Here’s What It Was Like to Collaborate With William Goldman

Photo: Terry O’Neill/Getty Images

William Goldman, who passed away last night, adapted Stephen King’s novel Misery for the 1990 movie, and then adapted it again for Broadway in 2015. We asked Will Frears, who directed that production, to tell us about working with Goldman.

We were in the middle of rehearsal for Misery when Bill Goldman wrote his last ever line. Annie Wilkes had shot Buster, the sheriff, and I was standing with the cast worrying about how to get the body offstage. It was clear there was going to be a long and undramatic pause, and we were wondering how to fill it, or shorten it, or fix it. “I know what she should say,” Bill announced from his table: “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.” It got the single biggest laugh every night.

I met Bill in February 2011, a week after my eldest daughter was born, to talk about the possibility of my directing the play of Misery. We met in the bar of the Surrey Hotel, across the lobby from Café Boulud, where we would have lunch every couple of weeks for the next seven years, and across the street from the Carlyle Hotel, where he lived in the penthouse. He was just back from Saint Barth. He was 79 then, and I was 37. He was incredibly handsome, impeccably dressed, and told me a story about meeting Steve McQueen. I was in love.

I got the job, and the next time we met, I went to his apartment to give him notes on the script. I’m going to repeat that for emphasis — to give William Goldman notes on his script. I stammered my way through some stuff, with endless caveats, that I would do anything he asked, and if he didn’t agree, then I was definitely wrong, and anyway it didn’t matter, because he was Bill Goldman and I was going to do what I was told. And so we sat under his two Oscars and near the enormous Princess Bride tapestry, and he said, “You’re the director. I’ll do whatever you ask.”

Bill taught me that you have lunch first and then you do the work, that these are separate concerns. And so we had lunch every few weeks, at the tables outside on 76th Street when the weather was nice, and always finishing with a scoop of gelato and an espresso. Sometimes there was work to do, but often it was just to chat, invariably about our Knicks despair and Dolan rage, but also why he turned down The Godfather, and that Paul Newman was his absolute favorite. I believe he may have also called Robert Redford an asshole.

Here are some other things I learned from lunch with Bill: When you go out to eat with your children, always go to a place where the chips are already on the table when you sit down. Never let them buy you lunch because then they think they own you, and that curiosity is everything. I once asked him where he got the idea for Marathon Man; he’d been walking through the diamond district, and he wondered what would happen if the most famous Nazi war criminal appeared on the block.

I once arrived in a state — a small problem at work had gotten me spun out. I rushed in, late and upset. Bill looked at me and said, “Who fucked you?” I’ve never felt more seen. He was very anxious to meet my wife and very anxious that he make a good impression. At dinner, he whispered, “Does your cutie like caviar?” She doesn’t but I do, and I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to eat some. “I do,” I said, and right back at me came, “I don’t give a fuck about you.” Once I was in Los Angeles for work and called him, and at the end he said, “I miss you.”

He came up to Sarah Lawrence, where I teach, to talk to the students — terrified that no one would show up. It was a full house and when I lobbed him some softball question about the writing life, he groaned, rubbed his face with his hands, and said, “What can I tell you, it’s all shit.” We once did a reading of a draft of Misery in his apartment, and he hid in the kitchen until the actors were ready to begin.

Bill Goldman had the foulest mouth of anyone I ever met. I can’t picture him without hearing the word “Fuck.” The designers of Misery and I once spent a drunken evening after a preview trying to swear like Bill. None of us came close. He always put the swear word in the place you least expected it. He was endlessly kind and patient as an artist and as a person. He was in awe of other people’s talent, refusing to acknowledge his own genius. But also he was awed by how many plates a waiter could carry, or what it must feel like to crash to the ground on a basketball court, or how an actor learned their lines — “I mean, how the fuck do they do it?” One time, we skipped lunch to watch the World Cup and he was in awe of Lionel Messi; “How fucking tall did you say he was? And he can do all that. Jesus fucking Christ.”

One of the last times I saw him, I showed him a video of my youngest daughter singing “In My Feelings” by Drake; he watched it about 15 times. One Sunday, I watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and when I told him, he nervously asked if it was any good. For my 40th birthday, he gave me a first edition of his first novel and told me not to bother reading it. His favorite movie was Gunga Din, and I was supposed to come to his apartment the day he died to watch it with him.

Here’s What It Was Like to Collaborate With William Goldman