Back in Tune

updated 12/21/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/21/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

The night he crawled through the doggy door was the night Paul Williams thought he'd hit rock bottom. He was leaving his home in search of a party—any party—and he didn't want to use the front door, which squeaked, for fear his girlfriend might wake up and stop him from going. "I had an Oscar on the piano and a star on Hollywood Boulevard, and here I was sneaking out on all fours," says Williams, 58, the diminutive songwriter who penned such '70s hits as "Rainy Days and Mondays" and "We've Only Just Begun." "I was a classic alcoholic at work."

But he had only just begun to realize how low he had gone. In September 1989, high on cocaine and waving a loaded gun at imaginary enemies, a panicked Williams called his psychiatrist to beg for help. The next day he started a 28-day stay at a Los Angeles rehab center. "I knew that I had nowhere else to go, that after this was death," he says. "And I haven't had a drink or toot since."

Since saying goodbye to "the little devil with the dead eyes, the big glasses, the capped teeth and all that hair," as he describes his flashy '70s persona, the 5'2" Williams—whose biggest gig in the '80s was writing the soundtrack for the dud Isbtar—has dropped some 60 pounds and reinvented himself as a Nashville songsmith. He recently hit the country music charts with "You're Gone," a tune he cowrote for the Diamond Rio band, and "Party On," sung by country crooner Neil McCoy. "I made a deal with myself when I got sober that I would return to writing when I got excited about it, if I ever did," Williams explains. "And now it feels right again."

Williams is also filming a part in the independent movie Seventh Veil and earlier this year put in nearly five months as a recovering alcoholic on the CBS soap The Bold and the Beautiful. Yet his greatest source of pride is the peace he has made with people he feels he wronged. Though most of the '80s remain a blur—"It was like this oversized party just swallowed up the decade," he says—Williams sometimes wakes up with a startling memory of some past transgression. Three years ago he called Barbra Streisand—who sang "Evergreen," for which Williams wrote the lyrics, in the 1976 movie A Star Is Born—to apologize for some nasty cracks he remembered making about her. "She was wonderful," he says. "She listened to me, and she said it was okay." Williams has also made amends to Cole, 17, and Sarah, 14, the children he fathered with Katie Clinton and then largely ignored. "I was a total failure as a father," he admits. "I had to hit bottom before I did anything about it."

Born in Omaha, Williams was only 13 when his own father, architectural engineer Paul Sr., was killed in an alcohol-related car accident (mother Bertha Mae was a home-maker). Determined to be an actor, the younger Williams spent his 20s filming small parts in movies until, in 1970, a jingle for which he had written the lyrics ran in a bank commercial. Folk star Karen Carpenter recorded the tune, "We've Only Just Begun," and it became the first of many Williams hits. "Suddenly I had something I was good at," he says. "I was so passionate about it, I just wanted to write and write."

His subsequent fame and his elfin appearance made him a regular on The Tonight Show, in Smokey and the Bandit movies and, it seemed, at every party he could find. "I was out all the time," he remembers. "I was addicted not only to drugs and alcohol but to celebrity. Somehow, I'm not sure when, I lost my enthusiasm for music." Worse, he spent years getting high in one room of his L.A. home while his children played in another. "I retreated to my office and just stayed there," he laments. "I saw my kids grow up from a window."

But now Williams has grown up too. "He's just the kindest, gentlest soul," says his wife, Hildy, 43, a former talent agent who, like her husband of six years, is a recovering alcoholic. Together they split their time between a Cape Cod-style home in the Hollywood Hills and hotel suites in Nashville, where he runs a music publishing company. Williams, a certified rehabilitation counselor, also tours the country giving lectures on substance abuse and revels in chores like tending to his two rabbits. "I love cleaning the rabbit cages," he insists.

It's just the kind of uncomplicated pleasure he feels blessed to be able to enjoy. " 'Whatever happened to Paul Williams?' It's probably an entertainer's nightmare to be asked that question," he says with an easy grin. "But for me, it's a gift, because I'm still around."

Alex Tresniowski
Irene Zutell in Los Angeles

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