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Aaron Sorkin remembers William Goldman: ‘He was the dean of American screenwriters and still is’

Aaron Sorkin remembers William Goldman: ‘He was the dean of American screenwriters and still is’
From left to right, director Tony Gilroy, screenwriter William Goldman, Scott Frank, screenwriter/director David Koepp, producer/writer Aaron Sorkin and writer Beau Willimon attend a screening of "Butch Cassidy" during the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. (Will Ragozzino / Getty)

In an exclusive essay for The Times, Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin remembers his mentor, fellow Oscar-winner William Goldman, who died Nov. 16 at age 87.

He once called me up to apologize.

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“I’m mortified,” he said.

“Why? What happened?,” I asked.

"In a story in today’s Hollywood Reporter,” he replied, "the guy says I had a hand in writing ‘A Few Good Men.’ I called the editor and set him straight.”

I wasn’t mortified at all. Someone had mistaken something I had written for something William Goldman might have written. I wanted that at the top of my resume.

When I was starting out in my 20s, Bill Goldman saw something in me and took me under his wing, where I’ve remained and where I’ll continue to remain despite his death. I’m not the only writer he mentored — Scott Frank, Tony Gilroy, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are just a few he tutored personally, and countless others have been and will continue to be taught by his examples.

“Kid, the next time I say, ‘Let’s go someplace like Bolivia,’ let’s go someplace like Bolivia.” “They could always surrender.” “For a second there I thought we were in trouble.” Those three quotable lines aren’t just from the same movie (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”), they’re from the same scene.

“You keep thinkin’, Butch, that’s what you’re good at.” “Who are those guys?” “Well we tried goin’ straight, what should we try now?” “The fall’ll probably kill you!” A movie about two outlaws coming to grips with a world that’s changing around them won Bill his first Academy Award.

Deep Throat never said, “Follow the money.” It was a line Bill wrote for the character of Deep Throat in his screenplay “All the President’s Men,” for which he won his second Academy Award.

Robert Redford, right, and Dustin Hoffman in the 1976 film "All the President's Men."
Robert Redford, right, and Dustin Hoffman in the 1976 film "All the President's Men." (AP Photo / Warner Bros.)

More quotes? “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.” “As you wish.”

Bill had asked his two young daughters what they wanted him to write about next. One daughter said, “A bride.” The other said, “A princess.” If you’ve only seen his film adaptation of “The Princess Bride” and haven’t read the novel, stop reading this immediately and start reading that.

Because as good a screenwriter as Bill was — and I think he’s the best who's ever lived — he was an even better novelist. And as good a novelist as he was, I think he was an even better writer of nonfiction.

“Adventures in the Screen Trade” is an indispensable and hilarious look at Hollywood, and you won’t be able to put it down. Are you a fan of Broadway? Read “The Season.” One year, Bill was asked to be a judge at both the Cannes Film Festival and the Miss America Pageant, and he uses those two unlikely hammock poles to examine the end of his 30-year marriage in “Hype and Glory.”

You’re a sports fan? Go to Amazon right now and order a book Bill tandem-wrote with Mike Lupica (perhaps the only writer of nonfiction who could stand toe-to-toe with Goldman) called “Wait ’Till Next Year,” which examines the 1986 New York Mets and New York Giants as they both try to repeat as world champions.

Bill was always the first person I showed pages to. He would pound me, and when I wrote poorly, he would take personal offense. Then, at the premiere, when the end credits started to run, he’d walk up to where I was standing in the back of the theater and tell me I’d written a good movie. We’d have dinners together and share stories — his were much better than mine.

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Bill was the dean of American screenwriters and still is. His voice was unmistakable and always will be. His curmudgeonly exterior was never able to hide the limitless joy he took in a good story well told. Generations of screenwriters will walk in the deep footprints Bill laid, and when we hear there’s a rumor that William Goldman had a secret hand in our scripts, we’re not going to be mortified, we’re going to brag about it.

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