There's only a decade or so separating those who know Paul Williams (pictured above) and those who don't. A multi-hyphenate actor-musician-songwriter with an Academy Award and several Grammys back home, Williams' star burned brightest in the 1970s, when his songs were picked up by the biggest acts of the day (to say nothing of his television career). The Oscar-winning "Evergreen" was a No. 1 hit for Barbra Streisand, "The Rainbow Connection" defined The Muppet Movie, and The Carpenters turned his singles "We've Only Just Begun" and "Rainy Days and Mondays" into international hits.
Incidentally, it was both rainy and a Monday when we sat down with Williams and Stephen Kessler, director of the new documentary Paul Williams: Still Alive. The film follows Kessler as he attempts to connect with his childhood icon—traveling with him to concerts everywhere from Winnipeg to the Philippines and concluding at the songwriter's home, where Kessler finally gets the one-on-one time he's been anticipating since boyhood. In advance of the film's LA premiere on June 22, we asked Kessler and Williams about fame, addiction, persistence, and their favorite iPhone apps.
DETAILS: Paul, your hit songs have an affect that could be described as vulnerable. Where does that mood come from?
Paul Williams: What I tried to write and what I wrote were distinctly separated by the fact that what I tried to write was not successful, and what I wrote was. When I hear music, I hear words, so I would write down the words that I would hear, and they would be very emotional, kind of undefended, gentle. And the response was amazing and immediate. I wanted to write like David Bowie, but it just didn't happen. And then David Bowie picked up one of my songs ["Fill Your Heart"] and recorded it. It shows the importance of authenticity as a writer—it becomes more valuable than you trying to write like anybody else.
DETAILS: Stephen, how did you become a fan of Paul's, and how did your perception change after meeting him as an adult?
Stephen Kessler: When I was a kid, I'd sneak into my parents' room after they fell asleep with the TV on. Usually they were watching The Tonight Show, and very often Paul Williams was on. He'd come out singing these songs, like "Rainy Days and Mondays," and they really touched me. I was a little fat kid, and I related to this guy singing his heart out, and being funny, and being liked and loved. When I saw him as an adult, at first there was that childhood excitement, but once I started to see who he was now and the stuff he lost—the fame and Ferraris and whatever—I saw he was more content without that, and that was really interesting to me.
DETAILS: In that time, Paul, you struggled with some serious problems with addiction. How were you able to get clean?
Paul Williams: I'd been in rehab for seven months, and I was in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, and at 2 in the afternoon a man walks by with a tray and asks, "Mr. Williams, would you like something to drink? Perhaps a rum and Coke?" And I'm like, I have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, I have an Oscar on my piano and Grammys. I can handle one rum and Coke. And by 2 in the morning, I'm at Bob Marley's grave explaining reggae to a lot of black people I don't know. About two years later I got into rehab and they got the alcohol and the drugs out of my system, got me properly detoxed, and I could then make a sober choice, and I realized I wanted to be a part of that community. I went to UCLA, got my certification as a drug and alcohol counselor, and started working for the musicians assistance program, which puts thousands of musicians in treatment they [otherwise] can't afford.
DETAILS: Stephen, how much convincing did it take before Paul agreed to be the subject of your film?
Stephen Kessler: When I found out he was alive, I said to myself, "This guy is the Cole Porter of the seventies, this is nuts that nobody knows he's around anymore." The way Justin Timberlake and Justin Bieber are now, that's how he was then. So I wrote him a handwritten letter, and never heard back. Wrote, wrote, wrote, and never heard back. Then one day somebody in my office called and said, "Paul Williams will be on the line in 10 minutes." It was unbelievable. We made small talk, and I mentioned a documentary, and he said, "I'm really complimented, but I don't like to indulge my ego that way anymore." Eventually he said I could film him one time, at an event in Winnipeg. And there I saw the way the audience reacted to him, that there were people as freaked out about him as I was, and I was like, "I've got to get him to let me do this." That's how it started.
DETAILS: What's on your iPod these days, Paul?
Paul Williams: My Morning Jacket is very cool. I'm a Bruno Mars fan, I'm a big fan of Jason Mraz—we actually did a duet of the "Rainbow Connection" together. I have a four-track recorder on my iPod, also. I think it was like 14 bucks or something when I bought it. It's what they recorded Sgt. Pepper on. And now I have one on my iPhone.
DETAILS: What's up next for you?
Paul Williams: I'm working with Daft Punk, they're mixing the album now. Happy Days, a musical that I wrote with Gary Marshall, was just optioned for England. They're doing a new production of Bugsy Malone for the West End in London, and there's a musical based on Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas that I hope will make it in the city, if not this Christmas, maybe next year. And Stephen and I want to do something together. We want to find a great project to do.
—Jon Roth (@jonmroth), editorial assistant at Details