Remembering William Goldman, storyteller, mentor, friend
The last time I had dinner with my hero William Goldman was in September, at a restaurant out on Long Island near what had been his summer home for years. He was quite ill by then, in the final stages of the colon cancer that would take his life Friday, but he was still well enough to share a night of wine and food and laughter with me and my wife, Taylor, and Bill’s partner over the last 20 years of his life, Susan Burden.
It was raining that night. Mobility for Bill, because of bad knees, had been a challenge for years. So Susan pulled their car up to the front door, and I helped my friend of 40 years into the East Hampton Grill with the assistance of a very accommodating hostess.
Bill Goldman was always a bear of a man. Sometimes it was like moving Nebraska through a crowded room.
When I walked back later to thank Anna, the hostess, I asked whether she had ever read “The Princess Bride.” “Oh, my God, yes!” she said. “And it was the first movie I ever saw when I was dating my husband.”
“The man you just helped wrote it,” I said.
She promptly lost her mind. She wasn’t the only one. As word spread to the waitstaff, Bill Goldman got the full-on celebrity treatment he deserved.
Before we left the restaurant, Anna asked Bill to sign “As you wish,” from “The Princess Bride,” for her husband on a plain white card. He complied. Bill always complied. “As you wish” wasn’t just a line, it was a personal mantra.
Bill was happy that night. He was his old self.
He is gone now, at the age of 87. It is the end of one of the great writing lives of the last half-century, in books and movies and even on Broadway.
For those who don’t know, three years ago, Bill adapted Stephen King’s “Misery” for the stage, after having already done the movie version that landed Kathy Bates an Academy Award. Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf starred in the play.
“All I ever wanted to do,” Bill said more than once about writing, regardless of the platform, “was tell my stories.”
Thirty years ago, we even told one together. It was a book called “Wait ’Till Next Year,” about a year in New York stories told through the eyes of a fan and a columnist. It was as much fun, and as much of an honor, as I had ever experienced in my career, one that had finally been blessed enough to intersect with Bill Goldman’s.
He wrote “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and won an Oscar for that movie. He wrote the screenplay for “All the President’s Men,” as splendid a newspaper movie as there has ever been, and won another Oscar. That movie included a line that is now a part of the language of this country: “Follow the money.” The line didn’t come from Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein. It came from the imagination of the man who always referred to himself as “little Billy Goldman of Highland Park, Ill.”
He wrote the book and movie adaptation of “Marathon Man,” which ruined going to the dentist to everybody for years, because of the way Laurence Olivier tortured Dustin Hoffman once he had him in a dentist’s chair as he kept asking him in a quiet, chilling voice, “Is it safe?”
And speaking of memorable lines? How about this one from “The Princess Bride.” “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
Bill also wrote the best book about Hollywood that anyone has ever written, “Adventures in the Screen Trade.” He had already written the best book about Broadway, “The Season,” a look at one year in that world in the ’60s.
Bill Goldman was brilliant and funny and profane and generous. He was a mentor to Aaron Sorkin. He counseled Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as they were writing “Good Will Hunting,” for which they would win Oscars. He helped reboot Paul Newman’s career.
I met him at Wimbledon in 1978, while I was a columnist for the New York Daily News. He had a flat in London and was at the matches with the old Knick, Dave DeBusschere, a mutual friend. Dave introduced us and started to explain who Bill was. I stopped him.
“Dave,” I said, “I know who he is.”
I wanted to talk about the first novel he’d had published, “Temple of Gold.” But Bill wanted to talk about sports, especially his beloved Knicks, whom he watched from under the basket at Madison Square Garden for more than 40 years.
“You have the best job in the world,” he said to me that day.
“No, Mr. Goldman,” I said. “You do.”
I sat with Bill for the last time Monday, in New York City. His friend of 80 years, John Kander, was there, too. With his lyricist Fred Ebb, Kander wrote “Cabaret” and “Chicago” and the song “New York, New York.” They had shared an apartment in the 1950s on West 72nd Street along with Bill’s older brother, James Goldman, who wrote “A Lion in Winter” and the book for “Follies.” Imagine the magic in that apartment, when they were all young and everything was ahead of them.
In the two weeks before Bill died, I was on tour, speaking to fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-graders about my new book for young readers, “No Slam Dunk.” At every stop, knowing how little time Bill had left, I would ask how many of the kids knew “The Princess Bride.” Just about every hand in the gym would go up. Then, I’d have them all shout out, “Feel better, Mr. Goldman,” even knowing that he never would.
I would have one of the teachers take videos of that shout-out, then e-mail them to Bill and Susan. We started to call them Bill’s daily pep rallies — proof that a whole new generation of children knew about Westley and Buttercup and Inigo Montoya.
Maybe it helped convince the great William Goldman that, even as he was leaving us, his stories would live forever. I hope so. It really always was about the stories. As he wished.
Mike Lupica currently appears on MSNBC and writes a column for MLB.com.