Screenwriter William Goldman has been behind several memorable films of the past few decades, and he is one of few in the business who also have a successful career as a novelist. He is often praised for his rich dialogue and for keeping plots moving along quickly while managing to continue character development. In 1967, Goldman ushered in a new era giving screenwriters more clout and credibility when his screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid sold for $400,000. He also brought the lengthy and detailed political novel All the President's Men to the screen by making it into a fast-paced drama revolving around the reporters. Goldman has also adapted some of his own novels for the screen, including The Princess Bride. Some of his other major efforts transformed from the works of others include Stephen King's Misery and David Baldacci's Absolute Power. In 2000, he issued What Lie Did I Tell?, his second volume of ruminations on his career in the film business. By the time of his death in November of 2018, Goldman was widely regarded as one of the best screenwriters in Hollywood history.
Early Life and Education
Goldman was born on August 12, 1931, in Chicago, Illinois, and grew up in suburban Highland Park. He is the son of Maurice Clarence Goldman, a businessman, and Marion Weil Goldman. His brother, James, is also a writer whose credits include the Academy Award-winning screenplay A Lion in Winter, adapted from his own play.
While growing up, Goldman used to spend much of his time at the local Alcyon Theater watching movies. In fact, he told Ralph Tyler in the New York Times that one of the scenes in his screenplay Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid of the characters jumping into a river from a cliff probably came from his memory of a similar sequence in 1939's Gunga Din. In a later interview, he admitted that Gunga Din was his favorite film of all time.
At Ohio's Oberlin College, Goldman unsuccessfully studied writing. He got mostly C's and was unable to get any of his short stories published in the campus literary magazine even though he was the fiction editor. Because submissions were anonymous, his status did not matter. In addition, he sent out his best short story 69 times and never got it published. After receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1952, he performed his then-mandatory two years' military duty in the U.S. Army. Subsequently, he moved to New York City and obtained a master of arts in English from Columbia University in 1956.
The summer after he graduated, Goldman wrote a novel, The Temple of Gold, in ten days. He told Tyler that if it had not been published, "I would have gone into advertising or something." Instead, Alfred A. Knopf accepted the manuscript and it got decent reviews. Published in 1957, the book is a coming-of-age tale about a man who inadvertently causes the deaths of his closest friends, then leaves home only to find intolerance and frustration.
Goldman's next work, 1958's Your Turn to Curtsy, My Turn to Bow, concerns a man whose delusions cause him to believe he is the new Messiah, which results in a mental breakdown. Following this, Soldier in the Rain, 1960, is set in an army boot camp after the Korean War and deals with two men who cannot escape the military-industrial complex. Some believe this is one of Goldman's finest early works.
In the early 1960s, Goldman took a break from writing his next book, titled Boys and Girls Together, to join forces with his brother on the Broadway comedy Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole, about army life, and the musical A Family Affair. Neither were box-office hits. Later, he completed his novel, which came out in 1964.
Meanwhile, though, when Goldman first returned to the project he found he "was stuck," as he explained in an Esquire article that he penned. In the midst of writer's block on that book, as he further wrote in Esquire, "There was a little article about the Boston Strangler--that maybe there were two people who were stranglers. I've never had this experience before, and I never expect to have it again, but in the length of time it took me to walk the two blocks to my office, a novel fell into my brain based on that idea: What if there were two stranglers? And what if one got jealous of the other?"
This grew into No Way to Treat a Lady, but Goldman was in such a rush to finish it and get back to Boys and Girls Together that he included 50 chapters in order to make the brief book appear longer. As it turned out, actor Cliff Robertson read a copy of the novel before it was published and mistakenly thought it was a film treatment. Goldman, who published the work in 1964 under the pseudonym Harry Longbaugh, did not correct him, especially since Robertson then asked him to write a screenplay based on a short story called "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes.
The problem was, Goldman had never actually written for film, so he scoured the bookstore for a how-to volume on screenwriting. He related in Esquire, "They had one, but I realized I could never write in that form because it was full of all those awful capital letters and numbers and it was unreadable." So he made up his own version, but upon seeing it Robertson immediately fired him. Instead, he hired Stirling Silliphant, who transformed the story into 1968's Charly, for which Robertson won an Academy Award in 1969.
By this time, Goldman had returned to Boys and Girls Together, an exhaustive look at contemporary American life. It became his first commercial success and was later optioned for a movie. In addition, though Robertson did not use Goldman's earlier screenplay, he was helpful in landing him a job on one of his future projects. Goldman and Michael Ralph shared writing credits for the 1965 film Masquerade.
After this, Goldman spoke with producer Elliot Kastner, who wanted to do a gutsy film, and Goldman suggested he read the works of mystery writer Ross Macdonald. Kastner liked the author's style, and when Goldman told him he could adapt one of his books into a screenplay, Kastner agreed to buy it. He chose the novel The Moving Target and transformed it into the 1966 film Harper, starring Paul Newman as a cynical private investigator recruited to find a woman's missing husband. This would spark off a lasting collaboration between Goldman and Newman.
Though Harper was a hit, Goldman continued to write novels. In 1967 he released The Thing of It Is..., about a failing marriage. In addition, he published his first nonfiction work, The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway, in 1969. This came after he immersed himself in theatre during the entire 1967-68 season. He attended just about every production on Broadway as well as rehearsals and out-of-town previews, and also interviewed scores of actors, directors, producers, and critics. The result was often unflattering to those involved. Reviewers took him to task for his lack of objectivity, yet admitted it was entertaining.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Meanwhile, Goldman had long ago started another screenplay, which took him eight years to complete. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, released in 1969, is based on the true tales of a group of outlaws active as the twentieth century approached. Since the 1950s, Goldman had researched The Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, or The Wild Bunch, which was headed by Butch Cassidy. The film focused on Cassidy's relationship with gunslinger Harry Longbaugh, known as the Sundance Kid. Newman starred as Cassidy and Robert Redford played the Sundance Kid.
Humorous and flippant, the film cast the two bandits as affable, smart-talking pals and poked fun at conventional westerns. In one scene, the local marshal tries to whip up the townsfolk into a posse, but instead of finding an outpouring of armed support, one blasé citizen quips, "What's the point?" In addition to being the highest-priced script to date, the film brought Goldman an Academy Award for best original screenplay in 1970. It became a highly influential and much-studied piece of American cinema.
Goldman's next two big films were adapted from works by others. The Stepford Wives, 1975, based on Ira Levin's novel, is about a group of Connecticut women whose husbands kill them and replace them with look-alikes. All the President's Men, 1976, is based on the best-selling tale of the Watergate scandal by reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Because the political saga was dense and lengthy, Goldman asked Woodward to boil it down to its essential components for the film. He also focused on the relationship between the two very different reporters in order to add drama, and transformed the work into a 1950s-style detective story. The film was a huge hit and won Goldman his second Oscar for screenwriting.
Throughout the years, Goldman continued to pen books as well as screenplays, and has adapted some of his own works for film as well. In 1975, he published Marathon Man, about a graduate student and would-be marathoner who gets tangled in an international web of intrigue and violence, including a sadistic ex-Nazi who uses a dental drill as a torture device. The film came out the following year. He also translated his 1976 novel Magic for screen in 1978. About a deranged ventriloquist, the book got mixed reviews and the film was a dismal failure.
During the next several years, Goldman worked on several scripts that never made it to screen. He also wrote six more novels around this time. He returned to the film business with Heat and The Princess Bride, both released in 1987. Heat, based on his 1985 novel, is a revenge story set in Las Vegas starring Burt Reynolds. The Princess Bride, Goldman's favorite among his novels, is an adult fairy tale featuring an unconventional telling in spite of its usual cast of fantasy characters.
In 1990, Goldman's screen version of Stephen King's Misery came out, starring then-unknown Kathy Bates. She plays a controlling romance novel fan who rescues her favorite author (played by James Caan), who has been injured in a car accident, then gets angry when she finds out he plans to kill off his popular fictional heroine. Bates earned an Oscar for her chilling performance. Goldman also shared writing credits on Chaplin, 1992, which reaped Robert Downey, Jr. an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of legendary actor Charlie Chaplin.
After some duds earlier in the 1990s such as Maverick, 1994, and The Ghost and the Darkness, Goldman saw a hit with Absolute Power, 1997, based on the novel by David Baldacci. It starred Clint Eastwood as an aging jewel thief who witnesses a murder while robbing a mansion. The killer is the president of the United States. In 1999, Goldman adapted the novel The General's Daughter, a mystery/thriller about cover-ups at West Point military academy.
In addition to his novels and screenplays, Goldman has written books on his experiences in the film industry. Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting came out in 1983, and is full of anecdotes about his experiences in the business. The irreverent work dished out gossip about celebrities, directors, and studio executives as well as gave advice to aspiring filmmakers and dispensed his opinions on the process of making movies.
In 2000, Goldman released What Lie Did I Tell? More Adventures in the Screen Trade. In this follow-up, he reveals secrets of his success in Hollywood, which he sums up by claiming the only important element is to have a good story. He also dispatches his analyses of favorite scenes and offers more insider tidbits about actors and actresses. In addition, he bemoans the direction in which entertainment is going, blaming MTV specifically for having a negative impact on movies with all of its quick-cutting and complaining that most movies are mass-produced and formulaic. Goldman also mentions instances in which his instincts have failed him. For example, in Misery, though Goldman insisted on keeping novelist King's scene of the hero having his feet chopped off, director Rob Reiner changed it to show his ankles being broken instead. The scene became a determining moment in the picture and later, Goldman admitted Reiner was right. A Library Journal review of What Lie Did I Tell? calls the book "an engaging expose that is not mean-spirited."
Later Years and Death
Goldman was a longtime Manhattan resident and preferred the atmosphere there to Hollywood because, he claimed to Suzy Kalter in People, "It's too beautiful in Los Angeles. I'd never get any work done." He continued to live in New York until his death on November 16, 2018, following a battle with colon cancer. Goldman was 87 at the time of his passing.
Goldman married Ilene Jones, a photographer, on April 15, 1961, and they had two daughters, Jenny and Susanna. He and Jones divorced in 1991.
Born August 12, 1931, in Chicago, IL; son of Maurice Clarence (a businessman) and Marion (Weil) Goldman; married Ilene Jones (a photographer), April 15, 1961 (divorced, 1991); children: Jenny Rebecca, Susanna. Education: Oberlin College, B.A.,1952; Columbia University, M.A., 1956.
Freelance writer; novelist and screenwriter. Contributor to periodicals, including Transatlantic Review, Rogue, Esquire, and New World Writing.
Academy Award for best original screenplay, 1970, for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; Academy Award for best screenplay based on material from another medium, 1976, for All the President's Men; Laurel Award, 1983, for lifetime achievement in screenwriting.
- The Temple of Gold, Knopf, 1957.
- Your Turn To Curtsy, My Turn To Bow, Doubleday, 1958.
- Soldier in the Rain, Atheneum, 1960.
- Boys and Girls Together, Atheneum, 1964.
- (Under pseudonym Harry Longbaugh) No Way To Treat a Lady, Gold Medal, 1964; published under own name, Harcourt, 1968.
- The Thing of It Is..., Harcourt, 1967.
- Father's Day, Harcourt, 1971.
- The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, the "Good Parts" Version, Abridged by William Goldman, Harcourt, 1974.
- Wigger (juvenile), Harcourt, 1974.
- Marathon Man, Macmillan, 1975.
- Magic, Delacorte, 1976.
- Tinsel, Delacorte, 1979.
- Control, Delacorte, 1982.
- (Under pseudonym S. Morgenstern) The Silent Gondoliers, Ballantine (New York City), 1983.
- The Color of Light, Warner Books,1984.
- Heat, Warner Books, 1985.
- Brothers, Warner Books, 1987.
- William Goldman: Four Screenplays with Essays, Applause Books, 1995.
- The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway, Harcourt, 1969.
- Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting, Warner Books, 1983.
- (With Mike Lupica) Wait Till Next Year: The Story of a Season When What Should've Happened Didn't and What Could've Gone Wrong Did!, Bantam, 1988.
- Hype and Glory, Villard Books (New York City), 1990.
- What Lie Did I Tell?; Or, More Adventures in the Screen Trade, Pantheon, 2000.
- (With brother, James Goldman) Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole (produced on Broadway at Morosco Theatre, October 5, 1961), Dramatists Play Service, 1962.
- (With Goldman and John Kander) A Family Affair (musical), produced on Broadway at Billy Rose Theatre, January 27, 1962.
- (With Michael Ralph) Masquerade, 1965.
- Harper, 1966.
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969; published by Bantam, 1971.
- The Hot Rock, 1972.
- The Stepford Wives, 1974.
- The Great Waldo Pepper, 1975; Dell, 1975.
- All the President's Men (based on book of same title by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein), 1976.
- Marathon Man (based on Goldman's novel of same title), 1976.
- A Bridge Too Far, 1977, published as William Goldman's Story of A Bridge Too Far, Dell, 1977.
- Magic (based on Goldman's novel of same title), 1978.
- Mr. Horn (for television), CBS, 1979.
- The Princess Bride (based on Goldman's novel of same title), 1987.
- Heat (based on Goldman's novel of same title), 1987.
- Misery (based on novel of same title by Stephen King), 1990.
- (With Robert Collector and Dana Bodner) Memoirs of an Invisible Man, 1992.
- Absolute Power (based on novel of same title by David Baldacci), 1997.
- (With Christopher Bertolini) The General's Daughter (based on novel of same title by Nelson DeMille), 1999.
- Soldier in the Rain was filmed by Allied Artists, 1963; No Way To Treat a Lady was filmed by Paramount, 1968; a musical play based on No Way To Treat a Lady was produced on Broadway at the Hudson Guild Theatre, May 27, 1987.
- Contemporary Novelists, sixth edition, St. James Press, 1996.
- International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 4: Writers and Production Artists, St. James Press, 1996.
- St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers, first edition, St. James Press, 1996.
- Esquire, October 1981, p. 121.
- Library Journal, February 15, 2000, p. 164.
- New York Times, November 12, 1978, sec. 2; p. 23.
- People, August 20, 1979, p. 51.
- Publishers Weekly, January 31, 2000, pp. 90, 91.
- Reason, August 2000, p. 61.
- Writer's Digest, July 1997, p. 37.
- Variety, July 19, 1999, p. 2; February 14, 2000, p. 51.
- "William Goldman," Contemporary Authors Online, Galenet web site, http://galenet.gale.com (September 18, 2000).
- "William Goldman," IMDb, https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001279/ (February 17, 2020).
- "William Goldman, Butch Cassidy Screenwriter, Dies at 87," BBC, https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-46238747 (February 17, 2020).