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In ‘Carrie,’ William Katt Gave the World the Definitive Nice-Guy Prom King

The Southern California actor was just beginning his career when he played Tommy in Brian De Palma’s brilliant adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. But as Katt tells MEL, he couldn’t have been more different than the typical high-school jock

When we first see Tommy Ross in Carrie, the 1976 horror classic, he’s sitting in English class, the teacher reading his poem aloud, impressed that the star of the football and baseball teams is also such a great writer. Tommy smiles, his curly blond hair and bright eyes accentuating his laidback, Southern California vibe. He’s the golden god of Bates High School, dating popular girl Sue Snell (Amy Irving) and destined to be the prom king. But fate will intervene once Sue asks him for a strange favor: She wants him to take Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), the weird, awkward girl whom Sue’s cliquish friend group likes to mock. Sue means it as a kindness — she feels bad about how Carrie is treated — and good-natured Tommy obliges. But no one imagined that the jock and the outcast would fall in love. And certainly no one anticipated what Carrie would do at prom after Sue’s cruel friends pull a prank on this social pariah.

Brian De Palma’s film of Stephen King’s first published novel, adapted by screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen, was a dark look at high school, treating adolescent insecurities like a waking nightmare and creating an atmosphere of creeping dread. It was a commercial breakthrough for the director, who had impressed critics with earlier low-budget works such as Hi, Mom! and Sisters. “I sort of put everything into Carrie,” he’d later say. “I had the romantic story between Tommy Ross and Carrie White; I had all the visual suspense elements, and the terror elements; and I was using everything I knew, including comedy and improvisation, from all the other pictures I had made.” 

Earning two Oscar nominations and frequently cited as one of the great horror movies, Carrie is, understandably, often thought of as a story of a troubled teenager with incredible powers. But less remembered is its depiction of Tommy, the prom king who’s the polar opposite of who we often think of in that role. Tommy is a jock, but he’s sweet and even a little shy. He may look like a golden god, but he’s not an asshole. Indeed, in Carrie’s world of mean girls and dumb dudes, Tommy is an outlier. He’s one of the few people at the end of the film who you’re sorry Carrie kills, albeit accidentally. 

Tommy was played by William Katt, who grew up in the Valley, his parents Bill Williams and Barbara Hale both actors. Now 71, he still can’t get over how different he was than the usual prom king — which, of course, is exactly why he was so good as Tommy. “I didn’t go to my own prom,” Katt tells me. But as luck would have it, after he graduated from high school he went to the proms of girls he was dating. “I ended up going to about three proms, and they were horrible. I never enjoyed going to the proms, and I just remember wanting to leave as quickly as I could. I have an aversion to being around a lot of people, and that started at a very young age — I didn’t like to be in a large group. But at the time, my dates, that’s what they wanted to do, and I wanted to appease them, so I would go.” 

Katt’s always been a good-looking guy, though: Was he voted prom king at any of those later dances? “No,” he says with a laugh. “Usually, that was toward the end of the night when they would do that, and I was typically gone before then. [I did not] hang around with those kinds of people that would be running for prom king or queen. Usually those were the jocks, you know?”

What’s funny is that Katt actually was something of a jock — or, at the very least, he played sports. “I was a benchwarmer on the basketball team because I never got to be tall enough, but that’s about it,” he says. “After that, I just hung out with the musicians and the stoners. I didn’t date much in high school. [I was focused on] music and surfing. I was surfing on a team and doing surfing events on the weekends. That was the most important thing in my life — that and playing music and smoking joints. I didn’t know what I wanted to do at that time.”

Eventually, he got into the family business, switching from pursuing a music career to becoming an actor. He wasn’t dreaming of stardom, just steady work. “I love the theater,” he says. “That’s where I started, South Coast Repertory. Most of my career, I had done a play at least once every year or two years. But at that time, I was just happy to make a living.”

Many know that Katt was one of many up-and-coming actors who auditioned to play Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars. Around the same time, though, he also tried out for Tommy. “I knew I was out of the running for George’s film, and then Brian’s screen test came shortly thereafter. I forget the studio where we did it, but I did some reading with Amy Irving — that’s mainly who I did my screen test with. I don’t even remember screen-testing with Sissy, to be honest. I remember seeing everybody there, her and John [Travolta, who played the snide Billy Nolan] and Nancy [Allen, who was Chris Hargensen, the leader of the mean girls] and some of the other people, but I don’t recall actually doing a screen test with Sissy.”

Katt had known Irving, who played his onscreen girlfriend, before their screen test. “She had been studying in England, and when she got back to the States, we had mutual friends,” he recalls. “We hooked up and dated briefly, but mainly we were friends. We stayed friends for an awful long time.” But whatever Katt did during his audition worked for De Palma, even though Katt didn’t feel like he had much in common with the character. “It was a revelation to me that Brian would cast me as Tommy Ross because I was the antithesis of that,” he admits. “Maybe he was making a statement. It was the mid-1970s, and I think things were changing, how we thought about who our heroes were.” 

But that wasn’t the only way in which Katt, who doesn’t consider himself a big horror guy, wouldn’t have seemed like a natural fit. He had read King’s novel — “I briefly skimmed the book, to be very perfectly honest” — but when he took a look at the script, “I didn’t really realize it was a horror film. It felt to me like a morality tale. It was the story of the ugly duckling, and the ugly duckling gets superpowers. And all these people get their comeuppance from treating this girl so badly and bullying her.” 

When I ask about conversations he had with De Palma about the character, Katt replies, “We did about a week or two of rehearsals in his apartment in Hollywood. We would get together and do the scenes and improv, and he would make changes to the script. Once we got to shooting, though, he had done all the work with the actors and he was really all about the camera and lighting and everything else.”

Katt has talked about how he modeled Tommy’s demeanor off some of the football players he knew in high school, giving the character the same swagger. But he confesses that he didn’t necessarily torture himself to figure out how he could make someone so unlike him come to life. 

“I had done a lot of theater before then,” says Katt, who was 24 when he filmed Carrie. “I had worked at the Taper and whatnot. I studied with Gordon Hunt in his scene-study classes. I did all that stuff. So I’d like to say, ‘Yeah, I dug in…,’ but that would be false. Really, all I did was, it was a lot of me. I think I am a nice guy. I try to be nice to everybody that I meet and gracious and always have my best intentions to like somebody and have them like me.” 

He credits his mom and dad for shaping that part of his personality. “My parents were both just great people,” he says. “They were full of grace, and they were generous and gracious and just kind to everybody. I guess that’s the way I grew up.”

From Tommy’s first scene, when Carrie nervously mentions in the back of the classroom that she likes his poem — later, we’ll learn he plagiarized it — he seems to genuinely take a shine to her, no matter how uncool she is. He’s initially confused by Sue’s request for him to ask Carrie to prom, but he gets on board with the plan pretty quickly. And even when Tommy’s first attempt to ask her out fails — Carrie thinks it’s a trick — he keeps at it, the two starting to hit it off over prom night.

“You see certain people that you wouldn’t expect would ever end up together, and then they do because they’re exact opposites,” Katt says of Tommy and Carrie’s surprising rapport. “There’s something about the chemistry that works.” It wasn’t hard for him to build a connection with Spacek, who received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role. “I really liked Sissy, not in a romantic way, but just as a person, as a friend, who she is when she’s not on camera.” In fact, Spacek was already married to her husband Jack Fisk, an Oscar-nominated production designer who handled Carrie’s art direction. “She’s just lovely,” Katt says. “You can’t help but like her. So I just tried to let myself like the person I was talking to.”

Carrie exudes an almost clinical detachment to its characters, viewing them like lab rats or specimens in a Petri dish. The effect is alienating, which is the point, amplifying the queasy unease that’s a signature of high school. The normal rituals of teenage life — dating, going to class, playing sports, attending prom — are shot with such chilliness that De Palma invites us to see how surreal and awful these adolescent rites of passage actually are. Even Tommy’s garish prom tuxedo feels like a sly commentary on the requisite high-school-dance uniform.

Katt insists he had no input on his frilly tux. “They chose that,” he says, laughing. “It was horrible. There was tackiness about it, but it really spoke to that era. It was an actual tux — it wasn’t uncomfortable, but it was kind of clownish.” He can, however, proudly claim credit for his terrific mane of curly blond locks. “[That’s] my hair just the way it grew out of my head — curly and twisted like my brain,” he jokes.

Like Katt, Spacek was well into her 20s when she made Carrie, and while they look older than their characters’ actual age, it lends them a certain maturity that separates them from the often shallow and thoughtless teens around them. In King’s book, Tommy comes across as a bit of a dope — or, put more kindly, the typical horny teenager. But in the film, there seems to be a hidden depth to the guy — maybe something he hasn’t himself yet realized — and he locates it by spending time with Carrie. Between Carrie’s hellish home life tormented by her religious-fanatic mother (Piper Laurie, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress) and the social anxiety of high school, she doesn’t have many safe spaces. As a result, Tommy becomes a welcome oasis amidst an inhospitable terrain of cruelty. To their shared surprise, they find something in each other that no one else in the world can give them.

“I think Brian wisely decided that the audience had to like these people,” says Katt. “We had to think that Carrie and Tommy might have worked out. That she could fall in love with him.” He points to one of Carrie’s most memorable moments, in which they’re slow-dancing at the prom, the camera rotating around them in a dizzying, euphoric 360-degree fashion. “That’s a great scene,” Katt says. “They start spinning around each other. We end up laughing, and I think that’s the moment when Tommy [thinks], ‘I really like this girl.’ And I think Carrie felt the same. And the audience is going to buy it — you really cared about these people. So when the bucket comes down on their heads, it’s horrifying.” 

He, of course, is referring to Carrie’s legendary ending, when Carrie and Tommy are named the prom queen and king. (Actually, the vote’s been rigged by Chris to ensure that they win.) They walk up on that stage, and a bucket of blood is dumped onto Carrie from above, the bucket eventually falling and knocking Tommy unconscious. Traumatized by the shock and humiliation, Carrie uses her telekinetic powers to strike back, which sets the gym ablaze, killing just about everyone. 

“As best as I can recall, it [took] two weeks,” Katt says of shooting the sequence, which was filmed at Culver Studios. “The first week was all leading up to me getting hit with the bucket and Sissy having the blood poured all over her. And then everything else that takes place in the gym — the fire, the kids rushing around getting killed, Betty Buckley [who plays the kindly teacher Miss Collins] getting killed — all that was another additional week. Some of the interior of the set actually caught on fire. I remember Brian yelling, ‘Keep rolling, keep rolling,’ as the inside of the stage had caught fire. Never burned down or anything — I mean, they put it out very quickly.” 

Because so much of the sequence involves Tommy being out cold, how many days did Katt have to lay unconscious while filming was ongoing? “I think it was a day — it might have been two days. I would [have to] get back into that horrible, horrible prom suit — which was already crusty and hard from the karo syrup and food dye — and lay on the stage.”

Carrie became a sensation when it was released in November of 1976, landing Katt, along with his costars, in Newsweek and Time in the same week. “I had a picture in there,” Katt recalls, “and I go, ‘Holy fuck, I guess things have changed.’” Even though he wasn’t nominated, he attended the Academy Awards the following March, where both Spacek and Laurie lost. “My one and only time ever,” he says of going to the Oscars. “I didn’t like it because the lights were always in your face. It’s no wonder people wear sunglasses when they go to those things — they have lights from the stage shining on the first 10 or 15 rows. I like people in general — and when I do Comic-Cons and stuff, I really enjoy meeting my fans — but I don’t generally like to just be in a big crowd.”

Because of Carrie’s critical and commercial success, it would be natural to assume that other big roles would start coming Katt’s way. “It was exciting and scary: What’s to come?” he says of his mindset after the movie’s release. “But as the weeks and weeks rolled by, I didn’t have offers for other films.” He eventually starred in a romantic drama with Susan Dey, First Love, and the much-beloved surfing saga Big Wednesday, but as Katt puts it, “They just weren’t making films for guys my age at that time. They weren’t making a lot of interesting films. I always had a boyish face — I didn’t have a real masculine face. I wasn’t an East Coast guy — they were making some wonderful bad-guy films at the time, but I was not right for any of that. I was just this nice guy.” 

Plus, because he was already in his mid-20s, he was too old to play any other high-school roles. What he found interesting is that Hollywood started thinking that maybe he could be another Robert Redford — and, indeed, Katt reprised one of the man’s most famous roles by starring in 1979’s Butch and Sundance: The Early Days alongside Tom Berenger. 

“That haunted me for many, many years,” Katt says of those “next Redford” comparisons. “I honestly never saw myself as a real leading man. I always thought of myself as a character actor, which I always enjoyed. And as I got older, I was able to do more and more of that. I should have embraced [those comparisons] more and really turned it to my advantage. But I didn’t. Fortunately, The Greatest American Hero” — his early-1980s ABC superhero series that capitalized on the popularity of the Christopher Reeve Superman films — “came along and I was able to be more me. More the goofy kind of guy that I like to be.”

There have been Carrie remakes and adaptations over the years. A Broadway musical debuted in 1988. Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce cast Ansel Elgort as Tommy in a 2013 big-screen redo, a year before he was accused of sexual misconduct. But none of those other versions holds a candle to De Palma’s original, and likewise Katt’s Tommy remains the definitive portrayal of the unexpectedly wholesome prom king. (Even King likes De Palma’s Carrie, which is impressive considering how much he hates most of the film adaptations of his novels.) 

One reason I think people respond to Tommy so much is that he doesn’t conform to our negative assumptions about jocks: He’s not a bigot or sexist or abusive. And a lot of that is thanks to Katt. What we like about Tommy — his kindness, his decency — are the parts of himself that Katt brought to the role. He may have based Tommy on some of the high-school athletes he knew, but his own sweetness and life experience informed the performance, too. 

He bristles at the idea of a guy like Tommy possibly being homophobic — Katt wouldn’t have known how to play that. “Most of my best friends were homosexuals,” he tells me. “They were friends that I knew from the time I was little and growing up. So I guess I always treated people [thinking] nobody was any different from [anyone] else. Some of the best athletes I ever knew were gay.”

More recent films about high school, like the big-screen 21 Jump Street, have rethought what constitutes “cool” and “hip” among teenagers. (In that movie, the popular kids are the ones who are considerate of others and have progressive views about inclusion — the exact opposite of the bullying teens of Carrie.) Katt’s happy that this cultural mindset is shifting, which may partly explain why he’s not remotely nostalgic for his teenage years. “I never enjoyed high school,” he tells me. “None of my kids enjoyed high school. I don’t think you really start to understand what life is about and really feel comfortable yourself until you finish high school. And then you get out in college — or if you go to a trade school or you start to pick up a job — and then you start to really understand what life is about.”

In fact, I almost detected a smidgeon of pride in Katt’s voice when he mentioned that, like him, his children didn’t go to prom when they were in high school, either. “None of them,” he says. “I thought maybe my daughter would — she’s 28 — but she actually did not go to prom, either. So I didn’t have to deal with all that. Many parties here at the house, but never a prom issue. For a period of time, prom was a rite of passage for most kids — and, maybe to some kids still to this day, it is. But for me and for my kids, it was not.” 

It’s weirdly fitting that an actor who played a character with a front-row seat to one of the worst proms in movie history has such a dim view of the real thing. But for Katt, proms are little more than scams. “You spend a lot of money — everyone seems to get dressed up and everybody gets a limousine — but it’s a lot of bullshit,” he tells me. “It’s like commercial holidays — Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, all these holidays that are just vehicles. It’s commerce, people wanting you to spend money.” 

And that’s if the whole event doesn’t burst into flames, too.