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William Goldman: Screenwriter Extraordinaire
A Biography By Christa Williams

William Goldman's brilliance stands out in stark contrast to the mediocrity of other writers. One of the film industry's most valued and admired screenwriters, industry insiders frequently call upon Goldman to doctor and polish scripts that others have struggled with. In addition to being one of Hollywood's best script doctors he also finds time to turn out a masterpiece of his own every few years.

The author was born on August 12, 1931, in Chicago. Unknowingly paving the way for his future career, he spent numerous hours during his childhood watching films at the Alycon Theater.

"Because of my Hollywood work, I have seen films on three continents and in at least twice that many foreign countries. But for me, still, always, it is the Alcyon.... Certainly not a great movie theatre. Probably not even a very good one. But the Alcyon stands alone in memory because it stood alone on Central, even then an aging monopoly; if you wanted to go to the movies in Highland Park, Illinois, in the 1930's, it was the Alcyon-or it was no movie at all. And the thought of no movie at all was just too painful. Even when I was six and seven and eight, I was hooked. I suppose I still am, but the stuff I see today often vanishes, while the Alcyon remains." -from the book Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman

He later went to Oberlin College in Ohio where he received his B.A. in 1952, and then served in the military for two years. He returned to Columbia University in NYC where he received a master's degree in English in 1956. The summer following his graduation he wrote his first novel Temple of Gold in ten days.
Temple of Gold was published, and Goldman's writing career began. His 1960 book Soldier in the Rain was turned into a screenplay and brought about his involvement in film.

In 1969 Goldman attained industry wide recognition as a result of his screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid which subsequently became one of the great classics of the Western genre. The screenwriter had been intrigued by the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang and spent years researching the outlaws, and piecing together information in an imaginative way to construct the script. When writing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, he was inspired not only by the story of the two outlaws, but also the great films he had seen as a child. The scene where Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford) leap off the cliff into the river is attributed to a scene he saw as an eight-year-old kid in the 1939 movie Gunga Din. He received $400,000 for the script, which was at the time the highest ever paid to a screenwriter.

I have both read and seen only two films and novels that were both associated with Goldman; The Princess Bride and The Stepford Wives. The novel The Stepford Wives was not however, written by Goldman; instead, the 1975 film was based on Ira Levin's novel of the same name. Actually, Goldman claims that none of his script was used until the last twenty minutes of the film, and that the director rewrote it all. In an interview for the book The Craft of Screenwriting, Goldman said, "I'm not saying that it (Stepford) would have been better if it had been mine, but I'm saying it isn't mine, and I wanted my name off it, but they wouldn't take it off."

While I couldn't find the 1976 movie Marathon Man at my local Blockbuster Video, I found the book at the library, and I really enjoyed reading it. It's an incredible story about Tom "Babe" Levy (Dustin Hoffman) and his brother "Doc" (Roy Scheider). Babe believes his brother is a successful businessman-up until Doc's death reveals the truth: that was part of The Division, a government intelligence agency responsible for filling the gaps between the CIA, FBI, and Secret Service. His brother's Nazi-dentist-enemy Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) then tortures him for information. In twenty-four hours, Babe's life transforms into a danger zone and his personality alters dramatically. Goldman's prose is as amazing as his screenwriting. The trademark clever lines and inventive plots appear in both mediums.

Goldman is best known to contemporary audiences for his script for The Princess Bride, which endeared him to romantics everywhere. The film wasn't released until 1987, but the book The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure was published in 1973. The novel told the fairy tale of Wesley (played by Cary Elwes in the film) and Buttercup (played by Robin Wright in the film) recounted as a story inside a story. The fairy tale is told and narrated with personal stories from the author inserted as side notes. In these notes, Goldman explains how his grandfather read him the story when he was sick. Years later when he tried making his own son read the printed copy; he realized his grandfather has only told him the good parts from a Florinese history book. The amazing thing is that Goldman created the narrator and his stories as a separate character; the Florinese history book never existed, and Goldman made the whole tale up, complete with the false story about his grandfather. Even if he never did anything again after this movie, he would still be number one in my book. Fortunately for the movie going public Goldman has not been content to simply rest on his laurels. There's a lot more to William Goldman than The Princess Bride.

Although both are wonderful films, I liked the Maverick (1994) more than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Actually, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I tend to prefer the film I've watched the most recently. All of Goldman's work is outstanding. This is mainly a result of his gift for creating memorable dialogue. In Maverick, the show opens with Bret (Mel Gibson) on his horse praying: "Lord...whatever I've done to piss you off...if you could just get me out of this and somehow let me know what it was, I promise to rectify the situation." Goldman's interpretation rejuvenated the great character from an older TV series, and truly brought him to life again.

Other notable Goldman projects include Misery (based on the novel Stephen King), The General's Daughter (a fairly recent popular flick), and All the President's Men (which won numerous awards). All the President's Men was released in 1976, two years after Nixon's resignation and was based on the book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. The film depicted Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Woodward's (Robert Redford) coverage at Washington Post of the Watergate scandal. While Bernstein and his wife Nora Ephron certainly contributed to the screenplay this is clearly another masterwork by Goldman who subsequently won an Oscar for his efforts.

The General's Daughter (1999) is worth mentioning because of its fairly recent popularity. The film is based on a book by novelist Nelson DeMille. The screenplay credits go to both Christopher Bertolini and William Goldman who was subsequently called in to doctor the script.

Misery (1990) is notable because it's the only Stephen King film that Goldman touched. The story is about Paul Sheldon (James Caan), a writer who is in a car wreck and becomes crippled. Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), a big fan of his, finds him and nurses him back to health but she turns out to be a pretty sick person. Many critics, including myself, think it is one of the better adaptations of a King novel.

These films and his others listed below have made him the respected and revered writer he is to the film industry today. An article in Current Biography remarked on "his gift for dialogue, his knack for rendering bleak events with humor, and his talent for creating swiftly moving plots without neglecting character development." In my mind, that's a very accurate but modest way of putting it.

Filmography for William Goldman as Writer

Title Awards Release Year Credited With

Soldier In The Rain

  1963 Novel
Masquerade   1965 Screenwriter
Harper EDGAR: WGA Screen Award 1966 Screenwriter
No Way to Treat a Lady   1968 Novel
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid OSCAR, BAFTA, Golden Globe, WGA SCREEN AWARD 1969 Screenwriter
The Hot Rock Edgar 1972 Screenwriter
The Stepford Wives   1975 Screenwriter
The Great Waldo Pepper   1975 Screenwriter
All The President's Men OSCAR, Bafta, Golden Globe, WGA Screen Award 1976 Screenwriter
Marathon Man Edgar, Golden Globe, WGA Screen Award 1976 Novel
A Bridge Too Far   1977 Screenwriter
Magic EDGAR 1978 Screenwriter and Novel
Mr. Horn (TV)   1979 Screenwriter
Heat   1987 Screenwriter and Novel
The Princess Bride WGA Screen Award 1987 Screenwriter and Novel
Misery   1990 Screenwriter
Memoirs of an Invisible Man   1992 Screenwriter
Year of the Comet   1992 Screenwriter
Chaplin   1992 Screenwriter
Maverick   1994 Screenwriter
The Chamber   1996 Screenwriter
The Ghost and The Darkness   1996 Screenwriter
Fierce Creatures (uncredited)   1997 Screenwriter
Absolute Power   1997 Screenwriter
The Generals Daughter   1999 Screenwriter
Jurassic Park III   2001 Screenwriter
Hearts In Atlantis   2001 Screenwriter

Additional Honors and Awards

1985 Laurel Award for Screen Writing Achievement Writers Guild of America
2000 Lifetime Achievement Award Las Vegas Film Critics Society Awards