Winston Groom, author of 'Forrest Gump,' dies at 77

Mark Hughes Cobb
The Tuscaloosa News
"Forrest Gump" author Winston Groom died Thursday. He was 77.

Winston Groom, the writer, historian and University of Alabama graduate whose novel "Forrest Gump" became a pop-culture phenomenon, selling 1.7 million copies on the strength of its adaptation into an iconic, six-Oscar-winning 1994 movie, has died at the age of 77. A representative of the mayor's office in Fairhope, where he had been living with his wife Susan, confirmed his passing.

As a proud UA alumnus, Groom also compiled and wrote the massive 2000 University of Alabama Press book "The Crimson Tide: An Illustrated History of Football at the University of Alabama," and an updated 2010 second version, "The Crimson Tide: The Official Illustrated History of Alabama Football, National Championship Edition."

Groom's other novels include "Better Times Than These," "As Summers Die," "Only," "Gone the Sun," "Such a Pretty, Pretty Girl" and the 2016 "El Paso," along with numerous nonfiction books, largely based around military history.

But it was the 1986 "Forrest Gump" that gave Groom his major commercial success, a tale that became known around the world after an iconic portrayal by Tom Hanks, who won the best actor Oscar for the title role. 

Yet the novel "Forrest Gump" is considerably different from the film, darker and richer, said Don Noble, University of Alabama professor emeritus of English, and a 40-year friend of Groom's.

"You can make a lot of money as a comic writer, but you can't get no respect," Noble said, laughing. "But 'Forrest Gump' is really actually quite a fine novel. It's more subtle and more complicated... richer than the movie."

Though scripts went through many iterations before finally going to camera, one facet of Groom's book director Robert Zemeckis kept was the framework of Gump narrating, looking back on his life.

On Groom's first pages, Gump speaks of how poorly folks treated him because he was "a idiot," but quickly slides into glory days as a Crimson Tide running back -- Groom's Gump was built more like the writer himself, at 6 feet, 6 inches and 240 pounds -- an astronaut, professional wrestler, chess grandmaster, Ping-Pong wizard, and co-star with Raquel Welch in a remake of "The Creature From The Black Lagoon." Unlike Hollywood's smoothed-over version, Gump smokes dope, enjoys sex, and plays rock 'n' roll, enjoying his college experience elsewhere than on the gridiron.

“It’s a farce, and that’s hard to do. The French do it well, but we don’t,” said Groom, in a 2014 phone interview with The Tuscaloosa News.

“If I could convince, persuasively, a reader that Coach Paul Bryant would take an idiot and put him on the football team, they’d believe anything.

“Once you hook your reader, they’ll go for the rest. And that’s, I think, where I hooked ‘em.”

Groom drew the idea from a story his father told him, about a neighbor's child who despite mental challenges displayed savant behavior. Inspired, he pushed aside another project, and wrote "Forrest Gump" in a six-week burst of energy.

"I don't think he knew when he was writing that book that he was giving the world a gift," said Jennifer Horne, Alabama Poet Laureate. Creating a character who becomes known around the world is a "rare and lucky gift" for a writer.

As host of long-running public television series "Bookmark," and a reviewer for The Tuscaloosa News, Noble interviewed and wrote about Groom more than a dozen times. When Groom was honored at UA’s Clarence Cason awards in 2006, Noble spoke about his impact.

“One of the ways that you mark the kind of immortality, or possibility of immortality of a writer, is how many characters they put into the popular culture,” Noble said. Shakespeare created dithering Hamlets, manipulative Lady Macbeths and fatally romantic Romeos. Dickens comes in second, Noble said, as everyone knows what's meant by “a Scrooge," with Tiny Tim, Fagin, Miss Havisham and others in that lineage.

"Most writers never put a character into the popular imagination ... but Winston did,” Noble said. “Gump entered the language. When you say someone is a Forrest Gump, that is a known subject. (Gump) may not be terribly smart, but he is kind and honest and compassionate. Things may go badly for a while, but he’s got perseverance.

“So you’ve got King Lear, and David Copperfield, and you’ve got Gump. That’s immortality.”

Noble noted Groom really enjoyed a layered writing career, best known as a novelist, but highly prolific as a writer of popular history books, including a dozen about military and political history. Born March 23, 1944, in Washington, D.C., and raised in Mobile County, Alabama, Groom originally intended to follow his father into law, but turned toward writing in college while penning humor, and editing for the UA publication Mahout.

After graduation from UA with an English degree in 1965, and a tour of duty in Vietnam, Groom worked as a reporter for the Washington Star, but retired from daily journalism to write fiction. After moving to New York City, he completed his first novel, "Better Times Than These," set in the Vietnam War, published in 1978. Following those were novels "As Summers Die" in 1980, and "Only" in 1984. With Duncan Spencer, he co-wrote the 1983 "Conversations with the Enemy: The Story of PFC Robert Garwood," a work of creative nonfiction which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. "As Summers Die" also drew some attention from Hollywood, being adapted as a 1986 TV movie starring Scott Glenn, Jamie Lee Curtis and Bette Davis.

When Groom received the 2011 Harper Lee Award, Jeanie Thompson, executive director of the Alabama Writers Forum, saw first-hand his graciousness, as he engaged with readers at a signing after the awards ceremony.

"If they wanted to tell him a story about why somebody liked 'Forrest Gump,' or why somebody loved his football book, he would always stop and listen," Thompson said. "That doesn't always happen with famous writers." 

When the AWF inducted Groom into the Alabama Writers' Hall of Fame 2018 class, Groom was charming through the whole process.

"When you first see him, he seems just a little reticent," Thompson said, "but I think he was really actually shy, and he had a public face that I saw from time to time. He will really be missed on the literary landscape."

As an editor at the UA Press in the early part of the century, Horne worked with him on the UA football book. She agreed that "gracious" described Groom.

"At the time, I was in awe," Horne said. "He was a big deal, a famous author and all that." But on their collaboration, the journalist in him came out, she said.

"He hit every deadline," she said. "He cared about his writing, but he didn't fight with us, as editors. He was just gracious, a gentleman. He did not pull rank."

In fact, Groom's genteel, anti-rock-star behavior, might have somewhat disguised his wider fame.

"In your home state you don't necessarily get the credit you deserve," Horne said. "He just kept growing as a writer. You can rest on your laurels, but he didn't do that."