'Golden Pond' writer taps local roots for inspiration

Ask Ernest Thompson why he became a writer.

"Bucks," replies the man who wrote the play and later the movie script of "On Golden Pond," which captured three Academy Awards in 1981. "That's my trade, and I happen to enjoy it immensely."


Mr. Thompson, who left a brief career as an actor on soap operas in the late 1970s to write, will speak tomorrow at the annual Carroll County Children's Fund banquet.

The fund, which raised about $3,000 last year, helps hospitalized children's families who have exhausted all other means of paying the bills. Tickets for the banquet at Martin's Westminster are $30 each and are available by calling 549-7421.


"I'm happy to do it," said Mr. Thompson, 44. "It seems like a wonderful cause to help and support in some small way, to contribute to an effort to save the lives of children."

For Mr. Thompson, speaking in Westminster is a homecoming of sorts. He spent his high school years in Carroll County and keeps in touch with favorite teachers and good friends in the area.

"It's my back yard," he said. "I have a certain allegiance to Carroll County."

But he said his concept of hometown remains flexible.

"It was about as long as we lived anywhere when we were kids," he said of Carroll County, where his father was an education professor at Western Maryland College.

"There was something in my upbringing that always made me think that my hometown was a trunk or a suitcase," he said. "I guess where my hometown [is ] now is where I live in New Hampshire."

Images of Carroll often find their way into Mr. Thompson's works, a fact he acknowledges.

Inspiration for "1969" -- his movie about being a teen-ager in the Vietnam era -- came primarily from living in Westminster.


"I used to candidly say that it took place in Carroll County," he said. "Then some legal department in the studio said I had to change it to protect the innocent."

And his first novel, "Friend of the Family," follows the love affair of a 40-something man and a much younger woman through Baltimore, Los Angeles, Paris and Carroll County.

"The usual grouping," said Mr. Thompson, with his characteristic dry wit. "I expect it to be out immediately, but we're still in &L; conversation with the publishers."

Even individual characters, whose travels don't touch Carroll, are sometimes modeled after people he knew and respected while growing up.

Margaret Mary Elderdice, the main character in "West Side Waltz," was modeled after Westminster's most avid theatrical supporter, the late Dorothy Elderdice.

The play, which starred Katharine Hepburn during its regional theater tour in the early 1980s, is being reworked into a television drama that will feature Shirley MacLaine as Ms. Elderdice, Mr. Thompson said.


"I did shamelessly steal the name, and the character is in large part based on her life," Mr. Thompson said during a speech at Western Maryland College in 1982. "I am happy that in some way I have helped immortalize her."

Regardless of the setting, Mr. Thompson's works always revolve around interactions between people, he said.

"I'm primarily a writer of character," he said. "Plot is important, but it's not as interesting as who people are, what they are trying to say to one another and why you do the things you do."

As in "On Golden Pond," Mr. Thompson still occasionally explores parent-child relationships.

"Lies Boys Tell" -- a television movie based on a novel by Lamar Herrin -- is a "road movie and bonding family relationship case study," said Mr. Thompson, who wrote the script for, directed and played a small role in the movie.

"Lies," scheduled to air in November, stars Kirk Douglas as the father, Craig T. Nelson as the son and Bess Armstrong as his wife.


"The father wants to die in the bed he was born in, and the son is either hippy enough or insane enough to take on the task," Mr. Thompson said. "It's a quixotic journey for the men, and naturally a lot of stuff gets dug up and discovered along the way."

In his newest play, "Rip Your Heart Out," Mr. Thompson looks at how people react to homosexuals.

The production, scheduled to open off-Broadway in February, was partly inspired by three New York men who were convicted of murder two years ago after beating a gay man to death, he said.

"They had gone into the city to go gay bashing and bashed a man harder than perhaps they intended," he said. "Then, a very dear friend of mine was very ill with AIDS and had his struggles not only as a person dealing with a disease, but as someone who had to deal with the prejudices, the discrimination.

"For me, it was a metaphor for how people treat one another."

The play makes its point by blending humor with the serious subject, Mr. Thompson said.


"I'm trying to find the balance between what I often read as the sadness of life and the humor of life," he said.

"This gay-bashing play is so funny most of the time that people tend to forget where we're going. It's kind of a neat trick to coax an audience along this way."