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JUST THE FACTS, MANK : Director Tom Mankiewicz Is 'Dragnet's' Top Cop

March 22, 1987|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

1 960. Moab, Utah.

Tom Mankiewicz, an 18-year-old Yalie, was spending his summer vacation working as a gofer on a John Wayne film called "The Comancheros."

"I can still remember all of my lines," Mankiewicz said. "I'd say, 'Yes, sir.' . . . 'I'll get that right away, sir.' . . . 'And I'll get that too, right away, sir.' "

He chuckled. "It was the summer of the presidential campaign and I was wearing a J.F.K. button. I thought Wayne and I were going to get along great until he saw that button on my chest. He came right over and said with obvious disgust, 'Either you're taking that thing off or not working on this picture. We have to put up with a lot of crap around here, but one thing we don't need is some communist on the show!'

"I looked at Wayne and said my usual line--'Right away, sir!' And I took that button off so fast . . . " Mankiewicz shook his head. "I mean, when John Wayne tells you to do something and you're working on a picture for the first time. Well, I would've taken all my clothes off if he'd asked!"

1987. Hollywood.

Now Tom Mankiewicz can wear any button he wants. After 20 years as an accomplished screenwriter, TV show creator and lively raconteur, he's directing his first feature film, "Dragnet 1987," starring Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks, which is due June 26 from Universal Pictures.

A second-generation member of the legendary Mankiewicz movie clan (his father, Joe, won Oscars for writing and directing "All About Eve," while his uncle, Herman, co-wrote "Citizen Kane"), Mankiewicz has writing credits that include everything from "The Sweet Ride" and "Mother, Jugs and Speed" to the medieval epic, "Ladyhawke." (Mankiewicz also co-wrote the pilot of "Hart to Hart," as well as directing a dozen of its early episodes).

But Mankiewicz is probably best known as a master of a peculiar form of Hollywood black magic--he's one of moviedom's premier script doctors.

Over the last 15 years, he's served as a rewrite man on all sorts of troubled projects. He's had a hand in five different Bond films, beginning with a rewrite of "Diamonds Are Forever," scripts for "Live and Let Die" and "The Man With the Golden Gun," as well as polishing work on "Moonraker" and "The Spy Who Loved Me." Mankiewicz also handled the final draft of the scripts for "Superman," "Superman II" and "The Deep."

It's easy to imagine the script doctor as a bona fide Hollywood romantic hero, the clever wordsmith who swoops in at the last minute with a burst of energy--and some great gags--to help salvage a sinking project. Mankiewicz admits it can be a very enticing arrangement.

"Sure, it's seductive," he said, relaxing at a booth in the Universal commissary, taking a break from an all-day session in the editing room. "You're getting off the plane in the Virgin Islands, as I did when I came down to help Peter Yates on 'The Deep,' and you're the writer coming in to save all these beleaguered characters.

"It's one of the few times when the writer has a certain control over a film, because you're coming in when the people on the film are at their most insecure. After all, if you're there, they've had to admit that they needed someone there to help them out."

As the pressure mounts, it's sometimes hard to tell whether you've been cast as script doctor or witch doctor.

"You're coming in like Jack Palance in 'Shane.' You're the hired gun," explained Mankiewicz, a tall, gracious man whose fondness for sweaters and slacks give him the casual preppie look of an Ivy League don. "Everyone is waiting for a revelation. You're supposed to bring better parts for the actors, better scenes for the director. And sometimes, everyone likes it, not because it's necessarily better, but just because it's different ."

1971. Grauman's Chinese Theater.

In Hollywood, writers usually win the battle, but lose the war. Still, they always remember every victory, no matter how small. Mankiewicz still savors the memory of how he worked a favorite pun into his rewrite of "Diamonds Are Forever." Bond had snuck some diamonds into a corpse. When asked by Felix Leiter where he had stashed the jewels, Bond replied: "Alimentary, my dear Leiter. . . . "

"(Producer) Cubby Broccoli and I were watching the film at the Chinese, and out of maybe 2,000 people there, maybe two of them laughed hysterically at the joke," Mankiewicz recalled. "Naturally, I was pleased. But Cubby turned to me and said, 'Big deal. Two doctors!' "

The lesson wasn't lost on the young writer. Once Mankiewicz had a taste of directing, on the "Hart to Hart" series, he began to view script doctoring as a very unsatisfying line of work. "The real problem is that it's never your film," he said. "If it comes out and it's good, you never get credit for it. And if the film turns out to be a flop, then naturally, you've ruined someone else's work."

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