Actor with writing talents
By Jim Stewart
Arriving in Los Angeles in a dubious mode of transport with aspirations of becoming an actor, Paul Williams was initially unsuccessful in auditions to become either a Monkee or a Mouseketeer.
But acting roles soon followed, and unforeseen opportunities led him to a career as a singer/ songwriter spanning 45 years.
During this timespan, he has become a Grammy, Academy Award and Golden Globe winner, writing for The Carpenters, Three Dog Night, Barbra Streisand, Kermit The Frog, and Daft Punk, writing the music ‘Bugsy Malone’, ‘Happy Days – The Musical’ and ‘The Phantom Of The Paradise’ in which he also starred.
Other roles include appearances in ‘Smokey And The Bandit’ series, ‘The Doors’ and ‘Beneath The Planet Of The Apes’.
In 2009, he was elected President and Chairman of ASCAP, a demanding role which, like his work as a recovery advocate for addiction via his ‘Gratitude And Trust’ programme, is extremely rewarding, he said.
I have long been an admirer of Williams’s music and when I heard ‘Happy Days – The Musical’ was about to receive its UK premiere at The Churchill Theatre, Bromley in January, I thought I would try to arrange an interview with him and we began by talking about the show.
How did you become involved with ‘Happy Days – The Musical’? ‘I was asked to make an appearance as myself in the ‘70s ‘The Odd Couple’ TV show by the show’s creator, Gary Marshall, who is also responsible for ‘Happy Days’. Although most, if not all of my performance ended on the cutting room floor, Gary said he enjoyed working with me and we should do it again sometime.
‘Fast forward 23 years and he decided to call me about a musical version of ‘Happy Days’ he was planning, and asked would I be interested in writing the music for it. I loved the show, – seemed like a great idea, and so I agreed.’
Rock’n’Roll and Juke Box Musicals are extremely popular in the UK at the moment.
‘I wanted to capture both the spirit of the era plus the appeal of the characters. I purposely did not want to write another ‘Grease’ which would have been pointless.
There are 21 of my songs plus the original theme song. It debuted in 2007 and toured the US until 2010, with good responses. I’m really excited about the UK production and hope my ASCAP commitments will allow me to attend the opening.’
One of your earlier musicals was ‘Bugsy Malone’, which has become an enduring success. ‘When we first tried to sell ‘Bugsy’, they thought we were crazy – a musical about the prohibition era with a cast of kids and custard pies? They just didn’t get it, which was the point, it was meant to be different. I think our belief has been proven, as everybody knows someone who has either seen it, acted in it, or has a family member or friend that has.’
My 10-year-old granddaughter took part in her school production in July and is looking forward to, hopefully getting a major role this year’s production.
‘That’s exactly what I mean, it gives children a chance to dress up, become adults in roles they would never have experienced elsewhere. I am so proud of ‘Bugsy’. If I was asked to name three things I would like to be remembered for. I would have to say ‘Bugsy Malone’ has to be top of the list.’
How did you change from being a wannabe actor to a successful songwriter?
‘I arrived in Los Angeles in a stolen – sorry ‘taken and driven without the owners knowledge orconsent’ – car intent on being an actor, and while on a break between shots on the Marlon Brando and Robert Redford movie ‘The Chase’, I saw a guitar in the corner of the trailer, picked it up and tried to pick out a tune. It was quickly reclaimed by its owner when he returned, but I was hooked and bought one straight away.’
How did you get to write the hit songs for Three Dog Night and The Carpenters?
‘We were originally writing for TV ads: ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’ was written for a bank commercial for newlyweds looking for a new home. It became so popular we decided to make it a full song and that started it for us. whole decade, that is a serious problem.
‘Since I began my recovery, I’ve become an advocate for all forms of addiction, not just drink and drugs. I also had a ‘couch and camera’ addiction. If there was a talk show with space on the couch I had to be there! ‘GRATITUDE AND TRUST’ aims to help anyone who comes to us, and I am currently writing a book ‘Recovery is Not Just for Addicts’ with Tracey Jackson, which I hope will spread the message further.’
A documentary was recently made about your life ‘Paul Williams: Still Alive’.
‘It doesn’t hold anything back, – my music, movies, life, drink problems and recovery; it was well received, worth watching.’
What projects are you currently working on?
‘I’m writing a musical version of ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and songs for the next Daft Punk album: you cannot get a wider extreme than that!’
A very open and sincere person, possibly the best way to describe Paul is to quote one of his songs.
‘You give a little love and it all comes back to you; you’re gonna’ be remembered for the things that you say and do’.
Jim Stewart 2014