The star of The Fabelmans credited Peil for helping shape her career while accepting a performer tribute at the ceremony in New York on Monday night. "Whenever something good happens for me in my life, I can draw a straight line back to somebody who was meant to be here tonight, but being a New Yorker means living in a reality that you are definitely not in control of, so she's not in the room, but she's in my heart," Williams said.
"Mary Beth Peil played my grams on Dawson's Creek," she continued. "I was an emancipated minor when we met. I was 16 years old, and I was totally alone. Mary Beth Peil was the first artist that I had ever met in my life. She didn't call herself that, but there was something different about her. It was the way she asked questions, the way that she leaned into conversations, and how excited she seemed for every moment of every day on our TV set."
"I didn't know what this ineffable quality was," Williams added, "but I knew I wanted to pull my chair closer to hers." Peil "showed me that creativity was more than a mere profession," Williams said. "And all of this vitality was miraculously turned in my direction. Her smiling face was looking at me, and she called me her girl. She told me stories about this place — New York f---ing City — and she said it was somewhere that I could go and I could build a life."
Peil encouraged her costar to try out theater, so "I started reading plays and talking to her about them, and she urged me on: 'Yes, yes. That's wonderful, my girl. You should do that, you should try that,'" Williams said. At the time, Williams "wasn't an artist or a mother; I wasn't even a high-school graduate — honestly I was barely even a Michelle," she said. "I had just gotten people to stop calling me Shelly. But now I was Mary Beth's girl. And that made me a somebody."
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The performer tribute award has allowed Williams to look back at the impact Peil had on her career and various roles, she said. "I am grateful for this honor because it allows me to look backwards in time and realize that I couldn't have played Wendy Carroll or Randi Chandler or Marilyn or Gwen or Mitzi Fabelman without having first played Jen Lindley," Williams said. "I wouldn't have known how to handle being Steven Spielberg's mother without having been Mary Beth's granddaughter, so thank you Mary Beth, and thank you Gotham Awards for this."
Williams starred as Jen Lindley, a teenager sent to live with her grandmother Evelyn "Grams" Ryan (Peil) in the small fictional town of Capeside, Mass., for all six seasons of the 1998 series. In 2018, EW gathered the cast and crew — including James Van Der Beek, Katie Holmes, Joshua Jackson, Busy Philipps, Kerr Smith, and Meredith Monroe — to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the drama, where they reflected on the show's impact.
"I loved that we were able to get in there in those formative years for people," Williams told EW. "That's why people, I think, are so connected to it. When something affects you while you were growing up, it kind of stays in there forever. When you're so permeable and open and trying to figure out who you are and what's going on, whatever reaches you in those moments really becomes part of you."
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