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Ben Mankiewicz - TCM Daytime Host
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Remind Me

Interview With Ben Mankiewicz, TCM's Daytime Weekend Host

In September 2003 TCM welcomes a new weekend host: Ben Mankiewicz, part of one of the communication industry's most illustrious families. Mankiewicz, whose enthusiasms include baseball and politics as well as movies, has a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. His hosting duties for TCM start at 12 p.m. (ET) on weekend afternoons. Mankiewicz, 36, made his name as a fresh and often irreverent voice in TV journalism at WCSC in Charleston, S.C., and WAMI in Miami. He hosts a radio show, "The Young Turks," on Sirius Satellite Radio is a correspondent for the Fox Sports TV show "The Best Damn Sports Show Period."

On Friday, September 4, host Robert Osborne will present a salute to "The Mankiewicz Brothers" -- Herman J. and Joseph L., Ben's celebrated grandfather and granduncle -- as he welcomes Ben to TCM. Herman shared an Academy Award with Orson Welles for the screenplay of Citizen Kane (1941) and was nominated again for the screenplay of Pride of the Yankees (1942). Joseph, the celebrated writer-producer-director, won his Oscars for Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950). Other prominent members of Ben's family include his father, Frank, who was Robert F. Kennedy's press secretary, George McGovern's political director and a President of National Public Radio; his brother Josh, a correspondent for "Dateline NBC"; his cousin, Nick Davis, a writer/director; and Mankiewicz cousins Tom, a writer/director, Christopher, an actor/producer/writer, and John, a TV and film writer. And, says Ben, "My mom, Holly Howell, is as smart as any of 'em."

TCM free-lancer Roger Fristoe recently conducted a Q&A session with Mankiewicz.

Q: When did your love of movies begin, and why?

A: I've loved movies as long as I can remember, but I was not a fan of classic movies for a long time. Casablanca was an exception, but I'd long been a World War II buff, and I tended to put it in that category rather with other "classics." I suspect I was 16 or 17 when my mother convinced me to watch North By Northwest on television. I'd always been hesitant to watch anything that wasn't new, but I figured I'd watch and make my mother happy, which, as a teenager, was generally not a priority. Well, I watched and thought, "OK, this is really good, really tense and Cary Grant is really cool." That led to seeing The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Bad Day at Black Rock and Notorious, just a few of the first classic films I enjoyed.

Q: Do you have a favorite genre or type of film?

A: All those movies, and the others I was enjoying, had one thing in common: They had memorable scripts; they told great stories. So, my simple answer is I like films where the screenwriter plays as important a role as the stunt coordinator, a balance too often ignored in 21st-century Hollywood. I'm also a huge fan of noir films, but, ironically, it was three movies from the 1990s, all from the same director John Dahl, that got me hooked on the genre: Kill Me Again, Red Rock West and The Last Seduction... I'd watch Linda Fiorentino, the star of Last Seduction, eat cereal. Does she subscribe TCM? Do you have her number? Anyway, those films led to more classic noir movies like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Q: When did you first realize that members of your family were so prominent in the world of movies?

A: It's hard to say, exactly. I was young, but I didn't realize how influential my family was until I was much older. Since my father was so successful (the smartest Mankiewicz of them all, if you ask me), I was hesitant to learn anything about the family, as I spent most of my life assuming I'd fail to meet expectations.

Q: What are the pros and cons of being part of what might be called a dynasty of the film and communication industries?

A: As I said, I knew I wasn't on their level, so I was hesitant to know or learn much about them. As I got older, and realized that no one was putting pressure on me -- it was all internal, my fear I wouldn't meet expectations -- I started to appreciate them more. I realized, "Hey, I'm never going to be as smart or successful as my father, and I'm probably never going to write like Herman or Joe. Big deal, who would?" Now, I'd say it's had a positive impact on my life. Let's be honest here: Herman and Joe, even after their deaths, clearly played a role in getting me such a wonderful job.

Q: Do you have personal memories of your granduncle Joseph? A favorite film by him?

A: Not too many. He was so smart and so funny, you could tell he was always on the cusp of saying something clever, even if, as a kid, I had no idea what the hell he was talking about. He looked like my dad, which I always thought was cool. My favorite one of Joe's movies is undoubtedly Sleuth. It was the first one I saw and remains, to me, the most memorable.

Q: You come from a movie-centric family. How were movies different in your house growing up than in other people's homes?

A: Growing up in Washington, D.C., politics and sports were always a lot more important than movies. They still are, for that matter, but at an early age I was taught to appreciate a movie's script above all else. I'm not sure that lesson took until I was much older, but it sure has now.

Q: Give us some quick impressions of films created or co-created by members of your family. Your grandfather Herman?

A: I didn't see Citizen Kane in its entirety until high school and didn't realize how truly great it was until I was in college. Now, of course, I love it and take great pride whenever I see it listed as the greatest film of all time. Pride of the Yankees is a baseball movie, so how could I not love it? And, of course, it's got the speech that makes anybody cry, though that's more Gehrig himself than my grandfather.

Q: Your granduncle Joseph?

A: I didn't see All About Eve until I was 30, and thought, "OK, I get it, Joe could really write, and he could really write roles for women. He totally got women. Cleopatra is, um, really, really long. But when I saw it, I'd been told it was a catastrophe, and it isn't. 's pretty damn good, if you have four hours to kill."

Q: Do you need to be a film expert or historian to enjoy a classic movie?

A: No, in fact, I think a lot of people my age are wrongly scared off "classic" movies because they assume you have to be an expert to enjoy them. You just have to be a fan of good stories and good writing. I have friends who, like me, get sick and tired of Hollywood blockbusters with no script and no story. But they don't watch older movies because, well, they're old. They're making a mistake. This is a treasure trove of films the way we want them -- well-told stories, developed characters and great scripts. Honestly, sometimes I feel bad for film experts. They have trouble enjoying movies, because they're always saying a movie isn't good because it was too derivative of something else. Give me a break -- if it's good, it's good. I think experts sometimes have a tough time just enjoying a great film.

Q: Tell us about a movie that changed your life.

A: Hey, I love movies, but let's not get carried away! I don't think one has changed my life.

Q: What's your take on Turner Classic Movies?

A: I love TCM. Every week I ask my TiVo to tell me what's on the network and inevitably I pick of bunch of movies to record. As a fan. It's every bit as important to me as HBO, and I'm a guy who doesn't miss The Sopranos, Six Feet Under or The Wire.

Q: What would you like to accomplish with your position as a host at TCM?

A: I'd like to get younger movie fans to become less afraid of old movies. As FDR said, there is nothing to fear but fear itself. He wasn't talking about old movies, but he could've been. People of my generation need to keep going to movies, but they also need to watch more TV. There's something you don't often hear: "Mankiewicz says Americans need to watch more TV!" But they do, as long as it's TCM.

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