Obituary: Bill Williams
Saturday 26 September 1992
BILL WILLIAMS had a long career in films and television without ever reaching the heights of true star status. His blond, curly haired, boyishly ingenuous looks meant he was frequently cast as a likeable oaf or the hero's best friend. His greatest success came with his portrayal of the intrepid adventurer Kit Carson in a hit television series of the same name, and his marriage to the actress Barbara Hale was one of Hollywood's most durable.
Born Herman Katt in Brooklyn in 1916 and educated at the local Pratt Institute, he abandoned thoughts of a career in construction engineering when he became junior swimming champion. He was working as an exhibition diver in 1935 when offered a job as an adagio dancer. Later he formed an adagio act of his own and toured Europe with it, including an appearance at the London Palladium, prior to enlisting for war service. Invalided out in 1944, he tried Hollywood, making his debut in Murder in the Blue Room (1944) and after was signed to a contract by RKO. Increasingly important roles in such films as Those Endearing Young Charms (1945), The Body Snatcher, Back To Bataan, West of the Pecos, and Johnny Angel preceded his peak Hollywood year, 1946, when the studio gave him leading parts in two main productions. In Deadline At Dawn, a moody thriller based on a Cornell Woolrich story, he was a sailor on shore-leave who suffers amnesia and is not sure if he is guilty of murder. With a dance-hall hostess (Susan Hayward on the brink of stardom) and an ambivalent taxi driver (Paul Lukas) he sets out during the few night-time hours left of his leave, to find out the truth. Despite the self-conscious poeticism of Clifford Odets's script the film is a haunting example of film noir, peopled with social outcasts from the dark, humid studio-created New York streets. Directed by Harold Clurman, a founder of the Group Theatre, and brilliantly photographed by Nicholas Musuraca, the film's compelling atmosphere compensates for its pretensions and Williams was well cast as the bewildered, naive innocent lost in an urban nightmare. Edward Dmytryk's Till the End of Time was a popular and timely story of the problems facing returning servicemen though it was overshadowed by the superior film of the same theme, The Best Years of our Lives. Williams' role of a paraplegic was similar to that of Harold Russell's amputee in the more famous film.
At this point RKO gave up trying to promote Williams as a top star and settled him into supporting roles or leads in B movies, a notable example being Richard Fleischer's The Clay Pigeon (1949), a taut thriller written by Carl Foreman in which Williams was a seaman trying to prove himself innocent of having betrayed fellow prisoners in a Japanese war camp. The leading lady was Barbara Hale, another RKO contractee whom Williams had met on West of the Pecos and married two years later in 1946. The couple later admitted that the early Fifties, when Hale's career was doing a lot better than her husband's, had been difficult ones for their marriage.
Williams's career revived with Kit Carson which ran on television from 1952 to 1956; though two further television series, a comedy A Date With The Angels (1957) with Betty White, and an adventure series Assignment: Underwater (1960) were less successful. He made over a dozen minor westerns including AC Lyles' Buckskin (1968). Hale, like her husband, found greatest fame on television when she played Della Street, both in the original series of Perry Mason (1957-65) and in the recent television movies about the defence lawyer in which the couple's son, actor William Katt also has a regular role.
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