Ask Dateline’s Josh Mankiewicz and Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz what the biggest misperception people have about their family, sometimes referred to as Hollywood royalty, and they have a quick answer.
“That we were rich,” says Josh.
“That is a pretty significant one,” says Ben.
Their grandfather, who died before either was born, was screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, whose battles with Orson Welles over the credit for Citizen Kane will be chronicled in the upcoming Netflix movie Mank. Their great uncle, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, was the legendary writer-director of classic films including All About Eve.
The brothers both live in Los Angeles, but they grew up in Washington, D.C., removed from Hollywood and its trappings. Their father was Frank Mankiewicz, an early Peace Corps representative, Robert Kennedy’s press secretary and one-time chieftain of NPR, among other accomplishments.
As NBC’ Dateline launches its 29th season and TCM continues to be a COVID-19, stay-at-home lifeline, Deadline interviewed Josh and Ben Mankiewicz about their close relationship (infused with plenty of playful humor), what their father considered the family business and what they all think of the current crazy political environment.
DEADLINE: First a pandemic question: How often do you get to see each other in person?
JOSH MANKIEWICZ: Well, not enough since the lockdown began. We live in Los Angeles and we used to see each other a lot more than we do now, and we’re sort of talking on the phone and texting more, and I have been over to his house for a couple of socially distanced visits.
BEN MANKIEWICZ: We have seen each other four or five times. He’d come out and sit on the steps, and I would come out on the stoop and we would talk. We had an actual visit in the backyard that felt like a big step. I got to be honest, I enjoy it. I thought we saw each other a little too much of each other.
JOSH: Thank goodness for the lockdown.
DEADLINE: You are brothers, but there’s an age difference of 11 or 12 years.
JOSH: It looks like we are the same age because, I mean, he has really aged. I think that’s pretty clear. A lot of guys sort of look better and more distinguished as they get older, but that did not happen in this case.
I usually tell people it is 12 years, and I am always thrilled when somebody says to me, “Which one of you is older?” which just, like, makes me the happiest.
BEN: Josh has always been, in addition to being a brother, really has been like a grandfather to me. … No, but it’s funny because he taught me how to be on TV, and he taught me how to shampoo my hair and shave. And so I am aware of [the age difference] because he used to drive me around, and we used to go to play an old arcade football game, and when we lived in D.C., he would take me out when he was 25 and I was 13. But then there are moments where I feel like we are exactly the same age. So it does swing back and forth, and we have always been incredibly close, which is good.
DEADLINE: I mean, when you were kids, did you hang out that much just given the age difference?
JOSH: I was like a surrogate parent when my parents were when our parents were out socially in Washington. So that helped a lot, and also the fact that that I pretty much had zero social life at that time also made me eligible for childcare duties. So the result was we got to be pretty close. But the fact that we are as connected is in large part the work of our dad, who said to me, “Look, if you want to have this great secret intimate relationship with your brother, and you want you want him to be like your best friend your whole life, you have to start now — not when he gets out of college.” And that I took that to heart, and we ended up being much closer than you would have expected for for the siblings with that big of an age difference.
BEN: We both were admirers of, fascinated by and loved our dad. I hear a story like that and think, “He did a lot of really good things.” He didn’t take a long time to do them. I mean, what he said sort of mattered and had an impact, and it was always steeped in smarts and kindness.
DEADLINE: You grew up having this interest in current events and your dad was having an impact on them.
JOSH: We watched Walter Cronkite every night during dinner at 7 o’clock silently. And then the minute Walter said, “That’s the way it is,” a discussion of what had happened in the news that day would begin. That was pretty much every single day until I moved away from home to go to college.
BEN: I was much shyer than my brother, but I did figure out pretty quickly that, especially when Josh was living there, you had to know what was going on to be able to participate in the conversation. You had to be opinionated, thoughtfully opinionated, to involve yourself in the conversation. … But as I got older, I got more confident that I could talk about something other than sports. I was thrilled by it.
DEADLINE: Josh, you have even said this, you would have George Cukor come over or you may have Dolores Huerta come over to the house, but that you didn’t think much about it.
JOSH: Yeah. George Cukor was at our dinner table. Dolores Huerta was at our kitchen table, plotting strategy on the farmworkers. I am sure it was like a lot of families. Later you would realize, “Well, that person was really well known that we had dinner with.” I didn’t realize that at the time. And my dad treated everybody exactly the same, not like they were celebrities. So the conversations were very interesting. People would people would sit down and they were talking about what movie they were involved in, or U.S. senators would come over and they would talk about how the campaign was going and what was going to happen next. And I looked at the paper a week later and it did happen next. That was pretty cool. It was a front-row seat to a lot of history.
BEN: And it was similar to how our father grew up. When Orson Welles was coming to the house, when Harpo Marx was coming to the house. Other writers. Ben Hecht was over. These dinner parties were with the luminaries of the early days of Hollywood. So, in a sense, it was similar, it’s just that Dad’s interest shifted to politics.
DEADLINE: Did it strike you as kind of unusual when people would call your family Hollywood royalty?
JOSH: We definitely were not living like kings. We lived in rented homes most of my life. My dad took the bus to work. He went into public service after he was an attorney here in Los Angeles, an entertainment attorney, and then decided that just wasn’t how he wanted to spend the rest of his life. And I think that would have been a really lucrative income if he’d done that. I saw my dad turn his back on a lot of money to go into public service. I remember how excited he was when he was on the bus, and he met a guy he [served] in World War II with. And he told me that that would never happen if we had another car, so let’s not even talk about getting another car.
BEN: His life of luxury was as a kid, before Herman started losing all his jobs, when Herman was the highest-paid writer in Hollywood. … Herman died without any money, and his wife Sarah, who lived until 1985, she had family members really taking care of her house and paying her expenses. There wasn’t any money. We didn’t have a hard-luck story at all. Our dad certainly made enough for us to feel secure, but it didn’t feel like royalty. It was great. It was good. But we didn’t live like kings.
DEADLINE: Did you feel the kind of the weight of expectation given that so many people your family are so highly talented and creative?
JOSH: I have to say, I didn’t think about it as much as maybe people think we do. I always felt like if I did well, my parents would be would be happy with me. You’ve got to remember that my dad grew up in a house in which the movie business was not talked about as a serious way for serious people to live their lives. So Hollywood was never dangled in front of me as something that I should be aspiring to. Nobody ever said, “When are you going to write a screenplay?” I spent my childhood around my dad, around politics, and so it’s really not surprising that I became a journalist and I ended up as a political reporter before I went to Dateline. Frankly, that was the thing that thrilled my dad the most was when I was covering local, state, and national politics. I always thought he was bemused at the idea that I was doing murders these last 15 years.
BEN: When Josh was a political reporter, that was the family business, before he became well known and before he before he became a lawyer. Journalism sort of weaved its way through his entire life in politics. I didn’t think about it either. But I felt more pressure I think than Josh did, and maybe because of Josh. He was successful and smart and funny, and you know, I did carry this thought that I’m going to be the first one who’s not who’s not clever.
DEADLINE: Have you seen the Netflix project Mank?
JOSH: I have not seen it. I’m so excited — I can’t wait to see it. We had nothing to do with this. Obviously, this is not this is not any kind of family project. It’s based on a script that I think was at least loosely based on a book, a biography of Herman called Mank. The family definitely cooperated with it. But I can’t wait to see it. It’s got a great cast, I love that it is in black and white. I’m definitely getting the poster, I can tell you that.
DEADLINE: Your father had a pretty convincing case in his book that Herman was the screenwriter for Citizen Kane. Ben, you did the podcast with Peter Bogdanovich. Did he have a take on that?
BEN: Peter has become a friend. I love Peter. He is in the Welles camp. But Peter and I can basically agree that Pauline Kael’s take on it diminished Welles more than merely that he didn’t write the screenplay. … But if you establish with Peter, “Hey look, Herman wrote the screenplay, but Orson Welles’ force of will got the picture made.” And there’s no question about it. It’s Orson Welles’ movie and Herman’s screenplay, but no one should diminish what Welles did with that movie. It’s much more Welles’ movie than Herman’s. Herman just wrote the script. And Peter likes hearing that, because he doesn’t want Welles diminished, nor should Welles be diminished.
DEADLINE: What would your father say about your grandfather? How would he talk about him?
JOSH: I would say he talked about him the way we talk about our dad. Herman died at 56, and I think my father missed him every day from then until until when he died in 2014. [Their mother, Holly, died last year]. He was my dad’s kind of guiding light. He was a lot of the things my dad was, except my dad was a much better father than Herman. Herman was a lot of wonderful things. He was smart and funny and serious and really well read. He knew everything. And he also was self-destructive, a drunk and threw away his money. None of that stuff was my dad. He delivered. He showed up. I think he very much wanted to give his sons the childhood he didn’t have.
DEADLINE: Josh, you were pretty young when your dad warned you about the dangers of addiction and the dangers of alcohol.
JOSH: I was 7 years old and we were living in Lima, Peru, and my dad just out of nowhere started talking to me about how one day, I was going to be offered drugs of some kind. And that I was going to want to accept because I was going to be with people who I wanted to impress and I was not going to want to seem like a square. He said: “I won’t be there. That is the moment we are going to know what you are made of.” And he was right. Dad did turn me into a big square. I never did anything illegal.
BEN: He did the same thing not quite as dramatically. Second kid, late in life. You know, I was so shy, I just don’t think it occurred to them that I was going to be in that kind of trouble. And then when I started talking, I just didn’t seem like that kind of kid.
JOSH: Both of our parents certainly smoked a lot when we were kids, and I always found it so noxious. He said, “If you get to 25 without smoking, I’ll give you $1,000.” I remember thinking to myself, “This is going to be the easiest money. I will never smoke. I hate it so much. I’m dealing with it every day. I never want to have it.” And I got the thousand dollars. Then I asked to have it adjusted for inflation. Dad gave me that look.
BEN: I got it 12 years later when I turned 25. It was great. He had a couple of rules, only a couple of rules: You can’t smoke, you can’t ride a motorcycle, you can’t scuba dive, and you can’t jump out of an airplane. Otherwise, have at it.
JOSH: Those were the things we were not permitted to do. He did not want us risking our lives do any of those things.
BEN: It wasn’t just until we were 18 or 21, it was like, “No, you can’t ever do this.” I mean I would never skydive.
DEADLINE: Josh, a question about Dateline going into the 29th season. True crime is now more popular than ever — what do you make of that?
JOSH: I sure didn’t see it coming. When we started doing crime, not only was I not terribly interested in doing it, but I didn’t think this was going to last. And then I did a couple and thought, “Well, this is great.” Reporting is reporting, writing is writing, and storytelling is storytelling. And this works because it’s storytelling. We do not begin the story by saying, “Here’s a guy accused of killing his wife, but it turned out it was my next-door neighbor. Now stick around for an hour and 15 minutes.” We lead you through it.
Ultimately, though, we’re bound by the truth, and we tell the story the way it happened, and if somebody’s not guilty, then they’re not guilty. So I think there’s an audience out there that loves storytelling. I also think there’s an audience out there that likes seeing the system working the way it’s supposed to. And that certainly happens more often than not on Dateline.
DEADLINE: Given the racial justice protests that we’ve seen this past summer, will there be any changes to the approach of the show?
JOSH: I think you are going to see some different stories on Dateline this year. We always tried to make sure that we did stories about everybody in America, not just people who look like me. Because of the lockdown, when we came back, a lot of the trials that we were covering were also just getting started or they were also delayed. So we needed to find cases that we could start on right away. So we’re covering more cold cases than we used to. There was a time when a story that happened 20, 25, years ago, we would have felt, “Well, maybe we can find some a little more current. But those stories were not available at that moment, and older things were. So we’re doing cold cases, which is something the audience asks us to do.
DEADLINE: Ben, what’s your worry about what’s happening with moviegoing because of the pandemic?
BEN: It’s certainly bad for the industry. I don’t know if it’ll recover in exactly the same way. I imagine there won’t be quite as many theatrical releases for a while. But I don’t take it at face value that people have enjoyed being home so much that they never want to go back out. I think it might well be the opposite. So it’ll recover. The business was changing anyway. The pandemic affected it ,and I imagine it will affect it down the road. But I do not think it’s going to be as dramatic as many have hypothesized.
DEADLINE: What do you make of what we’re seeing right now the election?
JOSH: What could be better? I mean, it’s almost made me wish I were back doing politics. Except there’s 3,000 people covering the election, and not that many covering domestic violence, so maybe it’s good that I’m where I am. I miss my dad’s input into all this. He’d be transfixed by what’s happening, and he would be calling me every day to talk about this and that … and “here’s the story everybody’s missing.” Whenever I wanted to sound smart, I would call him and then remember what he said and then repeat it to somebody else later and they would think, “Wow, yeah, you have really got it going on.”
BEN: Dad was was relentlessly optimistic about America’s future. We would be refreshed by his optimism. He was obviously the big liberal Democrat, and got more liberal as he got older. … He would still be optimistic, but these last four years would have discouraged some of that, and would have saddened him. And he’d be very involved right now. He was always interested in finding ways to make the country better, find ways to make it work better for the people for whom it did not work well.
DEADLINE: What do you think is the biggest misperception about your family?
JOSH: That we were rich.
BEN: That’s a pretty significant one. I don’t think you can do better than that answer. I think people are always surprised that Herman and Joe, particularly Herman, had this self-loathing about the business they were in, because it seemed so glamorous and they did such great work, but both of them felt like this is not serious. And if we really believed in ourselves, we’d be doing something more valuable.
JOSH: I knew Joe, and Joe’s Oscars were polished on his mantelpiece. They looked better than the moment when they had been handed to him. And when he was talking about what was wrong with Hollywood, which was like pretty much all the time, he would turn and gesture to his Oscars, as if they were this unseen presence in the room, like ratifying what he was saying. In other words, they are not making real movies anymore. “Those of us who once made real movies” — [He’d] gesture towards mantelpiece — as if the focus on intergalactic travel was gonna go away. He was incredibly contemptuous of all modern CGI movies. He used to say he couldn’t get All About Eve made again today because there’s no car chase in it. And the other point of that story is that Herman’s Oscar was nearly tarnished black. And it just was like kind of leaning against the wall in my grandmother’s living room, and it was obviously kind of a metaphor for those two brothers.
DEADLINE: What happened to [Herman’s] Oscar?
JOSH: I believe the Oscar was sold to pay someone’s gambling debts in our family.
BEN: Not our father’s. He sold it to help with that.
DEADLINE: Herman’s gambling debts?
JOSH: No, other people. Others who are not named here.
BEN: It is, real quick, my dad’s lack of sentimentality. The Oscar itself, having that on the shelf, didn’t matter. Dad didn’t care about things at all, including shirts. Or shoes that matched. So, he was like, “What do I care is that my father wrote this great movie and it won an Oscar?”
JOSH: And his name is on it. He didn’t care about the statue.
BEN: Yeah, so I don’t need to see it. So when a family member needed help, it was not a big deal for him to sell it.
DEADLINE: By the way, did how much time did you spend with Joe?
JOSH: A spent fair amount because I was working in New York for six years during the time that he’s living in the suburbs. He used to call me all the time and dissect our newscasts and complain about the lighting or about, “This person can’t read. They shouldn’t be on the air.” He was a lot of fun, and he paid a lot of attention to my scripts. And if I said anything that he thought was remotely clever or erudite, he would call me, which was always a giant thrill.
DEADLINE: Ben, did you did you spend much time with him?
BEN: Joe intimidated me. I didn’t see much of him, even though his daughter Alex was almost exactly my age, and they lived on the East Coast. But I remember at his funeral … he had converted to his wife Rosemary’s religion, and they were Episcopalian. She’s English. … My cousin Nick Davis, he turns to me at the funeral and he goes, “Aren’t we Jewish?”
Dateline airs new episodes on Thursday at 9 PM ET, Monday at 10 PM ET, Oct. 1 at 9 PM ET, and Oct. 2 at 10 PM ET.