Williams tells the story — with great wit — in his new, awkwardly titled memoir, Harvard, Hollywood, Hitmen, and Holy Men. If his name doesn’t register alongside those of his erstwhile teammates, there’s a reason. Although Williams has spent a lifetime in and around Hollywood — as a director, writer, actor, and producer (Malick’s Badlands was one of his earliest producing credits) — he has never been all that comfortable with, as he puts it, “‘the business’ of movies.” At just about every point in his career, Williams resisted calls “to become more productive, more famous — a lifelong brand.” So what did he become instead? Take your pick: a political radical; an eager explorer of altered states; a transcendence-seeking spiritual pilgrim; a maker of low-budget films about failed drug deals, presidential assassinations, and house cats.
Born Paul William Goldberg in the Bronx in 1943, Williams grew up on Long Island, which left him with a profound distaste for all things Republican. He was suspended from his high school in “fucked-up, conservative Massapequa” for writing an appreciation of none other than Fidel Castro as “The Person I Most Admire in History.” Four years at Harvard in the mid-1960s did nothing to moderate his views. If anything, his Ivy League sojourn only reaffirmed the anticapitalist credo by which he vowed to live. Seminars with Henry Kissinger were enough to leave him in a state of “metaphysical gloom.” He was rescued from despair by the writings of Albert Camus, the guest lectures of Reinhold Niebuhr, and the tutoring of John Kenneth Galbraith, who introduced him to the world of Keynesian economics and, more importantly, the actress Angie Dickinson. “Whatever field this woman is in,” the young Williams told himself, “I am going there.”
At Harvard, Williams dabbled in photography and filmmaking, taking a visiting Jean Renoir’s advice to heart: “A man only has at most three original stories to tell before he starts repeating himself, so try to keep a sense of balance and live your life. Enjoy life.” That Williams did grandly, thanks in part to the family wealth of a Sears-Roebuck heiress he bedded, then married. The sitting rooms of the Manhattan elite were a long way from Massapequa and the Bronx, but Williams acclimated to them quickly enough. Access to money, power, and influence kept him out of Vietnam. It also allowed him to make connections, the kind that make movie-making possible. Hiding out in London, Williams hung out with old Harvard pals; met his future producing partner, toy-fortune-heir-turned-movie-impresario Edward Pressman; and embarked on a career as a filmmaker.
But still, there were as many closed doors as open ones. Williams tried to get into the American Film Institute, only to be told by George Stevens Jr., its inaugural director, that they weren’t accepting students yet. He then considered joining Martin Scorsese for a newly offered graduate course in filmmaking at New York University, only to have second thoughts. Going his own way — a recurring theme in Harvard, Hollywood, Hitmen, and Holy Men — Williams proceeded to pen and direct the sexual coming-of-age comedy Out of It in 1966. A satire of Long Island suburban life as seen through the eyes of one Paul Green, a Camus-reading, film-besotted, wannabe Jean-Paul Belmondo, it explored the generational ennui that would make later films, most notably Mike Nichols’s The Graduate, such surprising critical and commercial successes. But Out of It didn’t get a proper release until 1969, and by then the countercultural wave it depicted had begun to crest in Hollywood, making its writer-director look less like a trendsetter and more like a hanger-on.
Williams searched diligently for new projects. He pressed Pressman to option Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There (1970) and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962), but his recommendations fell on deaf ears. Meanwhile, his screenplay adaptations of Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano (1952), The Sirens of Titan (1959), and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) went nowhere. Williams’s big break finally came with The Revolutionary (1970), a movie based on the 1967 novel of the same name by Hans Koning. It starred Jon Voight — a veteran of Out of It, fresh off his star turn in Midnight Cowboy — as a philosophy graduate student radicalized by state-sponsored violence. Also appearing in the film were Collin Wilcox and Jennifer Salt as his love interests; Robert Duvall as a committed communist; Seymour Cassel as an Abbie Hoffmanesque political agitator; and Tommy Lee Jones as an army guard, a bit part that helped the fledgling actor (another Harvard grad) qualify for a SAG membership. Williams had a fleeting cameo in the film playing a student whose lecture notes on Fichte — a philosopher of action, not idle contemplation — Voight’s character eagerly copies.
Released just two years after the mayhem of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which Williams had documented as a photojournalist, The Revolutionary captured the mood of the day and garnered critical praise — Orson Welles was a fan — but it languished at the box office. The movies Williams made after it, including Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues (1972) and Nunzio (1978), were experiments in mood and feeling more than manifestoes. Neither worked, for different reasons. A French New Wave–aping drug-smuggling tale, Dealing was “too European” for American audiences. (As if proving the point, Williams appeared in it as — yet again — a student spouting off about German philosophy.) By contrast, Nunzio, “a crypto holy movie” about a developmentally disabled Brooklyn do-gooder who defies his bullies and saves the day, was dismissed as “too sweet and syrupy.”
Divorced from both his wife and her financial resources, Williams had turned his attention to other things: sex, drugs, the search for transcendence. Over the years, in between meetings with Eldridge Cleaver, Huey P. Newton, and Abbie Hoffman, not to mention dalliances with actresses ranging from Margot Kidder to Karen Black, he did peyote with David Carradine; MDA (the more hallucinogenic forerunner of MDMA) with the future alternative medicine guru Andrew Thomas Weil (another Harvard pal); LSD with the 1970s Malibu crowd; and, for good measure, heroin, this time with “junkie supermodels” and New Yorkers only one or two steps removed from the mob. He studied Sufism with Oscar Ichazo, Rastafarianism with the Rastas in Jamaica, and Tibetan Buddhism with Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, the great “Teacher of Teachers,” who counted the Dalai Lama among his pupils. Along the way, Williams also became a father.
While others in the New Hollywood were doing everything they could to make names for themselves in the 1970s, Williams seemed hell-bent on ego dissolution. There had to be something out there more important and more meaningful than making money in the pictures. Williams’s early encounter with MDA had given him a sense of cosmic interconnection that made him all the more suspicious of the materialistic world. Hugging the trunk of a tree, he felt a “serene love” that was “deeply rooted in the ground.” It was “like some kind of cure” for an illness he didn’t know he had. Was being a famous filmmaker really that important? Maybe it was better to enjoy a “gorgeous second childhood” dropping acid naked in a Malibu box canyon with views of the Pacific: “I imagine my director friends movie-making all day on their sets and locations, becoming heroes of capitalist entertainment. Without knowing it, I am opening new doors of meaning for myself.”
Hollywood memoirs generally follow a pretty common narrative arc: the obscure beginnings and the surprising breakthrough; the steady rise cut short by the abrupt downfall; the arduous struggle for redemption and the late-in-life recognition. But whereas classics of the genre, such as Robert Evans’s The Kid Stays in the Picture (1994), offer us accounts of the outsider-as-insider, the two-bit actor become studio boss, Harvard, Hollywood, Hitmen, and Holy Men gives us a different perspective, that of the outsider-as-outsider, the curious observer who dishes all the juicy gossip, but with a hefty amount of anticapitalist, countercultural salt thrown in.
Evans and Williams have more in common than you would think: New York City roots; fathers who decide upon different, less Jewish-sounding surnames for their kids; an obsession with telling readers about their sexual conquests in too much detail. Both of them are also unrepentant name-droppers. To his credit, Williams confesses as much at the outset, with an epigraph culled from Galbraith’s 1999 book titled — you guessed it — Name-Dropping. This doesn’t make up for the memoir’s most annoying tic, though: the highlighting of the class credentials of every Harvard alum who makes even the slightest appearance in the story. Whether it is Wallace Shawn or John Lithgow, Tommy Lee Jones or Terrence Malick, we are duly reminded of their years of graduation. Do we really need to know that one of Williams’s lovers and collaborators was a distant relation of Ralph Waldo Emerson (class of 1821)? It’s like Robert Evans bragging about sleeping with the coeds in the “Anatomy of Film” class he taught at Brown University that one time.
The differences are worth stressing too, of course. One memoirist does cocaine, the other acid. One ends up in a Beverly Hills mansion, the other in shacks and repurposed shipping containers in Malibu. One squabbles almost constantly with Francis Ford Coppola, the other invites him to shoot hoops in Havana.
The most important difference between Evans and Williams, though, is that the former relishes his access to corporate and political power while the latter turns his back and gags. The Kid Stays in the Picture repeatedly returns to its hero’s close and intimate friendship with, of all people, Henry Kissinger: they laugh at each other’s jokes, attend premieres together, and even orchestrate a secret rendezvous in Palm Springs when they need to share secrets in private. Such a friendship would be unfathomable to Williams. After all, Kissinger’s Harvard seminars gave him nothing but migraines. He had waited in vain for some “consideration of compassion” in the new geopolitical thinking being laid out before him in the classroom. All he got instead was a vision of the increasingly soulless, unjust world to come.
An idealist at heart, Williams searched everywhere for signs of authentic solidarity in the realpolitik era. He sometimes found it in the Black Panthers or the Yippies, but like Castro on the basketball court, they, too, were prone to bending the rules when they felt like it. Williams is a lover, not a fighter: he passed up the chance to direct Taxi Driver because he found Paul Schrader’s script too violent. The Revolutionary infamously ends with an ambiguous freeze-frame, the moment right before its intellectual-turned-militant protagonist decides to throw a bomb — or not.
Is there any other way out of the mess? When one lives in a country that “uses most of its treasure to fund vast legions to fight endless wars around the world while only the wealthy citizens participate in the government of a broken capitalistic system — that eliminates a real progressive tax, eats the middle class, and burps up its savings to the one-percenters” — what is to be done? How does one endure the tragedy of Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, or the farce of Bush the Second and Trump, who, to Williams’s chagrin, bestowed a Medal of Arts upon Jon Voight whilst running the country even further into the ground?
Williams survived by pursuing altered states of consciousness and alternative spiritual practices. But filmmaking became something of a coping mechanism too, offering him the chance to channel his outrage and frustration into something creative. In his later career, he directed, produced, and starred in a metacinematic film — The November Men (1993) — about the making of a film about the attempted assassination of a sitting United States president. More winking movies, made on the cheap, followed in its wake: Mirage (1995), a bonkers Vertigo knockoff featuring Sean Young and Edward James Olmos that exchanged San Francisco for the Salton Sea, and The Amazing Adventure of Marchello the Cat (2002), a live-action feel-good flick starring, well, Williams’s cat. Maybe it was for the best that the project on which Williams devoted most of his time during this period of his career — a spiritual biopic of Pope John Paul II, to be funded by Domino’s Pizza founder, and ultraconservative Catholic, Tom Monaghan — got the axe before cameras started rolling.
These days, Williams surveys the perilous state of the world from a comfortable cocoon down in Rio de Janeiro. He has become something of a doomer: “[T]his century will not be Chinese or American,” he writes. “It will belong to Thomas Malthus — famine, disease, natural disasters, mass population crises, and clashes of arms, foreign and domestic. The speed and scale of the global demise will take the optimists by surprise.” Williams worries that the noble ideal of compassion, still under attack by corporate greed and the military-industrial complex, “may be extinguished” for good “in the collective trauma.” He may very well be right, but it sounds like more metaphysical gloom to me. Where’s Angie Dickinson when you need her?
Martin Woessner is associate professor of History & Society at the City College of New York’s Center for Worker Education.