Oscar-winning writer, producer and director of issue-oriented projects
Abby Mann, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 1961’s “Judgment at Nuremberg” and such acclaimed TV movies as 1973’s “The Marcus-Nelson Murders” and 1989’s “Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story,” died Tuesday of heart failure in Beverly Hills. He was 80.
During his more than 50-year career as a writer, producer and director, Mann built a strong reputation for his issue-oriented, thought-provoking projects. A multiple Emmy winner, Mann was especially critical of the inner workings of the American criminal justice system. He was known for creating complex characters and was scrupulous in his investigative research.
“A writer worth his salt at all has an obligation not only to entertain but to comment on the world in which he lives,” Mann said when he accepted his Oscar for “Judgment at Nuremberg,” the Stanley Kramer drama about the Nuremberg war trials in Germany in 1948. One of the film’s stars, Richard Widmark, died Monday at age 93.
Born Abraham Goodman in Philadelphia on Dec. 1, 1927, Mann was the son of a Russian-Jewish immigrant jeweler and grew up in East Pittsburgh in a predominantly Catholic working-class neighborhood. As one of the few Jews in the area, Mann always felt like an outsider, and his scripts years later focused on the world of outsiders -- the poor and racial minorities who were subjected to prejudice and injustice.
“I think he obviously was a very serious, substantive writer who was able to deal with a very strong social conscience and a very strong sense of what it was like to be an outsider, functioning within a society or system that didn’t have your best interests at heart,” said David Bushman, television curator at the Paley Center for Media in New York. “He elevated the level of television because of his skills as a writer and his devotion to taking on serious, controversial issues, . . . usually taking on the side of the underdog.”
After attending Temple University and New York University, Mann served in the Army during World War II. He began his professional writing career in the early days of live television in the 1950s, penning scripts for such popular anthologies as “Cameo Theater,” “Studio One,” “Robert Montgomery Presents” and “Playhouse 90.” “Judgment at Nuremberg” was originally presented live on “Playhouse 90” in 1959.
In a 2001 interview with the Associated Press, Mann said that when the drama first aired, “there were a lot of people who felt we really should not do it. The Cold War was at its height. Some people felt I was embarrassing the [Eisenhower] administration.”
Not only did he write the film but Mann also penned a novel based on the movie.
The movie version of “Judgment” brought him to Hollywood, where he went on to write 1963’s “A Child Is Waiting,” directed by John Cassavetes, a drama that dealt with mentally challenged children, and the 1965 adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter’s novel “Ship of Fools,” which was directed by Kramer and brought Mann a second Oscar nomination.
Mann received an Emmy and a Writers Guild of America Award for the TV movie “The Marcus-Nelson Murders,” which introduced the character of Kojak, played by Telly Savalas. The character proved to be so popular it was spun off into a long-running series.
The film was based on the 1963 rape and murder of two white professional women living in Manhattan. George Whitmore, a young black man who had been arrested previously for the murder of a black woman, signed a confession stating that he had murdered the two women. Whitmore later said that he was beaten and coerced into signing it. Mann visited Whitmore in jail and was so convinced after talking to him that Whitmore wasn’t guilty -- and that officials had ignored Whitmore’s alibi that he had been 50 miles away at the time of the murder -- that he wrote the screenplay. After the film aired, Whitmore was set free.
Mann also created and was co-executive producer of the 1975-76 series “Medical Story” and received an Emmy nomination for the pilot of “Skag,” a short-lived 1980 series starring Karl Malden as the foreman of a Pittsburgh steel mill.
Mann, though, generally concentrated on movies and miniseries for television. Among his other credits are “The Atlanta Child Murders,” “Teamster Boss: The Jackie Presser Story” and “Sinatra,” in which he is credited as Ben Goodman, and “King,” a miniseries on the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which Mann also directed.
The home he owned with his wife, Myra, burned down on the first day of production of “Indictment: The McMartin Trial,” the HBO movie in which Mann examined the machinations of the judicial system in the controversial preschool molestation case. After the film aired in 1995, Mann said that “people seem . . . obsessed by [the trial]. I suppose they realize that they have watched and believed stories that were as incredible as the Salem witch hunt.”
Mann is survived by his wife and a son. A memorial service will be held Sunday at 11 a.m. at Hillside Memorial Park in Los Angeles.