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Ghosts of Music Past : 'The Muppet Christmas Carol' songwriter Paul Williams undergoes a metamorphosis no less powerful than Scrooge's

December 13, 1992|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman is a regular contributor to The Times

Paul Williams has been doing a lot of thinking about Ebenezer Scrooge lately, and finding a surprising connection between himself and Dickens' original Christmas Grinch--but not because of any shared antipathy for the Yuletide.

"Oh no," said the veteran songwriter-lyricist last week, "Christmas has always been one of my favorite seasons. It's Scrooge's metamorphosis that touches me--the way he changes completely in one night. It's what it took me 49 years to do."

Williams' interest in Scrooge has been an intrinsic part of the work that has occupied his time for the last year or so--a full score of songs for "The Muppet Christmas Carol," which opened this weekend around the nation.

But the associations have not been all musical, even though it is the 52-year-old Williams' first major creative effort since the late '80s. Despite the differences in time and place, Williams' own metamorphosis has been no less powerful than Scrooge's overnight conversion from miserly skinflint to benevolent elder.

Williams' change began three years ago, when he confronted the potentially deadly prospects of a decades-old addiction to alcohol and drugs.

"I hit absolute physical bottom in '89," he said. "I wasn't crawling the streets, and I wasn't poor. But I was spiritually bankrupt. And I got to the point where I was having full-blown psychotic episodes from the combination of drugs and alcohol in my system. So I finally had to get down on my knees and ask for help."

His dependency problems notwithstanding, Williams had managed to function at an astonishingly high creative level for years. Songs such as "We've Only Just Begun," "Just An Old-Fashioned Love Song," "Rainy Days and Mondays" and "Evergreen" have become standards, and his mantel is filled with accumulated Oscar Golden Globe and Grammy nominations and awards.

As an actor, he became well-known to film audiences for his comical portrayal of Little Enos in "Smokey and the Bandits, Parts I, II and III"; in Brian DePalma's cult classic, "Phantom of the Paradise," he composed the score, produced the album and co-starred as the malevolent character, Swan. On television, the diminutive Williams (his much taller pal, comedian Pat McCormick, once told him, "You know, Paul, you look like an aerial view of a human being") made numerous celebrity-style appearances, including regular exchanges with Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show."

"I was pretty unpredictable, to say the least," Williams said. "I mean you never knew what was going to come out of my mouth on that show. Every now and then I remember some of the things I said to Johnny, and I sit straight up in bed and say, 'Oh, God, there's another amends I need to make.' "

By the late '80s, Williams' life was on a distinctly downward spiral. Like many with chemical dependencies, he had made numerous abortive attempts to break the addictive pattern.

"I tried to get sober once for somebody else," he recalled, "but you can't do it for somebody else. And then, in order to hide my drugs and alcohol--because I started using again--I became a chronic and habitual liar. I would sit there and swear that I wasn't using, when I was. So the person I was trying to get sober for left me, and there I was, with just my drugs. It wasn't much to be left with."

Williams checked himself into a hospital and began to do the serious work of recovery, aided by the 12-Step program. His innate energy and vigor were indispensable assets.

"The funny thing was that I'd never lived in a communal setting before," he said. "I was never in the service, and didn't go away to college. So when I did go into the hospital for rehab, I didn't want to leave. But when I finished the program, they just laughed and said, 'Sorry, you have to leave.' And the only way I could go back was to get a certificate for drug counseling, which I did, because for a certain period of time, I found that the place I felt I fit in best was doing recovery work."

On the down side, Williams also found it almost impossible to write. "I just couldn't write--couldn't do it--for a couple of years. I was terrified. So when the 'Muppet Christmas Carol' came along, it became especially important for me because it's the first song score that I've done sober."

Williams had done two previous projects with the Muppets--"The Muppet Movie" and a Canadian television special, "Emmett Otter's Jug Band Christmas." But this was his first venture with the Muppets since the death of Jim Henson.

"Working with Jim was the best experience I ever had," recalled Williams. "He had such trust. When I wrote the songs for 'The Muppet Movie,' I asked if he wanted to hear what I was doing. And he said, 'No, I'll hear them in the recording studio,' which was an amazing creative freedom to be given."

Williams was a little less assured about what to expect from Brian Henson, Jim Henson's son and the producer-director of "The Muppet Christmas Carol."

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