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John Goldwyn Remembers His Dad, Samuel Goldwyn Jr.

Samuel Goldwyn Jr dead obit
United Artists/Photofest

Within the hundreds of condolence emails I received since my father’s death Jan. 9, key words like “gracious,” “generous” and “gifted” reveal a common thread among friends and filmmakers alike. Only the word “outlier,” in a note from Graydon Carter, struck me as an unusual descriptor, since my father was a Hollywood insider from the moment of his birth. And yet the more I pondered the word, its sense of detachment, I came to realize that Graydon’s choice summarized the essence of my father and his world view perfectly.

History has a way of conflating time and space, and the common perception is that Samuel Goldwyn Jr. was born into a world of rarefied privilege because of his father’s seminal role in motion pictures. But if you sat with my father and talked about those early days, as I often did, a different picture would emerge. He recalled vivid anecdotes about his father’s struggle as an independent producer, how threatened he felt by major studios and exhibitors.

Money was tight, and the iconic Georgian home in Beverly Hills, where he and his elegant wife Frances entertained the famous and accomplished, was remortgaged many times. My father loved to reminisce about how the family would celebrate with a glass of glogg wine whenever the note got paid off.

And yet, despite terrible odds, sometimes at the poker table, Sam Goldwyn never lost his nerve or his will to fight, because to do so would compromise his identity, his brand. Brass knuckles were required to burnish the Goldwyn Touch, and his livelihood depended on it. He inculcated in my father at a young age that conformity meant certain death. Following one’s path, being an outlier, was essential to survival. That, and never giving up.

Samuel Goldwyn Jr.’s accomplishments in his own right were manifold and protean, not only in the realm of motion pictures, but also in philanthropy, especially the Motion Picture & Television Fund, about which he cared deeply. Much has been written about his contribution to specialized films; the gifted directors Ang Lee, Kenneth Branagh and Nicholas Hytner, whose first films he endorsed; and the road he paved for the companies that followed, like Miramax.

What is less well known is that being the first, doing things his way, involved incalculable risk. Like his father, he gambled with his own money, backed films that reflected his taste and not what was fashionable, and fretted about early New York Times reviews, because booking theaters throughout the country depended on them. Yes, he was “gracious” and “generous,” but he was also very gutsy, an attribute I came to admire the most. He once coolly remarked to an agent who threatened him over a star’s perk list, “You must have me confused with someone who derives their sense of self-worth from the town.” That was my Dad in a sentence.

He refused to be consumed by Hollywood, despite his immersion in it, and made time to read (which he did voraciously), travel and, most importantly, spend time with his family. He loved dispensing advice, whether or not it was solicited, and was relentlessly interested in his children’s careers. He reveled in our successes, though he could be brutal if we languished in them too long, because he distrusted hits.

He never lived off the fumes of his father’s legacy, which he characterized as a form of delusion and self pity, though he often cited evidence from his personal past as a guide to the future. The writer Richard LaGravenese once said to me, “Your Dad has one foot planted in 1936 and the other in 2036. There’s no one else who can do that.”

When I told my father of my decision to join Paramount Pictures, where I eventually became vice chairman, he responded with derisive skepticism. He feared that I would amount to nothing more than a “wage slave” or a “No. 2 man.” He even said so in the press. In time, however, as Paramount won three Academy Awards and became immensely profitable under Sherry Lansing and Jon Dolgen, he emerged as my proudest defender. He loved that a Goldwyn worked at the studio his father helped to create.

I loved him, and am going to miss his gimlet-eyed wisdom. And I am certain the industry has lost one of its most valuable resources as well.

John Goldwyn, son of Oscar-nominated producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr. and grandson of movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, is a movie and television producer whose credits include “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and Showtime’s serial killer crime drama “Dexter,” which he executive produced. Goldwyn was recently tapped as executive producer of scripted programming for Discovery Channel.