Delbert Mann

Delbert Mann

director, producer

Born January 30, 1920 in Lawrence, Kansas, USA

Delbert Mann, the Oscar-winning film director, was born Delbert Martin Mann Jr. in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1920. His father moved the family to Nashville, Tennesse, after taking a teaching position at Scarritt College. The young Mann graduated from Vanderbilt University, where he met his future wife, Ann Caroline Gillespie. He developed a lifelong friendship with Fred Coe, whom he met at the Nashville Community Playhouse, that would prove critical in his professional life. After his 1941 graduation from Vanderbilt, Mann joined the Army and was assigned to the Air Corps, eventually becoming a pilot with the 8th Air Force. As a B-24 pilot with the "Mighty Eighth," Mann flew 35 bombing missions in the European Theater of Operations. After being demobilized at the end of the war, his interest changed to another type of theater, and he attended the Yale Drama School. From Yale he moved on to a directing job with the Town Theatre of Columbia, South Carolina. His old friend Fred Coe, a producer at NBC, offered Mann the opportunity to direct live television drama on the network's The Philco Television Playhouse (1948). Mann accepted the job offer and moved to New York in 1949. For NBC he directed many dramas for the "Philco Playhouse," which later alternated its broadcasting weeks on the network with the Goodyear Playhouse (1951) and Producers' Showcase (1954) (television programs in the early days typically had one major commercial sponsor; thus, many programs from the early days bore the name of that primary sponsor). Mann directed episodes for all three showcases, including "October Story" with Julie Harris and Leslie Nielsen, "Middle of the Night" with Eva Marie Saint and E.G. Marshall, a remake of The Petrified Forest (1936) with the inevitable Humphrey Bogart (who created the role of Duke Mantee on the Broadway stage and played it in the classic 1935 film), and even two productions of William Shakespeare's "Othello" (one of which featured the unlikely Walter Matthau as Iago!). Mann was one of the best-known graduates of "The Golden Age of Television," when live original drama was a staple of network TV. Other showcases he worked for included NBC Repertory Theatre (1949), Ford Star Jubilee (1955) and Playwrights '56 (1955). In 1953 he directed a live teleplay written by another WWII vet, Paddy Chayefsky. The episode of "Goodyear Television Playhouse" starring another vet, the up-and-coming Method actor Rod Steiger, as a lonely butcher named "Marty." Delbert Mann's name will always be linked to the extraordinary cultural phenomenon that was "Marty," but it was as a film, not as television program, that Chayevsky's 1953 script became legendary, the first blockbuster hit of independent cinema. However, Mann's first recognition from the culture industry didn't come from Chayevsky's "Marty," either on television or film, but from Thornton Wilder's theatrical warhorse about a small burg in New Hampshire, "Our Town." In 1954, Mann won a Best Director Emmy nomination for the "Producers' Showcase" episode "Our Town," a musical adaptation featuring the young Paul Newman and the singing talents of swinging Frank Sinatra. Ironically, the TV play of "Marty," considered the summit of TV's Golden Age in retrospect, went unrecognized during the nascent industry's awards season, though it did receive an excellent buzz via word of mouth. (The live "Marty" was captured via kinescope, a method of reproduction that involved shooting a 16-mm copy of the broadcast off of a TV monitor for rebroadcast to the West Coast in the days before coast-to-coast TV hookups, let along videotape; such programs were seldom rebroadcast after the initial showing due to the poor quality of the 'scope.) That situation would change once "Marty" moved from New York to Hollywood. It's said that superstar Burt Lancaster and his producing partner Ben Hecht were looking for a property to generate a tax write-off for their successful indie production company, Hecht-Lancaster. That property was Marty, shot in B+W in the standard Academy ratio of 4:3 in an era when the blockbuster, like Cecil B. DeMIlle's epic remake of "The Ten Commandments," shot in color in the wide-screen processes of CinemaScope, Cinerama and VistaVision, were all the rage. (The box office gross of the 1956 "Ten Commandments," if adjusted for inflation, would rival the grosses generated by the top block busters of the present era.) Color, widescreens and spectacle were considered to be the necessary ingredients to get people out of the house where they were planted in front of the TV and back into the theaters. And here was a low-budget, B+W film with no production values and no stars based on a TV play that had appeared free on TV (Hollywood's great enemy) just two years before! Remaking "Marty" seemed an honorable way to generate a tax-write off, so the story goes, while associating the company with quality, but Hecht-Lancaster refused to spend much money on it. The budget was limited to just under $350,000. (It's said that "Marty" was the first Oscar-winning film in which the advertising costs exceeded the budget.) Rod Steiger, who did not want to be bound contractually to Hecht-Lancaster, refused to reprise the eponymous title role, so it was turned over to Burt Lancaster's "From Here to Eternity" co-star, 'Ernest Borginine' . Having assayed Fatso Judson and other screen heavies in his brief cinema career, Borgnine had never played a sympathetic supporting character, let alone a lead, on film before. Possibly due to its unpromising prospects, Burt Lancaster didn't bother putting his name on the picture as a producer, leaving that honor (and the Oscar that lay in "Marty's future) to Hecht. No wonder the success of "Marty" caught everyone flat-footed! It's perhaps the supreme case in Hollywood's checkered flirtation with "quality" cinema that quality not only won out, but more importantly, paid off (and paid off handsomely at that!). The movie "Marty" was a critical success before it was a commercial success. Shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955, it was the first American film to win the Golden Palm (an award which, in the French manner, is shared by its director). In release, the film returned $3 million in rentals ($21 million in 2005 dollars), which was a considerable amount in the mid-1950s. More importantly for Hecht-Lancaster, its low-budget made "Marty" one of the most profitable movies ever made. The critical recognition and boffo box office made "Marty" a sleeper at the 1956 Academy Awards, at which Mann won the Oscar as Best Director of 1955 and Chayevsky copped the Best Adapted Screenplay trophy. In addition to the original "auteurs," Ernest Borgnine won the Best Actor Oscar and Harold Hecht picked up the gong for Best Picture. Betsy Blair and Joe Mantell also received nominations in Best Supporting Acting categories, and on the technical side, "Marty" was nominated for Best B+W Cinematography (Joseph LaShelle) and Best B+W Art Direction-Set Decoration ( Ted Haworth, Walter M. Simonds, Robert Priestley). Until Sam Mendes duplicated the feat in 2000, Mann was the only director to win an Oscar for his first film. Though he could not know it then, "Marty" was the highpoint of Mann's career. While Chayevsky went on to win two more Oscars, Mann never won another Oscar nomination, though he did pick up two more Emmy nominations in 1972 and 1980 during his productive career. More significantly, Delbert Mann had the respect of his peers: in addition to his three subsequent Directors Guild of America nominations to go along with his win for "Marty," the DGA honored him with its Robert B. Aldrich Achievement Award in 1997 and an Honorary Life Membership in 2002.

OscarBest Director Marty (1956)



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