Frank Williams has this advice for people of all ages: “You shouldn’t wait until you feel comfortable trying something new. That time may never come.”
Williams, a captain in the Virginia State Police before his retirement in 2004, has spent much of the past seven years trying new things. Most recently, that has meant working on the set of Stephen Spielberg’s “Office Seekers,” a movie about the last months of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.
The film, which stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln and Sally Field as his wife, Mary, has been shooting in Richmond, Petersburg and Hanover County since the beginning of fall. It is scheduled to wrap on December 17.
For Frank Williams, it all started with a beard. When the casting call for background artists (“extras”) came out last summer, it sought, in particular, men with longish hair and full beards.
At the urging of a friend, Williams, who has worn a neatly-trimmed beard for years, decided to show up - along with about 600 other hirsute males of all ages. Since he had never worked on movie before, Williams assumed his chances were slim, but sure enough, he got a call to come in for a costume fitting – and he was on his way to another adventure.
Adventures are nothing new for Williams, who worked professionally on the State Police bomb squad and, in his spare time, has been an avid hiker and mountain climber. “He loves to learn new things,” says Ginny Wimsatt, Williams’ secretary at his old State Police command.
And, on the first day of filming, Williams found himself at the old AMF plant off Pole Green Road - headquarters for “Office Seekers” (and, four years ago, of HBO’s “John Adams”).
It was to be the first of many early mornings for Williams, who has worked ten days so far and is slated to work several more, including the final day - Lincoln’s second Inauguration, which occurred just six weeks before his assassination.
Williams says he has made a number of discoveries in his time on the set. “I learned that making a movie or being an actor is hard work. There are long hours needed to complete a project on time, and
there are many, many people needed to be successful in the film industry.”
For example, Williams learned how much the hair, makeup, and wardrobe professionals contribute to a movie.
“One of the amazing things was the way that a costume could change a person’s perception of others. For example, early one morning, as we were boarding the bus to be transported to base camp near the State Capitol - I commented that we looked like a bunch of homeless people being taken to jail. But after we changed into period clothes, we all looked like respectable people - or at least, like politicians.
“This change also changed the atmosphere. You actually felt that you were in the year 1865.”
Williams, a sociable man, also discovered that the movie business involves some lengthy periods of just sitting around, waiting.
“One of the unexpected features of working on the movie was meeting so many really good people during the times that the extras were waiting to go to the set. Here were many younger people who were lively and enjoyable to be around. I made some new friends.”
These new friends did not, as it turned out, include any famous movie stars.
“It has been a great experience to see all the stars, but as they are working there was no time to actually talk to any of them. But I kidded some of my fellow extras that it was great that these Hollywood stars actually got to work with me - instead of the other way around.”
As the shoot nears its conclusion, Williams reflects on what he has learned about making movies. One conclusion: “It has been great to have this experience and I would do it again if the opportunity comes along.”
Don’t rule out the possibility that Williams will pursue acting. Two years ago, through the Shepherd’s Center’s “Adventures In Learning,” Williams decided to give Shakespeare another chance. He has since become a regular theatre-goer and one close friend thinks acting would come naturally: “If Frank decides to take his ‘acting career’ further, he would be very effective since he is a quick study and does have that amazing recall.”
However, no one who knows Williams expects him to “go Hollywood.” His commitment to volunteer service seems to have become a second career. A member of the Shepherd’s Center board, Williams also works in the Center’s “handy hands” program – doing small repair jobs for elderly residents.
“Frank has a heart of gold,” says an admiring Wimsatt.
Volunteer, background actor, adventurer – perhaps future thespian? The main lesson is one Frank passed along to some of the younger extras on the set:
“Please don’t do as I have done and live your life backwards. Take advantage of any opportunity that arises, and do what you can right now - instead of what I’ve done, doing things now that I should have tried years ago.”