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William Goldman, Writer Behind 'Butch Cassidy,' 'Princess Bride,' Dies At 87

Novelist and screenwriter William Goldman, who wrote the beloved cult classic The Princess Bride and won Oscars for writing All the President's Men and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, has died at 87.

Goldman's son-in-law, Mike Pavol, tells NPR that Goldman died Friday morning in New York City.

His legend was cemented in Hollywood, but Goldman himself was an avowed New Yorker. He was born in Chicago, went to Oberlin College in Ohio, served briefly in the military and got a master's in English from Columbia University in New York.

He launched a successful literary career immediately after graduating from Columbia with his first novel, The Temple of Gold. A series of well-received and sometimes bestselling novels followed.

Then, in 1965, Goldman started to shift into movie territory. He helped on the script for Masquerade (1965) and adapted Harper (1966). Then he wrote his first-ever original screenplay.

That beginner's stab at screenwriting was none other than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It sold for the then-record sum of $400,000 (some $3 million in 2018 dollars) and won Goldman an Oscar in 1970 for best original screenplay.

That was just the start. Goldman went on to adapt The Stepford Wives, adapt All the President's Men — another Oscar-winning screenplay — and turn his own novels Marathon Man and Magic into films.

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Ten screenplays later, Goldman still didn't see himself as a Hollywood man. "I'm not a screenwriter," he told The New York Times in 1979. "I'm a novelist who writes screenplays."

But he knew enough to write the definitive guide to screenwriting. Adventures in the Screen Trade was published in 1983 and became a bestseller. Screenwriting professor George Huang tells NPR's Neda Ulaby the book "was like the Bible in the industry" — and that the advice in it still holds up today.

And then there was The Princess Bride.

The 1987 film, which Goldman adapted from his own novel, performed modestly at the box office upon its initial release. But as the years passed, it found a passionate following. Lines from the movie have woven their way into the fabric of pop culture — "Inconceivable!" "Aaaaas youuuuu wiiiiiish." "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

NPR's Linda Holmes wrote an appreciation of the film on its 30th anniversary last year:

"Like Goldman's book — which is built on a fictional frame claiming it's a retelling of an old book by someone named "S. Morganstern" — the film is built as a story that knows itself to be a story. That contributes to its timelessness, because it knows its own old-fashioned qualities, but holds them at a certain distance. When the music swells behind a romantic kiss, for example, we instantly cut to young [Fred] Savage, looking up at his grandfather with suspicion, asking, 'Is this a kissing book?' It is a kissing book, although it is also, as his grandfather has promised, full of adventure and sword fights and dangerous creatures. Goldman knew the points of resistance when he wrote the book; that knowledge lives in the film, too."

Goldman was a craftsman — a master with high standards. And he was self-deprecating about the value of his own work. "I do not think I write particularly well," he told the Times in 1978.

(In the same interview, he explained that he didn't work from home, although he could have. Instead he went to an office in New York City five to seven days a week — because "it's essential that I maintain a sense that what I'm doing is as important as what an insurance man or businessman is doing.")

His movie oeuvre impressed everyone except, apparently, himself.

"Goldman said with most of them he could only see his mistakes," Ulaby reports. "He claimed to love only two: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride."

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