Veteran actor Treat Williams’ untimely passing in June 2023 came as a shock to everyone who appreciated the breadth of his work. In many ways Williams was a national treasure. Interested parties need only look back at the range of projects he was involved in to realize how extremely talented Williams was. One example of a role Williams’ embodied completely is that of George Berger in the film adaption of the musical “Hair.”
Treat Williams: Before “Everwood” there was “Hair”
The musical “Hair,” which hit Broadway April 29, 1968, was turned into a film in 1979. Williams played George Berger, the leader of a hippie quartet. “Hair,” with its rock ‘n’ roll ethos, is set in New York City – – a setting that proves perfect for examining class, race, and the Vietnam War.
What is striking, and arguably touching about Williams’ portrayal of George is the heart and forthrightness that he gives the character. This could probably be attributed to Williams’ own personality traits.
George is a thoroughly American character for the Age of Aquarius and beyond. When his group meets an Oklahoma native (Claude) on his way to ship out to Vietnam, they add him to their tribe. When Claude falls for an upper East Side equestrian, hijinks ensue as George and company attempt to get him in the company of his love interest. Then, George and the others find out that Claude is due to participate in the war. They group drives out west where Claude is supposed to report. George takes his place. The resulting story arc amounts to some of the most poignant moments of the movie.
Select soldiers sing parts of songs that take on new meaning. George reprises Claude’s earlier lines, “I’m Claude/and I believe in God” his hand over his heart makes the transition touching. He took Claude’s place. He is killed in action. George’s headstone bears his actual name. The tribe sings “Let the Sunshine In” as they gaze at George’s headstone. Then, the film cuts to actual footage of a war protest.
George’s character is touching because whatever he does, he is all in. Whether it is disrupting an upper-class formal dinner, or helping his new friends, or getting his old friends out of jail, George is committed. Through Williams, George embodies an American spirit that strives for equality and freedom.
Perhaps that was the biggest of Williams that will be missed: his warmth. Even from the distance provided by the screen, Williams seemed to exude a loving personality. In “Everwood” and “Heartland” his kindness is evident.
Only listing a few projects does not do justice to the number and range of films and musicals Williams starred in. He was also known for starring in an early 1970s stage version of “Grease.” Williams played Danny Zuko, a role made famous later in the movie of the same name by John Travolta.
After “Hair,” Williams starred in a variety of films from 1981 until 2010. Williams could be seen in such television shows and television films such as “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “The Late Shift,” “Chicago Fire” and “Blue Bloods,” the latter as recently as 2023. He also wrote a kids’ book, “Air Show!”
There was so much to know about Williams. While his death is a tragedy, Williams’ body of work reminds audiences what is possible to achieve through acting.
It has been widely reported that Williams was 71. He is survived by his wife Pam Van Sant, and their children Gill and Allie.