I didn’t expect to write a nearly 5,000-word story about Paul Williams, the songwriter who seemingly scored a good chunk of the 1970s. But his story resonated with me. First of all, there’s the fact he’s another in the long line of native Nebraskans I’ve targeted for my Nebraska Film Heritage Project. It took awhile to get an interview with him, but it finally happened this past winter and it was worth the wait. Then there’s the whole angle of him finding fame and fortune and throwing it all away during the depths of addiction and how he’s found sobriety and become an advocate for recovery. As a fellow 12-stepper, that journey particularly hits home with me. And then there’s the remarkable career renaissance he’s enjoying to go along with his reconstituted personal life. My profile of Williams is the cover story in the May issue of the New Horizons.
Paul Williams: Alive and Well, Sober and Serene, Making Memorable Music Again at 74
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the May 2015 New Horizons
Shame behind the fame, recovery after misery
Songwriter Paul Williams reached Hollywood’s apex by age 39 before losing everything to booze and pills and powder. As the Omaha native tried picking up the pieces of his shattered life and career, he virtually disappeared from public view. The title of a 2011 documentary about him, Paul Williams Still Alive, refers to the understandable assumption that somewhere along the line he suffered an untimely death, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth.
At 74 Williams is not only alive and well but riding a new wave of success that has people who don’t know his story wondering whatever became of him. His rise to stardom was so strong and fast and his descent into obscurity so severe and swift that even he excuses anyone for thinking he checked out. In a way, he did. He lost himself to addiction and in the process all the material success he’d built. But in recovery he’s gained things more important than money can buy. A book he co-wrote offers affirmations for daily living he follows.
“We don’t really control our lives as much as we think we do,” says Williams, who employs spiritual disciplines to stay centered. “My book Gratitude and Trust (Recovery is Not Just for Addicts) I wrote with Tracey Jackson is exactly about that process – staying grateful, trusting in the future, choosing faith over fear and watching your life get better. Tracy and I met when I was a mess. She then saw me in a very different light when I was 11 years sober. She has always claimed to have recovery envy. The concept of our book is that recovery is not just for addicts. It’s been wonderfully received. I’m happy to say the recovery community has embraced it.”
In the 1970s and 1980s Williams was seemingly everywhere at once in the entertainment world. One of that era’s top pop lyricists and composers, his music permeated radio, movies and television. His hit love songs or as he jokingly refers to them “co-dependent anthems” included “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “You and Me Against the World” and “Evergreen.” He was nominated for Oscars and Grammys. He scored the films Bugsy Malone, A Star is Born (1976) and The Muppet Movie. He wrote the theme music to the top-rated TV show The Love Boat. He was a popular concert performer and recording artist.
Also an actor, he turned up in films and episodic TV series, ranging from dramatic to comedic roles, sometimes even playing himself. His celebrity was such that he made countless guest appearances on talk, variety, game and awards shows, where he shined with his quick wit. At only 5-foot-2 his small stature made him stand out even more. Famously, upon accepting the Oscar for Best Original Song he shared with Barbra Streisand for “Evergreen” he quipped, “I was going to thank all the little people, and then I remembered I am the little people.”
Beneath the cocksure smile and glib repartee lurked a desperate man trying and failing by sheer willpower alone to battle inner demons. Then, the facade crumbled. As suddenly as he’d burst onto the scene, he vanished, his once ubiquitous presence no where to be seen. A half-dozen years ago or so a longtime fan, filmmaker Stephen Kessler, became intrigued with whatever happened to Williams. As the resulting film Kessler made shows, at the peak of his stardom Williams was an addict consumed by fame and ego, driven to get his next fix There are old clips of Williams doing TV guest spots while high, vainly, cavalierly bragging about his excesses. On national TV he openly joked about his infidelities. We see in the doc how uncomfortable it is for Williams today to view how recklessly he behaved back then.
His problems contributed to the breakup of his first marriage and derailed his career. Calls from producers and agents dried up.
But as the film also shows, Williams long ago kicked his addiction habit and along the way he remarried and rededicated himself to his family.
Journey of healing captured in song and on film
For the film Williams wrote an original song, “Still Alive,” that distills what it’s like to look at his addicted self from the lens of his sober eyes.
I don’t know you in those clothes
I don’t know you with that hair
Two dimensional reflection
Part time dreamer
Would be player
You thought fame could outrun fear
“That’s probably as accurate a line as I’ve ever written about anything and certainly about myself,” Williams says about fear. “One of the greatest challenges of my life was to look at a film about myself and then write a song kind of to myself.”
He still cringes at some of his boorish behavior caught on film.
“There are parts of it that are hard for me to watch. Like the Merv Griffin Show, when I was so arrogant and just a shallow little ass with this smirk on my face. What was most difficult about it is that I had no idea that’s who I’d become.”
The lyrics to his song “Still Alive” continue by asking “where did you disappear,” but as the film makes clear he’s never stopped writing and touring, he just plays to smaller crowds, in smaller venues, away from the spotlight. Williams is happier though than before because he no longer measures joy in terms of dollars, record sales and media spots but in the 12-step recovery work he does to maintain his sobriety and to be of service to others. All of which is why in addition to legendary songwriter, you can now add grateful survivor when describing Williams, who celebrated 25 years in recovery in March.
Kessler set out to make a documentary charting the artist’s rise and fall. It covers that journey but also reveals the most important things to Williams now are his recovery and family. A father of two grown children, Williams lives with his wife Mariana right on the ocean in Long Beach, California. Williams was a reluctant subject for the film’s unvarnished portrait of his failings and he only did the project on the condition that it share a message of hope and healing and that it highlight the changed man he is today.
In a phone interview he confirmed his new spiritual basis for living.
“My life has been changed drastically. The way I perceived my life changed drastically when I got sober and I began to see a little less through the distorted image of my own ego and began to see it as the absolute gift it was. I get up in the morning and I say a three-word prayer, ‘Surprise me, God.’ It implies complete trust. And then my second prayer is, ‘Lead me where you need me.’ If I’m relevant and useful I’m not in the way. If I’m not in the way, I’m not scared. If I’m not scared, I have a tendency to listen, and when I listen I sometimes actually learn something.”
Where Williams once saw himself as the center of the universe and responsible for all his success, he now sees things differently.
“The drugs and alcohol I consumed totally clouded how I perceived life. Then add the distortion of a growingly unhealthy ego. The fact is I never wrote a hit song because of the drugs, I wrote successful songs in spite of the drugs. The longer I’m sober the less I claim the success – the more I attribute it to a real gift. I’m not talking about my gift or the talent, I’m talking about the gift of the universe. If you tap into a sort of non-competitive thought process where you’re not worried about what the other guy’s doing but you’re just expressing what you feel, you connect.”
He says in the throes of addiction thoughts of grandiosity ran amok.
“You know, when I was drunk I was just brilliant, and the more I drank and the more I got into ego and the more I tried to write from my head and be clever and all…” the worse the music got. “One of the key elements of successful communicating is what we have in common, not the differences. So when I was authentic, when I would reach down into my chest and write about whatever I was feeling, whether it was loneliness or the longing for real love or how it felt to be falling in love, no matter how Hallmarky or sentimental the lyrics may have been, other people related because we have so much in common as far as the emotional scale we travel as human beings.”
He says he has drawers full of songs written under the influence of ego that will never see the light of day because no one can relate to them.
Williams shared the message of getting out of your head and getting in touch with your heart at a Neb. recovery convention he spoke at last year. He travels widely delivering recovery talks. The film shows him in action at one such event. About sharing his recovery message, he says, “It’s a chance to share the amazing gift I’ve been given and it feels like my most important work.”
A new life and a rejuvenated career
Instead of the movie Kessler imagined making about a man in despair over a fall from grace, he portrays a man content with his life. During production Williams was elected chairman and president of ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, which protects the rights of music artists. The post, which he continues in today, gives him a higher profile than he’s had in decades.
Since the film’s release, Williams’ profile has expanded even more, mainly due to a career resurgence he’s enjoying as a creative artist. In 2014 he shared the Grammy Award for Best Album of the Year with Daft Punk, with whom he collaborated on their platinum release, Random Access Memories. Williams was asked to write songs for the smash animated film The Book of Life (2014). And he’s been tabbed to co-write the stage adaptation of the acclaimed film Pan’s Labyrnith.
Not surprisingly, he views this professional comeback from the prism of humility and gratitude he sees the world in today.
“I haven’t chased any of the things coming to me. I’ve really just been concentrating on one thing – my recovery – and living by those principles. I have found in that everything I needed and everything I wanted. I think the misplaced years of my addiction are probably the most important years of my life in the sense that they set me up for the life I have today.”
Where before fame consumed him, now it’s all relative.
“The perspective is so different. When I won the Grammy with Daft Punk almost my first thought was: I will once again be awakened by the cat that treats me like staff to feed her, and I’ll be on the bay where I live with a wonderful view and Mariana will be next to me and in a year it’ll be somebody else’s turn to have this.
“It was a nice moment but almost what was a better moment was realizing there was no sense of that being a target or something to sail towards. Whereas in the ’70s I was nominated for the Academy Award six times and was counting the nominations and looking for that second win, and I don’t do that anymore. The valuation of the recognition is very different and I think a big part of that is because I was so addicted to the attention. I was almost as addicted to the attention I was getting – plopping myself down on any couch in front of any camera – as I was to the cocaine and the vodka. Eventually the addiction to the cocaine and the vodka outran the other addiction and took me off the map and put me in hiding for a decade.”
The start of it all
The seeds of his addiction may lie in an insecure childhood that saw his family move wherever his Peter Kiewit and Sons engineer father’s work took them. Paul was born in Omaha and later lived in Bennington, Neb. for his father’s work on a major expansion project at Boys Town. “I was a construction brat. I went to nine schools by the time I was in the ninth grade. I went from living in Rapid City, S.D. to living in Lucasville, Ohio and from Albuquerque, N.M. to Omaha and Bennington to wherever next. I was always the new kid in school. I was the littlest guy in the class.” When Paul was 13 his father died.
He sees the roots of his collaborative nature – he’s teamed with Roger Nichols, Kenneth Ascher, Barbra Streisand and more recently with Gustavo Santaolalla – in all the moving around he did.
“I think I learned to adapt to the language wherever I was. People have said to me, ‘You have an unusual accent.’ Well, God knows what my accent is today because I’m a bit of a chameleon. It’s like there’s a little bit of bullshit in my DNA where just to survive I kind of learned to adapt as a kid to what was going on around me and I tried to sound a part of it. I think that social adaptability that was part of my growing up eventually morphed into the kind of collaborator I am. The opportunity to open up and be aware of what’s going on around me is part of the process that made the things I’ve done successful.
“The other thing is that now in sobriety I’m trying to be a better listener today with everybody.”
In the documentary Williams explains why he’s so short when the rest of his family is normal height for their age and sex. His parents became alarmed he wasn’t growing normally and they made the decision to give him male hormone shots.
“Actually what they did wasn’t the right thing to do because it closes off the bones and they stop growing.”
He displayed a knack for music as a child and while his body didn’t keep pace with his peers, his voice got deeper, faster than theirs. Further setting him apart was his fascination with swing music.
“I think it’s interesting the music I cared for in high school, when everybody was listening to rock n roll, was the Great American Songbook. I was listening to Sinatra and Mel Torme and Ella Fitzgerald, but specifically Sinatra.”
It all contributed to Williams feeling awkward because of how different he was, which began a lifetime pursuit of wanting to feel special. As he often says, “To be different is difficult – to be special is addicting,”
His parents entered him in talent shows. His father, who had a drinking problem, would wake him in the middle of the night to sing “Danny Boy.” His old man, who once drove drunk with Paul in the car, died in an alcohol-related one-car wreck in Ohio. Years later, when Paul was a parent and drinking heavily, he drove drunk with his own kids in the car, “something I swore I’d never do,” he confesses in the film.
Paul went to live with an aunt in California. What was supposed to be a short stay ended up years. In the film Williams relates that his aunt laid a heavy guilt trip on him by saying, “If you go back and live with your mom every bite of food you take will be a bite out of your little brother’s mouth because she cant afford you both, so you need to stay here.'”
“In a way,” Williams adds, “it was like I lost both parents.”
Music no longer held an appeal.
“When my dad was killed I kind of turned away from music. I quit singing, I didn’t want to sing, i didn’t want to be a part of music. It’s interesting because that’s about the point I wanted to be an actor and a good therapist would say, ‘Ah, you’re dad died, you turned away from music and you wanted to be somebody else,’ because that’s what acting is – a chance to be somebody else.”
His first foray at showbiz
He made his own way as a young actor.
“It was kind of learn by doing. I started doing plays and I worked in commercials.”
He also did improvisational comedy on a Los Angeles TV show hosted by political comic Mort Sahl.
His big break came with speaking parts in two mid-1960s Hollywood movies, The Loved One starring Robert Morse, Jonathan Winters, Rod Steiger and John Gielgud, and The Chase starring Marlon Brando, Angie Dickinson, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. In the former. a surreal social satire, he was a whiz kid obsessed with rocketry. In the latter, an overripe Southern soap opera, he was a rebel teen. In each, he played several years younger than his real age.
“There was nothing close to a logical element of the decision to be an actor,” he says. “I mean, I always joke I felt like Montgomery Clift but I looked like Haley Mills. Into my 20s I played kids. I looked like a kid until you put me next to a real kid and then I looked like a kid with a hangover.”
Though neither film fared well and his part in The Chase was radically reduced in the cutting room, he got to work with A-list talent, including directors Tony Richardson (Loved One) and Arthur Penn (The Chase).
“When you’re a kid from Omaha there’s nothing more completely romantic and exciting than to walk on the set of a large motion picture production, to see the lights, the camera. All of a sudden you turn and there to your left is Sir John Gielgud and there to your right is Jonathan Winters. It’s a spectacular, life-changing even. Culturally it’s like going to Europe the first time. It’s like, Oh my God, look at all this.”
Williams was awed by Winters, whom he considered a comic genius. “I followed him around like a puppy. When I started recording one of the first appearances on television I made was on his show. He was always so kind to me.”
On the set of The Chase Williams began fooling around with a guitar and writing songs. In one of his scenes that survived the final cut he sings a tune he penned.
Two decades later, for Elaine May’s Ishtar, he had the tricky task of writing “believably bad songs – songs which sounded like they just missed” for the comedy about hackneyed songwriters played by Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. “I’m really proud of the songs. They’re almost good…almost.”
Other notable directors he worked with in front of or behind the camera include Melvin Van Peebles, J. Lee Thompson, Brian De Palma, Alan Parker, Garry Marshall, Oliver Stone and Luis Puenzo.
From acting to songwriting
Then, when his acting career stalled, music went from being a source of solace to his livelihood.
“Having no money to go out and wine and dine or go to the movies and being essentially broke, I turned to songwriting. It became my therapy and then the great surprise was that as soon as I started writing I knew this was what I was here to do. It was an amazing sense of comfort putting everything in the center of my chest into the songs.
“There was an element of craft in the very first song I wrote. I don’t know if you’re a believer in past lives but I am and it’s almost as if I had done it before. I had a sense of form, I had a sense of rhyme scheme, I had a sense for a story progressing. As I look back on it now I think you put your name on it but it’s almost as if you have unseen help writing these songs, and I still feel that way about the craft today. I think that inspiration is very difficult to truly identify.”
He and Biff Rose wrote a tune that took Paul to A & M records as a staff songwriter. Producer Richard Perry took a liking to his work.
“The very first songs I wrote began getting recorded. I recorded an album with Richard called The Holy Mackerel. I don’t think even my family bought the album but it was the beginning of my recording career. The song Biff and I wrote, “Fill Your Heart,” was later recorded by David Bowie on his Hunky Dory album. It was the first song he ever recorded he didn’t write and I am eternally grateful for that.”
Williams was eventually paired with composer Roger Nichols.
“I would write during the day with Roger and he would go home to his girlfriend, and I would stay in the office and write with anybody that came by or write alone. None of my early songs were hits until I went to Europe in 1970 to work on a project called Wings with Herb Albert and Michel Colombier and when I came back I had two songs in the Top 10 at the same time – “Out in the Country” by Three Dog Night and “We’ve Only Just Begun” by The Carpenters. That garnered a lot of attention and we were off and running.”
Having his music find a large, receptive audience was even more than he imagined possible.
“I had no idea I would have an opportunity to make the kind of living I did off of that music.”
An early concert gig brought him back to Omaha for a warm greeting.
“One of my great memories when I was first performing was on the road with The Fifth Dimension as their opening act. I was having some success as a songwriter but I wasn’t the most well-known person trotting onto a stage anywhere. When we got to Omaha it was as if they brought the Pope to Mexico City because the news had got out I was from Omaha and the audience gave me an amazing response. I’ll never forget that reception.”
Collaborations past and present
He says his experiences writing with Nichols and later Kenneth Ascher “were the longest lasting and most constructive and successful of the collaborations. Kenny had been a piano player for me and we started writing songs together. We wrote most of the songs for A Star is Born together. We wrote the songs for The Muppet Movie together. We wrote “You and Me Against the World” for Helen Reddy.
“Working with both Kenny and Roger I would describe as my music school. In the area of music discipline I learned a lot from both. To this very day there is nothing more interesting or exciting than to sit down with a total stranger in their kitchen or in an office and start sharing what’s going on in our lives and out of that conversation and kind of mini-therapy session comes a song all of a sudden.”
Of his recent collaboration with Gustavo Santaolalla – they wrote songs for Book of Life and they’re adapting Pan’s Labyrinth for Guillermo del Toro – Williams says, “I don’t think I’ve had a collaborative experience more emotional for me. Gustavo is a spectacular artist and composer. He writes incredible, heart-wrenching melodies.”
He enjoyed a warm working relationship with the late puppeteer Jim Henson on The Muppet Movie. Williams says Henson was so “easy-going and completely trusting” that he deferred hearing the songs Wiillams and Ascher wrote for the film until they were recorded. “Remarkable amount of trust and freedom for a major Hollywood film.” One of the songs, “The Rainbow Connection,” became a hit.
As his celebrity increased Williams became a rarity among songwriters – a household name and face. He also joined a long line of native Nebraskans to find Hollywood success. He made nearly 50 appearances on the Tonight Show, whose host, Johnny Carson, was a fellow Nebraskan. Paul’s notoriety benefited from his lilliputian size and shoulder-length locks. He simply looked like no one else.
The success of his music career led to new acting opportunities, including his role as Virgil in Battle for the Planet of the Apes and the part of Little Enos in the Smokey and the Bandit franchise.
A film Williams scored and acted in, Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974) owns a small but devoted following but he never expected it would lead to a career boost four decades later.
“We assumed Phantom of the Paradise was a failure when it came out because it had so little attention, especially in the United States, but in France (and in Winnepeg) it was a revered odd little cult film. Two young Frenchmen went to the theater where it was showing and saw it 20 times and they formed a group called Daft Punk. They sought me out to come and work for them on their album Random Access Memories. I wrote a couple of the songs and sung on the album with them and last year we won the album of the year.”
Another devotee of the film turned out to be Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican-born producer-director.
“I was approached by Guillermo del Toro because evidently I performed back in Mexico City when he was in his late teens and he apparently came to me with a vinyl of the soundtrack album of Phantom of the Paradise. He was a huge fan then and his affection for the film did not wane and years later he’s on the phone with me asking if I would do this adaptation of his Pan’s Labrynith.
“So I’m having all these amazing opportunities walk up to me because of something I could have written off as a failure, and I think there’s a great life lesson in that for me and for all of us.”
Seeing and living life differently
Not only does he see things in a new light in recovery, he approaches work from a new vantage point, too.
“My whole creative process is so different now. It’s back to a very unconscious effort. I would say the most important time of my writing is the time between when I look at the project, know what I’m supposed to do, and then sit down to do it. I always leave a little space now – a couple days where I’m not thinking about it. But I know my unconscious is because when I sit down to work on it so much of it’s done and I know it came out of me but I wasn’t there when it was worked on.”
Though he lived in the Heartland only through adolescence, he says, “I think there is an element of Midwestern values that may have been an undercurrent to my success. My simple background and upbringing made its way into songs that were not clever but were honest about what I was feeling. I think there’s a lot of Neb. in that.”
In a lifetime of achievements, he says “probably the highest, greatest honor is the great work I get to do for ASCAP,” adding, “We have 526,000 members and to be able to make sure that they’re properly compensated for their work is key. I mean, I have a daughter who’s a social worker and I was able to acquire the education for her, put food on the table and gas in the car because of ASCAP. Other people deserve to have the same.”
Success the second time around is a different experience for Williams because he’s a new man. The misery that led him to act out and to repeat his father’s sins, has given way to appreciation.
“As I get older I’m recognizing I’ve had magnificent opportunities that were absolute gifts.”
He lives life now trusting new blessings will arrive and new dreams will be fulfilled. One day at a time.
Once reality’s your roommate
And the truth stands at your door
All your records may be broken
Trophies won’t shine anymore
New beginnings are the challenge
But you’re not sure where to start
Unimagined gifts are waiting
Love will find your grateful heart
You will come to know the simple man you’ve always been.
And someone asked me once
Where do we go when we arrive
If you’re lucky, when it’s over
The dreamer’s still alive.