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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“Oh, yes?” Mr. Williams said. “Do you have a problem with it,
“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
“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
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
The 51st State
The Very Good Friends of the United States
LBAT (Less Barbaric Alternative to the Taliban)
The Afghan Hounds
From Jean Lawrence, a
self-employed naming consultant based in Arizona:
All-Afghan Freedom Party
War & Peace Alliance
United Tribal Front
From Molly Singer, my
The League of Their Own
The Rebellious Something or Other
The Rebellious Fighting Squad
The Good Guys
A Thousand Dozen Good Eggs.