The screen legacy of Oscar-winning writer-director Delbert Mann is inseparable from the movement in post-WWII American film that grew out of live television. One of the premier directors of network dramas in that medium's Golden Age, Mann frequently worked from scripts by the crème-de-la-crème of stage dramatists who adapted their narratives for the small screen under his aegis. With an adroit yet gentle and seemingly effortless hand, Mann thus brought the artistry of Paddy Chayefsky, William Inge, Eugene O'Neill, and many other top-tiered playwrights into millions of American homes. He then segued into cinema courtesy of a big screen adaptation of one of his television dramas, and -- with a film under his belt that snagged three of the most coveted awards in the film industry -- found his career in features permanently secured in a single defining instant.
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A native of Lawrence, KS, born January 30, 1920, Mann moved to Nashville at the age of 11 and demonstrated an intense fascination with theater during adolescence, even snagging a position as president of his high school drama club. His path soon intersected with that of future film director Fred Coe (A Thousand Clowns) -- then affiliated with a church-sponsored acting society -- who quickly became one of his closest friends and colleagues. Mann attended Vanderbilt University and graduated in 1941, then enlisted in the military and served with the Army Air Forces, initially as a B-24 bomber pilot, then as an 8th Air Force intelligence officer stationed in Britain. Upon returning home, he used the G.I. Bill to enroll in the Yale School of Drama and earned his MFA in directing, then accepted a position as director of Columbia, SC's Town Theatre in the wake of Coe's resignation from that position. Circa 1949, Coe invited Mann to move to Manhattan and work with him in live television; Mann obliged and took a position as stage manager and assistant director at NBC. Within a few months, he so impressed the network heads that they tapped him as one of the key directors of the NBC dramatic anthology Philco Television Playhouse. Thus began one of the most prolific careers in early television, with Mann turning out over 100 short television dramas from 1949-1955. Mann's career took a fantastic turn thanks to one of those assignments in particular: playwright Paddy Chayefsky's gentle slice-of-life drama Marty, about a Bronx butcher who suffers from the pangs of loneliness until he falls for a quiet schoolteacher. Rod Steiger played the role in the original, and when producer Harold Hecht spun it into a big-screen feature adaptation, with Chayefsky scripting, Chayefsky insisted that Hecht bring Mann on board to direct. With Ernest Borgnine in the lead, the resultant film won Best Picture and Best Director at the 1955 Oscars and checked in as the first American motion picture to win the Golden Palm at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival.
Thereafter, Mann refocused his attention on the big screen for around 10 years and directed numerous additional features that swept up critical and popular acclaim. These included The Bachelor Party (1957) (also scripted by Chayefsky), The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960), That Touch of Mink (1962), and Dear Heart (1964). As the 1960s waned, however, Mann's big screen activity did slightly as well, though he found increased work on television once again, and subsequently turned out over two dozen small-screen features, often as adaptations of classic literature. These included the 1968 Heidi, the 1970 David Copperfield, the 1971 Jane Eyre, and the 1971 Kidnapped. Mann reteamed with Borgnine for the 1979 adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front and did multiple projects for Disney studios in the 1980s, including the Beau Bridges-headlined adventure Night Crossing (1981) and the telemovie biopic Love Leads the Way (1984). Mann enjoyed one of his last directorial assignments with the made-for-television drama Incident in a Small Town (1994); starring Walter Matthau and Harry Morgan, it concerned a judge tagged as a suspect in the murder of his own son-in-law. Thereafter, Mann spent around a decade in retirement before succumbing to pneumonia at age 87 in the fall of 2008. ~ Nathan Southern, Rovi