Tom Mankiewicz: Screenwriter and director whose witty scripts revitalised the James Bond franchise

Thursday 05 August 2010 00:00

Tom Mankiewicz was a screenwriter who made important contributions to several James Bond films, particularly Diamonds Are Forever (1971), the script of which coaxed Sean Connery to play Bond again after a brief "retirement" from the role, plus Live and Let Die (1973), which was Roger Moore's first venture as Bond, and The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). He also made a decided if controversial contribution to the success of the first two Superman movies, and he wrote the pilot show for the television series Hart to Hart, directing several episodes. He was much in demand as a "script doctor", called in to add character and humour to moribund screenplays – he once described himself as similar to a hired gunslinger, though he said the work was thankless: "If the film flops, you're accused of messing up someone else's script; if it succeeds, somebody else walks away with the Oscar." The director of Superman, Richard Donner, called him "one of the great storytellers of our industry".

Mankiewicz was part of an impressive writing dynasty in Hollywood. His father, Joseph L Mankiewicz, was a four-time Oscar winner who wrote and directed the brilliant All About Eve (1950), and his uncle Herman co-wrote with Orson Welles the film that regularly tops polls as the best American film, Citizen Kane (1941).

He was born Thomas Frank Mankiewicz in Los Angeles in 1942, the year his father wrote the screenplay of Woman of the Year for Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. His mother, the Austrian-born Rosa Stradner, was a statuesque blonde who had been a star of Max Reinhardt's theatre in Vienna, but her marriage was not a stable one – Joe was noted for his appeal to ladies, and his lovers included Judy Garland, Gene Tierney and Linda Darnell.

Mankiewicz was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale University, where he majored in drama. He considered becoming an actor, but was dissuaded by his father, and his first job in the film industry was as a production assistant on the John Wayne Western The Comancheros (1961). His first on-screen credit was as "production associate" on an engrossing adaptation of Gore Vidal's political play The Best Man (1964), starring Henry Fonda.

He wrote an original screenplay, Please, about a young suicidal actress's last 90 minutes of life, which showcased his writing skill and resulted in an assignment to write a Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theater television special (1966), followed by an acclaimed script for a TV special starring Nancy Sinatra, Movin' with Nancy (1967). This in turn prompted the producer Joe Pasternak to hire him to write the screenplay for a movie, The Sweet Ride (1968), about Californian surfers.

The producer Fred Coe then asked him to write the libretto for a stage musical based on the hit film Georgy Girl, which opened on Broadway in 1970. Though it survived for only four performances, one of them was seen by David Picker, in charge of production at United Artists. Mankiewicz recounted: "He knew that Albert "Cubby" Broccoli was looking for a writer to revise the script they had for Diamonds Are Forever. Picker told me that Cubby had said to him, 'I need a total rewrite on Diamonds Are Forever. I need an American writer and I want him to be young... I need someone who can write in the British idiom...' "

Picker thought that Georgy Girl indicated that Mankiewicz was what Broccoli was looking for. Initially given only a two-week guarantee, he was asked by Broccoli to stay on and complete work on the film, the seventh Bond adventure. The witty script, judged to have brought new life into the series, met with the all-important approval of Sean Connery.

When Mankiewicz started work on the next Bond adventure, Live and Let Die, Roger Moore had not been cast. Many at the studio favoured Burt Reynolds, but Broccoli ultimately insisted on Moore, who became a close friend of Mankiewicz – whom he called "Wanky Mitz".

"He was a master of the one-liners," Moore said. "My favourite is from The Man with the Golden Gun when Bond points his gun at a gun-maker's crotch. 'Speak now or forever hold your piece', he says. Sheer brilliance." Moore added, "He was without doubt one of the most innovative, clever and inspirational writers of the Bond films. He and director Guy Hamilton would lock themselves away and plan inventive escapes whilst leading the audience up one or two wrong turns." Mankiewicz shared credit with Richard Maibaum on The Man with the Golden Gun, worked uncredited on The Spy Who Loved Me and concocted the space-age plot for Moonraker.

In 1975 Mankiewicz wrote and co-produced the dark comedy Mother, Jugs & Speed, directed by Peter Yates, who later asked Mankiewicz to do a major "doctoring" job on an unwieldy adaptation of the best-seller The Deep. The film was a big hit, and consolidated Mankiewicz as a much sought-after "script doctor". In 1976 he wrote the screenplays for two lively thrillers, The Cassandra Crossing and The Eagle Has Landed. He was then given a unique assignment on television when Peter Falk, star of the series Columbo, asked that he look at each script and make plot suggestions.

Richard Donner, who had been signed to direct Superman and Superman II, then asked Mankiewicz to do a complete overhaul of the scripts, stating later that the original drafts were "too bloated, campy and more like a novel than a script." Donner said, "He created personalities, emotion and life, and gave the characters a wonderful sense of humour. He brought a sense of reality to this comic book world."

Warner Bros. then signed him to an exclusive deal as a script doctor, and he worked on such films as WarGames (1983), Gremlins (1984) and Batman (1989), for which he wrote the first draft. For television, he was asked to adapt a pilot written by Sidney Sheldon for a series called Double Twist, which was failing to sell, with the offer that if he could make the project viable, he could fulfil his ambition to direct. He reworked the script, and with the new title of Hart to Hart it was sold to the ABC network. Mankiewicz directed the two-hour pilot for the show, which starred Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers and ran for five years.

With Donner again, he co-wrote and was "creative consultant" on the medieval fantasy Ladyhawke (1985), then made his debut as a film director with Dragnet (1987), starring Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks. He joined Donner again to reconstruct Superman II, restoring original footage that had been cut or altered. Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut won the Saturn Award as the best DVD of the year in 2006.

An animal lover, bachelor Mankiewicz had a home in Kenya for eight years and served on the board of the William Holden Wildlife Foundation. For the last decade he was a trustee of the Los Angeles Zoo Association, and he owned a stable of thoroughbred racehorses. He was also active in the Writer's and Director's Guilds, and supported his fellow writers in the 2007/2008 WGA strike. He had recently been teaching courses in film-making to students at Chapman University.

Tom Vallance

Tom Mankiewicz, screenwriter, producer, director: born Los Angeles 1 June 1942; died Los Angeles 31 July 2010.

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