What William Goldman Meant To Me
I have my favorites — Elmore Leonard, Steven Spielberg, Lennon-McCartney — but not all of my enthusiasms get equal airtime, and I have maybe not said enough over the years about my affection for William Goldman, who passed away this week at the age of 87.
In my late teens and early twenties, though, I went mad for his stuff and read him like my life depended on it. I had that feeling of connection that only a very brilliant writer can forge with his readers: I felt as if Magic had been written just for me. I studied that thing like there was going to be an exam on it. I still have William Goldman days, usually when I’m writing action, where I’ll find myself composing these Goldmanesque sentences that erupt like a gout of blood from a slashed throat, going on and on in a pell-mell rush, sometimes stretching half a page before arriving at the period. The whole last half of Magic is written that way (at least in my memory).
Of course I loved the movies too, especially Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which can be found on my all-time top ten alongside Jaws and Rocky. I still get a thrill thinking of that moment when Butch and Sundance each grab one end of a gun-belt and leap off a cliff into a raging torrent a hundred feet below. No CGI gilded stunt has ever come close.
But I vacuumed up and relished all of it, even lesser known films like The Ghost and the Darkness, and lesser known novels like Boys and Girls Together and Tinsel. Tinsel, long out of print, was laugh-till-it-hurts funny and one of the truest things ever written about the film business. By the time I was in college, I was beginning to imagine a career for myself in LaLa Land, and Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade was like a road map to my daydreams. Around that time he was doing brash, witty, insightful columns about the movie game and the Oscar races for Premiere Magazine (remember Premiere?). I read every one, often out-loud to friends, parents, or my little brother, who had daydreams of being a screenwriter himself. Goldman was a family hero — I remember we all read Heat the same summer, passing the book around like a cold.
As it happened, my little bro and I wound up chasing the movie daydream together. We collaborated on a pair of screenplays in the 90s. Our agent at the time was friendly with Goldman and asked if he’d be willing to look at our comedy, The Man Who Loved Crowds, and offer some thoughts. Goldman agreed, possibly because he was on warm terms with our father (Goldman had adapted Misery to much acclaim — and by the way, while we’re on the subject, the film is tremendous, but the script, man, the script was even better. Wrenching and suspenseful and so, so fucking funny. I still wish Reiner had let it be funnier, had gone full Goldman). Then again, maybe Goldman would’ve looked at our screenplay even if he didn’t know our pop from a hole in the ground. He mentored not dozens, but hundreds of young, hopeful screenwriters trying to find their way, giving generously of his time, talent, and perspective. You’ve only heard about the famous cases, like when he helped Matt Damon and Ben Affleck shape their thoughts on Good Will Hunting. For every one script like that, there are a hundred others he consulted on — scripts which either never got made or to which he was never publicly connected.
The danger of meeting your heroes is that they’ll often turn out to be inexcusably human: they’ll have bad breath, or a crippling case of vanity, or they’ll view your expressions of gratitude and admiration as little more than an imposition on their time. That didn’t happen when we met Bill Goldman. Owen and I went to his place for enormous Reuben sandwiches, and listened while he gently, considerately let us know that our script was a clever, promising mess. I have never been so gratified to be told something I had worked on wasn’t particularly successful. He was kind and patient. His voice rumbled. He had a profile that would’ve looked fine carved into a mountain. After, the three of us went for a walk in the Manhattan snow to find some coffee. While we strolled together, he turned me on to Irwin Shaw and possibly made some suggestions for Owen’s March Madness bracket. He got his coffee and left us outside the cafe in the big fat downy flakes of snow. I hope I said how grateful I was: not just for the afternoon and our undeserved, impromptu screenwriting class, but also for all the wonderful books and all the unforgettable films.
It’s rotten when our heroes go away. God bless you, William Goldman.