William Devane is a retired American theatre, television and movie actor, who became widely known for playing the character of Greg Sumner on CBS’ primetime soap “Knots Landing,” as James Heller in Fox’s drama series “24,” and his portrayal of US President John F. Kennedy and US Senator Robert F. Kennedy in TV and movies because of his “Kennedyesque” looks.

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Early life and family

William Joseph Devane was born on 5 September 1939, in Albany, New York State, to father Joseph Devane of Irish descent, and a mother whose name hasn’t been revealed but of German and Dutch ancestry. His father was said to be the chauffeur of the 32nd US President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he was still the governor of New York, and his mother was said to be a bar owner. Not much other information is available on his life growing up, nor on his family.

Education background

He reportedly went to four high schools in four years in Albany, but there is no information about which one he matriculated from. Devane graduated in 1962 from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA) in Manhattan, New York City.


First steps

After high school, Devane went to New York and worked as a carpenter and electrician for Joseph Papp, who was a theatre director, producer, and founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival (NYSF), now known as Shakespeare in the Park. He begged Papp until he put him on the stage; he would watch George C. Scott’s performance and learned from him. William was in Papp Production’s Shakespearean plays in the public school circuit, and in 15 plays at NYSF. It was said that his first role was that of a porter in “Macbeth”, and he had his first speaking part in “The Merchant of Venice.”

In 1967, he played the role of the Robert Kennedy, or Robert Ken O’Dunk in the Off-Broadway play, “MacBird.” This was a satire sketch by Barbara Garson, and together with director/writer Roy Levine, made it into a full-length play that incorporated the 35th President John F. Kennedy’s assassination into the story of William Shakespeare’s tragedies, namely “Macbeth,” “Richard III,” and “Hamlet.” It premiered on 22 February 1967 just four years after Kennedy’s assassination, at The Village Gate theatre, believed to be the only one willing to stage the play. The highly successful but controversial play closed after 386 performances on 21 January 1968.

He made his debut as a movie actor in 1967 with “In the Country,” which was written and directed by Robert Kramer.

William Devane

His debut on television was in an episode of ABC’s crime drama series “N.Y.P.D.” which featured stories based on actual cases of the New York City Police Department, and he appeared in two more episodes between 1967 and 1969. Devane made his Broadway debut in 1969 in Lyle Kessler’s “The Watering Place,” but it was unsuccessful and had to close after just one performance.

It was after “MacBird” and while he was doing plays at the Shakespeare Festival when the actor Warren Beatty and director/screenwriter Robert Altman came and cast him for the role of the lawyer, Clement Samuels, in the revisionist western or anti-western movie, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971). The film was critically praised and was deemed ‘culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant’, so it was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Further success


He played the character of Jock Fenner in the French-Italian comedy “Lady Liberty” in 1971, along with Sophia Loren who played the main lead. Susan Sarandon and Danny DeVito were also in the movie, which was shot in Rome and New York, but received negative reviews from critics. In 1976 Devane was cast for the role of the missing heir turned kidnapper in the last movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock, the comedy thriller, “Family Plot.” This movie that also starred Bruce Dern, Barbara Harris and Karen Black grossed $13.2 million against a $4.5 million budget. He also appeared in the suspense thriller, “Marathon Man,” in 1976 starring Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. It was received well not just by the critics but also the viewing public with a gross of more than $28 million against a budget of $6.5 million.

“Rolling Thunder” in 1977 was an action thriller with Devane as the main lead, along with Tommy Lee Jones. It was very successful both commercially, grossing around $130 million against $5 million budget, and critically with favorable reviews. Other notable movies he made were the 2000 adventure film, “Space Cowboys,” with Tommy Lee Jones and Clint Eastwood; the 2000 sci-fi thriller, “Hollow Man,” with Kevin Bacon and Elisabeth Shue; and “The Dark Knight Rises” in 2012.

His last movie was in 2014 with a cameo role as Williams from NASA in the sci-fi dystopian movie, “Interstellar,” which starred Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine. With the production budget of $165 million, it grossed over $650 million worldwide, and Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 72% approval rating from more than 300 reviews, and a 74 out of 100 film score from 46 critics in Metacritic.

William made more than 45 movies and portrayed a variety of roles from 1967 to 2015.


William played the role of President John F. Kennedy, with Martin Sheen as the US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, in the made-for-TV documentary drama “The Missiles of October” in 1974. It was based on the book, “Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” by Robert Kennedy, in which he compared Barbara W. Tuchman’s “The Guns of August” (1962) book about the events leading to World War I to the Cuban Missile Crisis, between US and the Soviet Union with Cuba at the center of it, which came close to starting a global nuclear war, and how they averted it. Devane was praised for his portrayal of the president in this two-and-a-half hour production.

William Devane

William landed the role of John Henry Faulk in the TV movie “Fear on Trial,” in 1975, based on the book of the same title that Faulk wrote in 1963. It was about his experience of being blacklisted in the 1950s on radio, because he was falsely accused as a Communist by the organization, AWARE, Inc; he filed a lawsuit against them and won. This helped end the period of blacklisting in Hollywood, promoted by the anti-communist hearings of Senator McCarthy. The CBS TV movie won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing in a Special Program, and is performance was also recognized as he was nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series.

“Knots Landing”

The CBS’ primetime soap, “Knots Landing,” was a spin-off from the 1978 CBS’ hit series, “Dallas” – the story revolved around four married couples residing in the fictitious Sea View Circle cul-de-sac in a suburb of Los Angeles.

It premiered on 27 December 1979, and William joined the soap as part of the main cast in season five (1983-1984) as Greg Sumner, a US Senator turned businessman, continuing until the end of its run in season 14 (1992-1993). His role as the male antagonist was supposed to be only for eight to ten episodes, but his character was well received and loved by the viewers, and he survived until the end. The soap opera had 14 seasons (1979-1993) with 344 episodes, and Devane was in 10 seasons with 269 episodes. The ratings of the series peaked in the fifth season around the time when he became part of the soap. The four-hour long miniseries, “Knots Landing: Back to the Cul-de-Sac,” was released in two parts in May 1997, retaining most of its cast members including Devane, with the story starting four years after the soap opera ended.

William Devane

Posted by Classic Film Stills on Sunday, January 29, 2017

He was also part of the reunion special, “Knots Landing Reunion: Together Again” in 2005, which had most of the original cast reminiscing about working on the show, and also featuring bloopers and out-takes from the series.


William was cast to play the role of US Secretary of Defense James Heller in this real-time action drama, “24,” which starred Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, an agent from the Counter-Terrorist Unit. The series premiered on 6 November 2001 and ran for eight seasons with 192 episodes, the last aired on 24 May 2010. It won the Golden Globe Award for Best Drama Series in 2004, and the Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Drama Series in 2006. Devane joined the series in season four, and was in 20 episodes (2005-2007). The TV series returned in 2014 as “24: Live another Day” which started four years after the events of the last episode of previous series. William now played President James Heller, and was in all 12 episodes of the series.

He portrayed a variety of characters in nearly 70 television series, specials and TV movies from 1967 to 2015.

Personal life

William and Eugenie had known each other for a year before deciding to marry in 1961 – they had two sons, but lost their eldest, Bill, in a car accident. Joshua, the youngest, is also an actor.

The couple has been together for 59 years, having lived for over 30 years on their ranch in Thermal in the Coachella Valley, near Palm Springs, California. It is a facility for polo players and trainers, and where polo matches are played and horses bred. According to Devane, the ranch is 140 acres, but they live on just five acres, not as the landlord but the developer. They have around 300 horses and 15 ranches all devoted to polo. They also have a homeowner’s association.

Interesting facts and rumors

  • William often changed his dialogue in his scenes in “Knots Landing,” and it was allowed by the creator and co-executive producer, David Jacobs, who was very supportive of his actors and would tell the writers to trust the actors’ instincts. However, this created conflict with the writers of the show. One time, the script that was handed to him had a note on top that said, ‘Not one word of this can be changed on the floor.’ According to him, he only changed the script to a point in order to give more depth to the character and scene, but he didn’t change the story. He actualy wrote a few episodes of the series.
  • He did not watch any episode of “Knots Landing” before he joined the soap. When he was asked in an interview if he’s a TV watcher, he said that he tries to watch only real things and added, ‘I like to watch real people in real situations because I learn from that.’
  • He has been a member of PGA West for about 30 years, and has often played golf for charities.
  • It was said in a New York Times article published in 1975 that William changed his name from Devaney to Devane.


William is 5ft 10ins (1.78m) tall. He has white hair and blue eyes.

Net worth

He is a successful movie, television and theatre actor, and according to sources, his estimated net worth is around $6 million.

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