Samuel Goldwyn Jr: A Goldwyn inheritance

His father went from being a penniless immigrant to being one of the most flamboyant and powerful figures in Hollywood history, and, as Samuel Goldwyn Jr tells Geoffrey Macnab, the great man's legacy lives on, in his films and his family
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Samuel Goldfish liked to boast that he made his first million dollars by the time he was 30 - not bad going for a young Hasidic Jewish kid from the Warsaw ghetto. He had left Poland as an 11-year-old, with no money and not a word of English. Along the way, on a journey that took him to Liverpool, New York and on to Hollywood, the former blacksmith's assistant and glove salesman changed his name. We know Goldfish today as Samuel Goldwyn - the "G" in MGM, and one of the most flamboyant figures in Hollywood history. He was a gambler with a reckless streak whose malapropisms ("In two words, im possible"... "You can include me out"... "An oral contract isn't worth the paper it is written on", etc) are almost as fondly remembered as his movies, from Stella Dallas and Guys and Dolls to The Best Years of Our Lives.

Samuel Goldfish liked to boast that he made his first million dollars by the time he was 30 - not bad going for a young Hasidic Jewish kid from the Warsaw ghetto. He had left Poland as an 11-year-old, with no money and not a word of English. Along the way, on a journey that took him to Liverpool, New York and on to Hollywood, the former blacksmith's assistant and glove salesman changed his name. We know Goldfish today as Samuel Goldwyn - the "G" in MGM, and one of the most flamboyant figures in Hollywood history. He was a gambler with a reckless streak whose malapropisms ("In two words, im possible"... "You can include me out"... "An oral contract isn't worth the paper it is written on", etc) are almost as fondly remembered as his movies, from Stella Dallas and Guys and Dolls to The Best Years of Our Lives.

If Goldwyn Sr is a legend, his son hasn't done badly either. Sam Goldwyn Jr "discovered" Julia Roberts and helped to kick-start Jim Carrey's career. He produced last year's box-office hit, Master and Commander. A confirmed Anglophile, he also co-financed and produced such British films as The Madness of King George, Kenneth Branagh's Henry V, and Anthony Minghella's Truly Madly Deeply. At the start of his career, in the mid-1940s, he even worked for J Arthur Rank (and co-produced Diana Dors' first movie, Good Time Girl).

Over breakfast in a London hotel last week, Goldwyn Jr acknowledged that he will never trump Goldwyn Sr. A tall, tanned figure, sipping decaff cappuccino and picking at grapes between anecdotes, he tells a comic but poignant story that sums up his father's competitive nature.

Aged 29, he had emulated the old man and made his first million. "I had very good luck with the first film I made - a movie with Robert Mitchum called Man with the Gun. I said to him, 'Daddy, I've made a million'. Goldwyn instantly put him back in his place by observing that $1m in 1955 was worth nothing like as much as the million he'd made in more difficult circumstances at the turn of the century.

Goldwyn Jr had a gilded childhood. He jokes that he is probably the one person still alive who remembers spending time with Irving Thalberg, MGM's "boy wonder" of the 1930s and the inspiration for F Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon. When he was a little older, he learnt about the business by working every summer in the cutting-room.

Now 78, he remains an important Hollywood player in his own right. He is doing a remake of one of Goldwyn Sr's best-loved pictures, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and has long been in negotiation with Miramax about a new version of Guys and Dolls. He also has a successful distribution operation, and is active in sales as well as production.He's still very switched on to what makes today's Hollywood tick.

When asked about the old days, he gleefully reminisces about how much his family detested Louis B Mayer. His father was ousted from his own company, Goldwyn, in 1922, the year it merged with Metro Pictures and Louis B Mayer Productions. The dreaded Mayer remained at the helm of MGM. Goldwyn's only association with the studio that produced "more stars than are in the heavens" was that it still bore his name.

If that wasn't bad enough, a decade before, Mayer (when still a New York junk dealer) had tried to scupper Goldwyn's plans to marry Blanche Lasky by telling his prospective brother-in-law, the producer Jesse Lasky, "to do everything in your powers to keep your sister from marrying this man".

Goldwyn Jr was the only son from his father's second marriage, to the actress and socialite Frances Howard. He hasn't kept up the feud with the Mayer clan - Mayer's daughter Irene Selznick is godmother to one of his children. And he acknowledges that his father was tricky and fiery. "He was a big guy, a difficult man, but smart. Sometimes, when I'm in a jam, I think through what he would have said. He was full of advice, some of which I took, some of which I didn't."

Goldwyn Jr pauses and adopts a pained expression before confiding that his father talked him out of buying the film rights to James Bond. In the late 1950s, he had spent months in negotiations with United Artists and Columbia, trying to interest them in bringing Ian Fleming's spy hero to the screen. He met with Fleming, who was frustrated that he couldn't land a film deal. (The Bond novels were considered anti-Russian and none of the studios would go near them.) "My father said, look, if nobody wants to make the picture, don't waste your money." With this advice ringing in his ears, Goldwyn Jr walked away from what could have been the most lucrative project in his career.

Still, the name Goldwyn was an inheritance in its own right. Samuel Goldfish chose it when he went into business with an exhibitor called Edgar Selwyn in 1918 (the new partners were never likely to call their company Sel-Fish...). Goldwyn realised that it was an advantage to be linked in the public mind with Hollywood's most illustrious studio. His son likewise benefits from the association. "People still come up to me and call me Mr Mayer-Goldwyn!"

His father's other legacy was his movies. Goldwyn Jr is currently plotting the remake of one of them, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, with Jim Carrey (with whom Goldwyn first worked on Once Bitten in 1985) in line to play the title role. Although The Best Years of Our Lives (1947) won Goldwyn a Best Picture Academy award, it was not his favourite film. His son reveals that Goldwyn, an arch-sentimentalist, preferred Wuthering Heights (1940). There would be tears on his face every time he ran it. Goldwyn Jr recalls his father inviting Margot Fonteyn over to watch it: "He cried, she cried."

Goldwyn Sr's production philosophy was the same whether applied to gloves or films: "Make fewer, better." If he mangled the English language along the way, that was largely because he was so busy trying to build a life in America that he never had the time to study. Besides, the "Goldwynisms" generated publicity and always had a grain of truth about them. He also "discovered" a succession of stars, Danny Kaye and Eddie Cantor among them.

He stands as an archetype: the Eastern European immigrant made good, a symbol of the American dream. He is the hustler who was there right at the beginning of the movies. His life story is so colourful and far-fetched that, if written about in a novel, it would be dismissed as beyond credibility. But Goldwyn Jr has ensured that the story is told accurately. He commissioned A Scott Berg to write his celebrated biography of Goldwyn. He was also heavily involved in the making of Peter Jones's documentary, Goldwyn - The Man and His Movies.

The Goldwyns are shaping up as a Hollywood dynasty. Three of Goldwyn Jr's sons are in the film business, and his daughter is making a documentary about burlesque theatre that should be ready in time for Sundance. He himself speaks about the industry with a fervour that comes close to that of his father. "I love it. If you don't love this business, don't go near it. Don't go near it to get rich," he says. "And just remember, if you're right 51 per cent of the time in this business, you're a genius."

'Goldwyn - The Man and His Movies' is out now on DVD

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