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A prolific and ubiquitous presence in music, film and on television in the 1970s, Paul Williams was an Oscar-winning songwriter whose gift for gentle pop-rock songs like the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" led to a prolific career as both an artist in his own right as well as a composer for film and television. He also enjoyed a second, more modest career as an actor, spawned in part from his self-effacing appearances on talk shows where he spoofed his diminutive stature and unlikely sexy symbol status. By the mid-1970s, he had scored major hits with "Evergreen" from "A Star in Born" (1976) and "The Rainbow Connection" from "The Muppet Movie" (1979), but alcohol and drug issues, as well as changing tastes among music audiences, upended his career. Williams spent much of the 1980s as an actor while gaining his sobriety; he resurfaced in the 1990s with a generation of listeners, including many musicians testifying to the brilliance of his early work. Williams' renaissance led to new songwriting and film work, as well as a humorous tribute with the documentary "Paul Williams Still Alive" (2011), in which he and the film's director attempted to come to terms with his turbulent past. Throughout it...
A prolific and ubiquitous presence in music, film and on television in the 1970s, Paul Williams was an Oscar-winning songwriter whose gift for gentle pop-rock songs like the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" led to a prolific career as both an artist in his own right as well as a composer for film and television. He also enjoyed a second, more modest career as an actor, spawned in part from his self-effacing appearances on talk shows where he spoofed his diminutive stature and unlikely sexy symbol status. By the mid-1970s, he had scored major hits with "Evergreen" from "A Star in Born" (1976) and "The Rainbow Connection" from "The Muppet Movie" (1979), but alcohol and drug issues, as well as changing tastes among music audiences, upended his career. Williams spent much of the 1980s as an actor while gaining his sobriety; he resurfaced in the 1990s with a generation of listeners, including many musicians testifying to the brilliance of his early work. Williams' renaissance led to new songwriting and film work, as well as a humorous tribute with the documentary "Paul Williams Still Alive" (2011), in which he and the film's director attempted to come to terms with his turbulent past. Throughout it all, Williams' best work from the 1970s and beyond remained a high-water mark in pop music, preserving his status as one of its most talented practitioners.
Born Paul Hamilton Williams, Jr., in Omaha, NE on Sept. 19, 1940, he was one of three sons by architectural engineer Paul Williams and his wife, Bertha Mae. His two brothers were Mentor Williams, a successful producer-songwriter in his own right who penned the Top 5 hit "Drift Away" for Dobie Gray, and John Williams, a scientist for NASA. Following his father's death in 1953, Williams was sent to live with relatives in Long Beach, CA. There, he developed an interest in acting through high school plays, and was among the thousands of young people who auditioned for the original "Mickey Mouse Club" (ABC, 1955-59). He worked briefly as a radio DJ before pursuing acting as a fulltime profession. Roles in community and repertory theater preceded his Hollywood debut as a boy rocket scientist in Tony Richardson's cult favorite "The Loved One" (1965). Bit parts in features left Williams frustrated with the direction of his career, and he eventually left the business to write for comedian Mort Sahl.
While working for Sahl, he became acquainted with composer Biff Rose, with whom he co-wrote "Fill Your Heart," which became the B-side to Tiny Tim's 1968 hit single "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," as well as a track on David Bowie's 1973 album Hunky Dory. The success of the single spurred Williams to launch his own rock group, Holy Mackerel, which found few listeners. His solo LP debut, Somewhere Man (1970), suffered a similar fate, so he signed with A&M as a staff songwriter. There, he met pop singer-turned-composer Roger Nichols, with whom he penned the hit "Out in the Country" for Three Dog Night. The duo later wrote "We've Only Just Begun," which began life as a hastily composed jingle for the Crocker Bank company. It caught the ear of their labelmate, Carpenters co-founder Richard Carpenter, who recorded a cover with his sister Karen in 1970. The single shot to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and earned a Grammy as well as countless cover versions by artists ranging from Perry Como to Curtis Mayfield.
The success of "We've Only Just Begun" launched Williams' career in earnest, and he soon returned to the studio for his second LP, Just an Old Fashioned Love Song (1971). The title track provided a Top 5 song for pop-rockers Three Dog Night, cementing Williams' status as a bona fit hit maker. By the release of his third LP, Nice to Be Around, Williams had become a star in his own right, thanks to his wry appearances on numerous talk shows. This reignited his acting career, bring supporting roles in features like "Battle for the Planet of the Apes" (1973) as a genius orangutan before his first star turn as the malevolent, Faustian songwriter Swan in Brian De Palma's cult classic "Phantom of the Paradise" (1974) for which he also wrote the highly theatrical score and lyrics. That same year, he earned his first Oscar nomination for the song "Nice to be Around," a collaboration with composer John Williams for the film "Cinderella Liberty" (1974).
By the mid-1970s, Williams was a ubiquitous presence in the entertainment industry. He earned the Oscar as well as a Grammy and Golden Globe for "Evergreen" from the 1976 Barbra Streisand version of "A Star is Born" before netting an Emmy for "When The River Meets the Sea," a song from the much-loved Jim Henson TV special "Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas" (HBO, 1977). However, his best known work with Henson came two years later when he penned "The Rainbow Connection" for "The Muppet Movie" (1979), which earned him his third Oscar nomination. He continued to reap chart hits for the likes of Helen Reddy ("You and Me Against the World") while penning memorable TV themes like the title song for "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1986). He also worked steadily as an actor, most notably in comedies like the blockbuster "Smokey and the Bandit" (1977), where his size was frequently the butt of jokes. And he remained a favorite guest on talk shows, game shows and variety programs, where he displayed a quick, self-deprecating wit. But as Williams' fame grew, so did his addiction to alcohol and drugs, which took hold of him as the decade drew to a close.
The end of the 1970s also spelled the decline of his time in the spotlight. Williams stepped away from music to focus his attentions on acting, dividing his time between episodic television and low-budget features. He also became a prolific vocal performer for animated projects, most notably "Batman: The Animated Series" (The WB, 1992-95), for which he voiced the Penguin. In 1987, he provided the wry, deliberately awful lyrics for Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty's talentless cabaret act in "Ishtar" (1987), though the joke was largely lost on critics, who pilloried the film. Two years later, Williams finally wrested control over his addictions, becoming a licensed drug counselor actively involved with the Musician's Assistance Program, a non-profit organization devoted to providing aid to performers with these issues. He made an auspicious debut on Broadway in Tru, playing the flamboyant, equally height-challenged author Truman Capote.
He returned to music with the Grammy-nominated soundtrack to "A Muppet Christmas Carol" (1992), which preceded his 1997 album Back to Love Again, his first record in nearly two decades. During his absence from the music scene, Williams' songs had experienced a reevaluation by critics and listeners alike. Newer alternative pop performers who embraced a similar sound celebrated his early material, once derided as easy listening, for its clever wordplay and blend of country, folk, rock and Tin Pan Alley sounds, as did film and television producers, who used his early hits to summon a sense of innocence for their soundtracks. By the new millennium, Paul Williams, once a paragon of schmaltz, was suddenly hip again.
Williams seized upon the renewed interest in his work, penning the Top 5 hit "You're Gone" (1998) for country rockers Diamond Rio, then scoring a Top 50 single for Neal McCoy with "Party On" that same year. He followed this with a slew of album releases from Hip-O in the new millennium, including the live album Love Wants to Dance, several Best of and unreleased song compilations, and even a reissue of the Holy Mackerel LP. He also continued to work steadily on television, most notably in a recurring role on the soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful" (CBS, 1987- ) and a reunion with the Muppets in "A Muppet Christmas: Letters to Santa" (NBC, 2008), for which he also provided songs. In 2009, he was elected President and Chairman of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
Despite the revived interest in his career, many assumed that the drop in popularity Williams experienced in the early 1980s was due to his premature death from the drug and alcohol problems that plagued him during the decade. The disconnect between this widespread belief and the reality of Williams' life was underscored in the 2011 documentary "Paul Williams Still Alive." The critically acclaimed film deviated from the standard-issue documentary format by virtue of director Stephen Kessler's fascination with his subject, whose initial dislike of the constant camera presence grew to an appreciation of his own past as viewed from the perspective of an ardent fan.
By Paul Gaita
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CAST: (feature film)
Milestones close milestones
"I always knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. Trouble is I never did." --Paul Williams
Williams underwent treatment for alcoholism in 1989.
Inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in June 2001.
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