“I’m a pretty run-of-the mill alcoholic,” says Oscar winner Paul Williams. “I never came out of a blackout with a Russian arms dealer, or with Norman Mailer and a couple of hookers in a Paris hotel.”
The 5-foot-2, bespectacled songwriter smiles.
“I’d come out of a blackout in the boys department at Sears, trying on sweaters.”
Paul Williams ought to be one of Hollywood’s great cautionary tales: Winner of an Oscar, a Grammy, and a Golden Globe (and a nominee for all several times over), he was a 50-time guest on The Tonight Show and a staple of TV and Movies in the 1970s and ‘80s. But Williams pulled one of the greatest disappearing acts in show biz history under the shadow of booze, drugs, and hubris.
So complete was the vanishing of short, blond, gnome-like Paul Williams—who wrote Evergreen with Barbra Streisand, We’ve Only Just Begun for The Carpenters, and The Rainbow Connection for Kermit the Frog—that documentary filmmaker Stephen Kessler thought he was dead.
But surprise: Not only is Williams very much alive, he’s been sober for 22 years, still packs in audiences for concert dates around the world…and he’s also President and Chairman of the Board of the American Society of Composers, Authors, & Publishers (ASCAP), the group that sees to it songwriters get paid for the songs they write.
And now he’s the subject of a quirky, music-filled, triumphant documentary, Paul Williams Still Alive—a film Kessler had to practically badger Williams to participate in.
“When Steve decided he wanted to call the film Still Alive my first reaction was ‘No, wait a minute, what an insult, why I oughta…’ Then I realized the odds of being alive after recovery, and the fact that the dreamer’s still alive.
“The fact is I survived, and a lot of people didn’t.”
Williams also liked the title because it gave him an opportunity to write a new song—a bittersweet melody of hope and recovery that closes the film and includes the words: “A blessed mystery / for sweeter souls did not survive.” If the Oscars folks would for once consider a song that doesn’t sound like Whitney Houston Week on American Idol, they could do worse than bring Williams back to the podium next February for his new song, “Still Alive.”
Paul Williams Still Alive is chock full of vintage TV and movie clips—largely because Williams religiously made VHS tapes of virtually everything he did and stashed them away in a storage garage. So we get to see him joshing with Donny and Marie, kidding with Johnny Carson, playing a lovesick passenger on The Love Boat (for which he also cowrote that infernal theme song), and even having a shootout with Angie Dickinson on Police Woman.
But there’s something not quite right about Williams when he guests on the variety and talk shows. He seems a bit too full of himself, too weirdly affected in the way he gestures with his ever-present cigarette. He’s funny, but he doesn’t seem to be a nice fellow. And his smile is something of a wise-guy’s smirk.
So, sitting across from him now—seeing this genuinely gentle, good-humored soul—I just have to observe that I like his smile a lot more now than I did back then.
“It’s hard for me to watch some of that footage in the film,” he says. “There’s footage of me hosting The Merv Griffin Show when I am the most vapid, arrogant, grandiose…” He can’t finish the thought, and I know why. Even for me, the clip is painful to watch: There is Williams, glassy-eyed and tugging at his nose, dryly observing that he’s the most faithful husband in the world “until I get a plane ticket in my hand.” He expects a laugh, but instead he gets that kind of silence that is literally deafening.
In the documentary, director Kessler shows Williams that clip on a laptop, and Williams walks away, for all appearances made physically ill by it.
“The smile is fake, the eyes are dead, the fact is I’m a showroom model of myself, and not the real Paul Williams,” he says now.
“I asked Steve, ‘Why would you want to make a film about that person? But for the film to have the kind of ending that it does—for the film to really be about recovery you need to see what you saw.”
By Williams’ reckoning, he lost a decade of his life to drugs and booze. But in an odd sense, he feels it may have been worth it.
“Now I can sit down with you and talk about the fact that you don’t have to be ashamed if you’re suffering from addiction.
“There’s a lot of senior addiction. There’s a lot of pill problems, a lot of pharmaceuticals that run away with people, a lot of loneliness for some people.
“It’s important for me to be able to sit down and say, ‘You know what? There’s help for you. There’s a way out of this deal.”
Our time is up, but I can’t let Paul Williams leave my presence without first getting him to autograph my VHS copy of Ishtar, the legendary 1987 flop that starred Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty as the world’s worst song writers. For that movie, writer/director Elaine May hired Williams to write songs that were so bad they were fun to listen to.
I hand him the tape box. “So you’re the one who bought it!” he says.
Paul Williams smiles. And the smile is real.