Last week, I started writing a column about John Sullivan, a former drug and alcohol addict who restarted his life, thanks to Beit T’Shuvah. But then I got interrupted by another great story, in a documentary called “Paul Williams: Still Alive,” directed by my friend Steve Kessler. I wasn’t planning to write about the film — until I saw a packed house at the Nuart on Saturday night give it a standing ovation.
What were those filmgoers so crazy about?
My simple theory is that they fell in love with the story of a singer-songwriter, a star of the 1970s and early 1980s whose life unraveled through drugs and alcohol and who is now sober and taking gigs wherever he can, at local Holiday Inns or even music halls in the Philippines.
I found both men’s stories irresistible, so I decided to combine them. What caught my attention in particular is that both Williams and Sullivan hate looking backward.
In the film, Kessler is constantly nudging Williams to look back. As they wander through hotel lobbies and small-town gigs, Kessler tries to get Williams to talk about his glory days, when he was one of the most revered entertainers in the country — picking up Oscars and Grammys and being a regular fixture on “The Tonight Show.”
This is the emotional core of the film: Williams wants to look forward, while Kessler wants to look back. Williams grudgingly humors Kessler, until a breaking point happens at the end (I won’t spoil it by telling you).
Sullivan also humored me and talked about his past (I didn’t give him much choice). He spoke about dropping out of high school at age 16 and spending the next 17 years of his life caught in a downward spiral of drugs, alcohol and petty crimes that often landed him in jail.
There was one episode especially that stood out. It happened about four years ago, while he was in a holding cell at a local courthouse. He had agreed to a deal from the prosecutor to do 16 months for a theft charge. But unbeknownst to him, his brother had appealed to the judge to send Sullivan to a rehabilitation center. The judge gave the brother 10 minutes to find a place that would take Sullivan.
The brother immediately called a friend, who put him in touch with Beit T’Shuvah, a faith-based residential treatment center and full-service congregation that has grown quickly over the past few years.
Beit T’Shuvah took him in, helped him get sober and, eventually, helped him enroll in a graphic design program. Today, Sullivan runs a marketing and design firm, under the auspices of Beit T’Shuvah, called BTS Communications.
Maybe that’s why his eyes light up when he talks about the future. “I have something to look forward to now when I get up,” he told me.
But what on earth could Williams have to look forward to, considering he fell so far from the top of the Hollywood food chain?
This is where Kessler’s film touches a nerve. Williams hates looking back, not because he loves and misses the old Paul Williams who was on top of the world, but because he’s repulsed by that person.
“Look at that guy, so smug and arrogant,” he tells Kessler in the film.
And also, as we learn, so phony. The old Williams, short, chubby and insecure, was obsessed with being “special” and with pleasing others, especially that elite club of Hollywood players, where he was never sure he belonged.
But body language doesn’t lie. The extraordinary thing about Williams today is that he looks genuinely happy. Not just sober and at peace, but happy.
He doesn’t miss the old days. He’s quite happy signing autographs in hotel lobbies and eating his favorite food, squid, with an order of Diet Coke instead of gin. His voice is raspy, but he still gives his all playing to tiny crowds, who adore him. He loves his wife and kids, and he still writes pretty songs (he wrote the song that plays at the end of the film, titled, appropriately, “Still Alive”).
Needless to say, Sullivan doesn’t miss the old days, either. All he wants to talk about now are the new design campaigns he and his team are working on. He’s especially excited about the possibility of creating a branding campaign for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to promote its education-based incarceration programs.
“We’re perfect for this assignment,” Sullivan told me. “Everyone who works at BTS has had a troubled past. We know the value of rehab. We understand the mentality of the convict.”
Williams and Sullivan both abandoned their pasts, although those pasts were sharply different. Sullivan left behind the lost, unproductive life of a small-time criminal addicted to booze and drugs; Williams abandoned the hyper-productive but empty life of a high-flying Hollywood star who filled his emptiness by seeking the approval of others.
In the end, though, they followed a similar journey back to personal redemption: Instead of looking backward or forward, they looked inward.
Sullivan looked inward and discovered he had a talent for art.
Williams looked inward and discovered he had a talent for being human.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.