During the 1970s Paul Williams’s talents as a singer, songwriter, composer and actor were in high demand. His song, “Evergreen” sung by Barbara Streisand for the film A Star is Bornwon an Academy Award and reached number one on the pop charts. He produced similar hits for the Carpenters, Helen Ready, and David Bowie. He wrote the celebrated score for Bugsy Malone, and appeared in numerous films himselfstealing the show as a wisecracking bootlegger in Smokey and the Bandit. On television, Williams became a ubiquitous presence, co-hosting the Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas shows, and appearing on the Tonight Show an astonishing forty-eight times. In 1979, Williams became even more famous when he wrote The Rainbow Connection, the theme for Jim Henson’s Muppet Movie.
Then, just as Williams’s career was attaining new heights, his life took an ominous turn. His casual drinking developed into full-blown alcoholism, and his recreational drug use, a hard addiction. The 1980’s turned into a blur. What he remembers today about that period is limitedhe calls it “my disappearing decade”but he knows he isolated himself, worked only sparingly, and allowed cocaine and liquor to consume him. “I’d gone from being a regular on Johnny Carson’s couch to near hermit,” Williams says now. His destructive habits victimized himself, his family, and everyone around him.
It was during that time, the lowest point of his life, that Williams had an unexpected meeting with Tracey Jackson, a long-time fan. Tracey spotted him at a New Year’s Eve party, and went up to tell him how much she admired his music. It did not go well: Paul, in one of his drug induced stupors, replied with what he now describes as “an offhand callous and sexist remark,” prompting Tracey to walk away. “I remember driving home that night,” Tracey told me recently, “and saying to myself, ‘So much for childhood heroes.’”
Paul went on to struggle with his addictions, while Tracey faced serious challenges of her own.
Tracey became a successful Hollywood screenwriter, against all odds. Opportunities for writers were limited; and the path was made even more difficult by sexism and ageism. But Tracey pressed on, confident in her abilities, and wrote over a dozen television pilots and feature filmsincluding The Guru and Confessions of a Shopaholicworking with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. And just as she was making a name for herself, she ran into her one-time idol.
In the spring of 2001, Tracey was in New York, and discovered Paul Williams was appearing at a local venue. Twenty years had passed since their first (near-disastrous) encounter, and Tracey was wary about being disappointed again. But she had read that Paul was now clean and sober, and something prompted her to see him perform live. She was so impressed with his concert, that she managed to meet Paul afterwards, mending wounded fences. Tracey’s admiration for Williams returned.
A friendship blossomed, as did a professional working relationship. Though Tracey never drank or took drugs, many of her friends did, and she was impressed by the way the recovery movement had rescued and rebuilt their lives. Paul’s story drew her even closer to it. “The more I studied the movement,” she told me, “the more I realized that virtually everyone has issues they need to address and recover from.”
Paul told her that the biggest lesson he had learned was a renewed appreciation for gratitude and trustthe twin pillars of his recovery. Seizing upon that idea, with a writer’s instinct, Tracey said, “There’s a book there.”
The result is Gratitude and Trust, a vibrant new work which Jackson and Williams have co-authored. It is “designed to apply the principles of the recovery movement to the countless people who are not addicts, but nevertheless need effective help with their difficulties and pain.”
The book is centered around six “affirmations”or keys to freedomwhich address the reader as a passionate counselor might. The first affirmation, “Something needs to change and it’s probably me,” is as direct and challenging as the last: “I will live my life in love and service, gratitude and trust.”
Particularly rewarding is the warm reception Tracey and Paul have received from the religious community. This is a special blessing for Paul, as he shared with me his own acceptance of the Lord, during the final stages of his addiction:
My choice came after a complete breakdown in Oklahoma City. I’d gone there to play a concert. I hit my bottom. . . . Drug toxicity had me believing I was being beaten, bitten, tortured by a demon. . . . Later in Los Angeles, in a blackout no less, I called a doctor seeking help. . . . A decade later I discovered that the promoter of the concert, a recovering alcoholic himself, gathered together a prayer circle by phone and prayed that I’d find relief from my addiction. Two weeks later, I surrendered, and I asked my pastor to baptize me.
The lives of the two have now come full circle. Both are happily married and center their lives around their families. Tracey has moved away from the high-stress world of screenwriting, and settled into writing books, and making acclaimed documentaries like Lucky Ducks, about why affluent children are so unhappy. Paul was profiled for a remarkable documentary himself, Paul Williams: Still Alive, and earlier this year reached the zenith of his career, when he collaborated with Daft Punk to win the coveted Grammy award for best album of the year, Random Access Memories.
Now, their main goal is to pass on the rewards of recovery, and encourage others to do the same.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.