Don Mankiewicz, novelist and Oscar-nominated screenwriter, dies at 93

  • By Steve Chawkins Los Angeles Times
  • Monday, April 27, 2015 12:23pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

LOS ANGELES — Don M. Mankiewicz, a novelist and Oscar-nominated screenwriter who grew up in a fabled Hollywood family and went on to create TV’s “Ironside” and “Marcus Welby, M.D.” has died at his home in Monrovia, near Los Angeles. He was 93.

Mankiewicz’s death Saturday was caused by congestive heart failure, his son, John Mankiewicz, said.

Don’s father was Herman J. Mankiewicz, the screenwriter behind “Citizen Kane.” His uncle was Joseph L. Mankiewicz, director of “All About Eve” and other classic films.

Don Mankiewicz grew up in Beverly Hills. At Halloween, he later joked, he and his brother, Frank — who became an aide to Robert F. Kennedy and head of National Public Radio — sat in the backseat of the family limo while their chauffeur knocked on doors and asked for candy. His parents’ dinner guests included the Marx Brothers and Greta Garbo.

Early in his TV career, Mankiewicz wrote scripts for the drama series “Playhouse 90.” He was assigned to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Last Tycoon” at least in part because he grew up steeped in its luminous, old-Hollywood setting.

“I was probably the only writer around who had actually seen Fitzgerald in person,” he told TV historian Stephen Bowie in a 2007 oral history. “He hung around with my father a little bit. All I remembered is that he wore a white sweater that had the 1932 Olympic emblem on it.”

While a number of entertainment figures emerged from the Mankiewicz dynasty, Don was drawn to politics and union activism. Active in the Writers Guild of America, he helped gain union representation for quiz-show writers.

“For that, the writers on ‘Jeopardy!’ made him the answer to a question,” said his son, John, an executive producer of the political drama “House of Cards.”

When guild writers went on strike in 2007 and 2008, Don Mankiewicz, then in his mid-80s, joined them on the picket line.

Don Martin Mankiewicz was born Jan. 20, 1922, in Berlin, where his father was a foreign correspondent. He attended schools in Beverly Hills and graduated from Columbia University in 1942. He left law school there to join the Army, serving in military intelligence in France, Belgium and Germany.

“Torts and briefs and writs — I’d had enough of them,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1955. “I remembered my father pounding a typewriter and all those checks pouring in. I wrote a piece of short fiction and the New Yorker bought it. This was a time you could sell about anything if you could stick Sgt. or Pfc. in front of your name.”

After the war, Mankiewicz was a staff writer for the New Yorker, contributed to other magazines and started working in TV. In 1954, he published the novel “Trial” that was made into a film starring Glenn Ford and Dorothy McGuire.

At the same time, he immersed himself in Democratic Party politics. In 1952, he lost a race for the New York state Assembly but stayed active in local and state politics for years. In 1964, he opted against a run for Congress because his marriage was rocky and his then-wife, Ilene Korson, threatened to reveal that he’d had an affair, he told historian Bowie. The couple later divorced.

In 1967, he wrote the pilot for the long-running TV series “Ironside,” starring Raymond Burr as a paraplegic private investigator. Two years later, he did the same for “Marcus Welby, M.D.” He contributed later episodes to both.

While developing “Welby,” a producer suggested making the main character a young radical doctor who was mentored by a more conservative, older medical man.

“No, you don’t want that,” Mankiewicz told him. “You want a young conservative and an old radical. Young fogie and old radical — that’ll work.”

The show became a TV staple for seven years.

Mankiewicz received an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay adaptation of “I Want to Live!,” a 1958 film about a prostitute falsely accused of murder. It was loosely based on the true story of Barbara Graham, who was put to death in California’s gas chamber in 1955 and was known in headlines as “Bloody Babs.”

Mankiewicz’s survivors include Carol Mankiewicz, his wife since 1972; daughters Jan Diaz and Sandy Perez from his first marriage; son John and daughter Jane from his second marriage; and four grandchildren.

Mankiewicz recently completed a novel about student strife in the ’60s.

He also was avid about horse races and poker.

“He played until he couldn’t see the cards anymore,” his son said.

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