Master screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz passed away on Saturday, July 31, 2010.
The son of the Academy Award-winning writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, A Letter to Three Wives) and the nephew of Citizen Kane author Herman Mankiewicz, Tom graduated from Yale and made a name for himself in the 1970s with his work on the James Bond franchise (Mankiewicz co-authored the screenplays for Diamonds Are Forever and The Man with the Golden Gun, wrote Live and Let Die, polished The Spy Who Loved Me, and developed the story for Moonraker) and the incredible rewrite that he did on Superman: The Movie that turned a rambling, overlong, and unfocused first draft into a classic film fantasy that spawned an entire genre – the superhero film – that continues to thrive today. Mankiewicz also worked as a script doctor on films such as The Deep, Wargames, Gremlins, and The Goonies; developed the television series Hart to Hart; and directed the 1987 comedy Dragnet. He was an expert at story construction and wrote wonderfully sharp and witty dialogue infused with great character and humor. A great supporter of other screenwriters, Tom was active in the WGA, taught at the Chapman University film school, and mentored countless up and coming scenarists. He also did philanthropic work – most notably as the chairman of the board of trustees of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association – and owned a number of thoroughbred racehorses.
I had the great privilege of interviewing Tom several times in the past year – first for a career retrospective interview that appeared in Script and on Scriptmag.com (to read the interview, click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2) and later for a Script-sponsored live q & a for students at the New York Film Academy.
A longtime fan of Tom’s work, I was thrilled to meet him and both times he was a consummate gentleman – warm, welcoming, and generous both with his time and with his memories. Tom had amazing recall and was a brilliant raconteur – he spent hours regaling me with wonderful stories of his moviemaking adventures that were filled with humor, insight, and humanity. He was filled with a love for writing and for the filmmaking process and business that was palpable and that came through in every story that he told. In the course of our conversations, I was most touched by the great affection and enthusiasm that he expressed for a modest black comedy about ambulance drivers that he wrote and produced in the mid-1970s called Mother, Jugs, and Speed. Tom had been a writer for hire on the other films he had worked on and this was the first time that he was able to completely control the material – he researched and wrote the script on his own, was instrumental in hiring the director, and took an active hand in shaping the final product. Although Tom had worked on some of the biggest and most high-profile films of the 70s and 80s, this shaggy, raggedy, “little” movie remained closest to his heart and to see him beam with the pride of authorship that all screenwriters aspire to thirty-five years on was both endearing and inspiring.
Following our formal encounters, Tom and I kept in touch via email. He was a wonderful man and I will miss him terribly. Happily, Tom will live on through his work and so he will continue to teach us and entertain us for years to come.