Abby Mann: Screenwriter who won an Oscar for 'Judgment at Nuremberg' and created the TV detective Kojak
Saturday 29 March 2008
One of the foremost writers for television during the years often referred to as the medium's "golden age", Abby Mann received four Emmy awards, and he was also an Oscar-winning screenwriter, winning the award for his scathing account of the trials of Nazi judges, Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), the first major film to deal seriously with war crimes.
Noted for his concern for social justice and his polemical exposure of double standards, compromise and corruption, Mann dramatised several true cases revealing flaws in the criminal justice system and examples of institutionalised prejudice. Accepting his Judgment at Nuremberg Oscar for best adapted screenplay, he stated, "A writer worth his salt at all has an obligation not only to entertain but to comment on the world in which he lives." Mann also created the highly successful detective series Kojak, though he later expressed disappointment that it became "formulaic".
The son of a jeweller of Russian-Jewish extraction, he was born Abraham Goodman in 1927 in a largely Catholic area of Pittsburgh dominated by steel factories, and he later stated that his feeling of being an outsider contributed to his sympathy for minorities. Educated at Temple University, Philadelphia, he spent a year in the army before studying at New York University under the GI Bill.
He first wrote for television when he contributed scripts to the anthology series Cameo Theater in 1950, and in the following decade, a particularly potent one for live television drama, he contributed scripts to such prestigious series as Studio One, Playhouse 90, US Steel Hour and Alcoa Goodyear Theater.
It was for Playhouse 90 that he wrote Judgment at Nuremberg in 1959, with Claude Rains, Paul Lukas and Maximilian Schell heading the cast. It powerfully dramatised the trial of four German judges accused of crimes against humanity, and the effect on proceedings of the Cold War and West Germany's alliance with the United States against the Russians. (Though noted for his resistance to compromise, Mann had to make one concession for the television screening, when the sponsor American Gas insisted that the words "gas chambers" be removed from the script.)
Though some critics found the film version, produced and directed by Stanley Kramer, overblown (it ran more than twice as long as the original television play), it attracted a wide audience, helped by a star-studded cast including Spencer Tracy, Richard Widmark, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift and Maximilian Schell, who won an acting Oscar for his portrayal of the defence attorney. "Mann avoided making the film just a pious sermon against the evils of the Nazis," Kramer said. "He made it instead an honest attempt to understand what in the world and in the human character had made such evil possible."
Mann continued to work on films for the big screen, including The Condemned of Altona (1962), an adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre's sombre play, and John Cassavetes' A Child is Waiting (1963), for which Mann wrote both story and screenplay. A sensitive tale of mentally retarded children, and the conflict between the head of an institution (Burt Lancaster) and one of his teachers (Judy Garland) over how personally involved they should become, it had a troubled history – the director Jack Clayton and intended star Ingrid Bergman both dropped out before shooting (allegedly over objections to the casting of Lancaster), and Cassavetes then clashed with the producer Stanley Kramer over the film's tone – and the result, though touching and provocative, failed to find an audience.
Mann then adapted Katherine Anne Porter's best-selling novel Ship of Fools (1965), which depicted the intertwining lives of a group of passengers sailing from Mexico to pre-Nazi Germany. Mann changed the time from the book's 1931 to 1933, the year when Hitler came to power. "I chose Mann simply because I considered him an excellent writer who knew a lot about Germans and Germany," said Kramer, again the film's producer. "A handful of critics complained that some of the characters were clichéd. I think that may have been true of just two of them, the juvenile leads. For them I must in part blame myself, since I worked very closely with Mann on the script."
Mann's screenplay was nominated for an Oscar, and he also won praise for his adaptation of Roderick Thorp's gritty novel about a gay murder in New York, The Detective (1968), which starred Frank Sinatra as a detective who becomes disillusioned with corruption in the city's police force.
Mann returned to television when in 1973 he was asked by Universal to write a script based on the rape and murder of two young women in Manhattan in 1963. George Whitmore, a young black man, was in prison on the basis of a confession he had since stated was beaten out of him, and after interviewing him Mann became convinced he was innocent and that his alibi had been ignored by officials. His television script, titled The Marcus-Nelson Murders, introduced the detective Kojak, played by the bald actor Telly Savalas. It won Mann both an Emmy and a Writers Guild Award, and after its broadcast Whitmore was released from prison. The lollipop-sucking Kojak was made the hero of a series which ran for over five years.
In 1978 Mann made his directing début with a six-hour mini-series, King, dealing with an alleged conspiracy surrounding the assassination of Martin Luther King, and in the following years he continued to tackle controversial subjects, including the medical profession and union corruption, in television movies, winning further Emmy Awards for Murderers Among Us: the Simon Wiesenthal Story (1989) and Indictment: the McMartin Case (1995).
The latter, written with his wife Myra, was based on the case of two teachers accused (initially with five others) of molesting more than 300 children. On the day production started, the Manns' house was burned down. After the film's transmission, Mann stated, "People seem obsessed with the trial. I suppose they realise that they have watched and believed stories that were as incredible as the Salem witch-hunts."
In 2000, his theatrical version of Judgment at Nuremberg had a brief run on Broadway with Maximilian Schell starring, and his final television drama, Whitewash: the Clarence Bradley Story, was transmitted in 2002.
Abraham Goodman (Abby Mann), screenwriter: born Philadelphia 1 December 1927; married Myra Maislin (one son, two daughters); died Beverly Hills, California 25 March 2008.
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