Paul Williams is probably one of the most important people from my personal pop culture journey, although possibly not for the reasons that you might think. Yes, he wrote some of the most important and beloved songs of the 1970’s, and he did star in Phantom of the Paradise, which I have noted on many occasions as being one of my top three favorite films of all time. No, beyond all of this, Paul Williams also taught me a very hard yet powerful lesson when I was first starting out as an entertainment writer, which not only changed the way I do things, but has helped shaped the quality of the work which is presented here at PCA.
When I was first cutting my teeth as a writer, and had completed my first handful of interviews, a friend arranged an interview with Paul for PCA. However, I had a very different outlook back then, and I was harder, colder, and more cynical than I am today. I felt that being mean-spirited was cutting edge, and instead of celebrating pop culture I was more likely to punch holes in it. On the eve of my interview with Paul Williams, I had presented a very cruel visual gag at PCA aimed at Britney Spears, who – at the time – was having her much-publicized meltdown. Well, deciding to check out what PCA was all about, Paul Williams visited our site and saw what I had done, and immediately cancelled the interview. Through a message relayed to me from the friend who arranged the interview, Paul stated that I was no more than a tabloid writer who would take the easy way out by making cruel jokes about a woman who was obviously hurting and in a very dark place. He told me that I was better off writing with compassion instead of cruelty. This was possibly the first failure and harsh piece of truth that I ever received, and it was a slap back into reality. Paul Williams taught me a very valuable lesson, and for the next seven years I have done everything I can to celebrate the people who create pop culture instead of tearing them down.
Paul Williams can easily emphasize with Britney Spears, as well as all of the celebrities that make the front pages of the tabloids. One of the most important figures of the 1970s, Paul Williams could do it all and was everywhere. His songs included Rainy Days and Mondays, We’ve Only Just Begun, Old Fashioned Love Song, You and Me Against the World, and Rainbow Connection. His films included Phantom of the Paradise, Smokey and the Bandit, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. He wrote the scores for The Boy in the Bubble, Bugsy Malone, and Ishtar. He won an Oscar for writing Evergreen for A Star is Born. He appeared on The Tonight Show twenty-six times. He guest starred on every game show, talk show, variety show, and drama that would have him. He even wrote the theme song for The Love Boat. His short stature, long sandy blond hair and large glasses made him instantly recognizable, making him one of the only major songwriters to come out from behind the piano and go in front of the camera. But behind the quirky character we saw on TV, Paul was living a life fueled by alcoholism and cocaine addiction. By the 1990s Paul had had enough, and stepped back from the public spotlight to focus on his own recovery and get his life back. Sober for twenty years three, Paul has worked as a drug and alcohol counselor, and is a popular speaker, talking about his own recovery and the reality of addiction. Most recently Paul found his way back into the spotlight as the subject in filmmaker Stephen Kessler’s compelling documentary Paul Williams: Still Alive. With his songs still appearing in films and television, Paul Williams is as relevant now as he was in the 70s, but now he is able to enjoy his success in a way he’s never known before.
In my 2012 New Year column I wrote about the lesson that Paul Williams taught me and thought that perhaps it was time to reach out again to him and let him know the difference he made in my life. As a result, Paul agreed to finally sit down and talk with me about his career and his personal journey.