William Goldman, the screenwriter and Hollywood wise man who won Academy Awards for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “All the President’s Men” and summed up the mystery of making a box office hit by declaring “Nobody knows anything,” has died. He was 87.
Goldman’s daughter, Jenny, said her father died early Friday in New York due to complications from colon cancer and pneumonia. “So much of what’s he’s written can express who he was and what he was about,” she said, adding that the last few weeks, while Goldman was ailing, revealed just how many people considered him family.
Goldman, who also converted his novels “Marathon Man,” ”Magic” and “The Princess Bride” into screenplays, clearly knew more than most about what the audience wanted, despite his famous and oft-repeated proclamation. He penned a litany of box-office hits, was an in-demand script doctor and carved some of the most indelible phrases in cinema history into the American consciousness.
Goldman made political history by coining the phrase “follow the money” in his script for “All the President’s Men,” adapted from the book by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein on the Watergate political scandal. The film starred Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein. Standing in the shadows, Hal Holbrook was the mystery man code-named Deep Throat who helped the reporters pursue the evidence. His advice, “Follow the money,” became so widely quoted that few people realized it was never said during the actual scandal.
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. In his 1985 book, “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” he expressed disdain for an industry that elaborately produced and tested a movie, only to see it dismissed by the public during its first weekend in theaters.
“Nobody knows anything,” he wrote.
In the book, Goldman also summed up to the screenwriter’s 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.
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.”
Goldman launched his writing career after receiving a master’s degree in English from Columbia University in 1956. Weary of academia, he declined the chance to earn a Ph.D., choosing instead to write the novel “The Temple of Gold” in 10 days. Knopf agreed to publish it.
“If the book had not been taken,” he told an interviewer, “I would have gone into advertising … or something.”
Instead, he wrote other novels, including “Soldier in the Rain,” which became a movie starring Steve McQueen. Goldman also co-authored a play and a musical with his older brother, James, but both failed on Broadway. (James Goldman would later write the historical play “The Lion in Winter,” which he converted to film, winning the 1968 Oscar for best adapted screenplay.)
William Goldman had come to screenwriting by accident after actor Cliff Robertson read one of his books, “No Way to Treat a Lady,” and thought it was a film treatment. After he hired the young writer to fashion a script from a short story, Goldman rushed out to buy a book on screen writing. Robertson rejected the script but found Goldman a job working on a screenplay for a British thriller. After that he adapted the Ross Macdonald novel “The Moving Target” into the 1966 detective film, “Harper,” starring Paul Newman.
He broke through in 1969 with the blockbuster “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” starring Newman and Redford. Based on the exploits of the real-life “Hole in the Wall” gang of bank robbers, the movie began a long association with Redford, who also appeared in “The Hot Rock,” ”The Great Waldo Pepper” and “Indecent Proposal.” Goldman’s script set a then-record $400,000 (or about $2.9 million today).
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 $102 million (or close to $700 million today).
“All the President’s Men” (1976) further enhanced Goldman’s reputation as a master screenwriter, though he initially had a low opinion of the project (“Politics were anathema at the box office, the material was talky, there was no action,” he later wrote) and was even regretful afterward because of the production’s headaches, including the use of multiple writers.
“We had a long earlier history and I’m sorry to hear of his passing,” Redford said in a statement.
Other notable Goldman films included “The Stepford Wives,” ”A Bridge Too Far” and “Misery.” The latter, adapted from a Stephen King suspense novel, won the 1990 Oscar for Kathy Bates as lead actress.
In 1961 Goldman married Ilene Jones, a photographer, and they had two daughters, Jenny and Susanna. The couple divorced in 1991. Goldman passed away Friday in the Manhattan home of his partner, Susan Burden.
Born in Chicago on Aug. 12, 1931, Goldman grew up in the suburb of Highland Park. He graduated from Oberlin College in 1952 and served two years in the Army.
Goldman wrote more than 20 novels, some of them under pen names. “The Princess Bride,” published in 1973, was presented as Goldman’s abridgment of an older version by “S. Morgenstern.” The scheme, he said, was liberating.
“I never had a writing experience like it. I went back and wrote the chapter about Bill Goldman being at the Beverly Hills Hotel and it all just came out. I never felt as strongly connected emotionally to any writing of mine in my life,” Goldman once said. “It was totally new and satisfying and it came as such a contrast to the world I had been doing in the films that I wanted to be a novelist again.”
The film, directed by Rob Reiner, grew into a cult classic, adding more phrases of Goldman’s to the lexicon: “As you wish,” ”Inconceivable!” and “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!”
Reiner on Friday said he had seen Goldman just days earlier. He called “The Princess Bride” his favorite book. “I was honored he allowed me to make it into a movie,” Reiner said on Twitter.
Despite all his success as a screenwriter, Goldman always considered himself a novelist. He didn’t rate his scripts as great artistic achievements.
“A screenplay is a piece of carpentry,” he once said. “And except in the case of Ingmar Bergman, it’s not an art, it’s a craft.”