Bo Goldman, Oscar-winning screenwriter, dies at 90

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Bo Goldman, Oscar-winning screenwriter, dies at 90
He was a struggling writer when he won an Academy Award for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” He won another for “Melvin and Howard.”

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Bo Goldman, one of Hollywood’s most admired screenwriters, who took home Oscars for his work on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) and “Melvin and Howard” (1980), died Tuesday in Helendale, California. He was 90.

A son-in-law, director Todd Field, confirmed the death. He did not specify a cause.

Goldman was struggling to make a living as a writer until director Milos Forman saw the script he had written for a project called “Shoot the Moon” — his first screenplay — and, impressed, invited him to take a crack at adapting Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” for the screen.

The resulting movie, which starred Jack Nicholson as a rebellious new patient who disrupts a psychiatric ward, came out in 1975 and was a career maker. Goldman and Lawrence Hauben, who shared screenwriting credit, won the Oscar for best screenplay adapted from other material; the movie was also named best picture and earned Oscars for Forman, Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, who played the fierce Nurse Ratched.

“Even then I hung my head,” Goldman wrote in a 1981 essay for The New York Times about the insecurities of a writer’s life. “After all, I had adapted somebody else’s work; was it really mine?”

It may not have helped that Kesey denounced the adaptation.

If that doubt had nagged him, it had certainly been dispelled when his original screenplay for “Melvin and Howard” won him his second Oscar, this time for best screenplay written directly for the screen. That movie was based on the story of Melvin Dummar, a Utah gas station owner who claimed that Howard Hughes, in a handwritten will, had left him a share of his vast fortune.

Vincent Canby, writing in the Times, called it “a satiric expression of the American Dream in the closing years of the 20th century.” The New York Film Critics Circle named it the best movie of the year and gave Goldman its best-screenplay award.

Goldman worked with director Martin Brest on two films, “Scent of a Woman” (1992) and “Meet Joe Black” (1998).

“People call him the screenwriter’s screenwriter,” Brest said in a phone interview. “I called him the man with the X-ray ears, because he had a pitch-perfect recall of the nuances of a comment that someone made to someone 50 years prior — he could reproduce the tone, and the reason he remembered it is because the tone told the whole story.”

Goldman would draw on those memories to shape characters, as he did for “Scent of a Woman,” the story of a blind retired Army officer and the prep-school student hired to take care of him, for which he received another Oscar nomination. Al Pacino played the blind man; Goldman told the Times that he borrowed aspects of his father, one of his brothers and his Army first sergeant in writing the part.

Brest said that Goldman was an adept collaborator, not only with other screenwriters but also with directors and others involved in the moviemaking process.

“He thought of himself as a filmmaker rather than a writer,” he said. “He was part of the creation of a film.”

Brest recalled that for “Scent of a Woman,” which was based on an Italian movie, “Profumo di Donna,” he and Goldman began by just having long, meandering chats.

“Finally I said to him, ‘We’ve been talking for two weeks and having the greatest time, but shouldn’t we get to work?’” Brest recalled. “And he said that Mike Nichols told him, ‘The digressions are the work, or part of the work.’”

Sure enough, much of what they had talked about — childhood memories, people they’d known — ended up being reflected in the script.

Robert Spencer Goldman was born Sept. 10, 1932, in New York City. His mother, Lillian (Levy) Goldman, was a millinery model, and his father, Julian, operated Julian Goldman Stores, a clothing chain that had 42 stores in 11 states at one point but was derailed by the Depression. Four months before Robert was born, the company filed for bankruptcy.

“I was the son of this kind of displaced merchant prince,” Bo Goldman told the Times in 1993.

Although the family fell on hard times, Goldman was able to attend Phillips Exeter Academy and then Princeton University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1953.

At Princeton, he participated in shows of the Princeton Triangle Club, a college theater troupe. “I learned how to write there,” he said in an oral history recorded in 2000 for the Writers Guild Foundation.

While writing for the college newspaper as Bob Goldman, a typesetter accidentally left off the second “b” in his name. Goldman liked it and later legally changed his name to Bo.

After three years in the Army — he was stationed in the Marshall Islands, where tests of nuclear bombs were being conducted — he became an assistant to Jule Styne, the composer. He also wrote introductory patter and other tidbits for live television programs.

He aspired to a playwriting career and earned a Broadway credit in 1959 as one of the lyricists for “First Impressions,” a musical based on Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” that Styne’s company produced. The show had a starry cast that included Farley Granger, Polly Bergen and Hermione Gingold, but it lasted only 92 performances.

Goldman continued working in television, including as a script editor and associate producer on the anthology series “Playhouse 90.” But success as a writer proved elusive.

He had married Mabel Rathbun Ashforth in 1954, and they eventually had six children. He credited her with keeping the family afloat in the lean years by opening a nursery school in their home and then running a food store called Loaves and Fishes in Sagaponack, New York, on Long Island.

He said that in this period — the late 1960s and early ’70s — he saw families of his contemporaries falling apart and was moved to write his first screenplay, “Shoot the Moon,” about a marriage in crisis because of the husband’s affair. It won many admirers — including Forman — but no producers wanted to make it because, Goldman often said, the story struck too close to home for them.

After his success with “Cuckoo’s Nest,” “The Rose” (1979) and “Melvin and Howard,” however, “Shoot the Moon” finally did get made, by director Alan Parker in 1982. Diane Keaton and Albert Finney, as the struggling couple, were both nominated for Golden Globe Awards.

Goldman’s other screenwriting credits include “The Flamingo Kid” (1984), “Little Nikita” (1988) and “City Hall” (1996).

In 2017, when New York magazine asked working screenwriters to discuss the best screenwriters of all time, Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”) singled out Goldman’s “audacious originality, his understanding of social mores, his ironic sense of humor, and his outright anger at being human, and all with his soft-spoken grace and eloquent simplicity.”

Goldman lived in Rockport, Maine. His wife died in 2017. A son, Jesse, died in 1981. He is survived by another son, Justin Ashforth; four daughters, Mia Goldman, Amy Goldman, Diana Rathbun and Serena Rathbun; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Brest said Goldman was able to create memorable characters through small details.

“His remembrance of nuances, things that people don’t know they’re revealing but that reveal volumes — that was his art form,” he said.

He also said he has often repeated something Goldman once told him: “Your life,” Goldman said, “is what’s not in the obituary.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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