Toward the end of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” Gabriel muses about the evanescence of life: “One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.” Undergoing a midnight / midlife crisis, Joyce’s flawed protagonist is thinking about his aged aunts; his wife’s first love; and his own inescapable mortality.
I too have been contemplating similar themes of late. There’s no question that I am bound to depart this realm someday, as is everyone I know and love. That much is certain. In the past week, thinking only of older men, Cormac McCarthy, Silvio Berlusconi, Theodore Kaczynski and Robert Gottlieb have passed on. With more and more folks passing daily, I find it harder and harder to make sense of their deaths in relation to my own life.
From the perspective of family, friends and fans, of course, almost everyone we lose is gone too soon. Since the departed seldom pass in the midst of their passion or their performance, it’s tricky to apply Gabriel’s standard. The border between passing boldly and withering dismally has gotten kind of porous, from my perspective. Who gets to determine the relative merits of someone’s life or the suitability of their departure?
Close to home lands the death of one legend: Treat Williams, star of screens big and small, died at 71 due to injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident in southern Vermont. “I always felt like the kid that sat at the foot of the gods,” said Treat Williams about his own life. For me, I think my days on earth have been enhanced by this one individual’s contributions.
Tributes have poured in, or rung out, from the many people we worked with in a long and quixotic career. Williams got his breakthrough in “Hair” and followed that up with a star turn in “Prince of the City.” Williams graced multiple TV series, such as“Blue Bloods” and “Chicago Fire,” and he starred in “Everwood” in the early 2000s. Most recently, Williams played CBS’s founder and chairman Bill Paley in “Feud: Capote Vs. The Swans.” FX and 20th Century, his final studio, offered this take: “Treat Williams leaves behind a legacy of remarkable performances in film and television, and an indelible mark on the entire industry.”
I was lucky enough to see Williams in person in the Berkshires a couple of times. In a 2013 film short called “Halftime,” Williams played an exasperated basketball coach trying to rally his team for a second-half comeback. (My son, in his one and only film appearance, felt right at home in the locker room, which happened to be located in his home hockey rink.) What kind of comeback might Williams have been pondering himself at that moment?
A couple of years later, Williams was cast as Mick O’Brien, a small-town patriarch in the sticky-sweet, setting-driven series “Chesapeake Shores.” Let us turn, on the advent of Treat Williams’s demise, to some wise utterances by his character. How about: “A measure of a man’s success is not what he has, but who he has to share it with.” For Williams, this included a beloved wife and two children. “There is nothing more important than family,” confirmed his character in a later episode.
O’Brien also offers this sage counsel: “Sometimes you have to go back and make peace before you can move forward.” By all accounts, Williams was in a good place, literally and metaphorically, at the time of his passing. The only thing that stopped him moving forward was an SUV that turned unexpectedly into his lane on the rural Vermont highway.
We might also turn to the man’s personal utterances, as opposed to words that others composed for his delivery. Williams was a frequent user of both Twitter and Instagram into his seventies, and he posted twice on each platform the day that he died. His subject matter? A celebration of the rural Vermont lifestyle that he treasured.
I had a chance to see the man in action once more as he brought “Grant: An Evening with the General” to Great Barrington in 2021. In my own review of Williams’s work in progress, I asked: “Who among us can be sure that even a single fact or date or word will live on once he has left this realm?” Based on the torrent of tributes, I think it’s safe to say that his legacy will linger a while longer.
In their press release, his family observed that Williams was at the top of his game “for his family, for his life and for his craft.” Pretty good for a septuagenarian and pretty accurate, if the hundreds of tributes across all platforms are to be believed. And in his life, a reminder to guys like me: look out for your people, perfect your craft, and pursue your passions. We can leave the rest up to those who outlive us.