William Goldman Brings the Pain to the Stage With a Broadway Adaptation of Misery

If the film Misery has an iconic moment, it’s when crazed fan Annie Wilkes takes a sledgehammer to the ankles of her captive, novelist Paul Sheldon, in an effort to ensure he doesn’t escape. This is the prosthetic from the movie. Photo: Courtesy of Tom Spina Designs

“Screenwriting is shitwork,” William Goldman wrote in his 1983 industry bible Adventures in the Screen Trade, source of both the famous dictum “Nobody knows anything” and the popular notion that writers are Hollywood’s janitors. At 84, he’s the exception that proves both rules: the business’s greatest living screenwriter and its savviest truth-teller, a man whom stars treat with a deference he doesn’t always reciprocate. 

Bruce Willis is one of those stars. On a recent evening in a midtown rehearsal studio, the actor has just finished a run-through of Misery on Broadway. Goldman wrote the 1990 film version of Stephen King’s novel about an author and his No. 1 fan — a minor highlight for the writer of The Princess Bride, All the President’s Men, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The stage adaptation is Goldman’s first produced script since Dreamcatcher a dozen years ago and his first time on Broadway since 1962. Today is his first peek at the show, which co-stars Laurie Metcalf as Annie Wilkes, the psychotic rescuer-captor immortalized in Kathy Bates’s Oscar-winning turn. Willis sidles across the room to pay Goldman his respects.

“Are you exhausted?” Goldman asks. “A little punchy but not exhausted,” Willis says. The actor thinks they’ve worked together before, “in the ’80s,” but neither can recall where. I ask Willis if he’s a fan of the writer’s work. “What the fuck’s he gonna answer?” Goldman snaps. “ ‘Oh, yes, I’m a huge fan of Bill Goldman.’ He can’t spell Bill Goldman!”

Like his wisecracks, Goldman’s writing spares and bores no one, himself included. His screenplays can telegraph a character in a couple of words (the Sundance Kid’s “I can’t swim!”). His 16 novels haven’t aged as well, except the ones he’s turned into movies (Princess Bride, Marathon Man). But his evergreen nonfiction — ­Adventures as well as The Season, his brutal 1969 analysis of Broadway — brims with koans that sound like a showbiz Yogi Berra. (“There are no rules on Broadway, and one of them is this … you must surprise an audience in an expected way.”) Will Frears, Misery’s director, calls those books “samizdat smuggled out from the only man who would speak the truth.”

Misery the play emerged from conversations between Castle Rock Entertainment, the movie’s producers, and the Warner Bros. theatrical division, which was hunting for film properties to adapt. Former Castle Rock president Liz Glotzer says she envisioned Misery as the kind of psycho-thriller Broadway hasn’t seen since Deathtrap, a twisty late-’70s murder mystery that ran for four years. “And I said we would only want to do it if Bill wanted to do it.”

Even though King held the rights, and there had already been a British play based on the novel, Warner agreed that Goldman should adapt Misery. Warner’s executive VP of theater ventures, Mark Kaufman, was a film student at Columbia when Goldman gave a guest talk in 1990, and “I hung on every word.” He says, “I consider it an honor to work with him.”

“Note to fledgling writers,” Adventures advises. “Never never write for Broadway. Nothing is as wracking as a show that stiffs in New York.” Goldman wrote two of those stiffs in the early ’60s: a play co-written with his brother, James (who went on to write the book for Follies and The Lion in Winter), and a musical with James and their lifelong friend John Kander (of Kander and Ebb). After both shows “died bouncing,” he left Broadway for good — until now. Misery isn’t his first theatrical assay since then; he co-wrote a musical of The Princess Bride that wasn’t made and is a consultant on another version Disney has in the works. He took a few days to agree to adapt Misery but came around “because it was King, and it’s wonderful material,” he says. “And because I hadn’t done anything like this, and it was there.”

In Which Lie Did I Tell?, his sequel to Adventures, Goldman listed the many actors who declined to play the movie’s literally hobbled author, Paul Sheldon (proving his maxim “Stars will not play weak”): William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas, Harrison Ford, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, De Niro, Pacino, Dreyfuss. James Caan only took it because he “had been in the wilderness.” This time around, casting was easy. Bruce Willis had put word out that he was looking to make his Broadway debut. Warner invited him to a reading of the play and he “had a ball,” Willis says now. “Misery sometimes feels like a story about manners, and the next minute it’s a story about a caveman and a cavewoman.” Over lunch after the table read, he said yes. (Metcalf was cast after their first Annie, Elizabeth Marvel, dropped out.) Goldman was relieved to have a star. “With a play, Jesus Christ, they’re so fucking expensive,” he says. “There’s no law that says we can make this.”

In adapting the show, Frears and Goldman knew they couldn’t compete with the movie. Without the benefit of close-ups and quick cuts, they had to approach the horror more psychologically.

Shifting focus away from action sequences and toward what Frears calls “the internal struggle of Paul Sheldon,” he and Goldman went back to the well of the novel and emerged with new exposition. Frears learned Adventures’s lesson that “Screenplays Are Structure” (as opposed to dialogue). When he asked Goldman for a monologue about Sheldon’s childhood, Goldman complied but added, “I followed your terrible idea, and I don’t think you should do it.” In the end, Frears didn’t.

Frears also tutored Goldman, though, on writing for a looser, chattier medium and staging transitions instead of simply writing “cut to.” “I have very little visual sense,” Goldman says during a post-rehearsal chat with Frears. His reasons for never directing have shifted over the years, but he settles now on that shortcoming. “It’s just something I’ve never had any interest in doing,” he says. “And I’m very anxious, and this is a big thing for me,” he adds, turning to Frears, “to see your play today.”

The possessive pronoun isn’t incidental. Even in theater, where the writer supposedly has final cut, Goldman feels the weight of all those actors and directors who rode to glory on his shoulders, compensating him only with lots of money and several books’ worth of anecdotes. “I came to him hat in hand,” Frears remembers, “and said, ‘Tell me what to do and I’ll do it.’ And he said, ‘Look, I work for you.’ He writes to order like no other playwright I’ve seen.”

Goldman has called the auteur theory “demeaning” and “dangerous,” but his governing attitude toward directors is “There but for the grace of God go I.” “I have no way of knowing if Bruce Willis is a prick or a fabulous creature, but this is not my problem,” he says. “I don’t want the power. When a project is given to me and I say yes, I’m gonna oblige everybody who has the power to try to make it work.”

He doesn’t much envy younger screenwriters either. He’s written five unproduced screenplays since 2003. “I don’t like a lot of movies that get made now,” he says. Goldman could never be mistaken for an optimist. He had a hard upbringing — a deaf mother and an alcoholic father who killed himself in their house — and the last couple of years have brought declining health and private losses. But he’s feeling pretty good about the play, especially after this run-through. “I think we’re all in agreement that we saw a quality show today,” he says. Frears agrees: “We’re getting there.”

“Well, I wouldn’t open with this,” Goldman tells Frears, lest he think it’s perfect. The show starts previews nine days from our talk. Goldman asks Frears, “Do you have any idea how it’s going in the selling of tickets and shit?”

Frears shrugs. “Nobody sent me an email offering discounts for my friends.” Goldman isn’t reassured: “You don’t know what the fuck’s gonna work.” Frears smiles and says, “That’s the main thing I’ve learned from spending five years with Bill. You have no fucking idea.”

Misery opens at the Broadhurst Theatre on November 15.

*This article appears in the November 2, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.