Classic Hollywood: TCM host Ben Mankiewicz’s path from snarky newbie to a classic in his own right
Ben Mankiewicz got off to a bit of a rocky start when he was hired as a host on Turner Classic Movies in 2003.
The vintage movie channel’s loyalists complained that he was disrespectful in his introductions to the films. And probably for good reason.
“I am a little snarky,” Mankiewicz acknowledged.
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But they were even more concerned that TCM was trying to replace main host Robert Osborne, who has been with the channel since its launch in 1994 and has become something of a superstar in the world of vintage entertainment.
When Mankiewicz began, noted Charles Tabesh, TCM’s senior vice president of programming, “we really emphasized the differences [between them]. We asked him to have a goatee. We had him in a set that was a downtown loft, and his scripts were much less reverential.”
But now, Tabesh said, “he’s a beloved member of the family.”
“People grew to accept him and trust us that we weren’t changing the channel or getting rid of Robert,” he added. “There was an evolution in terms of the intros. We changed his set and didn’t make him have a goatee.”
On a recent sunny morning, Mankiewicz was holding court in his poster-filled office at the cozy Santa Monica house he shares with his wife, Lee Russo — he married her in 2013 on the TCM Cruise — their 2-year-old daughter, Josie, and three dogs. His favorite pooch, a female Malinois mix named Bob, was snoozing next to him.
Affable and funny, the 48-year-old Mankiewicz hails from Hollywood royalty. His grandfather was Oscar-winning “Citizen Kane” scribe Herman J. Mankiewicz, his great-uncle was Oscar-winning writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (“All About Eve”) and his cousin was writer-director Tom Mankiewicz (“Dragnet”). His older brother, Josh, is an NBC News reporter.
Ben Mankiewicz, though, grew up far away from Hollywood in Washington, D.C. His father, Frank, who died in October at age 90, was press secretary to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, presidential campaign manager for Sen. George S. McGovern and chief of National Public Radio.
“When my father decided to go into politics, that was a praised decision by Herman, who had sort of contempt for the very business he was in,” said Mankiewicz, who wears his father’s World War II dog tags around his neck. Though he knew that his grandfather and great-uncle had made important contributions to Hollywood, “it wasn’t emphasized. What was important was knowing why George McGovern was a great man.”
A history major, Mankiewicz gained a new appreciation for the classics, including “Citizen Kane,” when he took a film class while at Tufts University.
“That was the beginning of an appreciation that there was a historical context to put these movies in, to think about them not just as old pieces of art but old pieces of art that were representative of a special time. That made it click with me.”
Though his schedule changes weekly on the network, Mankiewicz usually hosts TCM on Saturdays and Sundays during the day, Sunday evenings and Thursday nights. “Robert comes on in prime time all the other nights,” he said. “There is nobody more important at TCM than Robert.”
Mankiewicz recently returned from Atlanta, where he shot material for TCM’s popular Summer Under the Stars programming, which shines the spotlight each day on a famous star or character actor. This month, he’s hosting the films of Patricia Neal, George C. Scott, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Alan Arkin, Gary Cooper, Monty Woolley, Debbie Reynolds, Marlene Dietrich and Ann-Margret, among others.
“My workload for TCM has probably increased tenfold,” said Mankiewicz. “I am an incredibly grateful for that. For the first three or four years, I was like, ‘Come on, let me do more.’”
Mankiewicz, said Tabesh, “has become ingrained within the classic film community out in Los Angeles.”
“He has his own relationships with different talents,” he added. “So you have Robert in New York and Ben in Los Angeles. “
His duties include hosting screenings and doing interviews at the TCM Classic Film Festival — his interview with Ann-Margret premieres this month — and speaking on TCM cruises. He also supplies the introductions to the theatrical screenings presented by TCM and Fathom Events, including 1975’s “Jaws” and 1944’s “Double Indemnity.”
Along the way, Mankiewicz has learned that TCM is more than just a movie channel to its devoted audience.
“Television is so good. ‘Ray Donovan’ is excellent. I’m addicted to ‘Game of Thrones.’ But nobody thinks, ‘I’ll stand with HBO until the bitter end.’ There is nothing like that relationship Turner Classic Movies has with its fans.”
Viewers, he said, are always approaching him about how they connect with the channel. “They say, ‘Thank you for getting me through this illness.’ ‘Thank you for the last four months of my mother’s life. She was sick and we watched movies every day. It was the best four months we ever spent.’ We hear that story again and again and again.”
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