The Arty Semite

Friday Film: How to Find a Childhood Hero

By Curt Schleier

  • Print
  • Share Share

In the 1970s, Paul Williams was a star, penning chart-topping songs such as “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Evergreen” and “Rainbow Connection.” But Williams and his fame burned out, and six years ago he was selling CDs in the lobby of a casino. Now filmmaker Stephen Kessler has written and directed “Paul Williams Still Alive” a documentary tribute to the Grammy and Academy Award-winning actor and singer-songwriter. The film opens in New York June 8, Los Angeles June 22, Boston and Chicago June 29, and around the country in July.

Kessler grew up down the block from a Knish Nosh restaurant in the Forest Hills section of Queens, New York. After high school he enrolled in a writing program at Stanford University, and then went into the advertising business, first as a copywriter and later as a director of commercials, including the famous series featuring Wendy the Snapple Lady. He co-wrote and directed “Birch Street Gym,” a short film that was nominated for an Academy Award, and directed a couple of features, including “Vegas Vacation,” starring Chevy Chase.

Then, one day, Kessler decided to purchase a CD by Williams, one of his favorite childhood singers, and was inspired to find out if he was even still alive. Kessler spoke to the Forward’s Curt Schleier about rainy days, being an overweight kid, and what he learned from filming Paul Williams.

Curt Schleier: Why Paul Williams?

Stephen Kessler: Paul wrote those songs that were full of loneliness and alienation. Rainy days and Mondays got me down, too. And also there was a part of him that was so funny. You’d see him on The Tonight Show, on Mike Douglas and Match Game. He just seemed like such a sweet guy. Everyone liked him.

What was it about rainy days and Mondays that got you down?

That’s a great question. No one asked me that. First of all, I was an overweight kid for most of my childhood. And I was a bright kid. I preferred ideas to going out and playing baseball or basketball.

How did you convince Williams to do the film?

I started writing him and his manager in 2006. I wrote for months and months and never heard back. Then I heard there was going to be this event in Winnipeg for people who loved the movie “Phantom of the Paradise” that Paul starred in. It was Brian De Palma’s first movie and failed all over the world except for Paris and Winnipeg. So I went to Canada with a camera and shot a bit. We spoke, but he wasn’t sure we’d be interested in being filmed. About a month later, we had lunch in L.A. I showed him the footage and he said, “My career is really dead, but if I get a gig and you want to you can come and film me.” He was never really happy to see me, but what I started to realize is that Paul was very content in his life now. He was happy in a way he never was when he was younger and more successful. I started to realize this had to be a movie about the way the guy is now more than how he was then.

For much of the film it almost looks as though he’s on the verge of canceling the whole deal. Was that the case?

When I proposed the idea, he first said, “I really appreciate it, but I don’t like to indulge my ego that way anymore.” I told him, “Even if you don’t want to indulge your ego, you’ve written all these great songs, we should let more people know about them. Try it, and see how it turns out.” But you’re right. My editor says the most interesting part of this film is the tug of war between the two of us.

He wound up giving you direction at one point, putting you in the film. At another point, he was upset when you interrupted him to ask a silly question. Why did he put up with you?

Even though he didn’t know me, he knew I was sincerely a big fan. I was able to talk to him about little-known songs that appeared in little known movies, songs that appeared on B-sides of his records. He could tell I really cared about him. I also told him if there’s anything he didn’t like in this movie, I would give him the right to take out, which, you know, as a director, you never do. But he held all the cards. He didn’t ask for one shot to be changed. He said, “There are things I love, things I hate. But the story has to be told and I’m not going to change it.”

What did you learn from this process?

The biggest thing I got out of it was that it made me realize that the things I was chasing in my own career, if I got them, wouldn’t make me any more or less happy than I am today. The things that make me really happy are doing work I like, hanging out with my kids and cooking. I get to do that stuff right now. That was a really great gift I got out of hanging out with Paul.

Watch the trailer for the documentary ‘Paul Williams Still Alive’:

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Tribute, Stephen Kessler, Paul Williams, Interviews, Curt Schleier, Film

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover!
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.