Forty years ago, a film called Hair starring a budding actor from Connecticut debuted at The Cannes Film Festival. It was 1979, the Vietnam War was over as were the days of hippies and The Black Panthers. Yet then and now, the on-screen musical still has a way of reaching audiences from past and present.
Treat Williams sat across from the movie theater in Stamford that he used to go to growing up—The Avon. At 67, his striking, bushy eyebrows have turned from brown to grey over the years but the spark in his eyes is the same. Tonight, he’ll be watching his 27-year-old self act in the film that he didn’t realize was about to change his life.
"I think I was a little unconscious about that. I think I was trying to be good in a movie," Williams said.
Williams grew up in Rowayton and Norwalk. At the time, he had a lead role in Grease on Broadway. Milos Forman, the Czech director responsible for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest came to see him perform one day.
"He said to me, 'Treat—I saw you in Grease and you do something very few American actors do: you go completely overboard.' I still to this day don't know was a compliment or or just an observation, but that was the beginning of 12 auditions."
Williams was cast in Forman's new film as George Berger, a daring, dashingly handsome leader of a group of free-spirited hippies who befriend Claude Bukowski, a shy guy from Oklahoma who’s about to go off to war in Vietnam, who's played by John Savage.
On a seemingly endless night, they expose Bukowski to their way of living: pyschedelic drugs, dancing, and singing until the sun comes up.
"As I look back on it now interestingly, I don't think it's so much about anti-war or different lifestyle," Williams said. "I think it really is about love and about commitment and about sacrifice to me."
Spoiler alert—the sacrifice wasn’t exactly intentional. When Berger, Williams’ character, and his friends drive across country to visit Bukowski, who’s now a solidier on base in Nevada, it's Berger who ends up getting shipped out to Vietnam and dying during the war. What started as an attempt to give Claude a taste of freedom in the form of a picnic with his friends turned into a favor that couldn’t be returned.
"The movie is this sort of love of your fellow man," Williams said, "and it's sort of embodied in this relationship between Claude and Berger and the rest of it, is really people who just decided to try something else because things weren't working as they are, which I think is the way things are right now to be honest. So I think it's very present."
The movie brought together a cast of mostly non-actors in different walks of life from all over—Texas, Philly, New York, Ohio, Connecticut. The choreography was crafted by the eclectic Twyla Tharp. As William reunites with some of his cast members in 2019, to mark the 40th anniversary of the movie’s release, he says that he still wants something different from the world now.
"I'm still not happy with the status quo. I don't know how to change it, but I'm certainly willing to engage as they these kids were," Williams said. "It seems to be a focus on money, it seems to be a focus on privilege. There seems to be a focus on maintaining an America that no longer exists."
Beverly D’Angelo, the actress who played the wealthy debutante Sheila Franklin, shares similar sentiments. She also feels the movie is still relevant.
"There was the counterculture and the hippies and their ideals and they're striving to end an unjust war, "D'Angelo said. "I think in our culture now, there's a striving to end an unjust society. I think culturally were really in a divide. I think that we've even lost the ability to talk to each other. If there are different political leanings, we're losing the concept of democracy. We're losing the concept of diversity as a good thing."
Dorsey Wright’s character LaFayette “Hud” Johnson was caught between two lives—that of a carefree hippie and settling down as a father in order to provide for his young son. He says now as then, progress stalls when people choose to shirk both individual and collective responsibilities within society.
"The next generation comes up to try and clean up once again, you know, it only gets pushed but so far," Wright said. "It's almost like civil rights or anything else. If you don't keep pushing it's only a half-ass job and then somebody has to come in and make sure, so it's an ongoing thing."
There’s no shortage of work to do for current generations. The film itself was directed by a member of the so-called Silent Generation, an exiled Czechoslovakian turned American citizen who came to call Litchfield County home. Milos Forman died last year at the age of 86.
Correction: This article originally stated Milos Forman's age at the time of his death as 68. He was 86. We regret the error.