William Devane was born in 1939 in Albany, New York. He made his movie debut in “In the Country” in 1967 . He had a small part in ” McCabe & Mrs. Miller” in 1971, but what made his reputation was his turn as President John F. Kennedy in the The Missiles of October (1974) (TV), a 1973 telefilm about the Cuban Missile Crisis. He made a bid for stardom with major roles in Alfred Hitchcock‘s Family Plot (1976) and John Schlesinger‘s Marathon Man (1976) (both 1976) and The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (1977) (1977), as well as roles in Schlesinger’s Yanks (1979) and the TV adaptation of James Jones‘ classic barracks drama “From Here to Eternity” (1979). However, any chances for a successful movie career essentially were doomed by the monumental failure of Schlesinger’s comedy Honky Tonk Freeway (1981), one of the great flops its time, bringing in only $2 million at the box office against a $24 million budget. Devane moved over to nighttime series TV, playing the cad Greg Sumner on the night-time soap opera “Knots Landing” (1979) for 10 years.
A look a like to John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his ability to acquire as needed a Boston accent, Devane continues to be in demand as politicians, including presidents, in such shows as “The West Wing” (1999), “24” (2001), and “Stargate SG-1” (1997).
A charismatic lead on television and in the occasional feature, William Devane was an inveterate scene-stealer whose devilish grin and intense focus were among the highlights of such projects as “The Missiles of October” (ABC, 1974), “Marathon Man” (1976), “Rolling Thunder” (1977) and the soap “Knots’ Landing” (CBS, 1980-1993). Devane’s versatility allowed him to play presidents and politicians, including several Kennedys, with the same degree of believability as his evil but lovable Greg Sumner on “Knots.” Along the way, he netted Emmy nods, a fistful of Soap Opera Digest Awards, and a favored player status among television audiences that was reserved for very few performers over the course of a four-decade career. As much in demand in his seventh decade as he was at the beginning of his career, Devane remained one of the most respected and appreciated actors to frequent the small screen.
Born Sept. 5, 1937 in Albany, NY, he was the son of Joseph Devane, chauffeur to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his tenure as Governor of New York from 1929 to 1932. Acting became his primary interest during high school, when he began acting in neighborhood theater. After graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Art, he began making the rounds in off-Broadway theater, most notably in the political spoof “MacBird” (1967) which marked his first portrayal of a Kennedy (Robert). That same year, he made his film debut in the 16mm independent production, “In the Country,” as a radical who reflects on his life while in hiding. Guest appearances on television soon followed, as did small but notable roles in films like “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971) as a town lawyer who urges Warren Beatty’s McCabe to stand up against a powerful mining concern. That same year, he scored a personal triumph on stage in the Broadway revival of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Devane’s breakthrough screen role was, not surprisingly, as a Kennedy in the suspenseful TV movie, “The Missiles of October” (ABC, 1974). His portrayal of President John F. Kennedy in the midst of the 1961 Cuban Missile Crisis earned him an Emmy nomination and delivered him to leading man status. For much of the 1970s, Devane played men of intense gravitas, including blacklisted radio personality John Henry Faulk in “Fear on Trial” (CBS, 1975), which earned him a second Emmy nomination, and the cold-hearted government agent Janeway in John Schlesinger’s “Marathon Man” (1976). Occasionally, his characters displayed an unpredictable, even dangerous side, like his murderous jeweler in “Family Plot” (1976), Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, or his damaged and mutilated POW who avenges his murdered family with brutal ruthlessness in the Paul Schrader-penned “Rolling Thunder” (1977). Despite the serious or even unsavory elements of these roles, Devane’s exuberant personality always made them personable and even charming.
However, the failure of several high-profile projects, most notably Schlesinger’s “Yanks” (1979) and the expensive “Honky Tonk Freeway” (1981), sent Devane to television for most of the next three decades. There were occasional returns to features, especially as the doomed paterfamilias in the harrowing “Testament” (1983), but Devane was otherwise exceptionally busy in TV projects like “A Woman Named Jackie” (NBC), which cast him as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ hard-living father “Black Jack” Bouvier. His greatest success of the period was the primetime soap “Knots Landing,” which brought him onboard during its fifth season as Greg Sumner, an aspiring state senator who showed his true colors almost immediately by blackballing his best friend Mack (Kevin Dobson) in an ill-gotten land deal. Soon after, Sumner was teamed with the series’ chief villainess, Abby (Donna Mills) to make life miserable for most of the other characters; as always, Devane found a way to make this down-and-dirty heel charming and even sexy, complete with his Cheshire Cat grin. In later seasons, Sumner was partnered romantically with Mack’s illegitimate daughter, the much younger Paige Matheson (Nicollette Sheridan) for more underhanded dealings, though both actors frequently tinged their performances with the blackest of comedy and a somewhat surprising chemistry. For his 10-year stint on “Knots,” Devane received three Soap Opera Digest Awards and a Golden Globe nomination between 1988 and 1991.
In addition to his acting roles, Devane had several credits as writer and director to his name. He penned four episodes of “Knots” and directed an additional four; earlier in his career, he was credited with providing additional dialogue to the experimental feature “The 300 Year Weekend” and co-wrote the original story for “The Million Dollar Rip-Off” (NBC, 1976), an Emmy-nominated caper movie with Freddie Prinze. Devane also owned and operated a horse ranch and a popular Italian restaurant in Indio, CA. “Knots” also made Devane an in-demand performer on television in the decades following its departure from the airwaves. There were scores of subsequent series, most notably “Phenom” (ABC, 1993-94), with Devane as the fast-talking coach of a tennis prodigy who butts heads with her single mom (Judith Light), and the doomed “Michael Richards Show” (NBC, 2000) as the employer of Richards’ bumbling detective. Devane was also put to solid use in the Mel Gibson thriller “Payback” (1999) and in “Space Cowboys” (2000), where his NASA ground controller aided Clint Eastwood and Tommy Lee Jones’ rescue mission in space.
His longtime association with all things Presidential and Kennedy-esque lead to some notable guest shots on popular series in the early 21st century. “The West Wing” (NBC, 199-2004) reunited him with his “Missiles of October” co-star Martin Sheen (who later also played JFK) in two episodes that cast him as the Secretary of State, while on “24” (Fox, 2001-2010), he played Secretary of Defense James Heller, who attempted to aid Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) in bringing down President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin). He later assumed the highest office in the land for “Stargate SG-1” (Showtime/Sci-Fi Channel, 1997-2007), which cast him as President Henry Hayes in season seven.