Clean and Sober , But Still 5’2″, Paul Williams Has New Stature

I had only just met Paul Williams-the singer, Oscar-winning songwriter and actor who achieved a wild, campy fame in the 1970′s-and already

I was lying to him. We were backstage at Feinstein’s at the Regency Hotel, where Mr. Williams is

performing until Nov.24. A waiter came by with champagne, and Mr. Williams in

recovery himself after lost years of drug and alcohol abuse-indicated that I

should help myself.

No, thanks, I said. I was planning an early night, I said, lying,

to get ready for my interview with him the following afternoon. But if I had

told Mr. Williams the truth-that several hours later, at 5:45 a.m., I’d be in a

bar drinking whiskey, smoking pot through a carved-out apple and having a

serious conversation about Dire Straits-I’m not sure he would have agreed to

see me.

But lying to a man in recovery doesn’t get you very far, and

recovery is a big part of Mr. Williams’ life. Onstage that night, the 61-year-old,

5-foot-2 entertainer-whose songs have been recorded by Bing Crosby, Frank

Sinatra, Diana Ross, Elvis Presley, John Denver, David Bowie, Ella Fitzgerald,

Gladys Knight, Ray Charles and Art Garfunkel-got laughs with references to his

under-the-influence past.

“I’m relatively relaxed,” Mr. Williams told the middle-aged crowd

at one point during the show, which included his hits like “The Rainbow

Connection” from The Muppet Movie and

“What Would They Say?” from The Boy in

the Plastic Bubble .

“You know, I thought about it. I go, ‘What’s to worry about? The Times

isn’t going to ruin your career. You did that yourself years ago.’”

The next day, at 2 p.m., Mr. Williams was in his hotel room at

the Regency. He wore a dark sweater, black pants and black tennis shoes. He had

a goatee and thick spiky hair. “I’m always controversial, and I love to talk

about recovery and all that,” he said, before offering me a Diet Coke or

coffee. He said he was worried about getting “porky” from room service.

“When I got sober, I weighed 187,” he said. “I weigh 137 now.

When I’d run out of cocaine, I’d eat everything. I was a serious cocaine

addict, and then all the empty calories in vodka.”

How bad did things get? Bad enough that he wrote the songs for The Muppet Christmas Carol while on

drugs.

“I used to fall off stages,”

he said. “I raced cars. At the Long Beach Grand Prix, I used to have a tube of

cocaine on the straightaway while I was racing. Nuts. I made a hundred jumps; I

was a sky diver. I loved the adrenaline. We would have a hit in the DC-4 before

we’d jump, and 80 seconds of free fall felt like a summer vacation …. “

Mr. Williams was born in 1940

in Omaha, Neb., and had a “crappy” childhood. He was given hormone injections,

which backfired and stunted his growth. When he was 13, his father, an

architectural engineer, was killed in an alcohol-related car wreck. He was

shipped off to live with an aunt and uncle in Long Beach, Calif. By ninth

grade, he’d attended nine schools. He was always the new kid. “And I was crazy,”

he said. “I’d whack somebody big right away in a public place, where they’d

stop the fight right away.” After high school, he worked for an insurance

company, as a jockey and as a stunt parachutist in a touring company.

Mr. Williams’ first movie role

was as a 10-year-old in The Loved One ,

with Jonathan Winters and John Gielgud. He was 24. While on the set of The Chase , with Marlon Brando and Robert Redford, he started writing songs,

one of which was featured in the film. He auditioned, unsuccessfully, to become

one of the Monkees, but soon he was writing hits for the Carpenters (“We’ve

Only Just Begun”, “Rainy Days and Mondays”) and Three Dog Night (“An

Old-Fashioned Love Song”).

The 70′s were a magical time. He acted in Battle for the Planet of the Apes and appeared on The Tonight Show in his ape makeup and

sang a love ballad. He played Little Enos in the Smokey and the Bandit movies. He wrote the Love Boat theme. He was nominated for six Academy Awards and won

one in 1977 for “Evergreen,” which Barbra Streisand sang in A Star Is Born.

He hit a wall in the 1980′s, when the vodka and cocaine got out

of hand. He did manage to write some intentionally bad-and brilliantly so-songs

for Ishtar, the Warren Beatty–Dustin

Hoffman bomb.  Lyrics such as: “She said come look, / There’s a wardrobe of

love in my eyes /  Take your time, look

around, / Try to find something your size.”

While Ishtar was being

filmed in Morocco, Mr. Williams fell over in a nightclub, hit his head and

nearly died.

“I’d wake up in the morning, and I’d find a suicide note written

and a gun out,” he said. “And I would have no memory of the night before.”

Mr. Williams also used to party with Robert Mitchum, against the

wishes of his wife, Dorothy.

“He was about a half-mile away, and I would call and it would be

like”-Mr. Williams’ voice deepened- “‘Doughboy, what’s up?’

“And I’d go, ‘Stephen Stills is here, and he wants to meet you.’

“He’d go, ‘Stephen Stills, that would be, uh …. ‘

“And I’d say, ‘From Crosby, Stills and Nash!’

“He’d go, ‘Anything, uh, going on over there?’

“I’d go, ‘Yes, indeed.’

“He’d say, ‘I’ll see if I can cruise by.’ And he’d come.”

On Sept. 22, 1989, Mr.

Williams stopped drinking and drugging and sought help. “When I got sober 11

years ago, I thought I was done,” he said. In the early 90′s, he was nominated

for a Grammy and played Andy Warhol’s press agent in Oliver Stone’s The Doors , but his passion was gone.

“Everybody would come up to me on the street and say, ‘Are you writing? Are you

writing?’ And it became a burden. I just went, ‘No, I don’t do that anymore.’”

His career is doing much better these days. He’s writing the

title song for the film of Tom Clancy’s The

Sum of All Fears , starring Ben Affleck, and earlier this year he was

inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, along with Eric Clapton and Willie

Nelson. He’s got a part in the upcoming Rules

of Attraction, based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel. He had a three-month

role as a villain on The Bold and the

Beautiful.

“Music has happened for me again,” Mr. Williams said.

He lives right above the Sunset Strip in a big house that once

belonged to Peter Lorre, who died in the den. He plays bad golf, reads

mysteries and hangs out with Richard Dreyfuss.

His second wife, Hildy, showed

up at the Regency. She’s the daughter of character actor Keenan Wynn, who

appeared in Dr. Strangelove. Mr.

Williams met her in recovery. They’ve been married 10 years.

That was about when I confessed that I’d stayed out till dawn the

night before.

“Oh, yes?” Mr. Williams said. “Do you have a problem with it,

George?”

“Let’s end it with that,” I said.

“Can I help you?”

“That’s a great ending.”

We stood up. “So if you decide you have a problem, call me,” he

said, handing me his card. “So you think you have a problem, George?”

“Well, I think I need to slow

down, definitely.”

“I’m here until the 24th-do you want to go to a meeting?”

“Uh, can I have two more years?”

“You can have two more years. You probably have the rest of your

life.”

HARD SCRABBLE

If the Northern Alliance is going to have any hope of whupping

the Taliban, they’re going to need better soldiers, better weapons, better

strategies and a better name. “Northern Alliance” is like the name of a

Canadian semipro hockey league or a splinter group in Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace.

So we put the task of retitling the Northern Alliance to a pair

of professional naming experts, plus one guest amateur. Here are the results:

From Mitchell Erick, a naming expert at Alianda Inc., an advertising

agency:

Freedom Brigade

Pashtun Peacekeepers

Mighty Mujahideen

Rebel Commanders

The 51st State

The Very Good Friends of the United States

LBAT (Less Barbaric Alternative to the Taliban)

Village Vanguard

Honor Guards

People Protectors

The Afghan Hounds

From Jean Lawrence, a

self-employed naming consultant based in Arizona:

Triumphant Sword

All-Afghan Freedom Party

Tribal Power

Battle Alliance

Chieftain Alliance

War & Peace Alliance

Tribal Front

United Tribal Front

From Molly Singer, my

12-year-old cousin:

The League of Their Own

The Rebellious Something or Other

The Rebellious Fighting Squad

The Anti-Tali

The Good Guys

A Thousand Dozen Good Eggs.

-Ian Blecher