Like any other red-blooded American movie freak, Paul Williams fantasized about being a star. "I had visions of me and Gary Cooper going to Barney's Beanery together and picking up chicks," he recalls. But when he arrived from Nebraska to conquer Hollywood at age 21, Paul realized he looked more like Hayley Mills—only at 5', he wasn't as tall.

Williams did score in a few films—he played a 10-year-old monster in The Loved One when he was 24—but supported himself largely, he notes in his habitual put-down, put-on patter, by painting kitchens and bathrooms, "the bottom half, anyway." He also, in that unfulfilled period, "became a songwriter for purely therapeutic reasons. I'd have become a sniper," he quips, "but I didn't have a gun, and I did have a guitar." The result was eight gold records recorded by other artists, mostly in the Carpenters' bag, including We've Only Just Begun, which started as a commercial jingle for a bank and has now replaced Because as the mid-America wedding hymn. Other hits like Rainy Days and Mondays, Just an Old-Fashioned Love Song (by Three Dog Night), and the Oscar nominee You're So Nice to Be Around (from Cinderella Liberty) turned Williams into a closet millionaire and encouraged him last year to reach again for up-front stardom.

By then his angst had inflated him some 40 pounds overweight ("at my size, that's half a person"), but, as he pleaded, "I was raised on casseroles and junk food—grease, I love it. Then, I gave all that up to be svelte, to be loved by America. Can I help it if God wants me to be a teen idol?" Onstage (and on the TV talk shows where he is now oppressively ubiquitous), Paul credits his new sleekness to what he calls the Hobbit's (his name for himself) "Happiness Diet: scotch and prune juice." It was actually broiled chicken and fish, grapefruit juice and club soda, period, that brought him down to what he now describes as "my tiny but perfect body."

Finally, at 34, Paul Williams has climbed to coheadliner billing on Vegas marquees and cracks the charts with raspy renditions of his own compositions (his current album: A Little Bit of Love). And most personally important to him, he is finally not only the composer but also the star of a movie, Brian De Palma's horror rock satire Phantom of the Paradise. Williams plays the Faustian-Dorian Gray heavy, an eternally youthful pop-music entrepreneur in a film that is not only a screaming box office success in the teenybop market but also receiving perplexed praise from critics like Pauline Kael of The New Yorker.

In his frenetic way, Williams still craves TV bookings—"I'm convinced," he says, "that if I stay off the tube for six months nobody will know who I am. There's no such thing as overexposure at this stage of my career." His private life centers on his new second wife, Katie Clinton, an ex-financial analyst. They live in a historic Hollywood house once owned by a succession of stars. Observes the former Nebraska Fats: "My biggest thrill of all is getting junk mail for Orson Welles."