Actor's ''The Phantom'' and ''Mulholland Falls'' fall a bit flat with audiences

By Kate Meyers
June 28, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

You were supposed to read a Treat Williams comeback story in January, when he stole the show as a psycho who used corpses as punching bags in the highly hyped Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead. But Denver expired on arrival. You were supposed to read one again in April, when Williams costarred in Mulholland Falls, but the Chinatown wannabe fell off the map. And now there’s The Phantom, in which Williams rules as evil mogul Xander Drax. But, well, you know.

The actor is thrilled anyway. Before Denver, he hadn’t done a major feature in six years. And millions actually saw his steely turn as Michael Ovitz in HBO’s The Late Shift. He’s currently filming Deep Rising, an underwater action flick for summer ’97; and unlike in this year’s movie outings, as the hero he isn’t likely to end up murdered. ”Meetings go much better now,” notes Williams, who’s also upcoming in Devil’s Own with Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt. People no longer ask, he says, ”’Where’ve you been?”’

That’s not a bad question, though, considering that, as Det. Daniel Ciello in Sidney Lumet’s 1981 Prince of the City, Williams was pegged as the next Pacino. ”I spent two years not being interested in much more than chasing the ongoing party,” explains Williams, 44, who found and lost a heavy cocaine habit. ”I had some growing up to do.” By the time he was ready to get serious again, ”the doors weren’t open. I don’t blame anybody but me.”

Williams temporized in TV movies (A Streetcar Named Desire, J. Edgar Hoover) and two short-lived series (Eddie Dodd, Good Advice). He also started a family with wife Pam, an actress; their son, Gill, is 4. ”This comeback thing is so odd to me,” he says. ”I was making a very good living.”

A Connecticut-born preppie with what he calls a ”Currier & Ives” upbringing, Williams quit football during his sophomore year at Franklin & Marshall to concentrate on acting and got his Broadway break as an understudy for John Travolta in Grease, who, like him, is an avid pilot (”You have a certain control over your destiny”). Maybe that’s what helped him overcome the turbulence. ”I never stopped believing I was a film actor,” says Williams. ”I just couldn’t get anybody else to believe it.”