Author Sean Egan has described Goldman as "one of the late twentieth century’s most popular storytellers."
Goldman was born in Chicago and grew up in a Jewish family in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Illinois, the son of Marion (née Weil) and Maurice Clarence Goldman, who worked in business.
Goldman's father initially was a successful businessman, working in Chicago and then in partnership, but his alcoholism eventually sank his business. He "came home to live and he was in his pajamas for the last five years of his life," according to Goldman. Maurice Goldman killed himself while his son was still in high school. Marion Goldman's deafness increased the stress in the home.
Goldman received a bachelor of arts degree from Oberlin College in 1952, then went into the army. He knew how to type, so was sent to the Pentagon, where he worked as a clerk until discharged with the rank of corporal in September 1954. He then matriculated at Columbia University, where he earned a master of arts degree in 1956. Throughout all this, Goldman wrote short stories in the evenings but struggled to have them published.
According to his memoir, Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983), Goldman began writing when he took a creative-writing course in college. His grades in the class were "horrible". An editor of Oberlin's literary magazine, he would submit short stories to the magazine anonymously; he recalls that the other editors, upon reading his submissions, remarked "We can't possibly publish this shit." He did not originally intend to become a screenwriter. His main interests were poetry, short stories, and novels. In 1956 he completed an MA thesis at Columbia University on the comedy of manners in America.
His brother, James Goldman, who died in 1998, was a playwright and screenwriter. They shared an apartment in New York with their friend John Kander (also Oberlin and Columbia MA) and helped out Kander, a composer, by writing the libretto for his dissertation. All three later won separate Academy Awards (Kander was the composer of Cabaret, Chicago, and a dozen other famous musicals).
On 25 June 1956 Goldman started writing what became his first novel, The Temple of Gold. It was written in less than three weeks. He sent the novel to an agent, Joe McCrindle, who agreed to represent Goldman; McCrindle submitted the novel to Knopf, who agreed to publish once Goldman doubled the novel in length. It sold well enough in paperback to launch Goldman on his career.
After a 50-week break, Goldman wrote his second novel, Your Turn to Curtsy, My Turn to Bow (1958), in a little over a week. It was followed by Soldier in the Rain (1960), based on Goldman's time in the military; it sold well in paperback and was turned into a film (Goldman had no involvement in the screenplay).
Goldman began writing a long novel, which became Boys and Girls Together. He found during writing that he suffered writer's block.
He and his brother received a grant to accompany a production of the musical Tenderloin (1960), on which they did some rewriting. Goldman and his brother then collaborated on an original play, Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole (1961), and a musical (written with John Kaner), A Family Affair (1962). Both had only short runs.
His writer's block on Boys and Girls Together continued, but Goldman then had an idea for another novel, No Way to Treat a Lady (1964). He wrote it in two weeks, and it was published under a pseudonym, Harry Longbaugh (a variant spelling of the Sundance Kid's real name). It was later made into a movie. Goldman then finished Boys and Girls Together, which became a best seller.
An early draft of No Way to Treat a Lady was read by Cliff Robertson who hired Goldman to adapt a short story, Flowers for Algernon for the movies. Before Goldman had even finished the script, Robertson recommended him to do some rewriting on a spy spoof Robertson was starring in, Masquerade (1965). Goldman did that job then finished the Algernon script. However Robertson disliked it and hired Stirling Silliphant instead to work on what became Charly (1968).
Film rights to Boys and Girls Together had been optioned by the producer Elliot Kastner. While they were discussing the novel, Goldman suggested Kastner make a film of the Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald, and offered to do an adaptation. Kastner agreed, saying he would option whatever of the novels Goldman suggested; Goldman chose the first, The Moving Target. The result, Harper (1966) was a big hit and established Goldman as a screenwriter. Goldman wrote a sequel, The Chill, which was never filmed.
Goldman returned to novels, writing The Thing of It Is... (1967). He went to teach at Princeton, and wanted to write something but could not come up with an idea for a novel. So he decided to write his first original screenplay, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which he had been researching for eight years. He sold it for $400,000, then the highest price ever paid for an original screenplay. The resulting movie was a massive critical and commercial success and earned Goldman an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
The money enabled Goldman to take some time off and research a non-fiction book on Broadway, The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway (1969).
He adapted a book, In the Spring the War Ended, into a screenplay but it was not filmed. Neither were scripts he did of The Thing of It Is and Papillon. He returned to novels with Father's Day (1971), a sequel to The Thing of It Is... He also wrote the screenplay for The Hot Rock (1972).
Goldman's next novel was The Princess Bride (1973) which became perhaps his most beloved work. Goldman also wrote a screenplay but it took many years before a film was made.
In 1973, Goldman contracted a rare strain of pneumonia which resulted in his being hospitalized and affected his health for months. This inspired him into a burst of creativity, including several novels and screenplays. He says his novel writing moved in a more commercial direction following the death of his editor Hiram Haydn in late 1973. This included a children's book, Wigger (1974); a thriller, Marathon Man (1974), which became a best seller; Magic (1976), a thriller; screenplays for the films of Marathon Man (1976) and Magic (1978); screenplays for The Stepford Wives (1975), The Great Waldo Pepper (1975), All the President's Men (1976) and A Bridge Too Far (1977). Some of this work was extremely lucrative – he was paid $1 million for the screen rights and screenplay fees for Magic and $500,000 to do Marathon Man. He wrote a promotional book Story of A Bridge Too Far (1977).
Goldman wrote the famous line "Follow the money" for the screenplay of All the President's Men; while the line is often attributed to Deep Throat, it is not found in Bob Woodward's notes nor in Woodward and Carl Bernstein's book or articles. However, the book does have the far less-quotable line from Woodward to Senator Sam Ervin, who was about to begin his own investigation: "The key was the secret campaign cash, and it should all be traced..."
Goldman was unhappy with the movie; The Guardian says that he changes the subject when asked about the movie, but suggests that his displeasure may be because he was pressured to add a romantic interest to the film. In his memoir, Goldman says of the film that if he could live his life over, he would have written the same screenplays, "Only I wouldn't have come near All the President's Men." He said that he has never written as many versions of a screenplay as he did for that movie. Speaking of his choice to write the script, he said "Many movies that get made are not long on art and are long on commerce. This was a project that seemed it might be both. You don't get many and you can't turn them down."
In Michael Feeney Callan's book Robert Redford: The Biography Redford stated that Goldman did not actually write the filming screenplay for the movie, a story that was excerpted in Vanity Fair. Written By magazine conducted a thorough investigation of the screenplay's many drafts and concluded, "Goldman was the sole author of All The President's Men. Period."
He wrote a novel about Hollywood, Tinsel (1979), which sold well. He had enjoyed working with Joseph E. Levine on Bridge and Magic and signed a three-picture deal with him; only two scripts resulted, The Sea Kings and Year of the Comet. A script about Tom Horn, Mr. Horn (1979), was filmed for TV.
Goldman was the original screenwriter for the film version of Tom Wolfe's novel The Right Stuff; director Philip Kaufman wrote his own screenplay without using Goldman's material, because Kaufman wanted to include Chuck Yeager as a character; Goldman did not.
He wrote a number of other unfilmed screenplays around this time, including The Ski Bum; a musical adaptation of Grand Hotel; and Rescue, the story of the rescue of Electronic Data Systems employees during the Iranian Revolution.
After several of his screenplays were not filmed, Goldman found himself in less demand as a screenwriter. He published a memoir about his professional life in Hollywood, Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983) which famously summed up the entertainment industry in the opening sentence of the book, "Nobody knows anything." (The title is a pun on the title Adventures In The Skin Trade, a collection of stories by Dylan Thomas.)
He focused on novels: Control (1982), The Silent Gondoliers (1983), The Color of Light (1984), Heat (1985) and Brothers (1986). The latter, a sequel to Marathon Man, remains Goldman's last published novel.
Goldman attributes his return to Hollywood to signing with Michael Ovitz at CAA. He went to work on Memoirs of an Invisible Man, although he left the project relatively early.
Hollywood's interest in Goldman was re-awakened: he wrote the scripts for film versions of Heat (1986) and The Princess Bride (1987). The latter was directed by Rob Reiner at Castle Rock who hired Goldman to write the screenplay for Rob Reiner's 1990 adaptation of Stephen King's novel Misery, considered "one of [King's] least adaptable novels". The movie performed well with critics and at the box office, and earned Kathy Bates an Academy Award.
Goldman continued to write non-fiction regularly. He published a collection of sports writing, Wait Till Next Year (1988) and an account of his time as a judge at the Cannes Film Festival, Hype and Glory (1990).
Goldman began to work steadily as a "script doctor", doing uncredited work on films such as Twins (1988), A Few Good Men (1992), Indecent Proposal (1993), Last Action Hero (1993), Malice (1994), Dolores Clairborne (1995), and Extreme Measures. Most of these movies were made at Castle Rock.
He was credited on several other movies: Year of the Comet (1992) was eventually filmed, by Castle Rock, but was not a success; the biopic Chaplin (1992), reuniting him with Richard Attenborough; Maverick (1994), a popular hit; The Chamber (1996), from a novel by John Grisham; The Ghost and the Darkness (1996), an original script based on a true story; Absolute Power (1997) for Clint Eastwood; and The General's Daughter (1999) from the novel by Nelson De Mille.
Goldman wrote another volume of memoirs, Which Lie Did I Tell? (2000) and the following year saw publication of a collection of his essays The Big Picture: Who Killed Hollywood? and Other Essays.
His later screenplay credits include Hearts in Atlantis (2001) and Dreamcatcher (2003), both from novels by Stephen King. He adapted Misery for a stage play which was performed on Broadway.
His script for Heat was filmed again as Wild Card (2015).
Simon Morgenstern is both a pseudonym and a narrative device invented by Goldman to add another layer to his novel The Princess Bride. He presents his novel as an abridged version of a work by the fictional Morgenstern, an author from the equally fictional country of Florin. The name may be a reference to Johann Carl Simon Morgenstern, who coined the term Bildungsroman.
The details of Goldman's life given in the introduction and commentary for The Princess Bride are also largely fictional. For instance, he claims his wife Helen is a psychiatrist and that he was inspired to abridge Morgenstern's The Princess Bride for his only child, a son. (The Princess Bride actually originated as a bedtime story for Goldman's two daughters, and his wife's name was Ilene.) He not only treats Morgenstern and the countries of Florin and Guilder as real, but even claims that his own father was Florinese and had immigrated to America. At one point in The Princess Bride, Goldman's commentary indicates that he had wanted to add a passage elaborating a scene Morgenstern skipped over. He explains that his editors would not allow him to take such liberties with the "original" text, and encourages readers to write to his publisher to request a copy of this scene. Both the original publisher and its successor have responded to such requests with letters describing their supposed legal problems with the Morgenstern estate.
In the 15th and 25th Anniversary Editions of The Princess Bride, Goldman claimed that he wanted to adapt Morgenstern's sequel, Buttercup's Baby, but was unable to do so because Morgenstern's estate wanted Stephen King to do the abridgment instead. He also continued the fictional details of his own life, claiming that his psychiatrist wife had divorced him, and his son had grown to have a son of his own.
Goldman also wrote The Silent Gondoliers under the Morgenstern pseudonym.
In their feature on Goldman, IGN said "It's a testament to just how truly great William Goldman is at his best that I actually had to think hard about what to select as his 'Must-See' cinematic work". The site described his script for All the President's Men as a "model of storytelling clarity... and artful manipulation".
Art Kleiner, writing in 1987, said, "William Goldman, a very skilled storyteller, wrote several of the most well-known films of the past 18 years—including Marathon Man, part of All the President's Men, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
Three of Goldman's scripts have been voted into the Writers Guild of America hall-of-fame's 101 Greatest Screenplays list.
In his book evaluating Goldman's work, William Goldman: The Reluctant Storyteller (2014), Sean Egan said Goldman's achievements were made "without ever lunging for the lowest common denominator. Although his body of work has been consumed by millions, he has never let his populism overwhelm a glittering intelligence and penchant for upending expectation."
In 2000, Goldman said of his writing:
Someone pointed out to me that the most sympathetic characters in my books always died miserably. I didn't consciously know I was doing that. I didn't. I mean, I didn't wake up each morning and think, today I think I'll make a really terrific guy so I can kill him. It just worked out that way. I haven't written a novel in over a decade... and someone very wise suggested that I might have stopped writing novels because my rage was gone. It's possible. All this doesn't mean a helluva lot, except probably there is a reason I was the guy who gave Babe over to Szell in the "Is it safe?" scene and that I was the guy who put Westley into The Machine. I think I have a way with pain. When I come to that kind of sequence I have a certain confidence that I can make it play. Because I come from such a dark corner.
Goldman has also said of his work: "I [don’t] like my writing. I wrote a movie called Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and I wrote a novel called The Princess Bride and those are the only two things I’ve ever written, not that I’m proud of, but that I can look at without humiliation."
He has won two Academy Awards: an Award for Best Original Screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and an Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for All the President's Men. He has also won two Edgar Awards, from the Mystery Writers of America, for Best Motion Picture Screenplay: for Harper in 1967, and for Magic (adapted from his 1976 novel) in 1979. In 1985, he received the Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement from the Writers Guild of America.
He was married to Ilene Jones from 1961 until their divorce in 1991; the couple have two daughters, Jenny Rebecca and Susanna. Ilene, a native of Texas, modeled for Neiman Marcus; Ilene's brother was actor Allen Case.
In an Internet chat hosted by CNN, Goldman said that his favorite writers are Miguel de Cervantes, Anton Chekhov, Somerset Maugham, Irwin Shaw, and Leo Tolstoy.
He is well known in sports circles as a die-hard fan of the New York Knicks, having held season tickets at Madison Square Garden for over 40 years. He contributed a writing section to Bill Simmons's bestselling book about the history of the NBA, where he discusses the career of Dave DeBusschere.Madonna and Child – with James Goldman
Now I Am Six
Something Blue – musical
musical of Boys and Girls Together (aka Magic Town)
Nagurski – musical
The Man Who Owned Chicago – musical with James Goldman and John Kander
musical of The Princess Bride - with Adam Guettel (abandoned after royalty disputes)
Flowers for Algernon: Good Old Charley Gordon (1964) – an adaptation of the story Flowers for Algernon done for actor Cliff Robertson – Robertson was unhappy with the version and hired Stirling Silliphant to write what became Charly (1968)
The Chill (1967) – adaptation of the 1964 Lew Archer novel by Ross Macdonald
In the Spring the War Ended (1968) – from the novel by Stephen Linakis about American deserters in Europe at the end of World War Two. Lawrence Turman was producer and Martin Ritt attached as director but the studio, 20th Century Fox, decided not to make it because they wanted Pentagon co-operation for Patton (1970).
The Thing of It Is... aka That's Life (1968) – adapted from his novel
Piano Man – adaptation of his novel Father's Day
Papillon – adaptation of the novel which was not used
Grand Hotel (late 1970s/early 1980s) – musical remake of the 1932 MGM film, with Norman Jewison to direct
The Sea Kings (late 1970s) – a pirate movie about the relationship between Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard, the first of a three-picture deal with Joseph E. Levine – Goldman says he wrote the part of Blackbeard for Sean Connery and at one stage Richard Lester was attached as director – Goldman says Connery and Roger Moore were considered stars, then later Roger and Dudley Moore – however the film was too expensive to make
The Ski Bum aka Hot Shot (1981) – based on the article "The Ski Bum as an Endangered Species" by Jean Vallely – Goldman says this was never made due to tension between the producer and the studio
The Right Stuff – adaptation of the Tom Wolfe book that was not used
Rescue! (1980–81) – story of the rescue of employees of Ross Perot by Arthur D. Simons during the Iranian revolution – Goldman says this foundered when Clint Eastwood, the only suitable star to play Bull Simons, elected to make Firefox
Flora Quick, Dead or Alive
The National Pastime
Singing Out Loud – unproduced musical worked on with Rob Reiner and Stephen Sondheim
Low Fives (1992) – comedy about an African who plays for a basketball team in a small college, commissioned by Danny DeVito and intended to star John Cleese and DeVito
Shazam! (c 2003) – adaptation of Captain Marvel comic book
The Shooter – an adaptation of the Stephen Hunter novel Point of Impact that was to have been directed by Lee Tamahori
Mission: Impossible 2 – script that was not used
Mr. Horn (1979)
City in Fear (1980) - contributed to idea
Wigger (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974). Separated from her blanket, Wigger, an orphan nearly dies of loneliness until an extraordinary wind from Zurich brings them together again.
"Something Blue", Rogue, April 1963, pp. 13–83.
"The Ice Cream Eat", Transatlantic Review Winter 1959-60
"Till the Right Girls Come Along", Transatlantic Review, Winter 1961
"Da Vinci", New World Writing no. 17 1960
"The Simple Pleasures of the Rich", Transatlantic Review Autumn-Winter 1974
"The Good-Bye Look", The New York Times Book Review, p. 1, June 1, 1969 .