Friday, November 16, 2018

RIP William Goldman

For me, if there’s a Mount Rushmore of screenwriters it’s Billy Wilder, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, and William Goldman. And now all four have passed. William Goldman died yesterday. He was 87.

Of the four, no one probably influenced me in more ways than William Goldman. He was the ultimate storyteller, both in terms of fiction and non-fiction. The way I break stories is a direct result of studying his approach. The flow of dialogue, creating vivid characters, getting laughs from attitudes and behavior not punchlines – I learned from the master.

And I’ll go further. William Goldman taught me how to write prose. None of my English professors ever did. There was a clarity to Goldman’s prose that I strive for. He had this gift of being able to present an emotional argument in such a way that his conclusions would always seem objectively reached. He would offer research, sometimes in favor of the opposition, then compare points-of-contention with reason and logic and reach a conclusion that was hard to argue. He was not afraid to concede points to ultimately state his case more persuasively. And he did this in a style that was conversational and really hit home.

Whenever, without exception, I try to lay out an argument in this blog William Goldman is in my head. Consciously.

He took delight in leading you in one direction then completely turning you around to another. It sounds maddening but it’s really fun. And more importantly, it holds your interest. He’s not just laying out facts, he’s taking you on a journey; he’s telling you a story. No better example of that was his screenplay for ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. How he managed to unravel all those facts and names and interactions into a spellbinding movie is simply beyond me.

Unfortunately, I never met him. I saw him at a screening once. That’s as close as I ever got. And I was too intimidated to actually go up and talk to him. Besides, he was eating popcorn so he was busy. We did try to see if he wanted to write an episode of CHEERS the first season and he graciously declined. As great and versatile a writer as he was he didn’t feel he could do justice to a CHEERS script. I bet he was wrong.

I was a fan of William Goldman probably five years before I knew it. One summer night in the mid ‘60s I went to the Holiday Theatre in Woodland Hills and saw this little movie called HARPER starring Paul Newman. It knocked me out (so much so that I remember the theatre I saw it in). The rumpled private eye Newman played was a revelation. There was humor, suspense, fascinating characters, and an ending unlike any I had ever seen in that genre. At the time I didn’t think to ask, “Who wrote this?” but I did a few years later when I saw this little western called BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. And it turned out both films were written by the same guy. That’s when I really began following his career.

And that took me to his novels and non-fiction work. One of my favorites was a little book called SOLDIER IN THE RAIN. It was later made into a movie starring Jackie Gleason and Steve McQueen. The characters were so beautifully drawn and it was rich with humor. Then came MARATHON MAN (also later made into a movie) and I’ve yet to read a better, scarier thriller. I devoured his catalog until I came upon the real treasure – PRINCESS BRIDE. You’ve probably seen the movie, which he wrote and is wonderful, but pales in comparison to the book.

Here’s how inventive William Goldman was. In the book he sets up a personal anecdote and how he came upon this story. It’s a lovely framing device and gives the rollicking adventure some added dimension and context. Except for one thing: it’s all bullshit. That’s not really his family. The anecdote is pure fiction. William Goldman was the master of surprise. If you haven’t read PRINCESS BRIDE go to Amazon right now.

He also wrote books about a Broadway season, and of course his ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE. He’s candid, informative, funny, and no one ever summed up Hollywood better: No one knows anything.

All indications are that he was a good guy, very collaborative, and very down to earth. He never got wrapped up in Hollywood; never got wrapped up in himself. We always say we’ll remember someone, but in this case, for me at least it’s very true. William Goldman’s DNA is part of my writing. So he will always be with me. And I will always hope to do him proud.


slgc said...

RIP to a true master :(

Colin Stratton said...

Obviously he made an impact. That was one of the best tributes that I have ever read.

Brian Haner said...

Beautiful. Thank you!

Peter said...

Beautiful tribute, Ken.

Looking on Twitter, there's also a nice tribute from Stephen King:

"So sorry to hear of the passing of William Goldman. He was both witty and talented. His screenplay of my book MISERY was a beautiful thing. Rest In Peace, Bill."

Paul Gottlieb said...

A very touching tribute. Let me echo Ken's recommendation of "Adventures in the Screen Trade." Even though it's pretty old now, I think readers will find it very relevant--and funny

E. Yarber said...

I rewatched BUTCH CASSIDY last month. It seems like an entirely different movie the older I get. At first you're waiting for the jokes to pop up, but those moments start to seem like candles in the wind for two characters who are totally conscious of their impending deaths from start to finish and are determined to make the most of their borrowed time on earth. What particularly impressed me was how Goldman trusted his story enough to go for key sequences without dialogue. It's the sort of understanding you expect from a valedictory work, not an artist reaching his stride.

Andy Rose said...

One of the things I love about All the President's Men is how he was able to make the mundane intriguing. There are a couple of scenes where Woodward and Bernstein are having conversations in the newsroom that get interrupted by phone calls... then the call gets interrupted by another call... then Woodward gets put on hold and starts talking to somebody else, which is interrupted when the caller comes back on the line. It's pretty ordinary stuff that happens every day, but it kept you on the edge of your seat wondering where each exchange was going to go next.

And as you say, he manages to integrate a very complicated web of characters without relying too heavily on exposition.

Combined with Alan J. Pakula's direction, it's one of the best non-fiction dramas around.

flurb said...

A lovely post, Ken - thanks. I've revered Goldman and his prose for years, long before "Bride", as he managed to get several of his film scripts published in paperback when the movies came out - none of those novelizations for him. They were wonderful, crackling reads for this then-teen. "The Season" was one of the first theatre books I read more than once. In it, Goldman brilliantly took down the 1960s-era Harold Pinter play - the critic's darling kind where the audience is kept from knowing what is going on, and never really finds out, and the playwright (famously, in Pinter's case) is offended by anyone's even wanting to know. I won't spoil how Goldman did it. His book is fantastic as a picture of the last, waning days of the Broadway play as a national influencer, and it's also a technical tour de force. There are things I've quoted from it ever since, including the teacher at a kid's matinee, calling after one of her charges, "We're losing you, darling," which Goldman expanded into a metaphor. It's PRACTICAL criticism, from a writer's point of view, and it pops and crackles out of the book.

I'm going to go read it again right now. RIP.

Bryan said...

I read one of his lesser novels, the Color of Light, when I was in college. It featured a neurotic man in his twenties, kinda like me. The character would do multiplication tables in his head during sex to take longer. There was this claim in the book that it was impossible to drink a shot of beer every minute for an hour. My friends and I of course acted it out to hilarious results. Goldman had to be laughing while writing it, knowing some idiots would try it.

Tony.T said...

Hats off.

Sheldon Sturges said...

Both "Marathon Man," and "Magic" are far more entertaining reads than the films that they spawned, in my opinion.

Madame Smock said...

Fantastic episode with Gilbert and Frank, GGACP.

DianeG said...

I met him when I was working in California. Just as impressed by him in person as I was with his writing.

Mike said...

A nice tribute, Ken. Thank you. Mr Goldman has been blowing my mind since I was a kid, one of the reasons why I have spent a lot of my adult life learning to write. The last movie of his I saw was HARPER which, recently at least, was streaming on Filmstruck. And now we're losing that at the end of the month so see it while you can.

Arlen Peters said...

Over many years of interviewing celebrities, I would always make sure to schedule lunch interviews with writers, because I wanted to spend as much time as possible with them. I had the unbridled joy of sitting and having lunch, then interviewing Bill Goldman and it was one of the highlights of my life in the "biz." Think we spent close to three hours together. I felt so blessed to be able to sit at this man's side and pick his brain, listen to his wisdom. Brilliant, funny, humble, insightful, enthralling conversation which was so natural and easy.
I'll never forget in the middle of the interview he asked how long I had been writing. Since I hadn't mentioned I was a writer, I wondered why he brought that up. I'll never forget what he said. "You have the mind of a writer. You ask questions a writer would ask. You have that innate curiosity. And I bet you are a pretty damn good writer too."
To this day I remember his words and cherish my time with him.

MikeKPa. said...

I read all his books and enjoyed them. I never heard of SOLDIER IN THE RAIN, so I'm going to look for it. If I could have picked two writers to have a lunch and be able to pick their creative brain, William Goldman would have been one of them.

Max Clarke said...

This is the first time I’ve learned about somebody’s death from your site, Ken.

I’ve got two of his books, Adventures in the Screen Trade, and Which Lie Did I Tell? Both were entertaining and instructive. In Adventures, he includes the script for Butch Cassidy. He then spends a lot of time discussing its weaknesses, and then a lot of time discussing its strengths. There’s also a good discussion of structure in screenplays.

As good as he was with Marathon Man and All The President’s Men and Butch Cassidy, my favorite is The Princess Bride. Superb.

Sad to see William Goldman go.

VincentS said...

A fine tribute, Ken. I've said here before how he is also my screenwriting idol. I always recommend his books ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE and WHICH LIE DID I TELL? to any aspiring screenwriter. He was bold, provocative and a true inspiration. I know he was around for a long time and was 87 years old but, to quote one of his most famous works, to me the movie world without William Goldman is INCONCEIVABLE.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Ken, your best tribute to William Goldman - as well-written as that one was - is your ongoing efforts to spread your understanding of comedy writing and your willingness to answer endless questions about how to write better and enter the business. I always saw that connection long before I knew you were a Goldman fan.

I tell all would-be writers to read ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE whether or not they're interestedd in writing screenplays or even fiction. It's a great book in so many ways. The thing I most remember from it is not the famous quote, but the advice to find the spine of whatever you're working on and throw out anything that doesnt cling to it. My first year or two as a journalist I used that advice constantly until it became a habit I didn't need to think about any more.

I would love to have met him - and I say that about very few famous people.


Chris said...

Hear hear

i could be a bob said...

Very sad to hear about William Goldman. So many good works. And your tribute here is top notch as well.

Truly bummed to say I went to Filmstruck - but they're not taking any subscribers in their too short timeframe before closing. I never knew about it's existence, and am sad to see it go. It's an odd feeling.

Janet Ybarra said...

There were two influences that led me to become a reporter.

One was the late Hunter S. Thompson and his book THE GREAT SHARK HUNT.

The other was Goldman's film ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN.

It made me believe journalism can do great things.

Unfortunately, that feeling within the country I think waned to a great degree in the decades since.

However, President Dump's administration has revived that feeling. THE WASHINGTON POST has captured it in their new tagline: "Democracy dies in darkness."

That is very true.

Chris said...

Wendy Grossman, as I was reading the comments, my long term memory kicked in about "A Bridge Too Far". Long complex book. Good concise movie.

The spine is the bone of story. Stay close to it, ignore the fat and even the muscle & it will take you from the start to the end. Do it well, it is spectacular. Do it less well, it is still the best adaptation. Find it, you get the heart.

Then it hit me, it was from William Goldman (had to google it to make sure that he wrote the screenplay though to make sure). When I compose written documents I always remember the notion of the spine.

Good writing helps you see the world with an understanding that others see it as you do. You are not alone.

Reading William Goldman was something special to me. It completed a picture.

Thank You!

We are not alone

Nobody knows anything...

Greg Thompson said...

Beautifully said, Ken. To add one thing: When William Goldman wrote Adventures in the Screen Trade he was arguably the most successful screenwriter in the world. And yet there's not a bragging word in that book. Instead, he's modest, genuine, and so funny. I simply love him and yes, his writing is dream.

MikeN said...

Thanks for not claiming he wrote "Good Will Hunting".

Recently in a podcast with Bill Simmons, Matt Damon kind of reversed what Goldman said happened.
Goldman,"They had a part about being hunted by the CIA. I advised them to take it out."
Damon implied it was the studio that pushed them there, and the original story didn't have it.
Given it's Matt Damon, I think he wrote it in with the CIA.

Dhruv said...

A great tribute Ken.

The first time I heard his name was in this blog, when you posted a blog on how Robert Redford was claiming the credit for the screenplay.

Then later after reading about his works online, only recently I bought his book Adventures in Screen Trade.

Then I saw the movie Marathon Man.

I am yet to finish the book. But already I am in awe of his work.

Thanks for the blog Ken.

Johnny Walker said...

Very sad to hear of his passing. Also surprised to hear that you never got to share a moment with him, or even (apparently) heard stories about him from friends who did. Phoef Sutton said the same thing on Facebook - never met him. Was Goldman so separate from Hollywood that the people he inspired never crossed paths with him?

Dhruv said...

I saw that there is a comment from Mr. Arlen Peters.
If I am not wrong, Mr. Arlen Peters was a guest in one of your podcasts.

If I could ask him, "Sir, in your interviews of Mr. Goldman, was there anytime he spoke about Robert Redford taking his credit for the screenplay of "All the President's Men"?"

Could you please let us know.


Unknown said...

We were fortunate to have lived during his time. He was a tremendous storyteller, and has been renowned as such.
He defined the era of the '60's and '70's and '80's in cinema, and novels.
We can only hope he inspired younger writers, Ken.
No offense, but you're not far below Goldman's level; your resume is pretty goddamn impressive.

Anonymous said...

1. To see the Oscar night photos of Mailer flanked by screenplay winners Goldman and Chayefsky is a reminder of Hollywood's most recent/last golden period.
2. Reading this thread, and prior blog entries, one is reminded of
a.) the many "one degrees of separation" Redford shares with the blogger's idols : Neil Simon and Natalie Wood- who, respectively, made Redford a stage luminary, and then, a screen presence- and Mr Goldman- who gave him movie stardom with Sundance and four subsequent films
b.) not only his dissing of Mr Goldman, but also his slightly condescending "tributes" to Natalie Wood ( and Paul Newman (,9171,1846785,00.html)

Benjamin Raspail said...

A story that's been revived in the wake of Goldman's death came from the late Jonathan Demme, talking about the first screening of what he thought was his final cut of "Silence of the Lambs":

“We watched the movie. It played like gangbusters, and we got terrific response from the audience. Craig [McKay, the film’s editor] and I were high-fiving each other. Okay, we’re locked, baby. I got a phone call the next day at my house. ‘Hi, this is William Goldman calling.’ I was like, ‘Oh, hi. God, one of my favorite writers of all time.’ He said he thought the picture was terrific, but he thought there was one section that was holding it back from its full potential power. This came after Dr. Lecter escapes, and there was this scene that took somewhere between eight and twelve minutes. Jack Crawford is called on the carpet. They are summoned by the attorney general, who was played by Roger Corman. Crawford’s kicked off the case. Clarice is kicked out of the academy. They go downstairs, and there’s this blistering, really terrific scene on the steps. Clarice just can’t let go of saving the senator’s daughter. Her brain is going a mile a minute, and Crawford is telling her, ‘Didn’t you hear what happened up there? I’m off the case. You’re out of this thing. There’s no way on earth…’ But she said she was going to Calumet. Clarice looks at Crawford and says, ‘God Dammit Jack, I’m going.’ We cut to her in the car, crossing the bridge where she’s about to encounter Buffalo Bill. So Goldman said, ‘Take all that out.’ I’m like, ‘What? That’s one of the biggest scenes in the movie. Really? What?’ And he says, ‘That’s what my gut’s telling me. You guys should really take a look at it.’ So I was like, ‘Well, listen, thank you for this. Goodbye.’

“I got to the cutting room and told Craig about this conversation, almost laughing about it. Craig was not really pleased because we were really…locked. But we said, let’s just take that section out, and watch the movie again, right here on the Steenbeck in the cutting room. So we lifted it out, watched it. And the power of just going to Jodie without all that other stuff…I think Goldman might’ve called it ‘the third act launchpad exposition stuff.’ It was just an extraordinary difference, an immeasurable improvement. That is William Goldman.”

Friday Question: Have you ever received an unexpected script note from an unanticipated source that turned out to be this valuable?

Mike Bloodworth said...

"Is it safe?"

Joey Bear said...

You consistently present THE BEST tributes when someone leaves us. Have you considered maybe once a month offering a "Living Tribute" to someone you admire or were influenced by, so they can enjoy the tribute while they're still here?

MikeKPa. said...

From the NY Times obit. Shows it's smart not to be deterred by critics.

He managed to get the worst grade in his creative writing class, and despite being fiction editor of the school’s literary magazine, he was unable to get a single story published in it.

“Everything was submitted anonymously and every issue I would sneak in a story and the three of us ” — Mr. Goldman and two other editors — “would meet and I would listen while they both agreed whoever wrote this thing (my thing) was not about to get published,” Mr. Goldman wrote in “Adventures in the Screen Trade.”

A possible Friday question: A lot of William Goldman's work was adaption. Have you ever done adaptations and did you find it easier or harder to work with an existing narrative?

Unknown said...

My friend Kathleen Jones, a writer with cystic fibrosis, met William Goldman as a teenager through the Make-a-Wish Foundation. He spent an hour giving her professional notes on her first screenplay, and then took her and her family to lunch. He stayed in touch with her and gave her advice and encouragement for years, until he slowed down due to illness a few years ago. She shared her story on her blog, including excerpts from emails that "Bill G." sent her. Here's her writing about his last email to her:

"His last email to me, after I wrote to him about Princess Bride the Musical rumors, and how excited I was that my dairy restriction was lifted so I could eat chocolate cake again. (pb = princess bride)

'pb is indeed cool

but so are you, kiddo

whenever you;re in town, call me so we can dine

all the chocolate cake you can lift is yours

bill g'"

He seemed like a real stand-up guy.

scottmc said...

I didn't learn of William Goldman's death until reading it here this morning.(I try avoiding television and the internet on the weekends.) By coincidence, on Sunday I was reading a book about the 2016 election that included his famous quote about Hollywood. The reference was,'Hollywood,as William Goldman memorably said,is a place where nobody knows anything. Now Washington has become a place where everybody knows nobody knows anything'. There was a time when I confused Goldman with his brother,James, who wrote two musicals with Stephen Sondheim and the play 'The Lion in Winter'. I remember seeing 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid'with my father at the 14th street Academy Theater in New York . He was seeing for the second time. When the scene where the posse is chasing them came up both Paul Newman and my dad said in unison'who are those guys'.His screenplay for 'All the President's Men'is amazing. Writing a story where everyone knows the ending must be the hardest thing. You have to get the audience to suspend their disbelief. He wrote a suspense mystery where everyone going in knew who 'the killer'was. I still can't believe that ATPM,Network and Taxi Driver all lost to 'Rocky'for Best Picture.I think it was you who mentioned that Robert Redford was running around telling people that he and Alan Pakula (re)wrote a lot of the script on location. That is cruel and ignores what Goldman achieved with his adaptation. He gave the film a spine,a foundation,that supported all the elements that came later.(And allowed Redford to stuff things into it.)

Cristina Graziella said...


scottmc said...

Today is Steve McQueen's birthday. TCM is showing Soldier in the Rain. I noticed that while the novel was written by William Goldman, the screenplay was co-written by Blake Edwards. Are you a fan of the film version? Were you a fan of the Pink Panther movies, the work of Blake Edwards?

Mighty Hal said...

William Goldman, Donald Westlake, and P.G. Wodehouse were my favorite writers. All gone now, sadly. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Mr. Goldman.