For playwright Ernest Thompson, life has always been the greatest inspiration and source of material. For his best-known work, “On Golden Pond,” Thompson pulled from his own family history, with “Golden Pond” created directly from his summers in Maine.
Despite spending his formative years here, Carroll County barely features in the work, but it is responsible for one major aspect of Thompson’s career — his drive to create.
A 1967 Westminster High School graduate, Thompson said when he first moved to Carroll County when he was in the eighth grade, Maryland was a complete mystery to him.
“I felt like it was the Deep South. I thought there’d be Spanish moss from the trees and everyone would speak with these heavy drawls,” Thompson said. “I found out it’s not that different from New Hampshire. The winters were milder, but other than that it was pretty similar.”
One of the first changes he said he made after moving down was to try and drop his New England accent in an attempt to avoid the taunts and JFK comparisons thrown his way by his classmates. Soon, though, he found his place at Westminster as part of the school’s track team.
“Like many kids, I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going, so I gravitated to sports,” Thompson said. “I still felt like the new kid, but I had a knack for long-distance running so I decided to define myself on the cross country team and the track team. For many years I held the record for the 2-mile run at Westminster High School.”
While Thompson worked to define himself on the track, in the classroom, English teacher Mike Eaton was laying the groundwork for what would become Thompson’s career.
Thompson said it was having Eaton as a teacher during his senior year that awakened his passion for writing and for theater. Over the years, he said, the two remained close with Eaton frequently becoming one of the first pairs of eyes on Thompson’s new works.
“He took an interest in my burgeoning talents and was very supportive,” Thompson said. “He introduced me into a bigger world than I knew existed. He was always seeing theater in London and New York, and had these great stories to tell. I was still focused on sports, but he encouraged me to get cast in some of the school’s plays and make a fool of myself.”
At American University, Thompson began studying drama and created his own course consisting solely of reading his favorite playwrights, including Edward Albee, Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams. During college, he said, he developed a great interest in the theater of the absurd, reading and getting involved with productions of “Waiting for Godot” and “Crabstaff Delight.”
“I think I’ve always loved the poetry of language,” Thompson said. “With a tiny bit of encouragement, I wrote ‘Answers,’ which is a series of one-acts which got me a contract option under a well-known director.”
At 28, Thompson wrote his first full-length play, one that would follow him for the rest of his career and will likely be cited as his crowning achievement, “On Golden Pond.”
“On Golden Pond” explores the inter- and inner-generational conflicts experienced by Ethel and Norman Thayer as they spend the summer on Golden Pond and are visited by their daughter, her fiance and his son.
“On Golden Pond” opened on Broadway in 1979 where it ran for 126 performances. There it caught the eye of actress and producer Jane Fonda, who was searching for a project where she could act opposite her father, Henry Fonda. Soon, Thompson found himself adapting his own play for the big screen.
“At the time, I didn’t think much of it. It was the lucky end of so many curious flukes and miracles,” Thompson said. “There was a writer’s strike, so The New York Times didn’t have the chance to express their feelings on the play. Looking back on it, I realize my success is the exception to the rule.”
The film adaptation, starring the Fondas and Katharine Hepburn, was a massive critical success, earning eight Oscar nominations and wins for Hepburn and Henry Fonda, as well as an Academy Award for Thompson for Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.
Thompson said unlike those artists who find success early on and chase it during the rest of their career, he has found the immense achievements of “On Golden Pond” freeing.
“It absolved me of the pressure to have that one big success out of the way early on,” Thompson said. “Now I can focus on the art and the essence of what I want to say.”
While proud of his work and the many material achievements “On Golden Pond” has brought, Thompson said the thing about the work that brings him the most joy is the knowledge that over the past 40 years, the show has never been out of production, and it will likely continue to be performed for new audiences for years.
“I, of course, had no idea that I was creating something with longevity,” Thompson said. “I think that pleases me more than the Oscar or any other rewards. I created something that continues to challenge actors and directors, and moves audiences and will long after I’m gone.”
After “On Golden Pond” and a few other Hollywood projects, including directing “1969” starring Robert Downey Jr. and Kiefer Sutherland, he said he soon stepped away from life in Hollywood to return to a farm in New Hampshire and live as normal a life as possible.
Today, Thompson tells stories in a number of different media and formats, from films to songs to plays to novels. He said he’s a storyteller at heart and merely has to find the right vessel for each story idea that comes.
“I don’t think there’s a choice. There’s no cure for it. I’ve been telling stories since I was a little boy,” Thompson said. “I’ll never have time to tell as many stories as I would like to. It’s mystical and gratifying to create something that didn’t exist before.”