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Wednesday 18 September 2019

William Goldman: Hollywood's farewell to a sublime storyteller

William Goldman was the mastermind behind the most venerated films in Hollywood history

Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Jake Coyle

William Goldman, who has died aged 87, was a novelist and screenwriter responsible for such hits as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), the Watergate thriller All the President's Men (1976), both of which won him Oscars, and Marathon Man (1976) and Misery (1990); but he became almost as celebrated for two bestselling memoirs, Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983) and Which Lie Did I Tell? More Adventures in the Screen Trade (2000), in which he dished the dirt on Hollywood.

Goldman once joked that he mostly wrote dialogue because he had skipped seventh grade at school, "which is the grade we learn grammar", and indeed he owed his place in Hollywood history to a series of oft-quoted three-word phrases.

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Cary Elwes and Robin Wright in The Princess Bride
Cary Elwes and Robin Wright in The Princess Bride

In Butch Cassidy... he reduced cinema audiences to nervous laughter in the scene in which Paul Newman as Butch and Robert Redford as the Kid are trapped on a high cliff by a fast-approaching posse, with the only escape a deathly jump into the swirling rapids below. Why doesn't the Kid jump, Newman wants to know: "I can't swim," replies Redford.

In All the President's Men, Hal Holbrook's Deep Throat's advice to Redford's Bob Woodward to "Follow the money" became a popular catchphrase which contributed, in the minds of many Republicans, to Gerald Ford's defeat by Jimmy Carter in 1976. More recently, it has been used by critics of Donald Trump to urge reporters to investigate the president's potential conflicts of interest.

However, the phrase became so widely quoted that few people realised it was never said during the actual scandal.

The third phrase won Goldman no Oscars - but became famous among industry insiders: "Nobody knows anything," Goldman wrote in the opening lines of Adventures in the Screen Trade, encapsulating his theme that not even the most seasoned Hollywood hands have a clue why some films succeed and others bomb. "No one has the least idea what the public is gonna buy," he said. "If they did, all movies would make money."

Kathy Bates and James Caan in 'Misery'
Kathy Bates and James Caan in 'Misery'

Goldman also summed up screenwriters' low stature in Hollywood. "In terms of authority, screenwriters rank somewhere between the man who guards the studio gate and the man who runs the studio (this week)," wrote Goldman. After dishing the dirt in Adventures in the Screen Trade, he briefly experienced what he called a "leper period", when nobody wanted to hire him.

But for a generation of screenwriters, including Aaron Sorkin, Goldman was a mentor.

"He was the dean of American screenwriters and generations of filmmakers will continue to walk in the footprints he laid," Sorkin said in a statement. "He wrote so many unforgettable movies, so many thunderous novels and works of non-fiction, and while I'll always wish he'd written one more, I'll always be grateful for what he's left us."

William Goldman was born in Chicago on August 12, 1931, and grew up in the suburb of Highland Park. His father, Maurice, who ran a mail order company, was an alcoholic and committed suicide when his son was 15. His mother, Marion, whom he described as "hectoring", was a housewife.

Sir Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man
Sir Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man

To escape tensions at home, William became a compulsive reader and cinemagoer. Captain January (1936) was the first film he saw, closely followed by his favourite, Gunga Din (1939), which included a scene that inspired the cliff-edge episode in Butch Cassidy. At five, he was "in love" with Shirley Temple.

His writing career began unpromisingly at Oberlin College in Ohio where, despite being editor of the literary magazine, he could not persuade it to publish any of his stories. He got the only C in his creative writing class, and his favourite short story was rejected 69 times.

After two years in the US Army, Goldman took a Master's degree in English from Columbia University in 1956. While working toward a doctorate, he published the first of 16 novels, The Temple of Gold (1957).

"If the book had not been taken," he told an interviewer, "I would have gone into advertising ... or something."

Sean Connery in A Bridge Too Far
Sean Connery in A Bridge Too Far

His Boys and Girls Together (1964), about a group of struggling young people in New York, became a bestseller, while a thriller, No Way to Treat a Lady (1964), was turned into a film in 1968 starring Rod Steiger as a psychopathic killer.

His screenwriting career began in the mid-1960s when he was commissioned to adapt Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon. The project was shelved, but it led to more work, including his adaptation of a Ross Macdonald thriller, Harper (1966), starring Paul Newman - Goldman's first solo screen scriptwriting credit. Three years later he sold Butch Cassidy... for a record $400,000 (about $2.9m in today's money)

Though the sum made Goldman a target in an industry that had long devalued screenwriters, the price proved worth it. Butch Cassidy was the year's biggest box-office hit, grossing $102m (or close to $700m today).

Goldman would alternate publishing fiction and writing scripts, and much of his work involved treatments of books. These included films of Ira Levin's suburban horror story, The Stepford Wives (1975), and of Cornelius Ryan's World War II history, A Bridge Too Far (1977).

He adapted his own 1974 novel Marathon Man, about a student who stumbles on a nest of modern-day Nazis, into a screenplay which became a successful film in 1976, with Dustin Hoffman as the student and Sir Laurence Olivier as a dentist-torturer. He also wrote the original script of The Great Waldo Pepper (1975), with Robert Redford as a barnstorming pilot.

William Goldman
William Goldman

He collaborated with Redford on several more films, of which All the President's Men, based on the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about the Watergate break-in and cover-up, was the most fraught. Goldman felt that politics were a turn-off at the box office and conceived the script as something of a comic opera.

"Politics were anathema at the box office, the material was talky, there was no action," he later wrote. However, the more politically committed Redford saw the affair as the greatest ever challenge to American democracy and at one point asked Bernstein and Woodward to write their own script.

"We had a long earlier history and I'm sorry to hear of his passing," Redford said in a statement yesterday.

A confirmed New Yorker, Goldman declined to work in Hollywood. Instead, he would fly to Los Angeles for two-day conferences with directors and producers, then return home to fashion a script, which he did with amazing speed.

After an absence from writing he returned in triumph in 1987 with the romantic comedy-fantasy adventure film The Princess Bride, adapted from his own novel of the same name. Three years later he scored another smash hit with Misery, a Rob Reiner thriller adapted from Stephen King's 1987 novel.

The title of Goldman's second book about the film business, Which Lie Did I Tell?, derived from a comment made to him by a producer telephoning an associate to promote his latest projects, "spouting inaccurate grosses, potential star castings, stuff like that". Suddenly, Goldman recalled, the producer put his hand over the mouthpiece and said: "Bill, Bill, which lie did I tell?"

But he did not exclude himself from the verdict that "nobody knows anything", admitting to too many flops (The Year of the Comet, The Ghost and the Darkness and so on) to be able to claim otherwise. Commissions he turned down included The Graduate, The Godfather and Superman.

In Which Lie Did I Tell? he recalled his outrage when the producers of Misery changed a scene in which the novelist hero (played by James Caan), held captive by a psychotic female fan, has his feet amputated into a "more palatable" ankle breaking: "I hated it but there it was. I am a wise and experienced hand at this stuff and I know when I am right. And you know what? I was wrong. It became instantly clear when we screened the movie."

His books on other aspects of showbusiness were received with equal enthusiasm, notably The Season (1969), about a year on Broadway, and Hype and Glory (1990), a typically chatty and candid account of a year during which he was a judge at both the Cannes Film Festival and the Miss America Pageant.

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