From the rooftops of Baghdad, Mardik Martin would watch as the grit and stale air of the sprawling city melted away in the magical Technicolor of the Hollywood films that were projected onto a screen in the public square below.
It was a magical connection that would follow Martin for life.
He arrived in America as a teenager, struggled to learn a language as foreign as the bright lights and fast-moving cars around him and then, remarkably, became one of Hollywood’s hottest screenwriters, a wordsmith whose ear for streetwise dialogue shaped and colored films like “Raging Bull” and “Mean Streets.” A friend and muse to filmmaker Martin Scorsese, the careers of both were fused for years during a rush of creativity.
Active until late in life, Martin died Sept. 11 at his home in Studio City after suffering a stroke, said his friend and former assistant Hunter Lee Hughes. He was 84.
While at the top of his game, Martin was the author or co-writer of many of Scorsese’s early films, from urban-tough scripts like “Raging Bull” to “New York, New York,” a nostalgic homage to classic Hollywood musicals. In a midcareer shift, Martin became a professor of screenwriting at USC Cinematic Arts, nurturing a new generation of filmmakers there for more than 20 years.
Never showy, Martin said he turned to script-writing rather than directing for practical reasons. Camera gear and film were expensive. Paper, on the other hand, was not.
Born Sept. 16, 1934, in Abadan, Iran, Martin moved to Baghdad as a child with his siblings and parents, both Armenian. He found the city colorless and depressing.
“Baghdad, even then, was filthy, dirty, disgusting, with dust and sand,” he recalled in a 2007 interview with The Times. “Then you see Betty Grable in unbelievable Technicolor and the beautiful scenery in the background. It’s like another dimension, it’s like finding paradise.”
When he turned 18, Martin was sent to the U.S. by his father, who wanted his son to get an American education and avoid service in the Iraqi army.
He landed in Michigan, enrolled in an English immersion program and then moved to New York, where he was among the first students at the new film school at New York University. There he met Scorsese, a fellow student and aspiring filmmaker. The two became fast friends.
“We used to stay up every night till dawn, watching movies,” Scorsese told The Times.
“We had so many ideas,” Martin added. “We just wrote and wrote.”
One of their first full-length collaborations was “Mean Streets,” a gritty crime film starring Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel. He wrote the treatment on “The Last Waltz,” a documentary about the final concert by the Band that is generally regarded as one of the finest concert films ever made. He also co-wrote “New York, New York.”
“Raging Bull,” however, marked Martin’s arrival, and Scorsese’s too.
A wrenching, violent, profane, animalistic descent into the life of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta, the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and was hailed for its hard-charging dialogue. The screenplay, which Martin co-wrote with Paul Schrader, was nominated for a Golden Globe in screenwriting.
Martin said he spent a year and a half researching LaMotta and watched every boxing movie he could find, not for inspiration but to ensure his script would be unique.
His writing style was unique as well. He said he prowled the streets of New York and gave prostitutes $100, not for sex but for the opportunity to interview them, listen to their stories. He would tape-record the interviews and then listen to the cadence, the street language, the omnipresent profanity to help shape the dialogue for “Raging Bull.”
“I was always amazed by the sheer and brilliant honesty of the writing,” said Paul Wolff, a screenwriter and fellow USC professor. “It shows life the way it really is.”
But Hollywood was changing and the computer wizardry of “Star Wars” and “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” left him cold, and at times, unemployed. Along the way he developed a cocaine habit, a drug he said he took so he could stay up all night, writing. But the cocaine did what it always does, stripping away his savings and his home.
Martin spoke frankly about his human frailties and his accomplishment in the 2008 documentary “Mardik: Baghdad to Hollywood,” an 82-minute film that traces the screenwriter’s life from Iran to Hollywood.
He stepped away from screenwriting for years while teaching at USC but returned in 2014 with “The Cut,” a Faith Akin-directed film about an Armenian man’s survival during the Armenian genocide. In ways, it was as personal a script he ever wrote and would be his last.
Martin was married several times but never had children, something he said he regretted later in life. He is survived by a sister, Violet Asadoorian.