William Atherton has been one of the most recognizable actors of this generation, starting on stage and transforming that success into a film, television and stage career that hasn’t slowed down since the early 1970s. Before his fame, however, life didn’t move as fast for Atherton.
“I grew up on a farm 80 miles from New York City – we were very isolated,” he said. “You look outside and it was beautiful but there were no people, it may as well have been North Dakota. My mother was from North Dakota so she never felt as isolated as we did. The only contact I had with the larger world was one of the first televisions in the early 1950s, and that’s really where I fell in love with the art of acting.”
After studying drama and graduating from Carnegie Mellon University in 1969, Atherton made his way to New York City – and as fate would have it – he got right to work.
“It was a lot of great luck,” he said. “I happened to fall into an Off Broadway show by accident. I had a girlfriend who was auditioning and I was standing outside and some people there liked the way I looked and asked me to audition for a part and I got it. John Ford Noonan – who wrote ‘The Year Boston Won the Pennant’ and other things for Joe Papp – was a friend of mine from Carnegie, and when I was a waiter I would go to his playwriting classes and read plays from new playwrights and that’s when I met John Guare. Through Guare, I did ‘House of Blue Leaves’ and ‘Pavlo Hummel’ and got noticed. I did some great plays.”
That early recognition brought Atherton to film, where at the behest of George C. Scott he had his first role in “The New Centurion”. After another role in “Class of ’44”, Atherton landed a starring role in “The Sugarland Express” – a movie being directed by newcomer Steven Spielberg.
“I hadn’t had that much experience in film but I had a fabulous time and he was wonderful,” Atherton explained. “The French really discovered Spielberg – ‘Sugarland’ was huge in France and Pauline Kael wrote a four-page review in ‘The New Yorker’ and it was, I believe, the longest review she had done on a movie.”
The next role Atherton would take on was that of Tod Hackett in the Paramount film “The Day of the Locust”. “It was a very expensive movie – the most money spent at Paramount at the time,” Atherton recalled. “It was very tiring. I worked every day for five months. It was all about Hollywood in the ‘30s and even though we were filming in the ‘70s, there were people still around who had worked in silent pictures. There were people who knew Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith. There was a treasure trove of people to learn from during filming. I had always been interested in the technical aspect of things and Del Armstrong showed me make up techniques. Ann Roth was the costume designer. It was just an enormous cinematic education.”
During the filming of ‘Locust’, Atherton liked to ward off boredom by singing – something he had done and loved prior to his decision to stick to drama when he arrived in New York. When co-star Karen Black heard him sing, she convinced Atherton to go and audition for a singing role on 1974’s “The Great Gatsby”. “I went over and gave a different name and waited in line with everyone else,” he said. “After a while a nice man named Nelson came out and asked if I would come sing the next day and I did – at the time I didn’t know it was Nelson Riddle.” Also, in May of 2013, Atherton had the unique opportunity when he crooned “Isn’t It Romantic?” – a song from “The Day of the Locust” – at the Jewish Home Services Charity in Palm Springs.
The next two projects Atherton was part of were based on true stories; while “The Hindenburg” was based on something a world away – “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” was a story that happened and took place in New York. “‘Goodbar’” was different,” he recalled. “The singles bar scene was bigger than anyone really could imagine today. You had places like Maxwell’s Plum – which had enormous glass illuminated ceilings – it was like the St. Peter’s of dating. The thing that makes the movie, however, is Diane Keaton – her performance holds it all together.” Atherton jokingly admits he knew little of the singles scene in those days. “I didn’t live in the singles world like that – actors didn’t have to go to single bars.”
William Atherton found more commercial success and fame in the 1980s, when he landed the role of Walter Peck in “Ghostbusters” (a role he would reprise in 2009’s “Ghostbusters” video game) – followed by the roles of Dr. Jerry Hathaway in “Real Genius” and Richard Thornburg in the first two “Die Hard” films. Atherton, however, took time to get used to the fame garnered from the roles. “It cemented my place as a certain type of character – it was annoying at the time but I am grateful for it – because it opened up whole new phases for me, such as ‘Bio-Dome’ with Pauly (Shore)” he said. “But I had a great time with Bill (Murray) and Harold (Ramis) on ‘Ghostbusters’. I think both of them are the truly gifted of the world.”
More recently, Atherton has been doing a mix of comedy and drama, with appearances on “Workaholics”, “Life”, “LOST” and even the ultra-campy “Jersey Shore Shark Attack” – which he did to work with old friend, Paul Sorvino – whom Atherton has known for, “1,000 years.” Atherton can also be seen in the next season of Adult Swim’s “Children’s Hospital”, debuting in August. He is extremely excited for his next two feature films – “The Citizen” and “Jinn”.
“‘The Citizen’”, with Cary Elwes is coming in August.” Atherton said. “It won best picture at the Hollywood Family Film Festival and Best Ensemble Acting at the Boston Film Festival and was well-received at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. It’s about a Middle Eastern immigrant who comes to the country the day before 9/11 and it also stars Khaled Nabawy – who is the George Clooney of the Middle East. ‘Jinn’ is very provocative – it’s like the Middle Eastern ‘Exorcist’ and will be out this fall.”
While in Abu Dhabi, Atherton took part in a Q & A session where he found himself answering questions about American sentiment toward the Arab and Muslim world. “It was an interesting education to interact with the people over there,” he explained. “I told them – America is not anti-Arab or anti-Muslim. We have a great country of 300 million people, who at times in history have not been tolerant of other cultures – but come to accept and appreciate them.”
After a career that generations of audiences continue to love, Atherton knows a thing or two about being appreciated.