William Goldman, Screenwriting Star and Hollywood Skeptic, Dies at 87
Posted November 16, 2018 3:07 p.m. EST
William Goldman, who won Academy Awards for his screenplays for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “All the President’s Men” and who, despite being one of Hollywood’s most successful screenwriters, was an outspoken critic of the movie industry, died on Friday in Manhattan. He was 87.
The cause was colon cancer and pneumonia, said Susan Burden, his partner.
In his long career, which began in the 1960s and lasted into the 21st century, Goldman also wrote the screenplays for popular films like “Misery,” “A Bridge Too Far,” “The Stepford Wives” and “Chaplin.” He was a prolific novelist as well, and several of his screenplays were adapted from his own novels, notably “The Princess Bride” and “Marathon Man.”
In a business where writers generally operate in relative obscurity, Goldman became a celebrity in his own right; in his heyday, his name was as much an asset to a film’s production and success as those of the director and stars. Eight of his films each grossed more than $100 million domestically.
Called “the world’s greatest and most famous living screenwriter” by the critic Joe Queenan in a 2009 profile in The Guardian, Goldman achieved renown in Hollywood in the late 1960s when he sold his first original screenplay, for “Butch Cassidy,” to 20th Century Fox for $400,000 (the equivalent of more than $2.75 million in 2018 dollars), a record for a screenplay at the time.
Goldman had written the screenplay — the tale of two outlaws from history who try to evade the law in the Old West — in 1965 while teaching creative writing at Princeton University.
Released in 1969, “Butch Cassidy,” starring Paul Newman as Cassidy and Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid, helped propel the relatively unheralded Redford to superstardom and established Goldman as a major Hollywood player.
Despite his Hollywood success, though, Goldman viewed the film business with a jaundiced eye. As he often pointed out, he considered himself not a screenwriter but a novelist who wrote screenplays. He wrote more than 20 novels, some using pen names, in addition to more than 20 screenplays. (He also wrote stage plays, but with little success. Two of them opened on Broadway in the early 1960s but quickly closed. Late in his career he adapted his script for “Misery,” based on Stephen King’s thriller, for Broadway, but that was a disappointment as well, opening to poor reviews and closing after 102 performances.)
Goldman chose to live in New York City rather than in Los Angeles, to avoid what he viewed as the distractions and irrationality of the Hollywood scene.
“Screenplay writing is not an art form,” he said in a Publishers Weekly interview in 1983, the year his best-selling insider’s view of Hollywood, “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” was published. “It’s a skill; it’s carpentry; it’s structure. I don’t mean to knock it — it ain’t easy. But if it’s all you do, if you only write screenplays, it is ultimately denigrating to the soul. You may get lucky and get rich, but you sure won’t get happy.”
In “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” Goldman made headlines in his famously thin-skinned industry when he declared, “Nobody knows anything,” a succinct assessment of the movie business that was embraced by Hollywood insiders and film critics alike. Expanding on his comment, he wrote, “Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work.”
Goldman said many times that he did not consider himself a particularly gifted writer, but he displayed a deft touch as a storyteller when it came to writing screenplays. “I have a theory that we gravitate toward affection,” he said in a 1978 interview with The New York Times. “I have a facility for screenwriting. It’s gone very well. I needed something else to write besides novels, which are physically hard and take time. Since nobody wanted my stories and people seemed to want my screenplays, I gravitated toward affection.”
William Goldman was born on Aug. 12, 1931, in Highland Park, Illinois, to Maurice and Marion (Weil) Goldman. His father was a businessman whose successful career was scuttled by alcoholism. As a child, William Goldman watched countless films at the venerable Alcyon Theater in Highland Park; he later said that that was probably where he got many of his best ideas. At Oberlin College in Ohio, where he enrolled with the intent of becoming a writer, he encountered the first disappointments of his nascent career. “I was so programmed to fail,” he told The Guardian. “I had shown no signs of talent as a young man.”
He managed to get the worst grade in his creative writing class, and despite being fiction editor of the school’s literary magazine, he was unable to get a single story published in it. “Everything was submitted anonymously and every issue I would sneak in a story and the three of us” — Goldman and two other editors — “would meet and I would listen while they both agreed whoever wrote this thing (my thing) was not about to get published,” Goldman wrote in “Adventures in the Screen Trade.”
Undaunted, after graduating with a degree in English from Oberlin he went to graduate school at Columbia. On receiving a master’s degree in 1956, he immediately began working on his first novel.
“I was so panicked that I would end up my life as a copywriter in an ad agency in Chicago that I wrote ‘The Temple of Gold’ in less than three weeks,” he said in an online chat in 2001. “I had no idea what I was doing.” It was published in 1957.
After publishing five novels, Goldman was disconsolate about his mixed reviews and modest success. But his fortunes began to turn when the actor Cliff Robertson, who had read Goldman’s 1964 novel, “No Way to Treat a Lady,” approached him about writing a screenplay adaptation of “Flowers for Algernon,” Daniel Keyes’ best-selling science fiction novel about a mentally challenged man who is turned into a genius.
Goldman agreed and then, realizing that he had no idea how to write a screenplay, panicked. Unable to sleep, he recalled, he rushed from his New York City apartment at midnight, headed to an all-night bookstore in Times Square and found a single volume on screenwriting.
Though he was eventually fired by Robertson — “probably because it was a terrible screenplay,” Goldman later said — he kept at it. (The movie was later made as “Charly,” with a screenplay by Stirling Silliphant. obertson won an Oscar for his performance.)
Goldman attributed the record sale of his “Butch Cassidy” script to “a brilliant piece of agenting” by Evarts Ziegler, who engineered a bidding war for the script, even though Goldman was virtually unknown in Hollywood. The film went on to become the highest-grossing of 1969 and won four Academy Awards, including for best original screenplay.
Of his many novels, Goldman was particularly fond of “The Princess Bride,” which was published in 1973. But it took almost 15 years of missteps and false starts for his own adaptation of it to make it to the screen. It was ultimately directed by Rob Reiner, who was far less experienced as a director than Goldman was as a screenwriter. “I was walking on air,” Reiner later recalled. “William Goldman said it was OK for me to do this.”
In 2012, at a 25th-anniversary reunion of the “Princess Bride” cast, which included Mandy Patinkin and Robin Wright, Goldman was asked if he planned a sequel. “I’m desperate to make it and write it and I don’t know how,” he said. “I would love to make it more than anything else I’ve not written.”
Conversely, Goldman was deeply disappointed with his experience writing “All the President’s Men,” based on the book by The Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (played by Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) about their role in exposing the Watergate scandal. It was a problematic project in which Goldman butted heads with Redford, who was the producer as well as the co-star, and who in later years played down Goldman’s participation.
Goldman’s screenplay — which included the famous line “Follow the money,” not found in the book — won him his second Academy Award, for best adapted screenplay. But he later wrote: “If you were to ask me ‘What would you change if you had your movie life to live over?’ I’d tell you that I’d have written exactly the screenplays I’ve written. Only I wouldn’t have come near ‘All the President’s Men.'” Goldman was also a sought-after script doctor, well known for his uncredited work. He was widely believed to have written the script for “Good Will Hunting,” the 1997 film that brought Matt Damon and Ben Affleck the Oscar for best original screenplay. He denied having a hand in it.
“I would love to say that I wrote ‘Good Will Hunting,'” Goldman said at a Writers Guild of America seminar in 2003. “But I did not write it, alas.”
Along with Burden, he is survived by his daughter, Jenny Goldman, and a grandson. Another daughter, Susanna Goldman, died in 2015. His marriage to Ilene Jones ended in divorce in 1991, after 30 years.
Goldman was, Queenan wrote in 2009, “the classic case of the creative genius who respects the rules, but has lived his entire life as if the rules do not apply to him.”
Goldman expressed his philosophy of writing simply in “Adventures in the Screen Trade”: “As a writer I believe that all the basic human truths are known. And what we try to do as best we can is come at those truths from our own unique angle, to reilluminate those truths in a hopefully different way.”