A Tribute to One of Hollywood’s Best Screenwriters — William Goldman

When Stan Lee died recently, I didn’t take it as hard as so many other film lovers did. Perhaps it’s because the last few years we’ve been hearing about his health problems (and legal problems). It might also have to do with the fact that I never read comic books. Sure, I liked a lot of the Marvel movies (despite being burned out by so many superhero flicks). His cameos in them are always fun. But, it was the recent death of another person in Hollywood that got me. He’s not the household name Lee was, but he won a few Oscars, and wrote movies that every film buff probably quotes. He’s also written some hysterical books on Hollywood, that people that don’t even care about Hollywood would enjoy.

William Goldman died in Manhattan at the age of 87. We older folk all remember the two movies he won Oscars for writing — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (the year of my birth, 1969), and All the President’s Men (1976). It’s not just the older folks that remember a book he wrote, as well as his screenplay for that book. Every generation remembers, and often quotes funny lines from, The Princess Bride. I was reluctant to see it at the theatres, because I was a senior in high school. I felt I was too old and cool for a movie involving a princess, and a grandfather reading a story to his son. After my uncle said it was the funniest movie he’d ever seen (and he was a tough critic; an example being the fact that after he saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he went up to everyone in line for it and told them not to waste their money)…and with some persuading from my girlfriend, we went. I’ve probably seen it another five times after that, and when I was talking with Mandy Patinkin at an event in Washington D.C. eight years ago, a woman about 25-years-old came up and said, “Are you that guy?”

Patinkin smiled and said “What guy?”

“That actor guy.”

“Yes, I am an actor,” said Patinkin.

She then asked, “Can you say it for me? Please?”

I was confused as to what she was talking about, but he immediately said “Hi, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father. Prepare to die!”

She put her hands on her head screaming, as if Elvis just walked into the room. She thanked him, while running away screaming. I said, “How did you know what she wanted you to say?”

He replied, “I get that four or five times a day.”

In one of his books (he wrote 20), Goldman talks about being at the first table read for Princess Bride, glancing around at the cast sitting there, and thinking they were all wrong. Once they started reading, he thought they were perfect (despite Andre the Giant having a difficult time reading). I wonder if he realized the words he wrote, were causing his actors to have to quote them to random fans that approach, decades later. Most actors just have to sign an autograph or take a selfie. The cast of The Princess Bride have to read lines to their fans.

Goldman adapted the screenplay for Misery (Stephen King), and told a great story about that difficult casting (fun fact: they turned down Meryl Streep to cast an unknown Kathy Bates, who then won the Oscar). He wrote A Bridge Too Far, The Stepford Wives, and Chaplin (where Robert Downey Jr. would get praise, and an Oscar nomination, long before he would become insanely wealthy playing Iron Man in a Stan Lee vehicle).

He wrote the novel The Princess Bride after telling bedtime stories to his daughters, that he just made up as he went along (his wife loved them, and insisted on his writing the book). He also wrote Marathon Man (Dustin Hoffman, Sir Laurence Olivier), which was the ultimate horror film for those folks that hate going to the dentist.

It’s amazing to think that in the ‘60s, his first original screenplay (Butch Cassidy) got him a $400,000 check from 20th Century Fox. Now, it would make more sense if he got that later in his career, since he had almost 10 movies each gross over $100 million domestically. And even his films that weren’t so successful, I enjoyed. One of those that he talks about in his book — Absolute Power (Gene Hackman, Clint Eastwood) — was a terrific thriller.

The Ghost and the Darkness (Michael Douglas, Val Kilmer) was a disappointing movie based on a real story, but at least it was fodder for some terrific stories in his book dealing with an egotistical Kilmer, and an intelligent Douglas, who made a horrible decision with his character).

Goldman was one of those rare screenwriters in the ‘70s whose name being attached to a film was a big asset to a film production.

He was teaching at Princeton when he wrote Butch Cassidy, and he continued to teach writing throughout his life.

Perhaps the only thing he wasn’t successful at was Broadway. He had two shows open on Broadway in the ‘60s that flopped, and he later did a play for Misery, and that got bad reviews).

Early in his career, he was having lukewarm success as a novelist. But a former San Diegan, actor Cliff Robertson, was a fan of his book “No Way to Treat a Lady” and asked him to write an adaptation of “Flowers for Algernon.” That lead him to buy a book on screenwriting and…it helped him blossom into a successful career writing screenplays. Not because of that script. He was fired by Robertson, and he claims it wasn’t a very good adaptation that he wrote.

Reading Goldman’s various books about Hollywood (Adventures in the Screen Trade, Which Lie Did I Tell?, The Big Picture) yield such a variety of entertaining stories. He’d talk about his obsession with how short actors were. His friends, knowing how obsessive he was about getting exact heights, pointed something out to him at a restaurant. Sylvester Stallone was going into the pool at a ritzy hotel he was dining at, so Goldman immediately ran to the bathroom and stripped down to his boxer shorts. He went into the pool and stood next to Stallone, so he could get an exact guess on his height. He got next to him, guessed 5’7”, and went back to the table to finish his lunch.

Goldman talks about how difficult some people were, one of them being Robert Redford, who became a star because of his screenplay. Apparently, he was a pain on All the President’s Men, which he starred in as well as produced). He talked about how nobody in Hollywood knew anything. It was a quote many in the industry would quote, the way fans quoted The Princess Bride. And he always had great advice for future screenwriters.

Some of his less popular movies include Magic, Maverick, Dreamcatcher, Wild Card, Hearts in Atlantis, The General’s Daughter, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Mr. Horn, Year of the Comet, No Way to Treat a Lady, and a movie that was remade this year — Papillon.

Goldman is survived by his daughter Jenny, and a grandson. His daughter Susanna died in 2015. His marriage to Ilene Jones lasted 30 years, but ended in divorce in 1991.

His life may have ended last week, but his incredible work will live on forever.


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