It's a guide, not a right of way

Special to The Times

"What famous people do you know?"

Pause. A familiar reddening about the cheeks.

"Um, well, I met Katharine Hepburn once."

"Anybody else?"

"I knew George Cukor pretty well."

"What's he been in?"

"Nothing. He's a director."

"Oh."

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Such was the disappointment I inflicted on various childhood acquaintances who discovered that my last name was somehow associated with movies. "That's the one with the lion, right?" "Well, yeah, sort of."

I discovered that one of these kids at least got some mileage out of the Goldwyn name, when he drunkenly confessed to me at our high school graduation that he used to pick up girls by telling them he was me and that his dad (or I guess my dad) was going to put them in a movie. I was half-appalled and half-envious at his shamelessness. I would never have been able to pull off such a ruse -- although I guess in my case it wouldn't have been a ruse, except for the part about my dad putting them in a movie.

From birth it was drilled into my siblings and me that trading on our name was a kind of sacrilege, dishonoring ourselves by taking credit for someone else's accomplishments.

But no movie stars? Sorry. My parents had an almost obsessive desire to protect us from Hollywood brat-dom. Each of them grew up in the red-hot center of show business (my dad as the son of legendary producer Samuel Goldwyn and my mom as the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter Sidney Howard). They knew too well how many casualties are spawned from successful showmen and women.

This is not to say that my heritage has had no impact on my career. The impact has been profound and essential, although not in the way one might expect. Fortunately or unfortunately (I would make a case for the former), the doors did not swing wide open when I threw my hat into the ring as a young actor. If they did, I was too blind to notice. It took six years of working in the New York and regional theater, guest shots on TV interspersed with liberal doses of unemployment, before I got a real break in the movies. In most cases, I had to fight to audition for film roles.

But I was able to weather those early years -- and a few of the years that followed -- because I understood that this is a survivor's game. Conventional wisdom would have us believe that it's all about what's hot at the moment, who's got hold of the brass ring. I was taught that what actually matters is to be going strong 20, 30, even 40 years down the line and to build a body of work that sustains you and that, on the whole, you can be proud of (we all have a few turkeys gobbling on late-night TV). My grandfather made his last movie, "Porgy and Bess," later in life and my dad just produced "Master and Commander" and shows no sign of slowing after decades in the business. That's been the model.

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The independent gene

Beyond the ability to survive, I inherited a fixation with independence, with creating your own path rather than treading one cut by someone ahead of you.

While this approach to one's career guarantees a lot of stumbles and a few crashes, it feeds nicely into another showbiz axiom: To stay in the game, you must constantly reinvent yourself. Put another way, you're only as good as your next picture. What a gift it has been to know that neither success nor failure guarantees anything. You have to keep going back to the well. Exhausting but true.

Without this instinct for self-reinvention, I never would have made the transition from acting to directing. Five years ago, I was on track with a pretty respectable career as an actor, I'd been in a number of big movies, consistently worked with a lot of wonderful people, and yet I felt as if I was starting to repeat myself.

I had no desire to become a director -- the job seemed too difficult and I was sure I lacked the proper skill set. Still, I wanted a deeper sense of engagement in the filmmaking process. So I started looking for scripts to produce. I found a screenplay that I loved and worked for two years with the writer. Eventually, I realized that the only way to be sure that someone else didn't screw it up was to direct the thing myself. Miraculously, Dustin Hoffman came on board as producer, the money fell into place and suddenly I was directing "A Walk on the Moon." The job I had felt unsuited for ended up feeling like a suit of clothes I'd been wearing all my life, and a whole new form of creative expression opened up for me.

The point is that I had no idea where I was headed or what the result might be. I just knew I needed to make a move. Change requires risk, and risk-taking is a cherished value in my family. My grandfather used to put up his house to finance his films and did so consistently throughout his career.

Finally, perhaps the most important and most challenging value passed on to me is an obsession with quality, the desire to work with first-rate people on first-rate material. Over the years, I've come to realize that this is everything. Forget all career strategy about what one should or shouldn't do. If the material moves you and the people involved are exciting, then sign on to the project. If not, watch out.

When I've stuck to this course, I have always come out ahead. When I've compromised, the results have been disastrous at worst, mediocre at best. It is now my only criterion for choosing a job. Big part or small (acting), studio film or low-budget indie (directing), if the people and the script are first-rate then I'm in. It's why I chose to do "The Last Samurai." For the opportunity to act with Tom Cruise and to be directed by Ed Zwick on an epic tale about 19th century Japan, I would have been an extra. It's also why I chose to direct two episodes of the new series for Showtime, "The L Word." The writing is outstanding and original, and the actors are exceptional. Similarly, my next directing project, "Betty Anne Waters" (starring Naomi Watts), was born from a fascination with the true story of an uneducated woman who became a lawyer to get her brother exonerated from a life sentence for murder. Two years ago, my wife saw the story on the news and thought it would make a great movie. We start shooting in late winter.

On balance, my career feels very much my own invention and yet very much a product of the work of my father and grandfather. I do believe that my siblings and I have a legacy to uphold, but the primary requirement of that legacy is to doggedly pursue our creative potential as individuals. What better family values could one wish for?

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Hollywood dynasty

If there's such a thing as movie royalty, Tony Goldwyn would qualify as a crown prince. His grandfather was industry founder Sam Goldwyn (the "G" in MGM); his father is famed producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr.; his brother John was for many years a top studio executive (he recently stepped down as vice chairman of Paramount Pictures Motion Picture Group); and he's a filmmaker ("A Walk on the Moon") and actor ("Ghost" and "The Last Samurai," which will be released Friday). The Times asked Goldwyn to reflect on the impact his family had on his career.

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