Washburn was born in Buffalo, NY and grew up in Providence, RI. He graduated from Harvard College, A.B. English Literature, in 1959. His early career was that of a playwright, penning the off-Broadway plays Ginger Anne and The Love Nest.
- Heavy Dust, adapted from Manhunt by Peter Maas.
- Gun for Sale, adapted from the book of the same name by Graham Greene.
As a writer, Washburn was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing (Original Screenplay) and a WGA Award for "Best Drama Written Directly for the Screen" for The Deer Hunter, along with Quinn Redeker, Louis Garfinkle and Michael Cimino.
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