay, save for Clint Eastwood). But after "Prince of the City," one of Williams' biggest roles was in the iconic Italian director's 1984 epic "Once Upon a Time in America." In an interview with People, the actor said that he was excited to work with the legendary filmmaker. 

However, as a newbie, he didn't always live up to Leone's high expectations. In fact, the actor recalled an instance in which he fell asleep right in the middle of filming. "There's a scene in the film where I'm in the hospital — I've been shot ... then all of a sudden I feel somebody's arm on my shoulder, shaking my shoulder," he told People Entertainment Network with a laugh. That someone was Robert De Niro, and he was prompting Williams to wake up and say his line.

He was a trained pilot

In addition to being a multifaceted actor, Treat Williams was a keen pilot. He actually started flying planes before he set foot on a movie set. In 1969, he underwent his first flying lesson. Chatting to AOPA, he admitted that he was terrified when he initially took the controls. Before long, though, he fell in love with being in the sky.

Becoming a licensed pilot was the fulfillment of his childhood ambition. "I used to have dreams about flying when I was a boy. And I would salivate over toy airplanes," he told Publisher's Weekly. "My favorite toy was a faux airplane panel that my father made for my sister and me, with all sorts of bells and whistles. ... I also remember thinking that if I could pedal my tricycle fast enough on the sidewalk I could achieve liftoff."

In a testament to his love of flying, Williams wrote a children's book called "Air Show." He told Publisher's Weekly that his decision to write the book was partly inspired by attending an air show with his own children. His daughter Ellie, in particular, shared her father's avidity for aviation. Subsequently, he sought to make his book an empowering feminist parable that would inspire young girls. "In the book, Ellie's character is the more knowledgeable of the two children, with a real desire to fly," he explained. "When I was a kid, books about airplanes were considered 'boy' books. I thought it would be wonderful to empower a little girl with this love of flight."

Treat Williams hit a career roadblock in the '90s

By the '90s, Treat Williams' career began to stall. It was during this period that the actor's love of aviation saved him. "You see, this industry can bring so much rejection and disappointment," he told Parade. "You have long periods of inactivity — really no one's fault — when you wonder, 'Did someone name me as a serial killer online?' It's so important to find a hobby you love."

Williams partly attributed his decline to struggles with substance misuse. As he divulged to SFGate in 1995, he began using cocaine at the height of his career and subsequently lost sight of his craft, resulting in him missing out on profitable work. "I sure wish that I had been in a film that made $100 million and made me a millionaire or that I'd had any financial success at all in a movie," he confessed to the outlet. But having sought help for his struggles, he made a comeback, scoring a supporting role in the "Pulp Fiction"-esque "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead." The following year, he starred in another major production: "Mulholland Falls," opposite A-listers Nick Nolte and Melanie Griffith.

Despite his career lull, Williams was later able to reflect on his difficulties with considerable candor and insight. "I was confused, young, unfocused, spent too much time partying, and didn't handle my initial success well," he admitted in a sit-down with Backstage.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

He was praised for his starring role in Everwood

The dawn of the millennium would see Treat Williams enjoy a career resurgence. Previously, the actor had, by his own admission, erroneously labeled television inferior to cinema. He had long believed that an actor's success was predicated on their big screen work, but he soon learned that TV was both a lucrative and fulfilling pathway for veteran actors.

In 2002, he starred in the WB drama "Everwood," depicting Andy Brown, a surgeon grappling with the death of his wife and relocating to the titular Colorado town to feel symbolically closer to her. In a positive review, The New York Times argued that Williams was finally in his element, superb and palpably comfortable in his role as the grieving doctor who has to navigate life as a single father — not to mention the eccentric folks he encounters in his newfound small town. Williams was nominated for two Screen Actors Guild Awards for his performance as Andy, as well as a Satellite and Teen Choice Award.

Williams was devastated when the series was canceled in 2006. "You know, there was no one sadder than we were," he told My Devotional Thoughts. "We were very happy to be there. ... It made for some really great friendships that are still so very strong. I'm grateful for that." He added that he was still pals with co-stars Chris Pratt, who has since gone on to colossal stardom, and Greg Smith.

Making his mark on Hallmark

Having nestled comfortably into a TV career, Treat Williams branched out onto the Hallmark Channel in the 2010s. He was cast in the drama series "Chesapeake Shores" in 2016, again playing a hardworking single father.

In an interview with Assignment X, Williams revealed that he found the series oddly nostalgic, evoking both the good old days of "Everwood" as well as his own experiences living in a small town community. "Listen, I love Frank Capra, so it's along the lines of getting through life and helping each other out and accepting each other's particularly bizarre differences," he said. "I love all that. That to me is America at its best." The series turned out to be one of Hallmark's most successful productions, running for six seasons before coming to an end in 2022.

Embracing his stint as a Hallmark star, he also starred in 2020's "The Christmas House," the first Hallmark movie to feature a gay couple as part of the main storyline. Chatting to Smashing Interviews, Williams said that he was eager to embrace the changing cultural landscape and welcomed more onscreen diversity, undoubtedly a contrast to many older stars who have stubbornly dismissed so-called political correctness. "My [onscreen] son is gay," he explained. "He's married, and he's come home for Christmas." The actor continued, saying, "The new head of Hallmark is African-American, which I think is terrific. So they really are moving forward in ways that I'm very proud to be a part of this network."

Treat Williams and his wife lived an idyllic life in Vermont

Treat Williams first met Pam Van Sant when she was working as a server in New York. They wed in 1988 and welcomed two children together, Gill and Ellie. The couple spent the early years of their relationship living in Williams' parents' house in Weston, Connecticut, before purchasing a home in Vermont, where they resided for decades until Williams' death.

"I bought the house that we're in 35 years ago," he told Vermont Magazine in 2021. "I've always had an enormous love for Vermont... 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.'"

In a 1996 interview with Us Weekly (via Mary Ellen Mark), Williams opened up about struggling with the death of his best friend Henry Urgoiti, but conceded that the traumatic event made him realize how lucky he was to have such a supportive family by his side. "This is what it's all about," he reflected.

Just as Williams described his childhood in Stamford as idyllic, his life with Van Sant was equally serene. After nearly four decades of marriage, their relationship remained strong, with Williams frequently paying tribute to his lady love on social media. "Thank you for marrying me," he sweetly wrote in an Instagram birthday tribute to Van Sant in 2023.

He was a scene-stealer in We Own This City

It comes as little surprise that David Simon, creator of "The Wire," was eager to cast Treat Williams in his gritty 2022 miniseries "We Own This City." Simon, whose works have almost always focused on his firsthand experiences of police corruption, said he was profoundly influenced by Williams' performance as a crooked-turned-conscientious cop in the "Prince of the City." "After years of cop reporting, Prince Of The City was the only film that made me believe anyone else knew the truth about the drug war," Simon tweeted. "So honored when Treat Williams signed on to deliver our own, later critique of the disaster."

In "We Own This City," which is based on the true story of startling corruption within the Baltimore Police Department, Williams portrayed a former police officer who had given up the badge to become a law professor. His role, although small, was praised as a formidable self-referential cameo.

In what is arguably one of the show's most powerful scenes, civil rights attorney Nicole (Wunmi Mosaku) meets with Brian Grabler (Treat Williams), who offers some scathing insights into the futility of the war on drugs, which he denounces as inherently racist. "What the hell is a war on drugs? ... Waging a war against citizens," he explains. "By definition, it's separating us into two opposing camps." He continued, saying, "I come off as angry sometimes. Aren't you angry?" Sadly, the series would prove one of Williams' final TV roles.

Treat Williams died following a motorcycle accident

On June 12, 2023, Treat Williams was riding his motorcycle in Vermont when he was involved in a wreck with an SUV. "Williams was unable to avoid a collision and was thrown from his motorcycle," Vermont State Police said. "He suffered critical injuries and was airlifted to Albany Medical Center in Albany, New York, where he was pronounced dead." He was 71.

His sudden and unexpected death led to an outpouring of support from the full spectrum of the entertainment world. On Instagram, "Everwood" creator Greg Berlanti said that Williams served as a reminder that there is still good to be found in the industry. Meanwhile, his "Hair" co-star Beverly D'Angelo posted a screenshot of their wholesome final conversation, with Williams sharing three heart emojis along with a photo of his plane.

Testament to his unwavering family man sensibilities, Williams' last few Instagram posts were of his daughter, his beloved dog, and the greenery surrounding his Vermont home. His final interview, with the radio show "Christine and Salt," was released the day he died. Reflecting on his life, he opened up about his hopes for the future. "Somebody said to my dad before he passed away in Connecticut about five years ago, 'What's changed most in your lifetime?' ... and my dad said, 'I think that there is now a lack of civility that we had in this country ...' I think we have to find a way to return to a kind of respect for one another."