White Collar: Treat Williams–Neal Caffrey’s Dad–Speaks!

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If there’s one thing we’ve learned from this season of White Collar (USA Network, Tuesdays, 10/9C), it’s that Neal Caffrey seems to have inherited his ability to don and discard identities from his father – the man formerly known as Sam. On tonight’s episode, Neal asks his father why he didn’t say who he was before Neal found out from his FBI Agent friend/partner, Peter Burke.

On Friday of last week, Treat Williams spoke with a group of journalists/bloggers about playing Sam Phelps aka Neal’s father.

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Treat Williams: Hi.

Let me ask you in what ways would you say you are most like and least like your character from the show?

Williams: Well before I answer that first question I’m going to indulge myself and just tell everybody thank you so much for coming on.

And if I sound a little phlegmy I just came down with the flu. And I think – I feel like I was – a small gremlin got into my room last night and (dinged) me with a baseball bat. But I’m very happy to be here and thrilled that I can talk about the show.

In answer to your question, you know, I watched the episode last night again and I think that, you know, one of the things that’s very different between he and I is that he is troubled in the sense that he’s spending time with this kid who is this love of his life though he was 5-years-old and was torn away from him by circumstances that he started.

But nonetheless – and I can see. It was interesting. I said, ‘This guy’s in a lot of pain. This guy’s having to keep it a secret that this is his long-lost son. But on the other hand he gets to be with him.” But I think that’s the greatest difference between us, is that not too much bothers me.

Right. And what keeps challenging you about playing this character?

Williams: Eight-page monologues explaining my entire history with him. There’s a lot of long walks on country roads in Vermont let me tell you.

Geez.

Williams: And yes it was – that was challenging. But I think that was about it. I mean, I – having played Prince of the City it to me was like coming full circle.

You know, you have this cop who had been – done a bad thing and wanted to find his way home and realized he couldn’t. He couldn’t get out. Once you’re in you can’t get out.

And that really was – parallels Prince of the City to a great degree. And I was 30 when I shot that. So it’s been – it was really kind of lovely to revisit that kind of character again 30 years later.

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I’m sorry you’re sick and I hope you feel better soon.

Williams: That’s fine. I’ll be fine.

Oh that’s good. I was wondering will we see you on more than just the season opener and if you could tell us how many episodes.

Williams: You will see me on more than the season opener. I cannot remember how many I was on. But I signed on for six. And I honestly don’t remember how many have been shown and I think there are at least two more before the season ends — pretty sure.

I just feel I have to tell you my daughter is a theater major at Franklin & Marshall College…

Williams: Oh that is so cool.

Yes, yes…

Williams: Has she worked in the Green Room?

I’m sorry?

Williams: Has she worked in the Green Room Theatre?

Yes, yes, yes.

Williams: Oh okay. All my acting training was in that (town). That’s so cool.

Yes, yes. So you are an inspiration to her. But…

Williams: Oh thank you.

…sorry to go off on a personal note.

Williams: No please, please. That makes it much more fun. Thank you.

I was wondering as you filmed each episode were you aware of what was in store for your character’s story line?

Williams: No I was not. And I finally – it was frustrating at first and I finally after reading the first deal I said, ‘Look these guys are such good writers I’m just going to go with the flow on this.”

And, you know, I was as excited as anybody to get the next script and find out. I didn’t even know until two or three episodes in whether I was going to end up being villainous or a good guy or, you know.

So it was fun. It was fun to kind of just get a script and go, ‘Oh okay. This is where we’re going this week.’

So that was actually – you know, once I let go of trying to control it, you know, I – actors really want to know what their background is and where they’re heading and what the character’s going to do. And I finally just said, ‘I’m just going to let Jeff write these wonderful scripts and launch as soon as I get them.’

And so many of your fans know you from your TV background. But you also have a strong background in musical theater. And I was wondering if you have any plans to ever come to Broadway.

Williams: Very much so. I’ve actually sort of started the process. I moved back East, living in Vermont now. And this summer I’m going to be doing the Lion in Winter with the (Recher Theatre) Group. So I’m already sort of starting the process of working my way back into theater.

You know, what I did over without and – we were out in Park City, Utah. After four years when the show ended we just wanted to continue our kids. They were right in the midst of grade school, middle school. And my daughter was, you know, in Kindergarten.

We just thought it was a good idea to stay and we liked it there. And, you know, our kids were really settled in school.

But now that we’re back I’m much more – I’ve been talking to people and going back and forth in New York starting to think about what I want to do. And this is the first – the first play I will do is Lion in Winter. So I’m very excited about that.

I just wanted to say that I’m a huge fan of yours. I’ve watched Hair about 30 times and I always cry…

Williams: I – you know, I want you to know that last night when I saw this list I went directly to the washing machine and cleaned all my clothes because I saw Celebrity Laundry and I didn’t know where we were going with that, so.

What would you still like to achieve in your career?

Williams: That’s a very good question. You know, somebody asked me last year in an interview if I would ever retire. And I said, ‘You know, I would really like to retire eventually from working for money.’

And I think that the goal is to really do those things that excite you and you’re passionate about. And, you know, there’s a period in time when your kids are in school and, you know, the bills need to be paid.

But I’d like to get to the point where – and then I’m – we’re heading much more and more in that direction where the work I do is the work I do because out of a great passion for it. And that’s where it seems to be heading with this play in the summer.

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So what initially drew you to the role of Sam Phelps?

Williams: When I saw the show I loved it. I thought the show had such a beautiful look. And being a New Yorker for 33 years, you know, there’s a quality that Jeff Eastin seems to love Woody Allen – love New York like Woody Allen does. It’s just – there’s so much of the city as a character.

But I also – you know, those – there – it was a variety of things. Tim Dekay and I are old friends. Tim starred with me on Everwood the first season. I thought Matt was astonishingly good in the show. I loved, you know, the quality of the work in it.

And I don’t think it’s too often you get to play a character who is mysterious. And no one seems to know who he is or what’s his next move. And that’s always fun too. He’s not just the dad. He’s – we don’t even know if he’s the dad which is fun.

So I think it’s mostly the mystery and the quality of the show. And I’m – I haven’t played a cop in a long time since Prince of the City. And I thought that would be a lot of fun to kind of come full circle.

That’s incredible. The other question for you is what’s it like having Matt play your son.

Williams: Easy. I mean, I adore him. He has – he’s a lot of fun on set. He takes the work very seriously and himself not so seriously.

He is honorable and humble and funny and a lot of the attributes that my son has. And I would be proud if he were my son. I just – it’s just one of those things where he just – it was very, very easy. You know, I just adore him. I can’t speak enough about him.

And whatever success he gets during the show and afterwards he deserves whole-heartedly. I don’t know an actor who works as hard as Matt does.

Thanks so much for being with us today. I got the same little voice thing going on. So…

Williams: Oh good. Well we can share in our misery.

Yes. We both sound like Brenda Vaccaro.

Williams: Yes and I look more like her…

(You might). You’re one of the busiest and hardest-working actors around. You’ve been working really consistently since the ’80s. And I know you’ve been working a lot in between White Collar.

What drives you so much to – you know, at this point in your career you probably could, you know, work a bit less and do other things.

Williams: Well, you know, I don’t work as much as it seems. I mean, even if I’m on a bunch of stuff – like this year I’m on, you know, Hawaii Five-0 and I’m on Chicago Fire and I did four movies.

But as I get older the parts, you know, are less and less dense. So I mean dense in terms of time. So I might do four days here and, you know, six days there. And I get bored, you know. And so I would assume I average about 15 days a month. You know, half of my time is off still even though it looks like I’m doing a lot.

So most Americans work all year long and get two weeks’ vacation. So I feel like I’m one of the lucky ones. But it may seem I’m doing more than I’m doing actually.

You’ve got a lot of stuff coming out in 2013, a couple…

Williams: I know — crazy.

…fine movies. You did something with the Asylum. Can you tell us a little bit about what you have coming out?

Williams: Yes let’s see. I did one with Asylum that was sort of a – called a (gorilla) version of a Steven Spielberg film (unintelligible) dinosaurs coming to life and attacking Los Angeles which was really fun and kind of silly.

And I did a film with Bruno Baretto called the Art of Losing which is about an American (unintelligible) and her fight with (unintelligible).

I did a film called Barefoot. And that was with Scott Speedman and Evan Rachel Wood, a comedy which should be out this summer.

Let’s see. And then of course I just mentioned I’m on those other two series. So that’s plenty. That’s what I can remember.

Well it does – it seems like you’re everywhere. So keep it up. We love seeing you.

Williams: Oh thanks. It’s very enjoyable. It’s been a lot of fun — nice people.

Thank you every one. It was fun.

Photos by David Giesbrecht and Giovanni Rufino/Courtesy USA Network