Bo Goldman, Oscar-Winning Screenwriter on ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘Melvin and Howard,’ Dies at 90

Bo Goldman, Oscar-Winning Screenwriter on ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘Melvin and Howard,’ Dies at 90

Bo Goldman, the late-blooming guru of screenwriting who received Academy Awards for his work on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Melvin and Howard, has died. He was 90. 

Goldman died Tuesday in Helendale, California, his son-in-law, Tár director Todd Field, told The New York Times.

Goldman’s first screenplay was, years after he wrote it, directed by Alan Parker for Shoot the Moon (1982), which featured Diane Keaton and Albert Finney in a raw, seriocomic drama about a disintegrating marriage.

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He also co-wrote the Mark Rydell-directed rock drama The Rose (1979), starring Bette Midler in an Oscar-nominated turn, and Martin Brest’s Scent of a Woman (1992), which netted him his third Academy Award nom (and Al Pacino the best actor Oscar, too).

Goldman was one of the handful of screenwriters — Paddy Chayefsky, Francis Ford Coppola, Horton Foote, William Goldman, Billy Wilder and Joel and Ethan Coen among them — to win Academy Awards for both original and adapted screenplay.

Early in his career, the New Yorker wrote lyrics for a Broadway musical produced by Jule Styne and directed by Abe Burrows and served as an associate producer and script editor alongside Fred Coe, his mentor, on the prestigious CBS anthology series Playhouse 90.

His characters, Goldman once said, are “people who have a kind of courage and a kind of aristocracy of the heart,” and he created many of them on a Hermes typewriter that he bought in Malibu for $99.

In 1998, the Writers Guild of America honored him with its Laurel Award for career achievement, and Vulture in 2017 placed him 28th on its list of the best screenwriters of all time.

“If there is a train of thought that runs through my work,” he told The Washington Post in 1982, “it is a yearning, a longing to make the people real and capture their lives on the screen. I think there is nothing more fulfilling in the world than to see your view of life realized in art. For me, film is unique; it has a peculiar quality for re-creating life. I find life so wonderful, that to try to capture it in art is like trying to catch starlight.”

Heavily in debt, a desperate Goldman left his wife and six children behind in 1974 to come to Los Angeles to try to salvage his career.

Director Milos Forman had read his yet-to-be-shot script for Shoot the Moon and asked to meet with him about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Producers had been trying for years to make Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel into a movie, and the director and star Jack Nicholson, fresh off Chinatown, were unhappy with the screenplay, written by Lawrence Hauben, that they had.

“The first thing I remember saying is I think McMurphy (Nicholson’s character) should come in and kiss the admitting officers (at the mental hospital),” Goldman recalled in a wonderful 2000 interview for the Writers Guild Foundation.

Forman hired him on the spot, and they began their collaboration the following day. “We worked at the Sunset Marquis hotel next to the pool there,” he said. “Milos worked in a maroon bathing suit with a 1964 World’s Fair T-shirt; this was 1970-something, mind you.

“I knew it was going to be good the first day. It was something I sensed. … I knew he had a movie in his head; my thing was to find a way to make it work.”

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, William Duell, Vincent Schiavelli, Delos V. Smith Jr., Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, 1975.

‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

In 1976, Goldman’s first produced film — his first work to be published or produced in more than 15 years, in fact — won the five top Oscars: for best picture, screenplay (adapted), director, actor (Nicholson) and actress (Louise Fletcher).

Only two other pictures have accomplished that feat: Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

Goldman was paid $8,000 for the gig. After he was asked to return for rewrites, he requested a bonus and was told he would get another $50,000 if the film passed the $20 million mark at the box office. That happened in no time.

While doing research for Melvin and Howard (1980), Goldman spent three weeks in Utah with service station owner Melvin Dummar, who was left millions in a will by a hitchhiker, Howard Hughes, followed by a week with Dummar’s ex-wife, Linda.

“You can’t learn enough, and you must stay with it until you no longer can,” he said in 2012. “‘Research’ is an enervating word; I would call it ‘discovery,’ which, interestingly enough, is a legal term.”

Demme saw Goldman’s script and “begged to do it,” he said, after Mike Nichols had pushed to get Nicholson to star as Melvin and was fired. It wound up starring Paul Le Mat as Dummar, Jason Robards as Hughes and Mary Steenburgen, in an Oscar-winning turn, as Linda.

One of five children, Robert Goldman was born in Manhattan on Sept. 10, 1932. His father, Julian Goldman, owned a chain of retail stores, was a Broadway producer and had Franklin Roosevelt as his attorney, but he lost his fortune during the Depression.

Goldman’s parents were never married, and his dad had several kids with another woman, facts Bo did not learn until years later.

Even though the family was broke, they lived in a 12-room apartment on Park Avenue as Goldman attended the Dalton School, Phillips Exeter Academy and Princeton. He believed that his Uncle Samuel, who owned liquor stores, insurance agencies and Bronx tenements, put him “through all my fancy schools.”

Goldman worked as an assistant to legendary Broadway composer Styne and on a CBS morning show hosted by Will Rogers Jr. (the head writer there was future 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney), then served in the U.S. Army.

Goldman landed on Playhouse 90 as an associate producer and script editor alongside Coe, whom he called the “D.W. Griffith of dramatic television.”

They worked on live versions of Days of Wine and Roses, which would become the Jack Lemmon-Lee Remick movie, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the basis for Apocalypse Now, and with luminaries including Foote, Arthur Penn, Delbert Mann and John Frankenheimer.

“Fred taught me all I was ever going to know about story and character,” he said.

In 1959, Goldman made it to Broadway with First Impressions, a musical comedy based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that starred Hermione Gingold, Polly Bergen and Farley Granger and ran for 92 performances.

For the next decade or so, Goldman fought to mount a Civil War musical he called Hurrah, Boys, Hurrah but never succeeded despite having Coe, Penn and Jerome Robbins attached at various times.

Goldman wrote for the Sunday afternoon NBC News show Update, for Theatre ’62 at NBC and for PBS while struggling to make ends meet. “I kind of bottomed out,” he said.

He took a crack at the script for the movie Starting Over but was fired, he noted, because he couldn’t make the movie about divorce funny.

Thankfully for him, Shoot the Moon became his calling card and led him to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He said he identified with McMurphy as “an outsider, tolerated perhaps but not really equipped to cope with life as it presents itself.”

He worked on a week-to-week contract revising Bill Kerby’s original script for The Rose and wrote a screenplay for a King Kong movie before embarking on Melvin and Howard.

After Shoot the Moon was finally made, New Yorker critic Pauline Kael remarked that “the characters (in the film) aren’t taken from the movies, or from books, either. They’re torn — bleeding — from inside Bo Goldman and Alan Parker and the two stars.”

MELVIN AND HOWARD, Jason Robards, Paul Le Mat, 1980.

Jason Robards (left) and Paul Le Mat in 1980’s ‘Melvin and Howard’

Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

“Somebody once said about me, ‘When in doubt, Bo goes for the pain,’ ” he told The New York Times in a 1993 interview. “It’s a painful profession, with all this tension. And if you’re lucky enough to get recognition and be good at it, then this tension gets tighter and tighter between you and the studio and the director. You’re fighting for your work all the time. That’s the pain. The pain comes from that tension. And they hold all the cards. And to them it’s shoes. They’re selling shoes.”

Goldman found it hard to keep going after his eldest son, Jesse, then 22, was killed when a driver ran a stop sign and struck him in a Santa Monica crosswalk in 1981. “I didn’t work very well after that for a long time,” he said. “I don’t think I came out of it until the end of the decade.”

The ’80s saw him co-write Richard Benjamin’s Little Nikita (1988), starring Sidney Poitier and River Phoenix, and do uncredited work on the screenplays for Forman’s Ragtime (1981), Demme’s Swing Shift (1984) and Garry Marshall‘s The Flamingo Kid (1984).

He roared back with Scent of a Woman (1992) — Brest “brought him back into the world,” he said — which was adapted from a 1974 Italian movie of the same name. (Goldman said he signed on because the star of that film, Vittorio Gassman, reminded him of a brother who had hit a rough patch.)

Goldman followed with another Pacino topliner, Harold Becker’s City Hall (1996), and Brest’s Meet Joe Black (1998), starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins.

Goldman also polished the scripts for Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990), Wolfgang Petersen‘s The Perfect Storm (2000) and Forman’s Goya’s Ghosts (2006) and received story credit on Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply (2016).

Survivors include his children, Mia, Amy, Diana, Serena (Field’s wife) and Justin; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. He lived in Rockport, Maine.

His wife of 63 years, Mab Ashforth, died in 2017. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, she ran a Long Island food store called Loaves and Fishes that helped the family stay afloat.

“The sweat will always show, the labor will always show,” he said about writing. “If it flows, if you let yourself go, it’s like a love affair, it’s like a moment with your children, it’s like anything that comes naturally. You say to yourself, ‘Thank God I’m alive,’ that’s what the writing process must be. But before I make it sound too glorious, I hate getting there. I love it, but to me, it’s absolute toil and turmoil to have to think about writing a movie.”