Family & Companions
The sporadic but brilliant career of screenwriter Melissa Mathison offered a vivid case study of an artist who succeeded in maximizing the benefits of each opportunity she was afforded. Though she had only a half dozen films to her credit when she died of cancer on November 4, 2015, Mathison earned a permanent place in American pop culture as the writer of "E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial" (1982). With its 1994 selection for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, the film was officially certified a classic. Clearly this would have been an enviable credit for the most seasoned screenwriter; for a relative neophyte ("E.T." was Mathison's first sole screenwriting credit and her first original screenplay), it was something of a miracle. The daughter of a journalist father and part-time publicist mother, Mathison grew up in the Hollywood Hills. Producer-writer-director Francis Ford Coppola was a family friend for whose children she baby-sat as a youth. The young Mathison also worked as a stringer for TIME magazine. She took time off from pursuing a degree in political science at the University of California at Berkeley to work for Coppola as an assistant on "The Godfather, Part II" (1974). By the time of Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" (1979), Mathison was credited as executive assistant. The celebrated filmmaker urged her to try her hand at screenwriting. The result was "The Black Stallion" (1979), based on Walter Farley's classic children's novel about a boy and his horse, which she co-scripted with two other writers. The film won kudos for both its sensitive adaptation and supremely cinematic storytelling. Mathison was dating Harrison Ford when he traveled on location to film "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981). During this arduous shoot, director Steven Spielberg approached her about writing a screenplay dealing with a little alien who gets stranded on Earth. Eight weeks later she had completed the first draft of "E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial." Mathison and Ford wed the March after "E.T." opened. She spent most of the next decade or so as a homemaker, with a brief excursion to TV to script "Son of the Morning Star" (ABC, 1991), a miniseries biopic about General George Custer starring Gary Cole. Mathison returned to feature screenwriting after a 13-year hiatus to adapt Lynne Reid Banks' children's novel "The Indian in the Cupboard" (1995). The project reunited her with "E.T." producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall as well as some of the stylistic and thematic hallmarks of that earlier triumph. Mathison was a natural choice to pen the story of a young boy who discovers that his wooden cabinet has the magical power to bring his toys to life. He learns about another culture and the dignity of all living things after placing a plastic Indian inside. Once again, Mathison revealed a sharp ear for how children speak and a dedication to grounding the fantastic elements of her story in a realistic context. "The Indian in the Cupboard" opened to solid reviews but modest box office. Mathison followed up with a project for producer-director Martin Scorsese, scripting "Kundun" (1997) a biopic of his holiness Tenzingyatso, the 14th Dalai Lamai of Tibet, who was forced into exile in 1959, nine years after the Chinese invasion. "Kundun" proved to be her final screen project until "The BFG" (2016), an adaptation of the novel by Roald Dahl. Melissa Mathison died of neuroendocrine cancer in Los Angeles on November 4, 2015. She was 65 years old.
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Writer (TV Mini-Series)
Took a leave from UC, Berkeley to work as Coppola's assistant on "The Godfather, Part II" (date approximate)
Credited as "executive assistant" on Coppola's "Apocalypse Now"
Made feature screenwriting debut, co-scripting (with Jeanne Rosenberg and William D. Wittliff) "The Black Stallion" at the urging of Coppola who also executive produced
Co-scripted (with Stephen Zito) the screenplay for "The Escape Artist", a poorly received Coppola production
Received first sole screenplay credit on Spielberg's landmark children's fantasy "E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial"; also credited as associate producer
Co-wrote "Kick the Can," the Steven Spielberg-directed segment of "Twilight Zone: The Movie," under the name Josh Rogan
Benefited from the Writers Guild of America's winning of an arbitration which entitled her to a 5 percent share of all revenue received by Universal--or its parent company, MCA--from the merchandising of the E.T. character; also entitled to 4 percent of the gross from merchandise in which E.T. is joined by other characters from the film
Made TV writing debut with "Son of the Morning Star", an ABC miniseries biopic about General George Custer
Returned to screenwriting after 13 years, scripted "The Indian in the Cupboard"
Wrote the script for Martin Scorsese's "Kundun"
Wrote Steven Spielberg's "The BFG," her final screenplay