“I always thought he died too young.” So begins Stephen Kessler’s new documentary about songwriter/actor Paul Williams, who is actually, as the title gives away, “Still Alive.”
Clearly, though, Kessler didn’t know Williams like Washington does. The filmmaker set out to do a whatever-happened-to about the man who was the wallpaper of the ’70s, with his hit songs (“Evergreen,” “Rainy Days and Mondays”) all over the radio and his cherubic mug grinning out from variety shows and kitschy sitcom guest spots — before fading into the old vortex of drugs and alcohol.
But the documentary’s happy ending was no surprise to the Capitol Hill folks at a screening Monday. The guy you remember as Little Enos from “Smokey and the Bandit” and Johnny Carson’s favorite short guy is, for them, Still Kind of a Big Deal.
Now in his fourth year as president of ASCAP, the trade association for songwriters, Williams welcomed several members of Congress to the screening, including John Conyers, Linda Sanchez, Louie Gohmert, Adam Schiff and Sheila Jackson Lee.
His goal in D.C.? Getting his people paid in the new-media era. “We just want to make sure that the sites that are streaming our music are properly licensing it,” he told us, “and that our writing will be properly compensated.”
Williams seemed comfortable with the warts-and-all film. He turns 72 next week. “If I look good, it’s because I was pickled until I was 49.”
In the film (headed for cable after a small theatrical run), he describes the thrill of sudden fame in the early ’70s. “To be special is addicting.” But he rebukes Kessler’s assumption that it broke his heart when the “Tonight Show” stopped calling: “You want to hear that I was huddled in a corner [weeping]?” he scoffs. “I was like that when I couldn’t get the dealer on the phone.”
In a Q&A after the screening, Williams wouldn’t go into detail about what prompted him to get sober 22 years ago. (“My drunkalogue is boring. I didn’t wake up out of a blackout with Norman Mailer and a couple of hookers in Paris. I woke up out of a blackout in the boys’ department of Sears trying on sweaters.”) Instead, he counted his blessings that it happened in a simpler time: “I did rehab twice and there was never a camera waiting for me when I got out. . . I feel for people who are coming up now.”
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