Delbert Mann

Oscar-winning director of 'Marty'

Delbert Mann, film and television director: born Lawrence, Kansas 30 January 1920; married 1942 Ann Caroline Gillespie (died 2001; three sons, and one daughter deceased); died Los Angeles 11 November 2007.

Delbert Mann had the rare distinction of winning an Oscar as best director for his first movie, Marty (1955). A poignant tale of a butcher who feels himself too ugly to find love but whose life changes when he meets a shy, homely woman, Marty was originally a television play directed by Mann. He shot the film version, using television techniques, in just 19 days, and it won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival before winning four Academy Awards, including best film, best actor and best original screenplay.

After a patchy career in cinema, during which his work ranged from accomplished dramas like Separate Tables and hit comedies such as That Touch of Mink to the forgettable trifles Mister Buddwing and Fitzwilly, Mann returned to television, becoming one of the medium's most prolific and notable directors.

Born in Lawrenceville, Kansas, in 1920, he was studying political science at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, when he became involved in community theatre. After Yale School of Drama, he served as a bomber pilot and squadron intelligence officer in the Second World War. He then worked as director of Town Theatre, Columbia, South Carolina, and stage manager at the Wellesley Summer Theatre, Massachusetts, before going to New York in 1949, and joining NBC as a floor manager and assistant director.

He was soon directing plays for the network's prestigious Philco-Goodyear Playhouse, one of the best showcases for original drama, and he also directed live episodes of one of the earliest network situation comedies, Mary Kay and Johnny. Fred Coe, with whom Mann had earlier worked in Nashville, had become one of NBC's top producers, and it was he who assigned Mann to the two Paddy Chayevsky plays that secured his reputation, Marty, broadcast on 24 May 1953, and The Bachelor Party. Their success won him a Hollywood contract and the chance to film Marty, with Ernest Borgnine replacing Rod Steiger, who was committed to filming Oklahoma!

As the lonely Bronx butcher who finds middle-aged love with an introverted school-teacher (Betsy Blair), Borgnine graduated from character player to star. The film's enormous success surprised even the director. Mann was so sure that he would not win the Oscar (his competition included David Lean and Elia Kazan) that he had no speech prepared and said simply, "Thank you very much." Mann's work for the cinema was sometimes criticised for lack of cinematic flair, but his sense of drama and direction of players were considered exemplary. Several performers won Oscars or nominations in Mann's films.

His second film was an adaptation of Chayevsky's The Bachelor Party (1957), an exploration of the foibles and passions exposed at a party given by a group of New York book-keepers. Though less popular than Marty, it won praise for its depiction of urban frustration – its message, like that of the later Sondheim musical Company, seemed to be that marriage is depressing but it is better than being alone – and for the performances from such players as Jack Warden, E.G. Marshall and Carolyn Jones, with Jones being nominated for an Oscar for her touching portrayal of a love-starved Greenwich Village existentialist.

Another play transcription, Terence Rattigan's Separate Tables (1957), became one of Mann's finest films. On stage, it had taken the form of two one-act plays set in a hotel, with its two stars playing different couples in each play but with the same supporting cast. The film skilfully integrated both plays, with the leading roles taken by four players. Wendy Hiller won an Oscar for her performance, as did David Niven for his bravura depiction of a poseur with a dark secret.

Mann continued to favour theatrical properties, which benefited from his tight framing, though when he collaborated with Chayevsky again on the story of a May-December romance, Middle of the Night (1959), he opened it out enough to give a potent evocation of its New York setting.

William Inge's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about small-town adultery and prejudice, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960), was sensitively handled by Mann, with Shirley Knight winning a supporting actress Oscar nomination, but The Outsider (1962) was a muddled account of the tragic life story of Ira Hayes, the Pima Indian who was one of those in the famous Second World War photograph of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima.

Mann then, in a radical departure, directed Doris Day and Rock Hudson in one of the funniest films the two stars made together, Lover Come Back (1961), and he followed it with another hit comedy, That Touch of Mink (1962). It was to be Mann's last big success with theatrical movies – subsequent films included A Gathering of Eagles (1962), Dear Heart (1963), and, his last film, a Disney production, Night Crossing (1982), which told the true story of two families who escaped from East to West Germany in a hot air balloon.

Mann continued to work on television throughout his career. He was nominated for Emmys for Breaking Up (1977) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1979), the latter reuniting him with Ernest Borgnine. He had won his first Emmy nomination in 1955 when he directed an engaging musical version of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, featuring Paul Newman and in which Frank Sinatra, as the narrator, introduced the James Van Heusen-Sammy Cahn standard "Love and Marriage". Mann's later television work included praised versions of David Copperfield (1970), with Laurence Olivier, and Jane Eyre (1971) starring Susannah York and George C. Scott.

Tom Vallance