Paul Williams stands at the counter of Zinc Cafe in Corona del Mar folding a wad of bills into the tip jar.
You can tell a lot about a person by the way he tips.
As he grabs a patio table and starts on his lunch, an attractive middle-aged woman approaches. She bends over and asks, “Are you Paul Williams?”
“I am.” A wistful smile blooms on his face.
The woman says that she and her husband, who’s seated inside, just wanted him to know how much they’ve enjoyed his work over the years. Williams is gracious in thanking her.
Does that happen a lot?
“Nothing better.” He smiles that whimsical, teasing smile and says that in the past few years, his visibility has increased. “People are comfortable coming up to me,” says the Huntington Harbour resident. “And ‘Goliath’ fans! But to so much of the country, I will always be Little Enos in ‘Smokey and the Bandit.’ As (‘Goliath’ co-star) Billy Bob (Thornton) says, in the South, they consider it a documentary.”
He pops the tab on his Diet Coke and dives into a plate of huevos rancheros. “Really good,” he says, patting his mouth with a napkin.
Williams wears a blue collared shirt, jeans, a dark jacket, and round-framed glasses. He has a silver stud that pierces his left earlobe: a triangle inside a circle.
“Had it made 28 years ago,” he says. “Symbol of recovery. Haven’t taken it off since.”
Williams talks about his Amazon Prime show “Goliath” and his songs—one hit after another—recorded by dozens of icons, from Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra to the Carpenters and Kermit the Frog. He has won three Grammys, two Golden Globes, and one Academy Award, yet he’d rather talk about his work for the recovery community, which makes him the most proud. He cites the date he got sober: March 15, 1990.
“At a certain age, everyone stopped partying except for me. I thought everyone started their day with a glass of alcohol in the shower,” he says. “I didn’t have a mean bone in my body, but I was void of gratitude, and gratitude is the bedrock of who I am today.”
Besides everything else he does, Williams is a certified drug and rehabilitation counselor, and with Tracey Jackson he co-wrote “Gratitude and Trust: Six Affirmations That Will Change Your Life,” which he notes was “approved of and promoted by Oprah.”
“Everyone has something they’re a slave to that pulls them away from their best life,” he says. “The first affirmation is ‘Something needs to change, and it’s probably me.’ ”
For life to be truly interesting, Williams says, vigilance is required. Once sober, you regain the capacity to listen.
“God has a sense of humor, because now that I can listen, I need hearing aids.”
Williams has always looked young—at age 26, he played a teen in the film “The Chase” with Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, and Marlon Brando. He might not have appreciated his youthful looks then, but at 78, he looks more like 60.
“Back in the ’50s, they gave me male hormones (to make me grow), which was the wrong thing,” he says. “It screwed up my body clock.”
While he began finding roles as an actor, “The Chase” gave him his start as a songwriter.
“On the set, I had time on my hands and was picking out a few chords on a guitar. Robert Duvall was walking by. He stopped and said, ‘What’s that?’ ”
Duvall liked what he heard so much that he pointed out Williams to director Arthur Penn. Williams played his newly written song in the film. Two years later, he was writing songs professionally. Now he’s considered one of the most popular songwriters of all time. He has been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame because of songs such as “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “Rainbow Connection,” and “Evergreen.” He has released more than two dozen albums and provided songs and scores for dozens of films.
Plenty of people with his success would let it go to their heads. At this point in his life, he says he likes “normal”—one reason he appreciates Huntington Harbour, where he has lived for three years with his wife, Mariana Williams, a novelist and founder of the long-running live show “Long Beach Searches for the Greatest Storyteller.”
Mariana is from Los Alamitos, which drew them to Huntington Harbour—to be close to family. For him, the coastal community is “a place to have normal.”
“Normal is kindness, a little slower, a little less noise—the kind you hear with your ears and the kind you think. There’s a level of serenity and relaxation that is purely Huntington Beach, purely Huntington Harbour, purely Orange County.”
It’s the same reason he prefers to golf at Meadowlark Golf Course in Huntington Beach over Pebble Beach near Monterey.
“At Pebble Beach, they expect you to be a golfer,” he says. “At Meadowlark, no one laughs.”
When Williams brings up Orange County, he speaks in superlatives.
Orange County has the best calamari at a place called The Hangout, “2 miles from my house—I feel guilty eating the little darlings—and the best veggie burger is at Fantastic Cafe on Westminster Boulevard.”
His church is in Orange County—the Center for Spiritual Living in Irvine. “I walk in and my hair stands up,” he says. “It speaks to me.”
In 2009, Williams was elected president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, a group with nearly 700,000 members worldwide. Williams advocates for defending songwriters’ and composers’ copyrights. He has testified before Congress on matters around intellectual property and digital copyright, and was instrumental in getting the Music Modernization Act passed.
“In the world of streaming, all of a sudden, our hands were tied,” he says. “It’s made a huge difference. We got 100 percent approval in the Senate because Democrats and Republicans all love music.”
He relates his work with ASCAP back to his favorite topic: recovery.
“When I got sober,” he says, “I learned it’s all about love and service.”
He made 30 stops on his last trip around the nation to speak about recovery—to drug court judges, drug and alcohol associations, and at conferences. He’ll speak anywhere he’s asked.
“I know one life I saved,” he says, “and you’re having lunch with him.”
Williams sees the blessed aspects in everyday life. Billy Bob Thornton was on his “Gratitude & Trust” podcast, and their friendship led to a role on “Goliath.” Williams was cast as JT, a lawyer who gives Thornton’s character a hard time for being a drunk. Williams appears in a handful of episodes in the second season and is expected to return for the third.
What did Williams bring from his own life to the role of JT?
“Post-crash and burn,” he says, “and newly found priorities. Values. A spiritual awakening … though JT’s more volatile than I am.”
Could he play this role with so much sincerity had he not been an addict himself?
“I give everything more heart and substance because of that,” he says. “I’ve just been blessed. Everything that appeared to be an obstacle turned out to be an opportunity.”
Williams pursues things that scare him. He has been skydiving and has driven five times in the Long Beach Grand Prix. He writes with the band Daft Punk.
“You might assume I’d want to write ballads now, but I want to write with those who scare me. People say, ‘You quit writing!’ and I say, ‘No, you quit listening!’ ”
As a kid, Williams listened to Frank Sinatra. It made him want to sing. But at 13, when his father died in a car accident, all he wanted to do was act.
“I wanted to be someone else,” he says.
Now he’s happy to be himself. When he got sober, he started writing the way he was living: with authenticity. His first major project after this change was writing songs for “The Muppet Christmas Carol.” Writing Scrooge, he could relate. The lyrics poured out of him.
He’s an intuitive writer: When he knows what the challenge is, he gets a concept and then, “I don’t think about it. Like when you can’t remember someone’s name. You forget about it, and while you’re washing the dishes, the name comes into your head. You’re not thinking about it, but the lag time is when the real work is done. (Composer) Richard Bellis told me, ‘You’re not procrastinating, you’re percolating.’ ”
After lunch, Williams walks over to his car, a charcoal gray 2003 Audi TT convertible with tinted windows.
“People say, ‘Why do you keep that hot rod?’ and I say, ‘Because I can see over the dash.’ ”
He gets in, and the sports car hums down the street toward Coast Highway, a small but powerful presence, impossible to ignore.