Skip to main content

Think You Know Hollywood? You Don't Know Mank

There hasn’t been a great book on Hollywood in quite some time, which is why My Life As A Mankiewicz is such a treat. Just published by the University Press of Kentucky, it’s the story of the legendary Mankiewicz clan, which includes Joe Mankiewicz, the writer/director of All About Eve, and Herman Mankiewicz, who wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane.

Try to imagine following in those footsteps, but that’s just what Joe’s son Tom Mankiewicz did, and he did quite well. Tom’s big break came at twenty-seven, when he wrote the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever, and he went on to write, co-write and script doctor the Bond series throughout the seventies.

 Tom Mankiewicz

Tom Mankiewicz

Tom also did major rewrites on The Deep, SupermanI and II, and many other big films. He also had big success on TV with Hart to Hart, and gave Universal Studios one of their biggest hits of the year after a serious box office drought with the big screen version of Dragnet.

My Life As a Mankiewicz is a history of Hollywood through Tom’s eyes, and growing up in a great writing dynasty, he knew and worked with everyone. Robert Crane helped Tom get it all down on paper before he passed away in 2010, and I’m glad we have this book to show for it, because it’s a wonderful journey through Hollywood, and I can’t think of a wittier gentleman to guide us through.

Crane talked to Script magazine about the importance of the Mankiewicz family in Hollywood history, what it was like trying to carve your own path as a screenwriter when your father and uncle already blazed incredible trails, and how Tom, like the rest of his family, knew the importance of great storytelling.

SCRIPT: How did you first meet Tom Mankiewicz, and what made you feel his life and career would make a good book?

ROBERT CRANE: I met Tom in 1990. I was working for John Candy doing a plethora of stuff on a comedy called Delirious. There weren’t a lot of people in the company, so we all wore twelve hats. Tom was the director, and it became a three-month love-in. Everyone had such a great time working on the film, and the end result wasn’t remarkable, but everyone had a good time doing it. At the end of the day, John and his posse, or Tom and his people, would meet in somebody’s trailer. Tom would have a Jack Daniels and cigarettes, John would have a rum and coke and cigarettes, and I was hearing these stories pouring out of Tom.

Meeting people through his father Joe, having his first drink at eleven with Humphrey Bogart on the set of one of his father’s films, The Barefoot Contessa in Italy, the stories went on and on. I said, “My God, this guy has known and worked with everyone in Hollywood.”

The Mankiewicz family to me represents old Hollywood in the best definition of old Hollywood. It was an era, it was a time, it’s a way to make films, it was a way to work with actors, actresses, writers, directors, and studios. It’s gone, and I don’t think it’s coming back. Tom’s father Joe Mankiewicz won at least four Oscars, maybe five for All About Eve, Guys and Dolls, he also directed Cleopatra, huge films. Uncle Herman, Joe’s brother, co-wrote Citizen Kane. The other people in his family are Frank Mankiewicz, who was with Robert Kennedy for so long, and some of Tom’s cousins include Josh Mankiewicz, who’s on NBC Dateline, Ben Mankiewicz, who’s a host on Turner Classic Movies, and John Mankiewicz, who’s a writer for episodic television.

Tom and John Candy stayed in touch after that, then John passed away in 1994. I interviewed Tom for an A&E biography on John, and Tom was choc full of more great observations, and stories. The years went by, and I kept mentioning to my wife Leslie, “God, I want to meet up with Tom again. There’s a book there. I’m not aware of one yet, and maybe he’s working on one as we speak, but I want to hook up with him, and hear more of about the people he’s worked with, and the iconic Mankiewicz family.” We would meet up at his house in the Hollywood Hills, we would carry the conversations down to what he called his office, The Palm restaurant in West Hollywood, where he had table number forty for three or four days a week for lunch. My goal was to come out with a book that would reflect almost like sitting at the bar at the Palm, having a beverage, and listing to some of the remarkable background on his family and co-workers.

SCRIPT: When I met with Tom years ago, we spoke a bit about trying to follow in his father and uncle’s footsteps.

CRANE: And what huge footsteps to follow. Tom was very aware of the importance of his father and uncle in the history of Hollywood. The thing Tom liked about writing was it didn’t matter what your last name was, you better have the words on the paper, or they’re not gonna be interested in your script. He had been shopping a script around called Please, and it got the attention at somebody at Universal who hired him to rewrite a Bob Hope Chrysler Theater episode. Again, it was his ability to rewrite a script that got him the job, it wasn’t his father. That’s what he liked about writing. The last name could gain the attention of the reader, but as they turn past the title page, you better have the words there that will impress them, otherwise it doesn’t matter what your last name is.

SCRIPT: So how did Tom fall into script doctoring?

CRANE: Tom made his own mark early on in ’67, ’68. He worked on a Nancy Sinatra special, and it was really all songs. It was like a giant, long form video of its day, and nobody had done anything like that before. This was pre-MTV. Tom wrote the segues, and the loose story that went through it for Nancy. They had such success with it, then they shot one with Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass the following year. Again, Tom did the weaving of the songs. Tom was making his mark in his eyes, and in his dad’s eyes. Joe would never do a show like that, he didn’t have any interest with that, and he recognized Tom was making his own mark.

Then came the James Bond films. He co-wrote Diamonds Are Forever, and The Man With the Golden Gun, and in the case of Live and Let Die, Tom got solo credit. (Tom also did script doctor work on The Spy Who Loved Me, and consulted behind the scenes on Moonraker.) Joe respected Tom doing James Bond, but he never would have touched a Bond film, wouldn’t have known what to do with one, and didn’t have an interest in doing one. So Tom again was making his own mark.

I think script doctoring was an in road for him. People had liked what they’d seen with the Bond films, especially the dialogue. I think that caught the attention of agents and studio heads, and they said, “I want Mankiewicz to come in here and work on this project.” He spent a lot of time at Warner Brothers and Universal working on scripts. It was great money, the only drawback was you didn’t get credit for the most part. But it was the door opener, and he had his sights on directing, so that lead him to Hart to Hart. He reworked an old Sidney Sheldon script, and he also directed the pilot, which started him off on directing. After directing a couple of episodes of Hart to Hart, he really enjoyed being on sets again. He would be on his dad’s sets when a kid, as a teenager, then later in college. He liked the camaraderie, he liked hearing stories from actors and actresses, so he really caught that bug of living life on the set. Then it came full circle, because I met him on the Delirious set, and people didn’t want to go home at night. That’s what really impressed me. We’d be shooting all day, we’d gab for a couple of hours at the end of the day, then report back at the set at seven in the morning.

In the book, Tom mentioned the only project he ever worked on that his dad said he might have done was a film called Ladyhawke, with Matthew Broderick and Michelle Pfeiffer. Joe would have been interested in doing a film like that.

SCRIPT: Instead of trying to compete with All About Eve and Citizen Kane, Tom had his own area he could excel in.

CRANE: Maybe Tom consciously did that, I don’t know how much you can consciously design your career, because around every corner is a different job, and a different set of people, and it’s pretty hard to map it out unless you’re Steven Spielberg or Clint Eastwood or somebody like that. I don’t know if it was by design, but he was conscious about doing things his father wouldn’t do. Tom wrote Mother, Jugs and Speed, a Peter Yates film about ambulance drivers in L.A., and Joe was very impressed with it, but he wouldn’t have made a film like that in his own career.

Tom mentioned it was a family where you didn’t get a lot of compliments. You would hear stuff from other people, like Tom would hear from Hume Cronyn, who was a friend of Joe’s, would tell Tom his father was really happy about something that Tom had just worked on, but Joe couldn’t tell Tom that.

SCRIPT: One of the biggest projects Tom did were major rewrites on the first two Superman films.

CRANE: Tom inherited two scripts that were 4-500 pages. Superman was initially written by Mario Puzo, David and Leslie Newman. It was campy, there were cameos from Telly Savalas as Kojak walking by, and Tom said, “First you better be interested in the love story between Clark Kent and Lois Lane, which is the backbone of the Superman story. You better believe these two people, and be interested in them, otherwise there’s not gonna be a movie.” He went through the scripts, got rid of the campiness, and tried to make it a real, believable love story. As far as I’m concerned, on that level he succeeded, where you cared about Clark Kent and Lois getting together, and all the superhero stuff took off from there, because you believed in these people. You liked them and wanted to watch them.

SCRIPT: What were the most important lessons you learned about storytelling from Tom, and from writing about the Mankiewicz family?

CRANE: I think for Tom, human interaction was the main thing. You better have a couple of interesting characters talking, developing their characters through the relationship, or else it wouldn’t be an interesting movie to Tom. Even though somebody may say, ‘Wait a minute, James Bond, Superman,” but it was the witty repartee, the relationships Bond had with M, the villains in the piece, and with Superman it was the relationship with Clark and Lois. You better have those first, with really good, snappy dialog, or it’s not gonna go. Towards the end of his life, with some of the films that are out now that are doing huge business, Tom said he wouldn’t know how to write them himself. He still needed that dialog between two of the main characters to keep himself interested, and to drive the film. That was one of the reasons he drifted away and lost interest in the business towards the end of his life, because of the direction films were going in. He wasn’t saying a general statement about films, because there were plenty of films and filmmakers he still loved, but again, it was back to the relationships. That’s what drove him, and that’s what drove his dad.