If you can instantly recognize and name the man in this photo, we belong to the same tribe.
Among his literal myriad accomplishments, his celebrity is a clear demarcation line of a generation gap.
For those tenderfeet who humiliate our tribe every year reminding us of our analog youth, allow me to pose these questions:
Can you name a current celebrity that has accomplished all of the following:
- was a child actor on TV who seamlessly moved into a career in movies
- wrote chart-topping pop songs recorded by famous artists, one of which won an Oscar
- was a frequent guest (and guest-host – they used to have those) on talk shows because he was funny (btw, not a comedian with an act)
- guest-starred on every hit prime-time show, often more than once
- was NOT known for being a ladies’ man, in fact he’s 5’2″
This was rhetorical, so “No” is your answer. Even though you have no idea who he is, I bet you’ve heard his work. Does this song sound familiar?
It was composed for a bank commercial and became a number one hit for the Carpenters. The voice singing in the commercial belongs to the man in the photograph: Paul Williams.
He also wrote a song sung by a frog about a rainbow. If you still have no idea who I’m writing about, get schooled.
This tribe I speak of is made up of kids who grew up in the 1970s: we played outside and still had time to watch way too much television. Paul Williams was on every show all the time; of course we all knew of him.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that among such a large group there might be a kid who became more a fan of his than others. Most boys I remember admired Evel Knievel, and most girls liked John Travolta.
Like the film’s director, Stephen Kessler, my celebrity affections deviated from the norm; I developed a huge crush on the Puerto Rican pop singer Tony Orlando while in first grade. He used to have a weekly variety show with his two backup singers, Dawn. I don’t remember if my affection faded when his show was cancelled, but I still have a thing for dark-haired men.
Stephen says he related to Paul Williams because he too, was short, and he identified with the themes of loneliness in Paul’s songs. This should elicit some sympathy from me, but it’s not going to because I didn’t roll like this at age nine. “The Rainbow Connection” was one of my favorite songs, and it didn’t make me feel lonely.
Unlike Stephen, I moved on. Upon discovering that Paul Williams had not died as he assumed (why else would someone disappear from TV?), he became obsessed with the idea of finding and befriending him, just like his pre-teen self had always dreamt. Stephen is not so creepy that he doesn’t realize how creepy this sounds, so he called it making it a documentary.
I’m going to put the snark on pause for a moment: if I think about it, it was weird the way Paul Williams had disappeared from public life. I’d be curious to know what happened, so I’d be willing to watch a documentary about him. Were I to be pitched this concept as a producer, I would assume Paul Williams would be willing to participate- so much so that I probably wouldn’t have even asked whether that was the case. (Good thing I’m not a producer.)
Stephen didn’t ask. The first part of the movie is rather uncomfortable to watch as we share Mr. Williams’ suspicions and watch his life uncomfortably interrupted. Whether Stephen finally wears Paul down or Paul actually warms up to the idea of a movie about him (i.e. Stephen isn’t going away) isn’t clear. Stephen stops making fun of Paul as he films him once he’s sure he has earned Paul’s trust.
It turns out that Paul Williams disappeared from our TV screens because he was overtaken by the substance abuse that was responsible for his fame. He went to rehab and has maintained his sobriety for twenty-two years.
But Stephen isn’t interested in the sober, happy Paul Williams. He wants the Paul Williams he saw on the Tonight Show (fifty appearances!), The Muppet Show, Love Boat, Police Woman…..
Inappropriately excited about a “sleepover” chez Paul, he brings with him a box of tapes with clips from the headiest days of Paul’s fame. He wants to watch them with Paul and film his reactions. You know, reminisce.
Stephen asks Paul what it’s like to go from being “the number one songwriter to being a judge on ‘The Gong Show’ (which was considered a gig for has-beens). Paul admonishes him for asking such a “dirty” question.
Then, Stephen plays a clip of Paul appearing with Mike Douglas on Douglas’ show. It is clear that Paul is as high as a kite. He’s not acting like a dirty drunk; having been the life of the party it’s easy to see why Mike Douglas doesn’t seem to notice. Having gotten to know sober, unfamous Paul over the last hour, it is painful to watch, so painful that Paul himself can’t even watch it. He gets up abruptly and goes to bed.
YOU GO PAUL!
Stephen is stunned. I wasn’t. I was inspired.
Even though I’m likely close in age to Stephen, he hasn’t grown up. He thinks being famous is “being on top of the world.” It’s an immature attitude. I had it when I was younger. So did Paul Williams.
Having tragically lost his parents barely into his teens and having failed growth hormone treatments that ensured he would never become a full-grown adult, he leveraged his talents to become famous. He believed being famous would make up for his obvious and perceived deficits.
“Fame [put me] at the level of everyone else, …. a member of the club.” It’s interesting that for Paul, fame was an equalizer, not a means to achieve superiority as it is for many others.
Paul became so famous that he became increasingly reliant on drugs to maintain the fame that he believed depended on his doing every job that came his way (that’s why we were always seeing him on TV!). Predictably, as his drug intake escalated, his work suffered, and the fame vanished.
It is in spite of the director that I liked this movie. I don’t think this is the movie he intended to make. It is unintentionally inspiring.
Paul Williams has a thriving career. He performs all over the world where he meets his many fans. Apart from performing his classic songs, he doesn’t live in the past. He has no desire to go back to being the favorite talk show guest or being an instantly recognizable celebrity.
But unlike most celebrities who do the requisite Barbara Walters post-rehab interview, there is not a note (pun absolutely intended) of phoniness when he speaks of his current happy phase of life. And while he dedicates much of his time to helping others in recovery, he doesn’t speak in “recovery-talk” nor appears compelled to prove his sobriety.
“[We’re] all on our own path. I found a place in my recovery that is bigger and more important than anything I did as an entertainer.”
THANK YOU PAUL!