When I was a child in the 1970’s, you couldn’t watch a television show without seeing Paul Williams. Whether he was guest starring on an episode of ‘The Brady Bunch’ or ‘The Love Boat’, or showing up on The Mike Douglas Show – he was one of the most multi-talented and ubiquitous performers alive. He was even a heart throb. He made Marsha Brady woozy.
He was also a songwriter who crafted some of the most successful songs of the decade: “Rainy Days and Mondays”, “We’ve Only Just Begun”, “Evergreen” and “The Rainbow Connection” from the classic “Muppet Movie” of the early 1980’s.
Mr. Williams faded from view for years, likely resting from the drink and the cocaine binges so prevalent at the time. When the documentary “Still Alive”, written and directed by Stephen Kessler, came onto the scene a few years ago, I was basically giving him up for dead. The film corrected me.
I’ve been watching and re-watching this documentary on Netflix.(As you can see, I’m going though another bought of documentary obsession lately, having mentioned “Good Ol Freda” last week.) “Still Alive” shows Paul Williams in his recovery glory. He’s a man who lives in the moment, living with grace and gratitude for all his good fortune and clarity.
He makes Kessler, his side kick documentarian, look like a nervous Woody Allen. As a Paul Williams fan back in the day, Kessler is constantly self conscious about how Paul perceives him. Things get weird and tense when the camera is pointed at Williams during quiet moments. They initially bond over their love of squid dishes, like Calamari and…well…Calamari. However, their bro-hood is sealed when a stressful trip to the Philippines – fraught with Kessler’s concerns of Al Quada living the jungle – turns into a nice experience. Paul Williams took all warnings in stride, never letting travel advisories get in the way – always thinking positive and never assuming the worst in people.
Paul Williams could care less about adversity. It shows in this documentary. He’s been through the ringer of his inner demons, and he approaches possible challenges like they’re nothing compared to the problems he left behind. Williams always seemed fearless, even in his drug addled days. The fact he has skydived on television, and loved it so much he did it again on his own – speaks volumes. When you view the film, you realize it wasn’t drugs that gave him strength. He has enough of it on his own.
To me, he looks better than ever. At 74 years old, he’s trim, affable, and maintains the sparkle that started to fade in the 80’s when the drink and the drugs began to show on his face and his behavior.
He disappeared. He found sobriety. He helped raise his kids and he kept the musical home fires burning. Behind the scenes, he’s emerged as celebrated businessman, having been a member of the ASCAP Board of Directors, and then officially voted in as President in 2007. He even went on to win a Grammy for his work on Daft Punk’s album “Random Access”. Not too shabby for the shaggy haired jack of all trades.
Paul Williams is a legend, although he may not want to hear it anymore. His big time Hollywood days of appearing on Johnny Carson’s show, or the Hollywood Squares may be over. He may play small venues in Vegas and lay low compared to his days on the big stage. But he’s found an even bigger form of success. Happiness.
I highly recommend “Still Alive”. If you remember Paul Williams, you will find a deep admiration for him. If you are too young to have known him, you’ll know him now.