If you love Hollywood anecdotes—not the same old stuff you’ve heard before but fresh material, related first-hand by a master storyteller—you simply must get this book. I didn’t so much read as devour it, and now I feel impelled to tell everyone I know how good it is.
Tom Mankiewicz grew up the privileged son of writer-director-producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz. His fabled uncle Herman co-wrote Citizen Kane. Humphrey Bogart gave him his first stiff drink. Elizabeth Taylor used him as a beard when she was “seeing” Richard Burton but still married to Eddie Fisher. Joe Mankiewicz made a point of taking his family along on location whenever he could, which resulted in some wonderful experiences, but it was a tumultuous upbringing because Tom’s mother, former actress Rose Stradner, was mentally unbalanced.
Eventually, Tom embarked on his own career, which reached its zenith when he became a key screenwriter for the James Bond series and the first two Superman films with Christopher Reeve. He went on to co-write and direct such features as Dragnet and Mother, Jugs & Speed, and created the popular TV series Hart to Hart. He also had an active love life, to put it mildly. He has so many stories to tell, of egos and practical jokes, production screw-ups and triumphs, friendships and affairs; the cast of characters includes Marlon Brando, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, Sean Connery, and Natalie Wood, to name just a few. The settings range from Malibu to Kenya. The stories never stop.
Tom Mankiewicz died nearly two years ago, but fortunately, his friend Robert Crane recognized the importance of chronicling his life and experiences the previous year. In his preface he explains, “Tom and I started meeting four days a week at his home with the 180-degree view of downtown LA-Century City-Pacific Ocean. His fifth day was spent teaching film at Chapman University in Orange. At least a couple days a week ended with the meeting moving to the Palm, where Tom had his usual table among regulars such as Richard Zanuck, whose father, Darryl, ran Fox when Tom’s father, Joe, directed Cleopatra. Full circle, indeed. The sessions were punctuated with great fare complemented by white wine for Tom and Tanqueray and tonics for me. They went on for months. They could have gone on for years.”
Only toward the very end of the book does Mankiewicz turn a bit sour, complaining about the current state of affairs and the next generation of filmmakers. A bit of prudent editing might have helped. But I’m not about to complain about a disappointing trail-off after such a magnificent body of text. It only makes me sorry I never got to meet the author.
MY LIFE AS A MANKIEWICZ: AN INSIDER’S JOURNEY THROUGH HOLLYWOOD By Tom Mankiewicz and Robert Crane (University Press of Kentucky)