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What hasn't Paul Williams done? He's been nominated for every possible music award and won at least one of each. Among his best known songs: "We've Only Just Begun," "Just An Old Fashioned Love Song," "Rainy Days and Mondays" and "You and Me Against the World." His film work includes "Bugsy Malone," "The Muppet Movie," the cult classic "Phantom of the Paradise" and "A Star Is Born." He received Oscar nominations for all of these films and shared the Best Original Song award with Barbra Streisand for "Evergreen." His television music includes the John Travolta film, "The Boy In the Plastic Bubble" and the theme for "The Love Boat." As an actor, he has appeared in a variety of films, among them "Battle For the Planet of the Apes," "Smokey and the Bandit," "Phantom of the Paradise" and "The Doors." The stage version of "Bugsy Malone" is so popular in England that it is the pop equivalent of "Grease" here in the states. If there was ever a person who has his finger on the pulse of Pop Culture, it's Paul Williams. Earlier this week, Mr. Williams took some time out of his concert tour (he appears this weekend in Kansas City with Melissa Manchester) to answer some questions. I was surprised to learn that he has been "sober for 13 years," which he has a great pride in. And it is his sobriety that helps inspire his work now.

Mike Smith: You are so well known for so many different endeavors. I mentioned to three different friends that I was going to speak with you and all three of them mentioned a different aspect of your career. Do you consider yourself a composer first, performer second? Or do you even consciously separate your various careers?

Paul Williams: I don't really consciously separate them. I know that song writing is probably the most mystical of the things that I do, in a sense that I'm not sure where it came from or how it started. It's something that I just knew how to do. It's something that just happens. I'll hear music or words or the whole thing. As an actor it's probably more reptilian, probably more ego. It's the part of me that wanted to go to Hollywood and be a movie star. I don't think it was any lofty artistic goal. I think it was just sitting in the front row of the local movie theatres when I was a kid in the Midwest looking at Mickey Rooney, this little guy on the screen, living the fantasy. And Hollywood became a real fantasy for me. Acting became something I wanted to do, it became my first love. But ultimately, the most important element of my life is that part of my life now that, as a recovering human being, it has a bit of a spiritual life and let the path unfold. I'm still on an adventure but it's more without a goal then it was in the earlier years. I'm letting myself be led to the places I think I want to go. In some circles it's called laziness (laughs).

MS: "Bugsy Malone" was produced quite successfully on the stage in London. It was directed by Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees. Were you pleased with the production and was Dolenz' musical past an asset to the show?

PW: I've always gotten along with Mickey. My favorite "Bugsy" experience was the movie experience, but I love the fact that it is done so much by kids these days. It was quite a surprise that it was so successful in the theatre. It's kind of become a part of growing up in England, doing "Bugsy Malone."

MS: Readers of our website ( chose "Phantom of the Paradise" as one of the best "cult" films, ever. Is there any chance that "Phantom" could be produced for the stage?

PW: We've actually tried it a couple times and it's probably closer to happening now more then ever. A woman named Gina Rubbalo is attempting to produce it and take it to Las Vegas. That's the current plan and we hope that it's actually going to happen. I think it has a greater chance now because Brian (de Palma, director of the film) and Ed Pressman (producer) are now in favor of pursuing it going to the stage.

MS: Besides hearing some of the most popular songs ever written, what can the audience expect to see on your tour with Melissa Manchester?

PW: A lot of conversation about where the songs came from, the stories behind the songs. It will be a lot of light hearted entertainment between Melissa and I. It is a very intimate setting. The first half is just with a percussionist and no major drum kit. We go to a full rock and roll instrumentation for the second half of the show, but it remains pretty intimate. The conversation is not scripted. It's all off the top of our heads about the songs and what we remember from our lives. I talk a lot about's a big part of what I do.

MS: As someone who has written songs, I know that Ringo wasn't lying when he sang, "It Don't Come Easy." When you compose, do you start with the lyric or the melody?

PW: I write in a lot of different ways. Sometimes I'll sit down with somebody and we'll have nothing. We'll just work from our conversations. Roger Nichols would always give me the music and I would write, word for word, to his notes. Very seldom do I write words and have somebody put the music to them. If I'm writing lyric and music at the same time, I usually finish the music rather quickly. What takes time is the lyric writing, which is really........I'm a lyricist first.

MS: When you write your lyrics first, which is what I do, do you write them as if you are hearing them sung?

PW: Exactly. There's a meter to the words.

MS: One of my favorite songs of yours is "What Would They Say" from "The Boy In the Plastic Bubble." I thought it captured perfectly the exact emotions and thoughts I thought Travolta would be saying if he were to look into the camera and just say, "What would they say, if we up and fly away?" When you compose a score or write a song for a film, do you read the script or wait until you've seen the film itself?

PW: The script is the bible. If you imagine setting off on an adventure in a canoe, the script is the strong arms that shove you out into the stream. It is the map of where you are going. That is why I love writing for films and for the stage, because that initial creative impulse comes from the script........this is what the song needs to be about.

MS: Where do you keep your Oscar?

PW: It's sitting on the piano in my house in L.A right now, though I'm currently staying at the beach. I'm not living with my Oscar right now. But I don't hide it.

MS: I can't begin to count how many times friends and I quote you from "Smokey and the Bandit." When I have an irate customer at work I often think

PW: (breaking in) "I'd like to kick his ass just once!"

MS: Exactly. You and Pat McCormack worked so well together in the films. Was there ever any thought of the two of you doing a Big and Little Enos Burdette film?

PW: I'd guess that "Smokey and the Bandit 3" was probably as close to that as ever. I also wrote and produced a television show for Pat and I called "Rooster." We made a TV movie, but it was never picked up as a series. It was a lot of fun.

MS: Even though they were intended to be lousy, your songs for the film "ISHTAR" were one of the few highlights. Was it hard writing songs that weren't meant to be good?

PW: It was one of the toughest jobs I've ever had in my life, because anybody can sit down and write bad songs. But to write believable bad songs, to where you see them just go the wrong "Dangerous Business." It starts out pretty good: (sings) "Telling the truth can be dangerous business, honest and popular don't go hand in hand. If you admit you can play the accordion, no one will hire you in a rock and roll band." The first couple lines are brilliant, the next are like, "wait a minute." The real task was to write songs that were believably bad. It was one of the best jobs I've ever had in my life. I've never had more fun on a picture, but I've never worked harder.

MS: I thought the film wasn't as bad as history has painted it.

PW: Most musicians do. Most musicians and song writers do. (HEY, DID YOU HEAR THAT? PAUL WILLIAMS CALLED ME A SONG WRITER!) They are the ones that seem to get it.

MS: Is there any one song of yours that stands out as a personal favorite?

PW: "Rainbow Connection." And my favorite love song I've ever wrote is a song I wrote with Ivan Lins called "Love Dance," which is on the new live album I recently cut in Japan. But "Rainbow Connection" is ultimately my favorite song. Kenny Asher and I wrote it for "The Muppet Movie" and I think it's got as much hope in it as anything I've ever written. It's a song about the mystery of life. Another song in the film is a close runner up, maybe an equal. It's a song called, "I'm Going To Go Back There Someday." "There's not a word yet for old friends who just met" may be as good a line as I've ever written.

MS: Wow.......that's saying a lot. You've written some great ones.

PW: Thank you.

MS: Thank YOU. And thank you for your time.

Other interviews by Mike Smith:
Linda Harrison
The Great Luke Ski
The Hillanbrand Brothers
Martha Coolidge

"Crazed Fanboy presents the Paul Williams Interview by Mike Smith" is ©2003 by Michael A. Smith. We extend grateful thanks to Paul Williams for participating in this interview series and wish him the best of luck on his current tour with Melissa Manchester.

Photos of Paul Williams used with permission. "Phantom of the Paradise" and "Kermit the Frog" are copyrighted and trademarked by their respective holders and their images are used here for illustrative purposes only. Any remaining graphics are by Nolan Canova. All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2003 by Nolan B. Canova

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