As a host of Turner Classic Movies, Ben Mankiewicz is accustomed to interviewing living legends. Yesterday in New York City, he turned the mic on a legend he knows better than any other: his dad, Frank Mankiewicz.
“There aren’t many fathers who have started the show Morning Edition on National Public Radio, led the Peace Corps in Latin America, served as Bobby Kennedy’s press secretary and George McGovern’s campaign manager, and killed Nazis as part of the 69th infantry in World War II,” the TCM emcee told a packed house at Film Forum, the downtown Manhattan movie mecca. “It’s great to have my father as my father, but it’s a challenge, because you just can’t live up to what he’s accomplished.”
The younger Mankiewicz, 47, chatted with his father in a program that included movie clips, photos, and candid reminiscences of turning points in American film and political history. Based on an event presented last year during the TCM Cruise, Film Forum’s Growing Up Mankiewicz kicked off with a conversation about another legendary family member: Frank’s father, CITIZEN KANE screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.
“He didn’t like movies, didn’t like the business,” Frank said of his dad, a newspaper man lured to Hollywood in the final days of the Silent Era. “He never went to movies. I don’t think he saw any movies except CITIZEN KANE.”
According to his son, Herman was a frequent guest at William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon estate in the 1930s, and it was Herman’s idea to base his Academy Award-winning KANE script “loosely” on the life of the newspaper magnate. Somewhere along the way, authorship became hazy – a hornet’s nest publicly kicked by film critic Pauline Kael thirty years later in a controversial essay for The New Yorker.
“When he went to see the final version of the movie at the studio he noticed it said in the credits, ‘screenplay by Orson Welles,’” Frank remembered. “And my father said, ‘Orson, there’s been a mistake, a typographical error in the credits.’ Welles said, ‘I have to have screen credit for writing, because my contract (requires) me to write, produce, direct, and act in the movie. And if I don’t do all those, I don’t get paid at all.’ So he literally begged my father to share the credit.”
Herman agreed, and the shared trophy became Welles’ only competitive Oscar. (He was presented with an honorary award in 1971.)
Added Ben: “It doesn’t diminish in any way whose movie it is; it’s Orson Welles’ movie. He directs, produces and is the driving force behind it. He gives a brilliant performance. He just didn’t write it. “
Herman chose not to be present to share the accolades with the then-26-year-old Welles at the fourteenth Academy Awards, presented in February of 1942 at the Biltmore Hotel.
“He never went to a movie, and he certainly never went to an Oscar ceremony,” Frank recalled. “He did waltz my mother around the room for a while after he heard he had won.”
Film Forum also screened scenes from George Cukor’s THE ROYAL FAMILY OF BROADWAY (1930) and DINNER AT EIGHT (1933), both adapted by Herman from plays by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, and the Marx Brothers comedy HORSE FEATHERS (1932), on which Herman served as an uncredited producer.
“Harpo was a friend; he used to come to all of our Seders,” Frank Mankiewicz remembered. “He would pick up the Pascal lamb bone and lead a parade around the table.”
“So it was a traditional Seder,” Ben quipped, one of the afternoon’s many examples of charming father/son repartee.
The conversation next turned to THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES, the 1942 biopic which earned Herman his next Oscar nomination (this time shared with Jo Swerling). After screening a sequence from the film, Ben Mankiewicz introduced Maria Cooper Janis, daughter of star Gary Cooper and his wife Veronica.
“The great Gary Cooper,” Ben said, “was the only man that could play Lou Gehrig.”
“I loved it, still do,” Frank agreed, sharing a story of how producer Sam Goldwyn refused to pay Babe Dahlgren, the real-life ballplayer who replaced The Iron Horse as Yankees first baseman, for the use of his name.
“So, if you ever see the movie, there’s just a murmur when the announcer says, ‘(mumble mumble) is now playing first base for the Yankees.”
The price Goldwyn refused to pay for this pivotal moment in the film: $200.
Despite Herman’s accolades and success, Frank had no desire to follow in his father’s footsteps in Tinsel Town.
“I would never have dreamt of going into the movie business,” he said. “He kept telling me all these years about all these terrible people.”
Following a three year tour of duty during World War II (which included nearly losing his toes to frostbite during the Battle of the Bulge), Frank went back to school and became an entertainment lawyer, representing celebrity clients like Steve McQueen.
“I got him acquitted twice in one day in the same courthouse,” Frank said. “Once for driving too fast on the Hollywood Freeway, and the other time for driving too slow.”
“I got a call one day from a voice that said, ‘Are you Frank Mankiewicz?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ ” And he said, ‘This is Senator Robert Kennedy.’ And I thought this must be some kind of joke. So I said, ‘Yeah? Well this is Joseph Stalin. What can I do for you?'”
Turns out that it really was Kennedy, and the newly elected senator from New York would soon offer Frank a job as his press secretary.
“It took me about five minutes to say yes,” Frank said.
Frank’s tenure with Kennedy continued through his candidacy for president and ended tragically, when an assassin took the senator’s life on June 6, 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. It was Frank Mankiewicz who told the world that Kennedy had died, ending his brief but emotional statement with the tragic words, “He was 42 years-old.”
“I’m enormously proud of how you handled that,” Ben said to his father, after black-and-white archival footage of his announcement was screened.
“He might very well have been elected,” Frank said matter-of-factly. “I think he was the logical successor to President Johnson.”
Mankiewicz went on to serve as manager of Senator George McGovern’s ill-fated campaign in 1972. And in 1977, he became the first president of National Public Radio, helping to launch programming that endures to this day. He later joined the public relations firm Hill and Knowlton, advised the campaigns of Senator Gary Hart in 1984 and 1988, and appeared (briefly) in Ivan Reitman’s 1993 political satire DAVE.
“Your acting career started and stopped with one line,” Ben joked. “It was an Academy Award-winning line.”
Today, Frank Mankiewicz lives in the heart of Washington D.C., takes the bus to work each day, and dotes on his new granddaughter, Josie (named after his younger sister, author Johanna Mankiewicz Davis, who died in 1975). His brother, Don Mankiewicz, pursued a career as a screenwriter despite their father’s wishes, and continues to pursue it at age 92. Frank’s son Josh Mankiewicz is an investigative reporter and a correspondent for Dateline: NBC. And Ben Mankiewicz has been a host on Turner Classic Movies for eleven years.
“I was hoping you wouldn’t go into the movie business,” Frank said of his sons. “And neither of you did,”
“Well, I’d like to think I’m tangentially involved,” Ben protested, to laughter and applause from the loyal TCM fans in attendance. “It’s interesting that Herman didn’t want his kids to go into the movie business and neither did Frank.”
“You can’t really run your children’s’ lives. You can’t tell them what to do, what course to take, or what business to go into,” Frank Mankiewicz said. “So you give them all the information you can, and you let them make up their minds. These two guys did and, I think, made it up very well.”