Farewell to a Tinseltown Original: In Memory of Samuel Goldwyn Jr.
Hollywood scion Samuel Goldwyn Jr., producer of films including The Madness of King George, stayed determinedly independent during a much-lauded life and career.
The first time I met the producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr. he was sitting in his Los Angeles office in a brown stone building on Pico Boulevard, with the city unfolding towards the Hollywood Hills through the large window behind him.
For the headquarters for his company, Samuel Goldwyn Films, he had staked out a spot in a sort of no man’s land, amid the mom and pop stores on the seemingly infinite street, a stone’s throw from the Westside studios like Columbia Pictures, 20th Century Fox, and MGM, or Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The G came from Goldwyn Pictures Corporation in which his father Samuel Goldwyn, one of Hollywood’s founding figures, was a partner.
The meeting at 9570 Pico that day created a visual in my mind of Mr. Goldwyn Jr. that persists today. It is of him keeping a watchful eye on the town, from his glass tower where he liked to do business. He passed away last Friday of congestive heart failure in Los Angeles. He was 88. One has to hope he is now watching from above.
Like his father, Tinseltown’s original independent filmmaker—whose credits included Hollywood’s first full-length feature, The Squaw Man, the seven-time Oscar winner The Best Years of Our Lives, and Stella Dallas--Mr. Goldwyn Jr. remained independent until the last.
“He (Sam, Jr.) was an ultimate outlier,” said his son John Goldwyn speaking by phone from Beverly Hills, reflecting Vanity Fair Editor's Graydon Carter's words to him that week. “He was immersed in Hollywood, and at the same time detached from it. He had perspective and always had other interests in his life. He was independent and he admired people that were independent. He was suspicious of filmmaking by committee, and would say every great film was the result of one individual.”
In his late seventies by the time I met him, Mr. Goldwyn Jr. was warm and affable, and he welcomed me with open arms. He wanted to keep a watchful eye on me too, a newcomer to these parts. He was like a fairy godmother graciously waving his wand over the burning inferno below, but one that was too modest to put on a sparkling dress.
Like countless others from Ang Lee to Kenneth Branagh or even Julia Roberts, whose careers he helped start, he decided to wave a little of his magic over me.
A dogged reporter covering film at The Hollywood Reporter or The Wrap, when a secretary would yell across the newsroom, “Liza, Sam Goldwyn is on the phone,” I would feel validated and smile. Perhaps I was destined to become Hedda Hopper, the legendary Hollywood gossip queen, after all.
I was not the only one to feel his magic touch.
“He would make it his business to know everything about a subject or person,” said John Goldwyn, who is the executive producer for scripted programming at Discovery Channel and has served as the vice chairman of the Paramount Motion Picture Group, one of the studios which his grandfather co-founded.
“It was immensely flattering for people that he would do his homework and know who they were before he walked into a room. That was especially flattering for people in a town where people have no attention span. My father was intellectually curious. He was always interested in other things. When he dug into something he was interested in he would master it, from wine to film to the work of an actor or playwright or history. He was very thorough that way and he expected other people to be also.”
One can also add to his traits, “generous” and “gifted”—some of the descriptions that his son has seen repeated in the letters that have poured in since his father passed away a week ago.
When I met Sam in his office, I was the U.S. Editor of the British film trade Moving Pictures International, and profiling him that day for a series on independent filmmakers.
While his father was an early player in forming the industry, his son staked out his own role, from discovering Julia Roberts for Mystic Pizza to creating the so-called specialty film business or a league of independent film companies that started up outside of the studio system, like Miramax and New Line Cinema. He produced Longtime Companion, the first major movie dealing with the gay experience of HIV and AIDS.
Not only filmmakers, but dozens of executives passed through his doors.
“Sam Goldwyn Jr. was at the vanguard of the independent film movement in the early 1990s, co-financing and distributing such landmark films as The Madness of King George and Much Ado About Nothing and launching the careers of such acclaimed filmmakers as Ang Lee,” said Jason Resnick who worked for him in the late 1990s.
Resnick later served as vice president of acquisitions at the specialty label, Focus Features, before becoming an independent producer and consultant. “In a rough-and-tumble and often impolite industry, Sam was an elegant gentleman with exquisite taste.”
That day, I was hunting for color from his childhood, the only son of Samuel Goldwyn and the actress Frances Howard. But asked if he had grown up in glamorous circumstances surrounded by movie stars, he instead shared a few modest stories.
Sam recalled his father taking him to a studio meeting in which he proceeded to ask the executives (the head of distribution, production, finance, exhibition) how well they thought a film would open at the box office. They gathered each figure and left. Sam recalled being highly impressed with their expertise. Then, "Nobody knows anything in this business until a film opens," came the reply from his father.
Sam painted a picture of a childhood colored not so much by the glamor of the Golden Years in Hollywood in which his father played a large role, but by one spent waiting to see if films--Dodsworth, Porgy and Bess and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty are among his father’s other titles--would do well enough so that they could pay off the money to the bank.
Mr. Goldwyn Jr. seemed modest as a consequence. He was a grounded soul, busy now with his own films, including by the time I met him, a remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which he worked on for the best part of that decade. “It was the only time my father and I worked together,” John Goldwyn recalled.
“He never let anyone buy into the myth too much,” John said. “He would say his father was a guy who woke up every day struggling. The truth is that for most of my father’s youth, his father was always struggling as an independent. He had no future in the studios and had been pushed out. The only person in his life he could trust was his wife, so my father and his father and wife formed an island. They were alone in the world. There were dinner parties where celebrated people came and it was wonderful, but that was all about work and keeping the trains running.”
Other stories illustrate the point.
John recalled: “He hated going to Santa Barbara and I never knew why. It turned out that was a popular place to preview films and some of those films did not do well, so Sam Goldwyn would go into a depression driving home. For a boy aged 7/8/9, he was terrified that their world would collapse. He had the emotional memory of it and a fear that their life would fall apart.”
This spilled over into how he raised his own children. “He never talked about movie stars when we were growing up and there were never any IN the house when we grew up,” said John. “He thought Hollywood was corrupt. His mother would say, ‘I have seen ten generations of the rich and famous since I have been in Hollywood.’ My father took that with him.”
Sam had six children in total, some of whom have also followed in his footsteps, including his daughter Liz, a filmmaker and artist, his son Tony Goldwyn, the actor/writer/director and Peter Goldwyn who is senior vice president of Samuel Goldwyn Films. But still he made time for countless others.
We had a long chat that day that took up the best part of an afternoon. Over the years it became clear that he was not only generous as a person, but also with his time.
He invited me to a dozen odd lunches and we had many lengthy phone calls, connecting everywhere from The Concorde Room, the British Airways lounge at Heathrow Airport, where I was en route to the Berlin International Film Festival on my birthday, to a set of stone stairs at the back of a house I lived in by the Santa Monica beach where an album cover for Bob Dylan had been photographed and where I was hiding out one day far from the madding crowd.
He always found me no matter where I was. When I belatedly discovered the history of my own exotic family later in life, textile merchants who had roamed the Far East in the 1930s and 1940s, I stood hovering for an hour or more in a Santa Monica courtyard with Sam on the phone. “Liza, you have to write this down,” he said. He was prepared to champion me.
“He mentored so many people and his light shines on,” said Rorri Feinstein who works for Samuel Goldwyn Films on projects including the sixty-year-old Samuel Goldwyn Writing Awards whose recipients have included Francis Ford Coppola.
Perhaps he liked British people like me. Like his father, Mr. Goldwyn Jr. was an Anglophile and he spent time in London and Paris after the war which helped shape him and take him outside of Hollywood.
He worked as a theatrical producer in London after serving in the U.S army during WWII, and then for Edward R. Murrow in New York at CBS, before going into film and on to launch companies including The Samuel Goldwyn Company and Samuel Goldwyn Films. After the war, he worked in London for J. Arthur Rank, and later produced films there like The Madness of King George.
Mr. Goldwyn Jr. was in Britain in the late 1940s. “It was an incredible time and I can only imagine what it was like to be in England after the war,” said John Goldwyn. “It had a profound impact on him. Then he came back to America and met my mother.
Then they spent time in Paris with Orson Welles.“My mother was working with the Mercury Theater in Paris. (Co-founder) Orson Welles was in Paris and there was a lot going on there. My mother (Jennifer Howard) was about the only person around who spoke great French and so she was the secretary of the theater. They lived in Paris, my dad was working for the army and my sister Catherine was born there. He then came back to Hollywood in the 1950s. In the 1980s, he eventually bought an apartment in Mayfair. He was doing a lot of work there and his company played a big role in the British film industry.”
Although he worked on other films in Britain such as Truly, Madly, Deeply and Henry V, John Goldwyn says the film for which he was most proud was The Madness of King George, “where he thought everything came together. He admired England’s culture and its literature. He loved England. He loved first Alan Bennett’s play then director Nicholas Hytner whose talent he also loved, and then there was Nigel Hawthorne (George III) who the staff would refer to as ‘His Majesty’ when he came to dinner at the house.”
Although The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, his last project, was released in 2013, Mr. Goldwyn Jr. also helped champion much smaller projects. At a party for the Oscar campaign for Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me at the Goldwyn Mansion in 2005, he took me on a tour of the fabled house that had been mortgaged and remortgaged so many times by his father to bankroll films.
Sam Goldwyn, Jr. had often also financed films himself. On that tour of the house, he pointed to a photograph of a little boy sitting next to Charlie Chaplin, their legs dangling over the side of a swimming pool. It was him. He was modest as ever about the whole thing.
John Goldwyn said: “Chaplin was more than the biggest star in the world. He would finance the payroll when times were tough. These were more than just fancy relationships. There were people that kept the wolves from the door. Chaplin was a very important one.”
Mr. Goldwyn Jr. worked on other projects too in his final years, including a sequel to his film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which won two Oscars.
“Just after the New Year, he said to me they are trying to get another one of the books (the Aubrey Maturin series) going and you know, they have got to get someone young in those parts, the trick is that you have to get someone young. He was weak and not entirely with his faculties but he would just come out with these dead on insights and something entirely relevant,” John Goldwyn said.
But then he had always been that way. “We would be having a meeting and he would say, “As Irene Selznick said, ‘Even Clark Gable gets old.’” You would realize he was saying that it is about youth. And you were talking to someone who had been through many cycles of many careers and when he said it, it was gospel. It was very important because you would just want to get something done and it would be a mistake and he could see that.”
It must have been difficult to be the son of Sam Goldwyn, John added. “He evoked his father quite a lot. He worshipped him and I guess chafed under him as well. But he shouldered the great legacy with a sense of style and great humor. He was born with a job to perpetuate the legacy of what they created. He did that very capably. It was a big job. He also created his own identity and left an indelible mark on Hollywood, first doing the specialty business and understanding there was a hole that no one filled.”
Many companies sold out to the studios but not Mr. Goldwyn Jr.
“He was really an independent. He was on his own. He understood something that was drilled into him at a young age by his father, that the minute you sell out you are finished,” said John Goldwyn. “Sam Goldwyn said, ‘I am in the game until it becomes about sliding the money under the door and then I am done.’ My father was the same way. He was a producer. He didn’t want to become a bank.”