Over the course of a unique career that stretches back to the 1960s, Paul Williams has been and is a songwriter, singer, actor, a recovering alcoholic and recovery advocate, and not least the president/chairman of ASCAP, a role he’s held since 2009 and for which he was recently elected to a fifth term.
He’s also enjoyed, as he puts it, a truly remarkable “third act” in his career, which includes winning a Grammy in 2014 for his work on Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories” and, most recently, a brief and memorable cameo as a corrupt cop/illegal arms dealer (SPOILER ALERT: who is quickly shot by Jamie Foxx’s character) in “Baby Driver.” The role is startling to anyone who knows him and doesn’t know it’s coming, not only because the diminutive Williams is apparently portraying the most well-dressed, erudite and loquacious corrupt cop/illegal arms dealer in history, but because the character’s lines sound like things Williams himself would say.
It’s a role that was tailored for him by his friend, the film’s 43-year-old director Edgar Wright — who is also, as the film bounteously demonstrates, a music geek of magnitude. Williams, an Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe-winning member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame whose catalog includes “Evergreen,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “We’ve Only Just Begun” and perhaps most famously, “Rainbow Connection” from “The Muppet Movie” — is no slouch either, and while this interview was ostensibly about his role in “Baby Driver,” within seconds he was gushing about Wright’s work on with the film’s music. Variety caught up with him in New York, where he was performing at the Café Carlyle on a stop during a short national tour.
I’ve gotta give credit to Edgar Wright for his casting — the first time I met you I thought, “That guy must be an arms dealer.”
[Chuckles] Yeah, before we did “The Muppet Movie” Kermit the Frog said, “I don’t think this is gonna work for us because you look too much like a crooked cop selling hand grenades!” [Laughing] I’m on screen less than two minutes in “Baby Driver,” I think, and Edgar’s got me talking almost every second. I looked at [the role] and thought, “Well, this is a mouthful of dialogue and — spoiler alert! — don’t look for me in the sequel!” I thought Jamie [Foxx] liked me, we always got along — but then, zap! I just went nuts when I saw the film, I think it’s brilliant. It’s the most adrenaline-filled film I’ve seen in ages. My wife was sitting next to me in the screening room — she’s not much of a car-chase fan — and she said, “That’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.” I emailed Edgar after I saw it and said, “I hope the kids driving home from the theater make it home safe — there’s gonna be a lot of fender benders!”
I know you and Wright are friends, but have you worked together before?
I’ve always wanted to — I’ve been a fan since “Shaun of the Dead” and he’s been beyond supportive of things that I’ve done. He occasionally curates screenings of films around the country and in L.A. he did “Phantom of the Paradise” [the 1974 comic horror musical that stars and was scored by Williams] and “Bugsy Malone” [for which Williams wrote the music], and we became friends. It’s interesting — a lot of the people that I’m working with now are relationships that were spawned by work I did in the ‘70s. I’m writing a musical with Guillermo del Toro and Gustavo Santaolalla based on “Pan’s Labyrinth” that totally came to me through Guillermo’s love for “Phantom” — Daft Punk, same deal. With Edgar, it was more “Bugsy Malone,” he actually acted in a school production of it when he was a kid — it’s a big thing in English schools.
But I jumped at the chance to work with him on anything at all, and what amazes me most about the picture is how he uses music — it’s really subliminal. I was moved and pushed and shoved along by the music, it never pulled me out of the story. Whether it’s songs or underscore, the goal of a great score is to move you without making you so aware of it that it distracts. The first 3-5 minutes of the picture where Ansel [Elgort] is bopping to [Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s 1994 song] “Bell Bottoms” in his car it’s just perfect, you almost can’t stay in your seat, you want to jump up and dance. And all the syncopated movement and choreographed gunfights [in time with] the music — he storyboarded it to the music, right down to the slamming of a trunk and having the actors walking to cars. I forget which song it’s for, but he had somebody calling out “1-2-3-4” as they walk, and slamming their doors on the 7 and the 8 or something like that. I’m not sure even music videos are shot to that intense choreography. I think this picture is gonna do amazing business and I think it’s gonna have a long life. That’s hard to do – to have a hit that at the same time people hold into for years.
You’ve actually played a lot of bad guys, where does this one rank?
Let’s see, in the [2011 documentary] “Paul Williams Is Alive,” there’s a scene from [the ‘70s TV show] “Police Woman” where I do the worst death scene ever, I manage to stretch it out for about six minutes, it’s really embarrassing. I did a movie called “Stone Cold Dead” where I’m badly miscast as a pimp. I wrote a [role in 1970s cop TV show] “Baretta” for myself where I played a cocaine addict — and I was such a great method actor that I wound up in rehab at 49 for exactly that! I’m 27 years sober now — I’m passionate about recovery and I’ll even sneak in talk about how there’s hope for the hopeless into a conversation about “Baby Driver”! [Laughter]
Being president of ASCAP would be a fulltime job for most people, but you’re on tour and making movies and musicals and you’re a very active recovery advocate — how do you manage it all?
First of all, I run every day — when I was drinking and using I weighed 187 pounds — and everything changed when I got sober: I weigh 130 and I haven’t had a drink in 27 years, I’m gonna be 77 this year and I feel like a really tired 34. But my work at ASCAP especially and the work on “Pan’s Labyrinth” have given me a lot of energy. It’s so exciting the way the landscape has changed — what’s next? Are they going to implant something behind your ear where you think about a song and it plays? Try gathering the [music publishing and royalty] data on that one!
It’s also about fighting for songwriters. I would like to see the composer and lyricist credited on streaming services. I miss being able to hold an album and look at the liner notes — I wish you got that information when you stream music, and there would be ways to click on a writer’s name or a song title and be led to other compositions by the same person. I remember holding an Elvis Presley album and seeing “Where Do I Go From Here?” [a Williams composition covered by Presley in 1973], with music and words by Paul Williams on the same label as Elvis — “Elvis and Paul, Paul and Elvis!” I wanted to go back to my high school and show it to all the girls who wouldn’t go out with me!
But beyond the emotional response from the writer, the fact is that when [collaborator] Roger Nichols and I started writing together, we had lots of album cuts and good money but no hits. But when people started saying “I like this cut on the Peppermint Trolley album” or whatever and seeing that we wrote the song, we started getting A-sides and hits. And all of a sudden you have a career based upon awareness of you as a writer — writers and composers deserve that opportunity, but if your past success is hidden behind a cloud of zeroes and ones, you’re not getting that. Songwriters deserve to have a real career, and part of that is making sure that people know who they are.
But overall, yes, I love my life, and I’m so grateful. They say there are no third acts in Hollywood, but I have an amazing career and a great marriage and a daughter who’s about to have my first grandchild. Life is really good.
Do you have any more acting gigs lined up?
No, but you can print my phone number at the bottom of this article!