Alive and well with Paul Williams

June 8, 2012

Still alive? Paul Williams seems to be defying time, as it were.

He’s president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (otherwise known as ASCAP), in which he fights “to make sure people who created the music that’s being played and streamed and everything else are compensated fairly,” he says.

He’s still a practicing songwriter, continuing work on a stage musical based on the TV show “Happy Days” with Garry Marshall (aiming for an opening in London’s West End in the next year or so).

And he’s out on the hustings doing retail film promotion for a documentary, “Paul Williams Still Alive,” that he initially regretted saying “yes” to, when he was approached by filmmaker Stephen Kessler.

“It’s a weird life,” Williams says with a chuckle, at an eatery in Mamaroneck, NY, prior to a Q&A session with an audience at the Emelin Theater. “I’m glad now I let that weird guy follow me around for years with a camera.”

The film, which opens in limited release Friday (6/8/12), gives Williams the chance to spread the message of recovery that he hopes the film also celebrates.

“At this point, it’s all a gift,” he says. “I like to say that my train runs on two rails: gratitude and trust.”

The film begins with Kessler, who was a childhood fan of Williams’ music and acting, coming across a notice of an appearance by Williams – whom he had presumed dead. In fact, Williams has fans around the world and still performs on a regular basis. So Kessler set out to make a film about Williams’ rollercoaster career – and ended up, instead, capturing a portrait of Williams as a man who has learned to appreciate his life for what it is.

But Williams made him wait for his initial answer: “He sent me an email and I let it sit there for, like, a year until I got back to him,” Williams recalls. “I had my life in a nice place. I had 17 years sober and a nice balance in my life. I didn’t want to poke the bear. There’s nothing more pathetic than a little old man saying, ‘Please, sir, another cup of fame?’”

Kessler started filming in 2006 and kept shooting until 2010. He got, as Williams puts it, “a lot of shots of me walking through airports.”

But, in examining the Williams of today, he created a portrait that includes the Williams of the 1970s and 80s, when his songwriting earned him millions, as well as winning him a plethora of awards (including an Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe). But the combination of his own insecurity and a blossoming addiction to vodka and cocaine turned Williams into a spotlight-chasing caricature of himself.

“There are parts of this movie that are really tough to watch,” Williams says, pointing to footage Kessler unearthed in a storage unit that belongs to Williams. It shows Williams in the early 1980s, guest-hosting “The Merv Griffin Show,” obviously coked-up, joking about fooling around with women when he’s on tour. He was married with kids at the time.

“I saw that and I thought, ‘No way – I can’t have that out there. I don’t want my daughter to see that.’ But then I decided, no, it’s better when you can see how bad it got. I look at that and realize that I had no sense at that moment of who I’d become. But then I joke that I did 48 ‘Tonight Show’ appearances – and can only remember six of them. I can’t think of anything less attractive – and I didn’t want to make a film about that guy. But Steve made it about who I am today.”

Williams spent the 1970s at the top of the charts, as a songwriter whose work was recorded by major pop acts of the period: Three Dog Night (“Old-Fashioned Love Song”), Helen Reddy (“You and Me Against the World”) and, especially, the Carpenters (“We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “I Won’t Last a Day Without You”). He won a host of awards for co-writing “Evergreen” with Barbra Streisand; “We’ve Only Just Begun,” meanwhile, remains a staple at weddings.

Williams has no illusions about how quickly the pop world moves. At this point, he’s a nostalgia act to the audience that made him famous – or so old he’s hip to a new group of listeners.

“The audience changes,” he says with a shrug.

Indeed, new artists still beat a path to his door, proposing collaborations that Williams happily accepts: “I’ve been writing some songs with Daft Punk,” he says of the French techno-dance duo. “And I’ve been doing some work with Rumer, this British singer-songwriter.”

His catalog of songs still earns him sizable royalties each year: “I never hit a financial bottom because of that,” he says. “Although I kept my ex-wives in a style to which they’d become accustomed. I know Steve thinks he’d have had a better movie if he’d found me living in a trailer somewhere.”

Sober for more than 20 years, Williams believes the addiction-recovery message of the film is its real core.

“I take the gift of recovery as the single greatest gift I was ever given,” he says. “I would have nothing without it. So I’m happy to go out and do this work – even as I’m grumbling about getting on an early airplane.”

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