I’ve long admired Treat Williams‘ lead performance as Danny Ciello, a morally conflicted detective of Italian-American descent, in Sidney Lumet‘s Prince of the City (’81). But after learning of Williams’ death a couple of days ago I did a sentimental rewatch of Prince, and it hit me why that film, despite excellent reviews, never really energized Williams’ career.

Two reasons for this: (1) Williams’ performance was more about pushing than being, and (2) he didn’t look believably Italian.

John Travolta, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Sylvester Stallone always had that natural Italian-American streetcorner thing going on, but Williams looked like an impostor — like a fair-skinned, baby-faced, button-nosed WASP pretending to be an Italian by way of black hair dye, and so his intense, at times strenuous performance always felt like an attempt to “act” his way into being someone other than who he actually was.

I knew several Italian-Americans guys from the tristate area in my teens, super-urban guys who wore pegged pants and pointy leather shoes, and none of them ever looked like Williams. That pinkish-white skin plus that black hair dye…no sale.

There was always something a bit curious about Williams’ facial features, which were soft and rounded and and a bit fleshy. The son of an antiques dealer mom and a corporate executive dad, Williams had a Connecticut prep school lineage. His family moved to Rowayton, Connecticut, in early ’55, when he was three. He was descended on his mother’s side from William Henry Barnum, a U.S. senator from Connecticut and third cousin of the showman P. T. Barnum. Williams was also a distant relative of both Robert Treat Paine — a signatory to the Declaration of Independence — and President Herbert Hoover.

Natural Williams (light brown hair) vs. black-hair-dyed version in Prince of the City.