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Paul Williams: After addiction, a star is reborn

From co-writing ”Rainbow Connection” to joking with Johnny Carson, Paul Williams was a ’70s pop culture phenomenon. The documentary ”Paul Williams Still Alive” tracks his rise, drug-fueled fall, and ultimate recovery

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In the 1970s Paul Williams was everywhere. As a songwriter he penned lyrics about lovers and dreamers for the Muppets tune ”Rainbow Connection” and won an Oscar with Barbra Streisand for the Star Is Born number ”Evergreen.” As an actor he appeared in Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise and on a slew of prime-time TV shows. And as a louche wit he practically made The Tonight Show his second home. The star’s omnipresence is cataloged in director Stephen Kessler’s new documentary Paul Williams Still Alive, which premiered in New York on June 8 and rolls out across the country throughout the month. The film also details Williams’ flameout in the ’80s, when he spent 18 months writing songs for the infamous box office bomb Ishtar — although, as the star himself admits, his real problem was substance abuse. ”Ishtar wasn’t a disaster,” says Williams, 71, today. ”The dealer not being home? That was a disaster.”

Growing up in the ’70s, Kessler idolized Williams. ”Paul was the closest you came to someone on TV saying really edgy things,” recalls the filmmaker, who directed the 1997 comedy sequel Vegas Vacation. ”I didn’t know [”if”] he was drunk, or stoned, or both.” By 2005 Williams’ public profile had sunk so low Kessler assumed he was dead — until he checked out a Williams fan website and saw a photo of his idol alive and well. However, when Kessler approached Williams about being the subject of a documentary, the songwriter was less than Kardashian-keen. ”There’s nothing more pathetic than some little old man going, ‘Please, sir, may I have a little more fame?”’ says the star.

Williams, who got sober in 1989, eventually agreed to participate because of the platform it would give him to discuss recovery. The result is a film that examines both Williams’ career and the at-times fraught relationship between subject and documentarian. ”It’s sort of Smokey and the Bandit meets Celebrity Rehab,” says Williams. He knows of what he speaks: Now a UCLA-certified drug rehabilitation counselor, he has an acting résumé that includes appearances in all three Smokey and the Bandit movies.

For a forgotten man, Williams sure is a busy one. In 2009 he was elected president of the songwriters’ association ASCAP and tight-lippedly confirms reports that he has discussed possible collaborations with Hellboy auteur Guillermo del Toro (”Can’t talk about them”) and has a project in the works with music duo Daft Punk (”There’s a press blackout”). Decades after his fame peaked, Williams expresses contentment at his present position in the pop culture firmament. ”I don’t want to chase being famous,” he says. ”But the dreamer’s still alive.”