Paul Williams: From The Center Of His Chest

On Saturday, September 8th, legendary singer, songwriter and actor Paul Williams will take to the main stage of the Long Beach Playhouse to present an intimate evening of music and conversation in support of the Playhouse. He has spent the last 40 years writing what he jokingly refers to as “co-dependent anthems,” including 'We've Only Just Begun,' 'Evergreen,' and 'The Rainbow Connection.' His career, which includes acting roles in Smokey and the Bandit, The Love Boat, Hawaii Five-O, and Baretta, began shortly after graduating from Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach.

“When I was thirteen years old I was living in the Midwest, and my father was killed in a car wreck,” Williams recalls. “I was shipped off to live with an aunt and uncle, who lived in Belmont Heights. So, from the ninth grade, I grew up in Long Beach, where everybody’s six feet tall, it seems like. Everybody has an amazing tan. What color I had I got from the light in my refrigerator.

“I had a really slow body-clock. I was really tiny. I was four-foot six when I graduated from high school. I grew eight inches after that. So my junior high and high school years were really difficult. I looked like I was in the fourth grade. I probably looked like I looked in The Loved One. So, up until my early twenties, I looked like a little boy.

“Height could've been an absolutely wrenching experience for me,” Williams admits. “I think the reason it was not is because there was a man named Jack McBade. Jack McBade was the drama teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School. He talked me into stepping onto the stage for a Christmas special, and then for a couple plays. I think On Borrowed Time was one of them. I just felt something click. Something lit up inside me that this is a world that I want to be a part of.

“My uncle refused to allow me to continue doing plays at school. He said, 'That’s out.' He was highly prejudiced and he just thought, 'That’s part of a world I don’t want you in any part of. There are a lot of sick people in that world. You need to stay out of it.' Well, he was the sick person and, as soon as I got out of high school, it was a couple years of working with my mom, trying to put my little brother through school until I came back and pursued the love of theater and music, and all that. But the shaping of that love, I think, was planted at Woodrow Wilson High School. I graduated in 1958, and ran like a rabbit to get out of town.”

Williams returned to pursue an acting career a few years later, first with The Off-Broadway Theatre, and then with Studio 58 in Long Beach. During this time he performed in a couple of films, perhaps most notably The Loved One. The lip-biting black comedy, directed by Oscar winner Tony Richardson, sported an all-star cast with Robert Morse [How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying] in the lead role of Dennis Barlow. There are cameos galore, as well. Williams played a small part, but was very memorable in it.

“That was my first film,” he recalls. “I remember walking on the set, seeing the camera and the lights, and all of a sudden you look over and there’s Sir John Gielgud, there’s Jonathan Winters, there’s Rod Steiger—iconic talent. All of a sudden, I’m the little kid from Long Beach living his dreams, you know? I’m on this great set. And it was the beginning of a really beautiful friendship, through the years, with Jonathan Winters, who I followed around like a puppy, an absolute puppy. I thought he was one of the most brilliant comedy minds ever, and a really good actor, in the midst of all that. It was an amazing first acting job for me, and it’s something that I’ll always remember.”

Still, Williams' acting career was slow to find traction. His first notable success was in a play called, Under The Sycamore Tree. His performance garnered good reviews, and led to him getting an agent in L.A..

“I have a wonderful feeling about the beginnings of my craft, as an actor, which I think is a huge element in my craft as a songwriter,” Williams muses. “When my career as an actor dried up, I started writing songs for my own amusement, as my own kind of therapy. I try to write like people talk, not clever or highly intellectual, but saying, from the center of my chest, what people feel. I think a lot of that goes back to what attracted me to acting.”

Without much work as an actor, he started writing and recording. In 1971 he released Just an Old Fashioned Love Song, an album of original material that hinted at his genius. It included songs like "We've Only Just Begun," later made popular by The Carpenters, and the title track, which earned Three Dog Night a top ten hit.

“What I've discovered in my life is that my songwriting was a gift. If I don’t get something I really want, I usually wind up getting something that I really need, and that’s been the case with my songwriting career.

His two passions collided in 1974 when an up-and-coming young director, Brian De Palma, approached him with the idea of collaborating on a modern musical send-up of Faust.

“At the time,” Williams recalls, “I was having amazing success as a songwriter, and with very different kinds of music. I had three hits with Three Dog Night. I wrote 'Out in the Country,' 'Old Fashioned Love Song,' and 'Family Man' for them. I had a really strong run with The Carpenters with 'Only Just Begun,' 'Rainy Days and Mondays,' 'I Won’t Last a Day Without You,' 'Let Me Be the One,' and stuff like that.

“So, all of a sudden, Brian De Palma came to me about writing the music for something that was a chance to A) satirize the kind of music that I love but wasn't really known for, and B) a chance to create what he called the music of the spheres. It is what now we would call Glam Rock, but it didn’t really exist at the time. So, it was a real challenge for me, as a songwriter, to write a Beach Boys number that was a variation on a stolen piece of music from a character in the film, Winslow Leach.”

In the film, Winslow writes a cantata, a song cycle of great subtlety, passion, and skill. He imagines it to be a great work, deserving of critical acclaim by serious music enthusiasts. He hates nostalgia bands like The Juicy Fruits and The Beach Bums.

“When Winslow's music is stolen,” Williams continues, “it is turned into [singing] 'My baby sat so close to me.' That’s supposed to be what life is all about. [I had to] write a song that sounded like a Beach Boys song, and make a record that sounded like a Beach Boys record. And it was a real challenge to do that.

“Somewhere in the process, Brian looked at me and he went, 'You know, you could play the phantom. I went, 'No, I couldn't.' He said, 'Yes, you could; this sort of menacing little guy in the rafters.' I said, 'No, Brian. The phantom should be big and scary.' Also, there was no way in the world that I had the capability of presenting the kind of emotional impact of the character that William Finley played, with one eye, behind that mask. William Finley managed to show such immense sadness as he watches me make love to his girlfriend, alright? I just don’t think I ever felt I was that good of an actor.

“When I said no to playing the Phantom, Brian immediately said 'Swan!,'” Williams says. “He's this kind of Phil Spector-ish sort of stoic, diabolical little character, and I fell in love with playing the part. I thought, 'This I can do.' He has to be charming, he has to be likable, and he has to be just devious. It was a role of a lifetime, and I had a ball.

“It was a rare experience of being totally immersed in the creative process. It’s something I've enjoyed two or three times in my career. I would say that The Muppet Movie with Jim Henson was a similar experience. Very different in the emotional environment, because nothing can ever compare with working with Jim Henson.”

When it was released, Phantom of the Paradise received luke warm reviews in the United States, but has maintained cult status around the world. According to Williams, the film was hugely successful in Paris, France and Winnipeg, Canada, but has no idea why.

“It literally ran for years and years and years at one theater in Paris and the same in Winnipeg. And, to this day, my most avid, rabid fans are A) Phantom of the Paradise, and B) the [Planet of the] Apes movies, because I wound up doing Virgil for Planet of the Apes. Also, for years I was the voice of The Penguin in the Batman animated series. Those fans, the animation fans, are just…crazed. They want anything they can find with Batman on it, or The Penguin, for me to sign.”

The 70s were Williams' salad days, with 48 appearances on the Tonight Show, success on a huge scale from his music career, and a growing appreciation of his acting abilities. Still, like so many people, he discovered that he had an addictive personality.

“I was a social drinker,” he recalls. “I don’t know when I crossed the line from use to abuse to addiction, but I did. I think I had an addiction to the camera, too. If you point a camera at a couch, I would show up on that couch. I loved the attention. But my addiction to cocaine and alcohol outran my addiction to the attention I was getting.

“One of the symptoms of alcoholism is that we have a tendency to hide out. We retreat. I had five acres in Montecito, an amazing home, a wife and kids. My wife [their mother] and the nanny are out by the pool and down by the tennis courts, enjoying these five acres, and I’m hiding out in my bedroom or in the bathroom. Eventually, I wound up back in Los Angeles by myself, peeking out the window, looking for the police. I knew they were out there. The isolation was an element of the disease.

“Finally, in 1989, I had my last drink and found an amazing, amazing world waiting for me. For the first time in my life, instead of looking like somebody that was fine and knew everything was fine, and [told people] ‘Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine,’ I hit my knees and said, 'I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m scared to death. I’m dying and I need help.' And there was help available for me. It’s part of a family that I've stayed a part of for twenty-two years, and I couldn't imagine, when I got sober, the life that I have today. I couldn't be more grateful.”

About a year into recovery, Williams met Buddy Arnold, a saxophone player, recovering alcoholic and the self-described world's oldest Jewish junkie, who was the program director at Brotman Hospital. With Arnold's encouragement, Williams went to UCLA for a year and received a certificate to become a drug and alcohol counselor and, at the same time, volunteered at Brotman.

“I would get up in the morning and start my day by spending a few hours at the hospital. I would walk into a hospital room and say, 'Hi, my name is Paul and I’m an alcoholic, and I’m your counselor.' And I would kind of light up with this sort of Ghandi-esque, Ghandi-meets-Jiminy Cricket, take-my-hand-and-I-will-make-you-sober attitude. And the guy would be like, 'No, you’re not. You’re Little Enos from Smokey and the Bandit.' But it was a great beginning to my sobriety.

“I traded my services for a bed at Brotman,” Williams explained, “and we put musicians in that bed. We started an organization called The Musician’s Assistance Program. Buddy died a few years ago but, at this point, thousands upon thousands of musicians have been able to get treatment and sobriety assistance on the road. It’s just an amazing program. I’ve kept recovery on the front burner for the last twenty-two years. I try to never say no, and speak on recovery at a public level whenever I’m asked. It’s the greatest gift that I’ve ever been given, and the way you get to keep it is by giving it away.”

Not surprisingly, Williams has earned a steady income from royalties generated by his many hit songs. This has led to him joining the board of directors for the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers [ASCAP] in 2001 and, in 2009, he was elected President and Chairman of the Board. ASCAP licenses music for use on radio, television, the internet, and in restaurants, and collects fees for those licenses.

“Because of my relationship with ASCAP, as a songwriter, I was able to put gas in my car and food on the kids’ plates,” Williams says. “I was able to raise a family because of the performing rights royalties that I received from them. ASCAP has 450,000 members and, when you see episodes of Cribs on MTV, you’d think that all songwriters are rich and famous. The fact is that most songwriters are small businessmen. Therefore, I’m a perfect president for ASCAP. I’m a small businessman, and it’s a great honor for me to represent them.

“While you and I are talking right now, somewhere there’s probably a young lady writing a song on an electric piano with headphones on so she doesn't wake the baby in the next room, and she’s going to get up in the morning to go to work. So, for this lady who wants to put what’s in the center of her chest, for all this music that she wants to share with the world, that’s the person I need to pledge to on a daily basis. I want to make sure I've done everything I can to make sure she can keep writing, and afford to make a living as a songwriter. Someday, somebody’s maybe going to get married to the song she's working on today.”

Williams connected with the Playhouse through his wife, Mariana, who has produced Long Beach Searches for the Greatest Storyteller there.

“Mariana is an interesting woman,” Williams says. “She was a piano player and did a single, playing piano and singing for years and years and years. Then she started booking comedy. She booked around L.A. for many years and, eventually, wound up at the Normandie Casino as Entertainment Director, where she booked me. I like to joke that she booked me for life, because I met her, we started working together, fell in love, and we've been together now for ten years.

“She’s fascinated with the whole storytelling process, and the humor and the emotion around people with true life stories. She feels that everybody has one great story in them, so it’s her joy to offer a platform for people to tell their stories. The Long Beach Playhouse was really a great place for her to do that. That was the beginning of my relationship with the Long Beach Playhouse.”

Williams is donating his time and talent to the Playhouse to help shore up its fiscal health, but he's not averse to collecting what he calls “heart payments.”

“A heart payment, for a songwriter, is when somebody comes up to you and says, 'I want to thank you. When my wife and I got married, our song was 'We’ve Only Just Begun,' which I wrote with Roger Nichols, or, 'We were married to 'Evergreen,' which I wrote with Barbara Streisand. Or somebody will say, 'My mom was a single mom, and ‘You And Me Against the World’ was a really important song for us ,' or My little boy is learning to play ‘The Rainbow Connection’ from the Muppet Movie on the piano.' That’s heart payment for a songwriter. When I perform, the lovely thing is, I bring the songs and it seems my audience brings the memories. So it’s an evening of songs, a lot of the hits, and some new material, as well. It’ll be a great evening.”

Tickets for Paul's performance area available through the Long Beach Playhouse box office, at 562-494-1014, or online at LBPlayhouse.org

Many thanks go to Lee Adams for her expert transcription services.



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