Oscar Profile #486: William Goldman

Born August 12, 1931 in Chicago, Illinois, William Goldman was the son of Marion and businessman Maurice Goldman. He was the younger brother of fellow writer James Goldman (1927-1998), best known as the Oscar winning writer of The Lion in Winter.

Goldman, received a B.A. degree from Oberlin College in 1952, and was drafted into the Army shortly thereafter. He knew how to type, so he was assigned to the Pentagon, where he worked as a clerk. Discharged in September 1954, he then earned an M.A. from Columbia University, graduating in 1956. He wrote short stories in his spare time throughout this period but was unable to get any of them published.

It was during this period that Goldman and his brother James shared an apartment in New York with their friend John Kander, later the composer of Cabaret and Chicago . Kander was working on his PhD in music, and the Goldman brothers wrote the libretto for his dissertation.

In June 1956, Goldman began writing his first novel The Temple of Gold, completing it in less than three weeks. He wrote his second novel Your Turn to Curtsy, My Turn to Bow in a little more than a week in 1958. It was followed by 1960’s Soldier in the Rain, based on Goldman’s time in the military, which was made into a 1963 film starring Jackie Gleason and Steve McQueen.

Married to model Ilene Jones in 1961 with whom he would have two daughters, Goldman next wrote No Way to Treat a Lady which would be turned into a film in 1968. In the meantime, he wrote his first credited screenplay, 1965’s Masquerade starring Cliff Robertson, followed by 1966’s Harper starring Paul Newman.

It was the Newman-Robert Redford starrer, 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that made him a name to be reckoned with and earned him his first Oscar for his original screenplay the year after brother James won an Oscar for adapting his play The Lion in Winter for the screen. He then wrote the screenplays for two of Redford’s films, 1970’s The Hot Rock and 1975’s The Great Waldo Pepper as well as the 1975 adaptation of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives.

Goldman followed with the screenplay for All the President’s Men for which he won his second Oscar for his adaptation of the Bernstein-Woodward book, coining the phrase “follow the money.” He had another major success that year with his adaptation of his novel, Marathon Man.

Later successes included 1978’s Magic and 1987’s The Princess Bride, both of which he adapted from his own novels and 1990’s Misery, adapted from Stephen King’s novel. Following his divorce from Jones in 1991, he rebounded with screenplays for 1992’s Chaplin, 1996’s The Ghost and the Darkness and 1999’s The General’s Daughter among others. He also acted as consultant on numerous films including 1997’s Good Will Hunting for which Matt Damon and Ben Affleck won Oscars. He was also the author of numerous non-fiction books, mostly about his experiences on Broadway and in Hollywood.

William Goldman died on November 16, 2018 at 87.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969), directed by George Roy Hill

Goldman had been researching the lives of the titled Western outlaws for eight years when he wrote his screenplay and sold it to Hollywood for $400,000 while teaching at Princeton. The money enabled to take time off to research his seminal 1969 non-fiction work, The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway, a look at the 1967-1968 season, long considered one of the best books ever written about Broadway. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the title roles was a huge success, earning Goldman his first Oscar.

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976), directed by Alan J. Pakula

Of all the screenplays Goldman, his Oscar-winning script for All the President’s Men was the one he hated working on the most. Everything in the classic film about the Washington Post’s investigation into Watergate had to be independently researched and verified or it had to be taken out the scene rewritten. Despite this, the line “follow the money” attributed to “Deep Throat”, played by Hal Holbrook, was Goldman’s invention, a shortened version of the real character’s much longer speech. Robert Redford and Dustin were reporters Woodward and Bernstein, Oscar winner Jason Robards was managing editor Ben Bradlee.

MARATHON MAN (1976), directed by John Schlesinger

Goldman’s best-selling novel was widely considered the best thriller set in New York City since Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby. Goldman, who adapted Levin’s The Stepford Wives for the screen in 1975, was not happy with director Bryan Forbes’ changes to the script, nor was he happy with some of the changes that Schlesinger made to Marathon Man. He felt that the removal of some of the more violent scenes involving Roy Scheider as Dustin Hoffman’s brother made the character seem less evil than he was. Laurence Olivier, who thought he would die of cancer during shooting, lived another thirteen years.

THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987), directed by Rob Reiner

A rare family film for Goldman, this beloved tale of a young boy entranced by the book his grandfather reads to him while sick in bed. The book is the tale of a farm boy-turned-pirate who encounters numerous obstacles, enemies and allies in his quest to be reunited with his true love, Buttercup. Goldman tried to have this film of his novel made since the 1970s when Arnold Schwarzenegger might have played one of the key roles. Instead it was filmed with Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, Wallace Shawn, André the Great, Fred Savage as the boy and Peter Falk as the grandfather.

GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997), directed Gus Van Sant

Goldman was a prolific “script doctor” whose work on 1988’s Twins, 1992’s A Few Good Men, 1993’s Indecent Proposal and Last Action Hero, 1994’s Malice, 1995’s Dolores Claibrone and 1996’s Extreme Measures was well known. He did not however, contrary to rumor, rewrite anything on Good Will Hunting. He stated that he met with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who would later win Oscars for their script, for one day for which his only advice was to eliminate a subplot involving the FBI which already fine script didn’t need.

WILLIAM GOLDMAN AND OSCAR

  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) – Oscar – Best Original Screenplay
  • All the President’s Men (1976) – Oscar – Best Adapted Screenplay

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