And yet, despite the enormous hype surrounding them when they finally arrived in theaters, neither “Hair” nor “1941” made much of an impact and were written off as expensive and indulgent flops. In subsequent years, both would undergo significant critical reevaluations. At no point was it suggested that Williams was to blame—he received the first of his three Golden Globe nominations for his performance in “Hair”—but to be connected with two misfires like that probably did not do much good to his rise to fame. The next year, he actually turned up in the year’s biggest film, “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back,” albeit in a blink-and-miss-it cameo as one of the Rebel soldiers during the Hoth sequence. That same year, he also appeared in “Why Would I Lie?,” a whimsical romantic comedy in which he plays a compulsive liar named Cletus. The film is nowhere near as charming as it thinks, and the miscast Williams comes across as too intense for the nonsense surrounding them.
In the fall of 1981, Williams found himself front and center in two major films that, once again, floundered upon release. In the case of “The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper,” this was not much of a shock as the film, a speculative look at what might have happened infamous hijacker who seemingly vanished after jumping from the back of an airliner with $200,000 in 1971, was a trouble-plagued production that went through no less than four directors by the time it was finally completed. While the resulting film may not be as dreadful as its reputation suggests, the whole thing is, perhaps inevitably, a mess of clashing tones and messy storytelling. The Williams performance is one of the more successful aspects of the project, I suppose, but he doesn’t quite fit in with the more cutesy take on the character and his escapades—he makes you wish that he could play the same character in a more serious-minded take on his story.
His other film that year was “Prince of the City,” an adaptation of the 1978 book by Robert Daley about corruption in the ranks of the NYPD. Originally conceived as a project for Brian De Palma and Robert De Niro, it eventually found its way to Sidney Lumet, who didn’t casting a big star in the central role of Danny Ciello, a narcotics cop who agrees to participate in an internal affairs investigation of police corruption but is in over his head. Instead, he chose Williams, and the result was not just the best performance of Williams’ entire career but one of the all-time great screen performances. The film runs nearly three hours long, and Williams is on screen for virtually every second, never less than mesmerizing. Watching him essay Ciello as he goes from being a slick cop who thinks he can get himself and his friends through the IA process unscathed, to a man haunted by the betrayals he finds himself forced to commit to get out of his situation, is a master class in acting. In a just world, his work here would have put him up there on the same level as Brando, De Niro, and Pacino. Alas, while Williams did receive a second Golden Globe nomination, and though the film is now regularly hailed as a masterpiece and one of Lumet’s best, audiences stayed away in droves.