Abby Mann's television and film writing career has spanned four decades and earned him widespread critical acclaim and numerous prestigious industry awards in the United States and abroad. He has received an Academy Award and New York Film Critics Award for his screenplay for Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), and Emmys for The Marcus-Nelson Murders (1973, the Kojak pilot), Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story (1989), and Indictment: The McMartin Case (1995).
Mann's made-for-television movies have covered a breadth of subjects. His most daring (and controversial) scripts have offered viewers a withering critique of the functioning of America's criminal justice system. Although some critics have argued that Mann has, on occasion, selectively marshaled facts and taken "polemical" positions in his portrayal of his subjects, almost all have expressed admiration for his exhaustive investigative research, and his rich dramatic portrayal of character. Most importantly, few have questioned the factual basis for his arguments.
Mann, the son of a Russian-Jewish immigrant jeweler, grew up in the 1930s in East Pittsburgh--a predominantly Catholic working-class neighborhood he describes as a "tough steel area." As a Jewish youth in these surroundings, Mann felt himself an outsider. Perhaps this in part explains the persistent preoccupation, in his scripts, with the working poor and racial minorities--outsiders who are trapped in a social system in which prejudice, often institutionalized in the police and judicial apparatus, is used to deprive them of their rights.
This recurrent overarching theme is developed in stories focusing on the forced signing of criminal confessions; inadequate police and District Attorney investigation of murder cases involving victims who are minorities, or poor, or both; judicial and police officials who protect their reputations and careers, when confronted with evidence of possible miscarriage of justice, by refusing to re-open cases in which innocent persons, often minorities, have been convicted; the possibility that law enforcement officials conspired in the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.; the failure of union leaders to adequately fight for the rights of their workers; the greed and questionable ethics of some members of the legal, medical, and mental health professions; and the sensationalized coverage of murder cases by the media, who tend to prejudge cases according to their perception of general public sentiment.
Mann began his professional writing career in the early 1950s, writing for NBC's Cameo Theater, and for the noted anthology series Studio One, Robert Montgomery Presents, and Playhouse 90. His script for the celebrated film drama Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), recounting the Nazi war crimes trials, was originally produced for Playhouse 90. Mann moved to Hollywood as production on the feature film version began. Other successful film scripts quickly followed, including A Child Is Waiting (1963), directed by John Cassavetes, which offered one of the first sympathetic filmic portrayals of the care and treatment of mentally challenged children; and a screen adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter's novel Ship of Fools (1965), the story of the interlocking lives of passengers sailing from Mexico to pre-Hitler Germany, directed by Stanley Kramer (who had directed Judgment at Nuremberg).
Mann returned to television writing in 1973 with the script for The Marcus-Nelson Murders, which launched Universal Television's popular Kojak series. Universal approached Mann about doing a story based on the 1963 brutal rape and murder of Janice Wylie and Emily Hoffert--two young, white professional women living in mid-town Manhattan. George Whitmore, a young black man who had previously been arrested in Brooklyn for the murder of a black woman, signed a detailed confession for the Wylie and Hoffert murders. Whitmore later recanted his confession, claiming he was beaten into signing it. Mann visited Whitmore in jail in New York before agreeing to write the screenplay, and became convinced not only that Whitmore was innocent, but also that some top officials in the Manhattan and Brooklyn District Attorneys' offices had ignored Whitmore's alibi that he was in Seacliff, New Jersey--fifty miles from New York City--at the moment of the murders. After the airing of The Marcus-Nelson Murders, for which Mann won an Emmy and a Writers Guild Award, Whitmore was released from prison.
Although he was not involved in the production of Kojak, Mann was unhappy with the treatment of the series by its producer, Universal Television, which, he argued, re-framed the police melodrama as a formulaic cops-and-robbers potboiler, whereas he had sought to show, in The Marcus-Nelson Murders, that law enforcement officials should be watched.
In his next television project, Mann cast his critical gaze on one of the country's most sacrosanct institutions--the medical profession. Medical Story, an anthology series produced by Columbia, premiered on NBC in 1975 and had a brief four-month run. Mann was the series creator and also served as co-executive producer.
Mann made his directorial debut with King, a six-hour docudrama on the life of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. He had wanted to do a feature film on King while King was still alive, but was unable to raise the necessary financing. Ironically, unforeseen circumstances brought the project to fruition in 1978, ten years after King's death.
The central figure in The Marcus-Nelson Murders, George Whitmore, had claimed that he was watching King's "I Have A Dream" speech on television when the murders were committed. Mann asked King's widow, Coretta Scott King, for the rights to use the film clip of King's speech in The Marcus-Nelson Murders, which she granted. She then asked Mann if he was still interested in the piece on King's life. Encouraged by Mrs. King's continued interest, Mann pursued the project. In doing research on the script, Mann uncovered information that led him to believe that a conspiracy involving the Memphis, Tennessee police and fire departments may have been responsible for King's death. The conspiracy theory focused on the reassignment, just prior to the assassination, of a black police officer and two black fire fighters who had been stationed in a fire house overlooking the motel where King was shot, and this despite numerous threats of assassination while King was in Memphis.
Reporter Mark Lane assisted Mann in his investigation of the circumstances surrounding the King assassination. The research resulted in an official House of Representatives inquiry into whether a conspiracy had indeed been involved in the assassinations. As a result, Mann was publicly maligned by the Memphis Police and Fire Chiefs.
For Skag, his next television project which aired on NBC in 1980, Mann returned to the scene of his youth--the steel mills of the suburbs surrounding Pittsburgh. He developed the concept and wrote the script for the three-hour pilot, and was given "complete freedom" by then NBC President Fred Silverman. Starring Karl Malden as Pete "Skag" Skagska, Skag was the unflinching, realistic portrait of a middle-aged steel worker who had worked hard all his life, but when stricken by a stroke, found himself suddenly "expendable" because he was no longer able to provide food for the table or perform sexually with his wife. Skag also dealt with the larger social issues of steel workers' unhealthy working conditions, and the failure of their unions to fight for their rights. Steel workers unions bitterly attacked Skag, calling Mann "anti-union." But with this series Mann was attempting to draw attention to a class of Americans who until the 1980s were grossly underrepresented in prime-time television drama, a fictional world largely populated by white, white-collar, middle-aged male protagonists.
While the premiere episode won critical praise and high ratings, viewership rapidly declined, and the series ended its run after six weeks on the air. Mann, who was involved in the first two regular series episodes, attributed the series failure to uneven directing of some of the subsequent episodes and artistic interference from the show's star Malden.
Mann's direct involvement with Medical Story and Skag convinced him that the process involved in producing series television inevitably led to too many compromises, both ideological, as politically controversial themes became "muddled," and creative, as strong pilots were followed by aesthetically weak regular series episodes. For these reasons, he decided in the 1980s to focus his artistic energy exclusively on made-for-television movies, over which he had greater artistic control.
The Atlanta Child Murders aired on CBS in 1985. The notorious Atlanta child murders case focused on Wayne Williams, a black, who was accused of recruiting young boys for his homosexual father, using them sexually along with his father, and then murdering them. Mann was urged by prominent black leaders in Atlanta not to take on the project because, they argued, the additional publicity generated by a television movie focusing on an accused black mass murderer would, in the end, only further damage the black community. Mann initially withdrew from the proposed project, but attended the Williams trial and was disturbed by the courtroom proceedings, which revealed to him the inadequate investigation into the murders of victims who belonged to poor minority families, the introduction of potentially unreliable evidence, and the sensationalized media coverage of the trial.
Mann, the only writer able to speak to Wayne Williams in prison after his conviction, raised doubts about the case, arguing that the judicial system itself was on trial, as was a society that had neither compassion for the victims during their lives nor justice for them after their deaths. Critics praised the dramaturgy of The Atlanta Child Murders, but some questioned Mann's doubts about both the propriety of the courtroom proceedings and Williams's guilt, arguing that after all, the State Supreme Court of Georgia had upheld Williams's conviction. After seeing the television movie, prominent defense attorneys Alan Dershowitz, William Kunstler, and Bobby Lee Cook agreed to join in a pro bono defense of Williams, but, according to Mann, once the publicity died down they did not pursue the appeal to re-open the case.
Mann's most recent made-for-television movies have premiered on HBO, which he has found to be much more supportive of his often contentious stands on controversial social issues than were the commercial broadcast networks, who felt they must avoid the inherent commercial risks of alienating significant sectors of their mass audience. Most recent among these was Indictment: The McMartin Trial, created by Mann and his wife Myra. The film won an Emmy and a Golden Globe in 1995. Once again Mann questioned the workings of the judicial system. This case involved the McMartin Pre-school in Manhattan Beach, California at which it was alleged that seven pre-school teachers had molested three hundred forty-seven children over the course of a decade. Most people in Los Angeles were convinced of the veracity of the charges, which were supported by the accounts of hundreds of children who attended the school. Mann became intrigued by the case when charges against five of the defendants were dropped. The two remaining defendants, Peggy Buckey, the school superintendent, and her son Ray were still under arrest. Buckey's daughter argued on Larry King's show that the Los Angeles District Attorney was continuing with the prosecution of her mother and brother because they had been kept in jail so long that the District Attorney could not admit his error without losing face. As Mann investigated the case, he once again confronted the seamy side of the justice system: informers who supposedly heard confessions only because they had made financial deals to their own advantage; greedy parents who were suing to get damages; and prosecutors who withheld crucial evidence and selectively ignored facts to advance their own careers by obtaining a conviction. Mann was also intent in exploring the important psychological question regarding the ease with which children can be led by manipulative adults into admitting events that never occurred.
Ultimately, despite two trials, no one was convicted in the McMartin case. Indictment produced very strong reactions among viewers. According to Mann, "People seem . . . obsessed by it. I suppose they realize that they have watched and believed stories that were as incredible as the Salem witch hunt." Reaction to the television film had a direct impact on the Manns as well. On the day production on Indictment began, their house was burned to the ground. Undeterred, Mann, at age 69, is at work on his next HBO movie--on the lives and trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
~ Hal Himmelstein
ABBY MANN. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., 1927. Attended Temple University, Philadelphia; and New York University. Married: Myra. Gained fame as television writer for Robert Montgomery Theater, Playhouse 90, Studio One, and Alcoa-Goodyear Theatre. Recipient: Academy Award; two Emmy Awards.
- 1948-58 Studio One
- 1950-55 Cameo Theatre
- 1950-57 Robert Montgomery Presents
- 1956-61 Playhouse 90
- 1973-78 Kojak
- 1975-76 Medical Story
- 1980 Skag
- 1973 The Marcus-Nelson Murders (executive producer, writer)
- 1975 Medical Story (executive producer, writer)
- 1979 This Man Stands Alone (executive producer)
- 1980 Skag (executive producer, writer)
- 1985 The Atlanta Child Murderers (executive producer, writer)
- 1989 Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story (co-executive producer)
- 1992 Teamster Boss: The Jackie Presser Story (executive producer)
- 1995 Indictment: The McMartin Trial (writer)
- 1978 King (director, writer)
- Judgment at Nuremberg, 1961;
- A Child Is Waiting, 1963;
- Ship of Fools, 1965;
- The Detectives, 1968;
- Report to the Commissioner, 1975;
- War and Love, 1985