Most of us, in our ordinary lives, do not talk to our toasters. We do not flirt with our feather dusters or watch our candelabras sing and dance and on an average day, robots do not make us cry.
Within the context of movies, however, particularly Disney movies, we identify with and sympathize will all these “things.” In movies like Beauty and the Beast or Wall-E, we cry and love and root for non-human objects — and because of it see ourselves and our own stories even more clearly. This summer, airplanes were added to the long list of “things” magically brought to life by Disney in Planes, and once again, we found ourselves falling for these mechanical beasts, hoping and dreaming and suffering alongside them.
It’s easy to relate to Dusty, the hero of Planes, or his aircraft pals when we’re watching the movie, but we were curious to know what a real pilot thinks of identifying with planes in this way; sympathizing with and seeing our humanity in them. We wondered if planes ever assume “human” personality traits in some form in real life.
We turned to Treat Williams, the actor, who also happens to be a pilot and has owned and flown private planes for over 40 years. He is also the author of the 2010 Disney-Hyperion children’s book about planes and flight, “Airshow!”
Treat says it has never been his instinct to personalize or humanize the airplanes he has owned and flown, but they’ve been dear to him, and have reflected in a sense the altitude his career and life have brought him to at different times. His planes have, in a sense, reflected parts of his own personality.
Treat has been flying since his high school football coach, who was also a pilot, inspired him to learn to fly. A Piper Super Cub was the plane he describes as “the little fun kid” of his young life. That was the plane he learned on.
“I soloed the Piper Super Cub when I was 17,” he says. “Then I didn’t fly for 4 years because I didn’t have any money. But then during Grease (the original Broadway production, which he starred in in 1972 at age 21) he bought a Piper Clipped-Wing Cub. This type of plane can be used for acrobatics. He thinks of that Piper Clipped-Wing Cub as “his first bike.”
“I had that for two years,” he says, “and then I sold it and bought a Cherokee 180 — a four seat single engine airplane. In that airplane I got my instrument rating. I did my first cross country trip in it.”
His next plane was an AT6 — what he considers his hot rod. This was his cocky, testosterone machine — well, much like the young Treat who in 1979 flew to heights as the young sex symbol in Milos’ Forman’s Hair. Treat worked intensely and steadily through the next decade, starring in some great movies like Spielberg’s 1941 and Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City.
By 1988, Treat was in his 30s and had already been nominated for 3 Golden Globes and starred in over 20 films. He had also grown up, and that year got married, to Pam Van Sant. His choice in planes reflected adulthood as well. In addition to the hot rod AT6 he bought a Piper Seneca, a multi-engine airplane, which he owned and flew for the next 20 years (among others.) The Seneca is what he calls his “SUV Airplane.”
As the years passed, he and Pam were blessed with two children — their life expanded — Treat became star of a television series (The WB’s Everwood, for which he received two SAG Award nominations) and the family started splitting time between homes in Los Angeles and Park City, Utah where Everwood was filmed.
“We were going back and forth from Park City to LA all the time, and I decided I needed another plane to do the commute with. I bought a Navajo Chieftan — it sat eight people, had a toilet and a coffee maker. It was three hours and 10 minutes from Park City to LA, slightly less on the way back.”
Then with multiple planes and homes, two kids and a wife, and enormous career success, he had reached cruising altitude, but simultaneously was also reaching a breaking point.
“I was doing very well financially, and I realized — I was stressed to the max. And owning planes was very expensive — I was at that point being driven by the airplanes, instead of the reverse. Then thankfully, a higher power steered me in the right direction.”
Treat and his wife sold the airplanes, sold all their homes but one — a farmhouse in rural Vermont. Major life events were part of that higher power showing up as well — this past year, Treat lost his father, whom he was very close to. His daughter Ellie is now 15 and son Gill is 21 and attending NYU, and Treat made the choice to downsize his lifestyle, stay close to home and spend as much time with them and wife Pam as possible.
After a 12 year hiatus, he has also returned to acting on the stage, and is more selective about which television and film roles he takes — choosing those that allow him to be closer to home and away for shorter periods of time.
And for the first time since young adulthood, he doesn’t own a plane. He still flies of course, but rather than owning a plane he belongs to a flying club, and he flies simply for fun. This time in his life has been one of reflection, introspection, realizing what’s most meaningful and real in his life.
“Planes,” Treat says, “have always been what’s kept me grounded. And now, flying the same type of airplane I first soloed in is an honor and a joy for me still. Nothing, other than family, gives me greater pleasure.”
Photo of Treat Williams with his Navajo Chieftan, by Dobber/Peak Photo, courtesy Mr. Williams.