Born one of five children to a wealthy retail magnate who lost his fortune in the Great Depression, Goldman served in the Army for several years after graduating from Princeton. He worked as an associate producer on "Playhouse 90" for CBS from 1958 to 1960 and also wrote the lyrics for a Broadway show, "First Impressions" (1959), based on Jane Austen's classic "Pride and Prejudice". Despite some subsequent work on TV, his career stalled as his decade of labor on a planned stage musical about the Civil War never came to fruition.
Goldman kept up his ties with theater and TV with several seasons of work for PBS, producing several plays for "Theater in America". He wrote the screenplay for the film "Shoot the Moon" (which would not be produced until a decade later) and director Milos Forman, impressed with Goldman's work, suggested that he try his hand at adapting Ken Kesey's novel and Dale Wasserman's stage version of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest". Goldman was only paid $8000 for his collaboration with Lawrence Hauben, but his resulting acclaim and Oscar win jumpstarted his writing career.
Goldman has not been a prolific screenwriter, but his best efforts have proven both popular and likably offbeat. He often presents highly individualistic characters cast into a vortex of pain, while surrounding them with cartoonishly flamboyant, darkly comical settings. Bette Midler vaulted to film stardom in the juicy lead role of "The Rose" (1979), and Goldman won a second Oscar, this time for original screenplay, for his cult film portrait of an "ordinary joe" whose life is changed by a chance meeting, "Melvin and Howard" (1980). The death of a son in 1981 kept him away from writing for a time, and the 80s were a leaner period with the lesser "Swing Shift" (1984) and "Little Nikita" (1988). Goldman again garnered popular acclaim, if a split verdict from critics, with his sentimental but splashy showcase for Al Pacino, "Scent of a Woman" (1992), and the two reteamed for the elaborate political machinations of "City Hall" (1996).