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Brent Spencer’s fine review of my Alexander Payne book nets nice feedback


Brent Spencer’s fine review of my Alexander Payne book nets nice feedback

I only just now became aware of this fine review of my Alexander Payne book that appeared in a 2014 issue of the Great Plains Quarterly journal. The review is by the noted novelist and short story writer Brent Spencer, who teaches at Creighton University. Thanks, Brent, for your attentive and articulate consideration of my work. Read the review below and some nice responses I got to this news.

NOTE: I am still hopeful a new edition of my Payne book will come out in the next year or two. it would feature the additon of my extensive writing about Payne’s Nebraska. I have a major university press mulling it over now.

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film—A Reporter’s Perspective, 1998–2012 by Leo Adam Biga
Review by Brent Spencer
From: Great Plains Quarterly
Volume 34, Number 2, Spring 2014

In Alexander Payne: His Journey In Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012 Leo Adam Biga writes about the major American filmmaker Alexander Payne from the perspective of a fellow townsman. The local reporter began writing about Payne from the start of the filmmaker’s career. In fact, even earlier than that. Long before Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, and Cannes award-winner Nebraska. Biga was instrumental in arranging a local showing of an early student film of Payne’s, The Passion of Martin. From that moment on, Payne’s filmmaking career took off, with the reporter in hot pursuit.

The resulting book collects the pieces Biga has written about Payne over the years. The approach, which might have proven to be patchwork, instead allows the reader to follow the growth of the artist over time. Young filmmakers often ask how successful filmmakers got there. Biga’s book may be the best answer to this question, at least as far as Payne is concerned. He’s presented from his earliest days as a hometown boy to his first days in Hollywood as a scuffling outsider to his heyday as an insider working with Hollywood’s brightest stars.

If there is a problem with Biga’s approach, it’s that it can, at times, lead to redundancy. The pieces were originally written separately, for different publications, and are presented as such. This means a piece will sometimes cover the same background we’ve read in a previous piece. And some pieces were clearly written as announcements of special showings of films. But the occasional drawback of this approach is counter-balanced by the feeling you get of seeing the growth of the artist take shape right before your eyes, from the showing of a student film in an Omaha storefront theater to a Hollywood premiere.

But perhaps the most intriguing feature of the book is Biga’s success at getting the filmmaker to speak candidly about every step in the filmmaking process. He talks about the challenges of developing material from conception to script, finding financing, moderating the mayhem of shooting a movie, undertaking the slow, and of the monk-like work of editing. Biga is clearly a fan (the book comes with an endorsement from Payne himself), but he’s a fan with his eyes wide open. Alexander Payne: His Journey In Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012 provides a unique portrait of the artist and detailed insights into the filmmaking process.

Brent Spencer, Department of English, Creighton University, Omaha, NE.

HERE IS SOME LOVELY FACEBOOK CORRESPONDENCE THAT NEWS OF THE REVIEW PROMPTED:

July 17 at 8:30pm ·

 Fantastic review. Fantastic book, Leo Adam!
Leo Adam Biga's photo.

Attention must be paid: In the spirit of Everyone Has A Story To Tell…


Attention must be paid

In the spirit of Everyone Has A Story To Tell…

Many of us are familiar with the phrase, “Everyone has a story to tell.” Few of us, however, behave as if we believe that sentiment to be true. Most of us ignore, if not dismiss the experiences of others unless those experiences happen to belong to a close friend or family member or unless the experiences are attractively, compellingly packaged in some commercial media product. It’s hard to deny we tend to tune out stories that do not immediately appeal to our sense of curiosity and thirst for drama, tragedy, inspiration, entertainment, titillation or pure distraction. We are increasingly reliant on media channels to tell us what is worthy of our attention. More than ever before we are programmed to overlook all but the most trending or iconic or marketable stories amid the glut of data – videos, sound bytes, headlines, texts, tweets – coming at us from a multiplicity of communication-information platforms. This tendency to abdicate our personal investment of time and energy and inquisitiveness to get to know someone in our immediate reality, such as a neighbor, a coworker or the mailman, to an impersonal web search engine’s recommended list of newsmakers and celebrities we will likely never meet, makes it harder for every day people to authentically know one another. In this supposed golden age of interconnectedness the irony is that we can find ourselves increasingly disconnected from each other’s true lives and intimate stories as we more and more settle for “knowing” people by their usernames, tag lines, logos and avatars and “following” their lives virtually via social media.
I believe this phenomenon accounts for the basic lack of respect that permeates too many interactions and transactions between people these days. If you’re too busy or stressed or self-involved or condescending to get to know someone, you’re more likely to be rude or indifferent to them.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. How we attend to people and to their personal stories and spaces is still a matter of choice, a matter of intention.

For all this talk about the distancing, distorting effect of media, good journalists continue playing a vital role as storytellers who focus past the noise of all that clutter to flesh out the narratives of individuals from every walk of life. Human interest stories they’re called. Far more than filler or fodder, they are portraits and snapshots of a society and a period. They are windows into the human soul. They remind us of our shared traits and of our boundless differences. They are markers for the human condition. I’m proud to say I make my living doing this. I’ve even branded myself – God knows we all need to be able to reduce the sum of our parts to a brand in order to be relevant in today’s hash-tag environment – with the tagline: “I write stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions.” Which is to say, as the cliche goes, I write about what makes people tick. I prefer to think of it as giving voice to the things that drive people to create, to endeavor, to aspire, to grow, to build, to sacrifice, to carry on. The reason I devote myself to this discipline and calling is that I truly do embrace the notion that we all have a story to tell. For that matter, we all have many stories to tell. In one way or another, we’re all subjects and characters worthy of being interviewed, profiled, remembered because we all have things to teach others and to move others.

It would be a shame, wouldn’t it, if someone, and it just happened to be me, didn’t tell the story of an Old Market eccentric named Lucile who dressed all in orange and decorated her home with decades worth of architectural remnants she’d collected? Or what about the classical violinist who plays in major symphony orchestras and rigorously practices Buddhism and incongruously lives in a trailer and works a warehouse day job. I wouldn’t have missed his story for the world but the world almost missed out on it if not for him telling me the story of his life and me writing it up and getting it published. Then there’s the master of Spanish classical guitar who once shared the stage at Carnegie Hall with his legendary mentor and yet who continued to compete in professional rodeos, Why put his fingers and hands at great risk? Because Hadley loved his art and his cowboy roots equally. Both were necessary expressions of his unquenchable lust for life.

I loved the story of the little old man from the Pennsylvania German anthracite coal mines. In his youth he broke horses along the Colorado River and during World War II he helped the U.S. military learn the secrets of advanced German jet fighter technology. Then as a venerable scholar he translated the massive diaries of a 19th century German prince whose expedition of the vanishing Western America frontier provided an invaluable glimpse of life in that period.

I’ll never forget a woman and her remarkable transformation, which is happening as we speak and continues to bloom. In relatively short order she’s gone from life as a substance abuser, stripper and prostitute to surviving a failed marriage to raising three children on her own to finding her and her family homeless at times as she tried getting things together. While still homeless off and on she launched a business making skin lotions, cleaners and scents using shea butter. Her business has attracted major backers and her products are now sold in stores across America. The topper to all this is that she wants most of the proceeds to support an African mission she’s established to help villagers who harvest the shea butter she uses in her products.

Memorable too is the music lover from Omaha who was part of an all-black WWII quartermaster battalion. He and 15 others from Omaha – they called themselves The Sweet 16 – served together all the way from induction to basic training to North Africa to Italy. After the war Billy earned money as taxi driver, railroad baggage handle and gambling house proprietor. He also quietly amassed a staggeringly large music collection and made sure he and his war buddies stayed in touch via reunions.

I could go on and on. The point is, remarkable, compelling stories are all around us. Until you ask, until you show some interest, you just won’t know that Brenda, the spirited old woman singing karaoke at the local bar, performed with Johnny Cash and toured Vietnam during the war with an all-girl band. You’d never guess that Helen, the elderly school para, was the lead trombonist in a multi-racial all-girl band that played the Apollo Theatre and all the top clubs and concert halls from the start of the Great Depression through the war. You’d never learn that Marion, the double amputee confined to a wheelchair in a nursing home, was arguably the best all-around athlete to ever come out of Neb, and that he integrated Dana College, where some of his athletic marks still stand 60 years later.

More recently, there’s the story of the priest who shook off his small town Neb. roots in one sense but never lost his homespun quality in another sense while ministering to diverse peoples in underserved communities and developing nations. Father Ken worked for Mother Teresa serving lepers in Yemen. He ran Catholic Relief Services humaniatian aid programs in India and Liberia. He learned many lessons in crossing all those cultural bridges and borders and he shares those lessons in a new book I collaborated with him on that comes out this fall. Then there’s Bud, a young man who has risen out of harsh conditions in northeast Omaha to become a world boxing champion. I recently traveled with him to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa, a pair of countries he’s visited twice in the last year. I went to chronicle his ever expanding exploration of the world and how the self-sufficiency and empowerment programs he witnessed in those East African nations relate to what he’s trying to do at his B & B Boxing Academy in North Omaha.

It is my privilege to tell these stories. Because I am a storyteller by trade, I also see it as my duty. With all the ready means for communication available today, I think it’s incumbent on us all to tell our stories and to tell the stories of those around us. That means talking to people and capturing their stories in words and images and putting those stories out there. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional or an amateur, a staff reporter or a stringer or a freelancer or a citizen journalist or a blogger. It doesn’t have to be journalism either. It can be stories told through still or moving images, through music, through poetry, through fiction, you name it. Off-line, on-line, hard cover, soft cover, CD, DVD, slide show, stage show, it doesn’t matter. It’s all good. It’s all about getting it down and putting it our there. It’s all raw material that can be the basis for dialogue, discussion, or study. Take my word, once you tell a story that distills the essence of someone, it will leave an impact on that person and their family. It will captivate an audience and it will start a conversation. And more stories will follow and reveal themselves as a result. It’s all about acknowledging lives and experiences. Preserving legacies and memories. To be passed on. To be discovered and rediscovered. Lest we forget, lest we never know, attention must be paid.

It’s why I’m a big proponent of oral history projects that collect the stories of rank and file citizens right alongside those of community, business, and elected leaders, celebrities and social mavens. I’m trying to put together one of these projects right now in North Omaha. We can never really know or appreciate each other until we tell our stories and share them.

Now that’s what I call connecting.

NOTE: You can sample the stories I tell about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions on this blog-
leoadambiga.wordpress.com
Or on my Facebook timeline or FB page, My Inside Stories.

UNO makes it public: I’m going to Africa with The Champ as a 2015 winner of the Andy Award for International Journalism

May 21, 2015 2 comments

Here is the official UNO announcment of the 2015 winners of the Andy Award for International Journalism: Matthew Hansen of the Omaha World-Herald and yours truly. Matthew’s going to Cuba to explore Nebraska’s historic connections to Cuba and where that relationship will go in light of restoration of normalized relations and the lift of travel bans. I’m going to Rwanda and Uganda, Africa with two-time world boxing champion Terence Crawford of Omaha and a cadre of other Omahans to shed light on the efforts of Nebraskans and others in responding to needs in those nations and lessons learned there that can be applied here.

For more about my trip, link to-

http://leoadambiga.com/going-to-africa-with-the-champ-two-time-world-boxing-championterence-crawford-hail-the-omaha-conquering-hero-and-his-b-b-boxing-academy/

UNO Announces 2015 Winners of Andy Award for International Journalism

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OMAHA – The University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) announced today the latest winners of the Andy Award for international journalism.

Named in honor of former Omaha World-Herald Publisher Harold W. Andersen, the annual award funds new international reporting projects proposed by Nebraska-based journalists and news organizations.

This year’s winners are Omaha World-Herald journalist Matthew Hansen and freelance journalist Leo Adam Biga.

Hansen will travel to Cuba to explore its historic connections to Nebraska and how the relationship will blossom as travel and trade bans are lifted after 53 years. The resulting editorial piece will give Omaha World-Herald readers a window into Cuba: its culture, history, struggles, and future.

Biga’s travels will take him to Rwanda and Uganda, Africa, with former world lightweight boxing champion and newly crowned welterweight champion, Terrence Crawford, and Pipeline Worldwide co-founder, Jamie Nollette. The group will visit projects building fresh water wells and growing food, while meeting with aid workers and those affected by years of genocide and hunger. The group plans to travel to Africa in June 2015 and Biga’s resulting story will be published in Omaha Metro Magazine’s “Journeys” series.

“We are excited to be able to award two exceptional journalists this year,” said Tom Gouttierre, Dean of International Studies and Programs and chair of the Andy Award committee. “Both stories will show readers that there are connections between Nebraska and Rwanda, Nebraska and Cuba, and that international collaboration, or the absence of it, has a real impact on a country and its people.

Matthew Hansen 

Leo Adam Biga 
The Andy Award has honored Nebraska’s best international reporting since 1987. For the past 12 years, winners have received monetary awards, thanks to the generosity of Harold and Marian Andersen. The award committee accepts proposals to fund future reporting projects as a way to encourage more international journalism. This year’s awards are $5,000 each.

Applications for the 2016 Andy Awards will be accepted in Fall 2016. The competition is open to Nebraska-based news organizations – print, broadcast, and online – as well as freelance reporters.

More information is available at http://world.unomaha.edu/andy.php or by contacting UNO’s International Studies and Programs, 402.554.2376.

Past Winners of the Andy Award for international journalism:

2014    Julie Cornell and Andrew Ozaki, KETV Newswatch 7
2011    Joseph Morton, Alyssa Schukar, Matthew Hansen and Cate Folsom, Omaha World-Herald
2009    Carol Katzman, The Jewish Press
2008    KIOS-FM Radio
2005    Ted Kirk and Gordon Winters, Lincoln Journal Star
2004    Jared Hart and Gary Sadlemyer, KFAB Radio
2003    Joe Duggan, Catherine Huddle and Ken Blackbird, Lincoln Journal Star
2002    Gordon Winters, Lincoln Journal Star
2002    Charles Reinken, Omaha World-Herald

2001    Scott Bauer and Nati Harnik, Associated Press
2001    Stephen Buttry and Kiley Christian Cruse, Omaha World-Herald

2000    Angela Heywood-Bible and Ted Kirk, Lincoln Journal Star;
2000    UNO Television

1999    David C. Kotok, Omaha World-Herald
1998    Jeff Carney, Robert Nelson and Rick Ruggles, Omaha World-Herald
1997    Charley and Norma Najacht, Custer County Chief
1997    Henry Trysla, South Sioux City Star

1996    Dewaine and Bobbie Gahan, Oakland Independent and Lyons Mirror-Sun
1996    Jeff Bundy and Jason Gertzen, Omaha World-Herald

1995    Stephen Kent, The Catholic Voice
1994    Bill Eddy, Lincoln Journal
1993    Kay Lavene, Kearney Hub
1992    Bob Reeves, Lincoln Star
1991    Mary Williams, KMTV Channel 3 Omaha
1990    Steve Jordan, Omaha World-Herald
1989    Loretta Carroll, KMTV Channel 3 Omaha
1988    Ken Campbell, Scottsbluff Star Herald
1987    Harold W. Andersen, Omaha World-Herald

About the University of Nebraska at Omaha
Located in one of America’s best cities to live, work and learn, the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) is Nebraska’s premier metropolitan university. With more than 15,000 students enrolled in 200-plus programs of study, UNO is recognized nationally for its online education, graduate education, military friendliness and community engagement efforts. Founded in 1908, UNO has served learners of all backgrounds for more than 100 years and is dedicated to another century of excellence both in the classroom and in the community.

Paul Williams: Alive and Well, Sober and Serene, Making Memorable Music Again at 74


Cover Photo

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
Unforgiving unaware

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.”

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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

Then again
Once again
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.

Visit http://www.paulwilliamsofficial.com.

Opining about the life of a freelance journalist at a conference

March 28, 2015 Leave a comment

Mike Whye and I did a panel on freelance journalism this morning at the Society of Professional Journalists Region 7 Conference at UNO’s Community Engagement Center. The audience was made up of students, working professionals and educators from Nebraska and surrounding states. It was fun talking sharing craft and business aspects of freelancing. That’s Mike on the left, me in the middle and moderator Jonathan Garcia on the right. Thanks to Chris Bacon and Jeremy Lipschultz for the photos and thanks to Rob McLean for the invitation to participate. I enjoyed meeting Mike (mwhye.home.radiks.net), Jonathan and Rob and I enjoyed seeing my collleague Jeremy again. Doing events like this help remind me why I do what I do, the way I do it. FREElance = Indpendence.

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The Many Faces of Leo Adam Biga’s Blog: leoadambiga.com

March 25, 2015 Leave a comment

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A Look Into and Back at the Many Diverse Faces of Leo Adam Biga’s Blog (leoadambiga.wordpress.com): “I write stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions”

January 3, 2015 Leave a comment

      • A Look Into and Back at the Many Diverse Faces of Leo Adam Biga’s Blog (leoadambiga.wordpress.com): “I write stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions”

       


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