As one of the dearly departed WB’s most endearing dads, Treat Williams specialized in heartfelt speeches, kindhearted gestures and crinkly-eyed smiles. In his new Lifetime movie, premiering April 15, however, Dr. Andy Brown will be notably absent. “Every time I do something like Andy Brown, I have to go and play a villain,” Williams says. “Those are the juicy parts!”
That juicy part this time is Michael Peterson, the enigmatic center of the based-on-a-true-story The Staircase Murders. A best-selling author and one-time mayoral candidate, Peterson was thrust into a different kind of spotlight in 2001 when his frantic 911 call reporting the “accidental” fall that killed his wife ultimately led to an exhaustive investigation into his personal life — including a secret sexual life and the eerily similar death of a neighbor 16 years earlier. The Staircase Murders explores these twists and turns in the case, while also revealing the disintegration of Peterson’s relationship with his stepdaughter, Caitlin. When she took a stand against her dad, Williams explains, the effects were immediate and complete. “She became the family pariah … They were a very close-knit group of kids and it destroyed that group. It isn’t just about who did it, or did he do it; it’s really about how these events can affect a family.”
In preparation for the role, Williams devoured information on Peterson and the trial, including a Dateline special and Sundance Channel’s six-hour documentary — and he’s still no closer to the truth. “I’ve got to tell you, I still could never say 100 percent if he did it or not, and that’s why it’s so damn fascinating,” he says. “There’s always that doubt! The thing is, you look at the bottom of those stairs, and you see the amount of blood, and you say, ‘How could it possibly be anything but a murder?’ But in his demeanor and in everything he says, it’s hard to be 100% sure that he absolutely did it.'”
Read our Q&A with the well-spoken Mr. Williams, and see if you can be absolutely sure.
Channelguidemag.com: How familiar were you with the Sundance documentary?
Treat Williams: I think I know it by heart! You’ll see that there’s a slightly different approach to the material. The Sundance piece was so good. I could not stop watching [it], only because he’s so not a killer in his demeanor.
How did you get inside the head of Michael Peterson?
I just am fascinated by the guy, because he seems, I guess the word that comes to mind is “befuddled.” by the whole thing — as though this thing has happened to him and he’s really not a part of it. He seems disconnected not only from himself but from [his wife], too. I noticed as I watched the Sundance piece, [just] how little he spoke about anything personal about her. It was always, “We did this,” and “We’d do that,” but I never hear him say one word in the six hours specific to her personality. So I had something that I could study, but I didn’t try to impersonate him — I don’t think anybody would believe it! He was so weird! He’s just an odd duck. I also think the thing that was most difficult was to try and find a sense of who he was before all this occurred. It depends on what your point of view is, obviously. The piece works so well because you’re never quite sure if he did it or not. I think if you knew he did it from the get go, it wouldn’t be that interesting.
Where do you think things changed for Peterson?
Apparently, he did have issues with his temper; the kids talk about it at length in [the] piece that was on Dateline. [They] talk about how he could lose his temper inappropriately, and then 20 minutes later he’d be fine, as if nothing happened. But the punishment never fit the crime, so to speak. As I studied it, I began to think, “This is an interesting part of the human mind or human behavior, that someone could actually be normal for a good 40 years of their life, and have a two-minute moment of rage where they commit that kind of crime — then they kind of come out of a blackout and they’ve just done something hideously, unbelievably violent. I mean, I think. That’s kind of where, it seems to me, the only way the guy that I was watching could’ve committed that crime. It fascinates me that someone could have, let’s say, four minutes of their life are uncontrolled rage, and now he’s in jail for the rest of his life.
Do you think we’ve ever really seen the Michael Peterson that existed for those good 40 years?
The difficult part [in playing Peterson] was trying to get a sense of who he was before the cameras were on him. I don’t think he’s particularly comfortable in front of the camera. I don’t think he’s quite the same guy as these kids say they loved, and knew and who was so warm and such a great father. We don’t get to see that guy. I’m hoping that the sense of the fact that monsters or monstrous behavior comes in all shapes and sizes, and the fact that he may have killed these two women, or at least one of them, really doesn’t negate the fact that it’s possible that for 17 years, he was a terrific father. The complexity of that is what really interested me — the complexity of how a family was completely destroyed by this event that took all of about two minutes.
Are you generally a fan of crime stories such as this one?
I am right now! Not just with this, but this whole thing with the death of the Playmate – Anna Nicole Smith. [That case] is like a law professor’s dream! It’s like watching an accident: you cannot look away! You say, “I don’t want to be interested in this,” and then Zsa Zsa’s husband comes along and says, “I’m the father,” and you’ve got to watch it! For the most part, I am interested in [this genre]. I always thought great drama was to take ordinary people and an extraordinary event changes their life forever. And if anything was ever an example of that, this story is.