In the '70s, Paul Williams was ubiquitous. The 5'2" actor-singer-songwriter received an Academy Award (along with Barbara Streisand) for the song "Evergreen" from A Star Is Born, wrote the timeless Kermit the Frog-performed tune "Rainbow Connection," and spent the better part of the decade as a staple of the talk show circuit, even performing a song in full Battle for the Planet of the Apes make-up on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." All the while, though, Williams was battling an addiction to alcohol, a fate not uncommon to the type of lifestyle he was leading. When fame moved on and Williams disappeared from the public eye, he ultimately committed himself to sobriety in 1990.
A fan since childhood, Stephen Kessler (director of the under-appreciated Vegas Vacation) wondered what became of Paul Williams, once one of the biggest stars around. Like Burt Reynolds big. Like anyone who hadn't seen a once-huge celebrity scrambling to hold on to some shred of fame in the years since his decline, Kessler assumed Williams was dead. When he discovered he was wrong, Kessler decided Paul's story needed to be told. Paul Williams Still Alive begins life as the story of a man happy with his life post-fame, yet ends up shining a light on director Kessler as well. The film is humorous and heartfelt, acting as a snappy time capsule for the self-congratulatory talk show culture of the 1970s and an insightful look at how our childhood heroes can transition into normal people that, with enough gentle persuasion, might become our friends.
I sat down with Paul Williams and Stephen Kessler for an interview in Austin back in March after a screening of the documentary at SXSW. They discuss what each of them expected of the documentary experience and the changing culture of celebrity.
Paul Williams Still Alive opens in select cities on June 8.