Peter Bart: A Final Toast To Screenwriter Extraordinaire William Goldman

William Goldman

William Goldman, who died Thursday at age 87, usually was depicted as a curmudgeon because of his famous “nobody knows anything” quote. But he loved film and theater and the craft of creating a movie. The process represented an exciting adventure for him and, in fact, that was the point of his full quote; “Every time out it’s a guess,” he wrote, and no one has the final answers.

Goldman liked to hold forth on film and theater at his haunt, the Daniel Restaurant on East 65th Street next to his residence at the Carlyle Hotel. The food was excellent, and expensive, and Goldman entertained producers, stars and fellow writers — often me. Unlike most writers (and all actors), he usually picked up the check.

He would recount the behind-the-scenes foibles on his projects, sometimes with love and sometimes disdain. He resented Robert Redford’s decision to assign another writer to rework his script of All the President’s Men, claiming the actor never directly informed him. His work with John Schlesinger and Bob Evans on Marathon Man was argumentative but more congenial.

His fascination with behind-the-scenes creative machinations prompted him to write The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway, in 1969, which was steeped in fascinating anecdotes and intrigues. He himself wrote several plays (Misery the final one) and was candid about the lengthy suffering, draft after draft.

Another source of suffering: For years Goldman had ringside seats at New York Knicks basketball games, part of a former deal on one of his movies. “The Knicks were a dubious reward,” he once told me. “With my luck I got a losing team.”

Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid

Despite his litany of complaints, Goldman’s writing career was an almost instant success. One of his early novels, Boys and Girls Together, was widely praised. His screenplay Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid set off a bidding war in 1969. I was at Paramount at that time and became one of the bidders, until I received a friendly phone call from Goldman. “The guys at Fox have Redford and George Roy Hill and are going after Newman, so you don’t stand a chance,” he advised me. “It’s not about money.”

As it turned out, while “nobody knows anything” Bill Goldman knew a lot about how the system works and how to navigate it, and was a generous friend to those who knew him.

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