In the 1970s and 80s songwriter and actor Paul Williams was a ubiquitous pop culture icon. He appeared frequently on Johnny Carson’s couch, guested on game shows and sitcoms and played memorable roles in movies like Smokey and the Bandit (77) and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (73). Behind the scenes he was one of the premier architects of the sound of the Seventies, having written a slew of insta-classics covered by The Carpenters, Three Dog Night, David Bowie, and others. He gave Kermit the Frog depth with his lyrics for “The Rainbow Connection” and vicariously serenaded a million slow dances with “We’ve Only Just Begun,” originally a jingle he wrote for Crocker National Bank, later covered by The Carpenters and overplayed at American weddings.
The Museum of the Moving Image recently honored Williams for his film work and screened Stephen Kessler’s 2011 documentary Paul Williams: Still Alive along with The Muppet Movie (79), Elaine May’s underrated Ishtar (87) and Brian De Palma’s cult rock opera Phantom of the Paradise (74). Now over 20 years sober with his wit still razor-sharp, Williams is the chairman of ASCAP, is currently working on a stage-musical adaptation of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, and cannot confirm or deny the rock-solid rumor that he has collaborated with masked Frenchmen Daft Punk on their forthcoming album. He’s also co-authoring a book on recovery, and after two decades of quiet productivity, it looks like his second—more serene—turn in the public eye has only just begun.
FILM COMMENT’s Margaret Barton-Fumo spoke with Williams, over a healthy breakfast, during his New York visit.
"Bitter Honey" by The Holy Mackerel
I wanted to ask you about your first band, The Holy Mackerel. I have a copy of the record with me...
Best-kept secrets of Hollywood! The Holy Mackerel, oh my God, let me see it. [Points to photo.] This is my brother [Mentor Williams] with a wig on. He was a marine at the time. There’s Jerry Scheff, who was Elvis’s bass player on the road… You know, they sold nine of these. Now I’ve found you—you must have bought the eighth—but we still don’t know who bought the ninth.
I think it was reissued a few years back?
Yeah, it was interesting, MOJO magazine did a “hidden treasures” thing on it so there was a little burst of interest in it, briefly. But you know, it was never really a group. I had written a song for Tiny Tim called “Fill Your Heart,” and David Bowie eventually recorded it on the Hunky Dory album. Richard Perry had recorded “Fill Your Heart” with Tiny and listened to my demo, my little weird squeaky voice, and he liked it. He wanted to do something with me so I put the group together really for the first recording session, and by the time the record came out, the group was already broken up.
"Someday Man" by Paul Williams
And then soon after that, you recorded Someday Man.
Someday Man, exactly. Thank you. Someday Man felt like Roger [Nichols]’s album instead of mine. I wrote the words and I sang them, but it was his arrangements. I mean, everything that’s good about that album kind of belongs to him. He put it all together. I think the first time I felt like I really made an album as an artist—well, I did on Holy Mackerel—but I think the Old Fashioned Love Song album was like the beginning for me, really feeling a connection to the words, you know?
I read on your Wikipedia page that you wrote for Mort Sahl in the sixties. Is that true?
That’s a bit of a stretch. I was signed on as an improvisational actor and I was there for about four shows I think. That’s how I met Biff Rose [a comedian and early songwriting partner]. The one skit I remember, it’s the last days of the war in Vietnam and Jonathan [Winters] has drafted a Boy Scout troop as a unit to send to Vietnam and I played one of the Boy Scouts. Biff Rose played a Chicken Delight delivery guy who delivers the chicken to the White House, who was also drafted on the spot. We improvised all of that, so we were like improvisational actors slash writers. I never wrote anything that Mort said.
The Loved One
The Loved One  must have been a great experience for a first film.
You walk on the set, to see a film crew of that size, and all of the sudden there’s Rod Steiger, there’s Sir John Gielgud. It was just incredible.
And it had a Terry Southern script?
Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood, an interesting combination to say the least. It was advertised as “the motion picture with something to offend everyone”. It was odd because I was 22 or 23, playing a 13-year-old. I looked like a kid, but not really. Where are you from, by the way?
I’m from Philadelphia.
Philadelphia… If I can remember, there was a great fish restaurant there. I remember going there and meeting a big underworld boss—Gambino, I met Gambino at this restaurant, I can’t remember what it was called… Anyway, I recorded a bunch of stuff for Bugsy Malone  at Sigma Sound.
Philadelphia’s got a great music history.
Yeah, I actually fell off the stage there, at... what was the name of it? I fell off the stage maybe three times in my life, and Philly was one of them. Fourteen feet in Toronto was my record drop, into the orchestra pit. That was my highest free fall.
You went on quite a tear for a few decades. Stephen Kessler’s documentary is called Paul Williams: Still Alive, but I think it’s a bigger shock that you were still alive back in the Eighties.
Yeah, Still Alive in the Eighties would have been… well, you saw that Merv Griffin clip in the documentary [in which a clearly intoxicated Williams rambles on with abandon]. By the Eighties my alcoholism had progressed into a disease, and one of the indications of that was my isolation. I went from being on Johnny Carson’s couch 48 times to peeking out of the venetian blinds at four in the morning looking for the tree police that I was certain were coming to get me. I was hiding out with a two-gram bottle of cocaine grasped in my hand even as I slept. I’d wake up with the bottle in my hand and drink a vodka in the shower in the morning. On March 15th I’ll be 23 years sober and I’m still an addict. Now I know that I’ve found that feeling that I was chasing after back then. This is a no-pressure moment for me. It feels pretty good.
Your interactions with Stephen Kessler really make the documentary. Usually when a filmmaker turns the camera around, he’s hoping to expose both himself and his subject as they embark on this transformative journey together. That wasn’t quite the case in Still Alive. Kessler seems to have hit a few more brick walls than expected while you stayed on an even keel.
Oh, you’re absolutely right. I give him credit for including all those moments in the film where he really looks foolish. I think we were very lucky to have the camera rolling during certain key moments, like when we were in San Francisco and I told Steve, you know what, I can’t do this. I said to him, look, I can play to the camera as an entertainer or I can ignore it as an actor, but there’s this kind of bullshit place he wanted to go to where I just pretend the camera isn’t there. It felt inauthentic, and thank God he had the camera running to capture that.
And yeah, I think he would have been thrilled to find me behind a trailer in a junkyard doing five shows a night at some dump singing “Rainbow Connection” through a sock puppet, but instead he found me loving my life.
"Still Alive" by Paul Williams
The song that you wrote for the film is really nice. It has the feel of your older songs, but it doesn’t sound outdated at all.
Thank you! You want some cottage cheese? I’m so pleased I want to share my cottage cheese with you.
I think it’s an odd situation to write about your own life like that. It’s one thing to write about the life around you but to look inward… You know, it’s like you’re a dentist, when a dentist works he’s often using a mirror, looking at a reflection of what he’s actually working on. It was like looking at a two-dimensional reflection of my life. I think that when I write now I’m not really an active participant in the process. I’m not standing on the hose as much as I did in the early days.
All of the guys who were handicapping the Oscars were saying that it would get nominated for Best Song and so I kind of got caught up in that a little bit. The slot that I thought I would get, Seth MacFarlane got for the song he wrote for Ted. You can’t get upset about it. The minute they announced the nominations and it wasn’t there, I took this deep breath and suddenly I felt like I was myself again. Without even being aware of it, that little ego hunger was still there. Beyond what I really felt, beyond what I was consciously aware of, and as soon as it was gone, I felt this great reconnect with my life.
That song felt like the most important I’d ever written and may be one of my favorites now. Writing it was almost a defensive moment for me. Stephen told me he wanted to call the film Paul Williams Still Alive and I was like, aw, don’t call it that! But then it occurred to me that the title could mean that I’m alive in ways I hadn’t been before, and I could address that in my song. My favorite part is the bridge: “Someone asked me once where do we go when we arrive? If you’re lucky when it’s over, the dreamer’s still alive. A blessed mystery for sweeter souls did not survive…” Count from Janis Joplin through to Whitney [Houston], there’s so many artists who died of addiction.
You’ve said before that you distanced yourself from your material when you were using, that you were writing songs with the audience’s reaction in mind. In spite of this clinical approach, your listeners were experiencing a profound emotional connection with your lyrics.
I think we connect with our art in an internal place no matter what’s going on around you. I think I got to a place where I was intellectualizing the process of trying to write great material, and ended up writing great songs that I assumed nobody would relate to. But when I let go of that and stopped trying to create something while thinking about the response, I just wrote about what was going on, or I just wrote, you know? The power of the unconscious is so immense that if you just sit down and start scribbling, the result is fascinating. I think that one of the big discoveries in sobriety for me was the great power of the unconscious mind. It was a great lesson for me not only in writing but I think in life to just trust the situation. Trust the information. The ability is there and I think we can all do that. I think that so many of us are told what we can’t do right from the beginning and we believe it. Then we shut that part of us down.
It looks as though you used your background in acting to write your soundtrack lyrics, which really flesh out different characters.
You hit on it: my pure love of film and acting. I took the total approach to writing, especially for Chuck and Lyle, these two mismatched characters in Ishtar. Anyone can write bad songs, but [Chuck and Lyle] write songs that have just a gem of wisdom and then they screw it up. One of my favorite lines is “Telling the truth can be such dangerous business / honest and popular don’t go hand in hand.” I mean, they get off to such a great start and then “if you admit that you can play the accordion no one will hire you in a rock 'n' roll band”—and they just drift off into their own place. Though of course these days an accordion in a rock 'n' roll band is very appropriate, almost common.
"Dangerous Business" from Ishtar
According to the press release for the Museum of the Moving Image series, you filmed part of Ishtar in a studio across the street from the museum.
Did we? I think we worked on Ishtar 18 months in all. Unfortunately (or fortunately) it was at the very end of my drinking and using. It was my last big blowout of insanity and we were in Morocco and I was, like, loaded. There’s a scene in the film where Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman are dying in the desert and to keep from going insane they write songs, so I went out and spent two nights in the desert alone just to experience it. I came back crying from the beauty and the intensity of it and banged on Dustin’s dressing room crying “You should see it” and he was like “Okaaay.”
I read that the film left you physically scarred.
I fell over backwards into a fountain full of live sea turtles. A whole bunch of us from Columbia Pictures went out to this club in Casablanca where they had belly dancers, you know the ones with the halter tops? Someone handed me a wad of Moroccan money and told me that the way to tip the band there was to put it in the dancer’s halter top. So I was wearing cowboy boots and I walked over to put money in the girl’s halter top, very embarrassed by the whole process—even in my state of addiction I was capable of feeling totally embarrassed—and I’m trying to get this wad of money into the halter top of the dancing girl and at one point I kind of took a bow and started walking backwards in supplication. There was a fountain with a statue of Neptune holding a trident in the center of a pool of sea turtles and I fell over backwards into it. I hit my head on the trident and it left this huge X-shaped explosion on the back of my head. I was unconscious by the time I hit the water, but I’ve been told that the turtles were nibbling on me. So yeah, I’ve got a scar somewhere back there that’s a reminder of the film—a memento of Ishtar!
It’s a shame that it’s so hard to find a copy of the film.
Quentin Tarantino owns a print of it. Quentin loves it, and I think Edgar Wright as well? No, Edgar’s a Phantom fan. It’s great to find some of these young directors who relate to things that the general public passed on. As Elaine says, if everyone who hated Ishtar had actually seen it, she’d be worth a fortune!
Phantom of the Paradise
Do you have any anecdotes that you’d like to share about William Finley [lead actor in Phantom of the Paradise]? He passed away last year.
It was amazing how [in Phantom] he could act so intensely through one constantly open eye. I didn’t know William before working with him on Phantom. I’d known him from Sisters and I thought he was amazing. I was just stunned by the complete innocence and anguish in his acting. I never found him frightening in the film but I was completely overwhelmed by the sadness in his performance. I mean the scene on the roof where he’s watching Jessica [Harper]’s character and I make love is just heartbreaking. It’s terrible that he died so young.
It looks like you had a lot of fun acting in that film.
It was great fun. And Brian gave me one of the greatest entrances ever written: the girls writhing in bed and my reflection in the mirror...
First we see your gloved hands clapping in a balcony.
Which I think is an homage to Orson Welles.
Have you kept in touch with Brian De Palma?
I have. We’ve spoken, and someday we’ll manage to do Phantom on the stage. We’ve spoken about it over the years, and we almost did it in '89 or something, and now we’re back to discussing it again.
That could be cool.
Yes, especially a high-tech version of it, edgy and scary. I think in my lifetime I’ll see it happen, but I don’t know if it’ll be five years from now or 20 years from now. You know, I’m 72 so you might pause when I say “in my lifetime,” but I really feel like a tired 37.