When Chicago actor William L. Petersen went to Hollywood in 1984 to make his first movie, he met a young man on the set who said that he, too, was a Chicago actor. Petersen asked the stranger where he had worked, and the answer was that, though the man had never really acted in Chicago, he had lived there and he wanted to be an actor. Petersen, who had proven himself as both actor and star in years of work on the stages of off-Loop theaters, was outraged. “Listen,” he yelled, “you can’t just say you’re a Chicago actor. It’s not that easy. If you really want to be a Chicago actor, go back there and learn to act in the theater. You have to be a part of that community. You have to earn the right to call yourself a Chicago actor. It’s something to be proud of!”
Richard Christiansen, chief critic for the Chicago Tribune, when he retired, listed his top ten theater experiences after 40 years of watching Chicago theater. Billy’s performance in Belly of the Beast was included:
The work of William L. Petersen in “In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison” is such an extraordinary achievement, and of such heroic stature, that it crosses the usual boundaries of “acting” into an area of experience I found staggering.
As Jack Henry Abbott, the subject of the book and murder trial upon which “Beast” is based, Petersen is called upon to portray a paranoid killer who is also a maimed victim and a gifted artist.
This he does, from the moment he steps on stage at Wisdom Bridge Theater, barefoot and clad in prison issue, and fixes the audience with a ferocious stare of anger and conviction. He gives us Abbott’s Southern accent, his stutter, his physical appearance in letter-perfect detail. These qualities are admirable in acting, and can be accounted for, but how do I account for the fact that minutes after leaving the theater Thursday night, I had to pull my car over to the side of the street so that I could clear the tears from my eyes?
“As far as I’m concerned, all entertainment is about the writing. It’s really important to me to care about the character. I think the only times that I’ve done a bad job as an actor is when I didn’t really love the character and I didn’t find myself feeling the things he felt. And that’s all about the writing.” – William Petersen.
Please visit the following pages to learn more about Billy’s eclectic and very unique career.