By Clark Collis
June 22, 2012 at 08:34 PM EDT
Jim McCrary/Redferns/Getty Images

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.”

Paul Williams was born in Omaha, Nebraska. As a child he was worryingly short and given hormone injections. The treatment had the reverse effect of the intended one and further hobbled the growth of the future Oscar-winner whose height would top out at five feet, two inches (on accepting his Oscar for “Evergreen” many years later Williams would joke that he “was going to thank all the little people, but then I remembered I am the little people.”)

Williams started performing at an early age. “He would do talent shows,” says Kessler. “He sang on the radio when he was a young kid, 6 or 7. His dad was an alcoholic and would wake Paul up in the middle of the night and go like, ‘Come on, get out of bed and sing ‘Danny Boy’.’ The guy would be drunk. So Paul started doing this stuff as a way to get approval.”

When Williams was 13, his hard-drinking father died in an alcohol-related car accident. To give his mother one less mouth to feed, an aunt took Williams to live with her in Long Beach, Calif. In the mid-’60s, he snagged small roles in the movies The Loved One and The Chase and then began to make his mark as a songwriter. Over the next few years, Williams penned three hits for the rock band Three Dog Night, including “Old Fashioned Love Song,” while the Carpenters found massive success with “Rainy Days and Mondays” and “We’ve Only Just Begun.”

In Kessler’s documentary, Williams recalls how joining the club of celebrity changed his life as the diminutive, semi-orphaned Nebraskan stopped feeling “different” and started feeling “special.” There’s no doubt he had a long list of A-list acquaintances, starting with silver screen legend Robert Mitchum who for a period was Williams’ next door neighbor. “Mitchum? He loved music,” remembers Williams. “Somewhere there are audio tapes of us writing together. He was great. He was nuts. I mean, I was afraid to let him know that I did cocaine. After about a year of living up close to him I finally said, ‘Would you like a little toot?’ And he was like [adopts Mitchum-esque drawl] ‘Thought you’d never ask!’”

By the early ’70s, everyone wanted a piece of Paul Williams and he was happy to oblige, at times seemingly indifferent to the quality of the projects in question. Between 1974 and 1980 his musical talents were recognized with a remarkable 6 Academy Award nominations, including nods for scoring Phantom of the Paradise, Bugsy Malone, and the Muppet Movie. But he was at least as equally well known to the public at large for his many small screen appearances, from guesting on schlockfest The Love Boat—whose theme song he also wrote—to skydiving on the CBS show Circus of the Stars to his 48 appearances on The Tonight Show.

One member of the public who became utterly enamored with Williams was the young Stephen Kessler. “A lot of 12-year-old boys wished they could be Reggie Jackson or Joe Namath or whatever,” says the director. “But I really wanted to be on the Tonight Show with the band behind me playing and Johnny Carson laughing at my jokes. Really, Paul was everywhere I wished I could be. He was on award shows and he would guest star on the Odd Couple, which was my favorite comedy, and then you’d see him on the Brady Bunch.” Kessler recalls being particularly impressed by Williams’ outre chat show persona. “Before Saturday Night Live, which started in 1975, Paul was really the closest you came to someone on TV saying really edgy things,” says the director. “Of course, I didn’t know that at the time he was saying them he was, like, drunk or stoned. Or both.”

But he was. By 1978, Williams was famous enough that Merv Griffin asked him to guest host his chatfest The Merv Show. The songwriter undertook the assignment in a gruesomely worse-for-wear state and even joshed, or possibly just boasted, that he had lost 40 pounds thanks to “willpower and about $3800 dollars’ worth of amphetamines.” Towards the end of Paul Williams Still Alive director Kessler shows some of the Merv footage on a computer to Williams, who after a while simply walks away in shame. “That’s the hardest thing for me to watch,” says Williams today. “The footage of me on Merv Griffin,  just s—faced. It’s a moment where you capture the most arrogant, grandiose, vapid, little shallow prick.”

Of course, in Hollywood, being a shallow prick, even a vodka-and-cocaine-addled one, is not necessarily a barrier to employment. In the mid-‘80s Williams spent 18 month’s crafting around 50 songs for Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman’s inept cabaret duo to sing in writer-director Elaine May’s comedy Ishtar. The movie cost a then-staggering $55m and recouped a mere $14m at the box office. When EW asks Williams what it felt like when the film became an almost instant byword for cinematic disaster the songwriter replies that he had “other things” on his plate at the time. “The film being a disaster was not a disaster,” he elaborates. “The dealer not being home? That was a disaster.”

Next: “For me, that attention became almost as much of an addiction as the cocaine and vodka.”

Around the time of Ishtar, Williams did succeed in getting seven months of sobriety under his belt. Then he went to Jamaica to work on a never produced musical about Queen Victoria and, while sitting by a pool in the early afternoon, decided to reward himself with a rum and coke. 12 hours later Williams found himself at Bob Marley’s grave explaining reggae to a group of strangers without any idea how he had arrived there. On his return home, Williams began sneaking out of his house’s puppy door at night to score drugs so as not to wake his sleeping girlfriend.

In 1989, Williams got sober again and this time it stuck. He says one of the main reasons he eventually agreed to be the subject of Kessler’s documentary was the platform it would provide for him to talk about substance abuse. “But what emerged I think is an entertaining and funny film,” he says. “That’s the last thing I expected.”

Certainly there is much entertainment to be gleaned from the jousting between Williams and Kessler. During one on camera interview, the former gleefully informs the latter that the songwriter’s recent professional upswing has “really f—ed up” the filmmaker’s alleged desire to present a simple rise-and-fall story. And for a forgotten man, Williams sure is busy. In 2009, he was elected president of the songwriters’ association ASCAP and, when not performing shows, giving speeches about recovery, or playing golf, spends a goodly portion of his life schmoozing politicians in Washington, D.C. “Part of the deal that’s going on is trying to just be really active on both sides of the political aisle, making sure our rights are protected,” he says. “I have a black belt in backslapping: ‘That’s right senator!’”

Williams’ artistic worth has been recognized by a younger generation of directors and musicians. Over the past decade he has played an acerbically demented doctor in Roger Avary’s Brett Easton Ellis adaptation Rules of Attraction, co-penned a track with disco-rock combo the Scissor Sisters, and seen “Rainbow Connection” be reprised in last year’s successful big screen Muppets revamp. In December 2007, Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright even hosted a triple bill of Williams movies at Los Angeles’ New Beverly cinema during which Quentin Tarantino sang a portion of the Ishtar track “Hot Fudge Love.” Williams also tight-lippedly confirms reports that he has discussed a couple of collaborative ideas with Hellboy auteur Guillermo del Toro (“Can’t talk about them”) and has a project in the works with French dance duo Daft Punk (“There’s a press blackout”). Williams and Kessler have also talked about the possibility of reteaming on another venture. “He suggested it to me,” says the director. “He said, ‘We’ve got to work on something new together. I’d really like to do a musical with him. Either a film musical or a stage musical. He comes up with these ideas that are so trippy. Of course, the idea that I could go from being a kid who idolized him, to a guy who follows him around, to his friend, to someone working with him, is very attractive to me in the larger life sense.”

More than three decades on from his fame heyday Williams expresses contentment at his reduced, but diary-filling, position in the cultural firmament. “In the ‘70s and ‘80s I would have been fighting to roll into that whole TMZ mentality,” he says. “For me, that attention became almost as much of an addiction as the cocaine and vodka.” These days? “I don’t want to chase being famous. I’m too old and it costs too much. But I’m still positive and optimistic. The dreamer’s still alive.”

You can check out the trailer for Paul Williams Still Alive below.

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