It may now be hard for older readers to recall — or for younger readers to fathom — but in the 1970s singer-songwriter Paul Williams was everywhere. As a tunesmith he penned lyrics about lovers and the dreamers for the beloved Muppets tune “Rainbow Connection” and shared an Oscar win with Barbra Streisand for the A Star Is Born track “Evergreen.” As an actor, he starred in Brian de Palma’s 1974 cult movie Phantom of the Paradise and guested on a slew of prime time TV mainstays including the original Hawaii Five-O and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And as a crooner with a louche wit, he made the set of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show his home away from home. “In the ’70s, it was very hard to turn on the TV for more than a week or so without seeing Paul Williams somewhere,” says Stephen Kessler, the director of a new documentary called Paul Williams Still Alive, which premiered in New York on June 8 and is currently platforming out across the country. “It was crazy how much exposure that guy had.”
In 1973, Williams’ various career strands unforgettably coalesced when he entertained Carson by performing the old standard “Here’s That Rainy Day” in full orangutan makeup to promote his role in the movie Battle for the Planet of the Apes. “This” Williams deadpanned to the Tonight Show host about his simian countenance “is seven months of nothing but banana daiquiris!”
As with many of Williams’ onscreen quips, there was more than a grain of truth in the comment. The songwriter did in fact have a problem with alcohol. “I thought everybody had a glass of vodka in the shower in the morning: ‘Isn’t that how everyone starts their day?’” says Williams, 71, dressed nattily in a suit and tie at a Manhattan hotel. His fondness for both booze and drugs, including cocaine, eventually capsized Williams’ career and, after writing the songs for infamous 1987 box office bomb Ishtar, he almost completely disappeared from the face of the pop culture planet.
A child of the ‘70s, Kessler had idolized the star but, by 2005, he hadn’t heard anything about Williams in so long he assumed the songwriter had passed away. “I would say Paul Williams was well off my radar for at least 20 years,” recalls the filmmaker, who previously directed the Chevy Chase vehicle Vegas Vacation. “I just assumed he was dead, yeah.” Then, one day, he decided to buy a CD by his childhood hero. “Amazon linked me to a Paul Williams website,” says Kessler. “I just expected to see old pictures but there was [a photo of] Paul Williams alive and in his mid-60s. He looked pretty good. But he was signing autographs on a folding table at an Indian casino. I thought to myself, this isn’t right! This guy was the Cole Porter of the ‘70s!”
When Kessler approached Williams about being the subject of a documentary, the fallen star might have been excused for grasping the opportunity to get back in front of the camera with Kardashian-like fervor. Instead, Williams greeted the offer with a more Salinger-esque lack of enthusiasm. “I don’t think there’s anything more pathetic than some little old man going, ‘Please sir, may I have a little more fame?’” says the songwriter. “It felt like it would be rude to just say, ‘Go away.’ But [with] my actions, clearly that was the message. Steve just ignored it. He plowed ahead like a stalker.”
The result of Kessler’s persistence is a documentary which details both the songwriter’s extraordinary life and the blossoming friendship between subject and filmmaker. Williams himself laughingly describes the documentary as “a buddy picture run amok. It’s sort of Smokey and the Bandit meets Celebrity Rehab.”
Williams knows of what he speaks. He is not only a UCLA-certified drug and alcohol counselor but actually appeared in 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit. And 1980’s Smokey and the Bandit II. And 1983’s Smokey and the…Well, you get the picture. Back in the day, Paul Williams really was everywhere.
Next: “Ishtar was not a disaster. The dealer not being home? That was a disaster.”