Like contemporaries Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer, Delbert Mann represents the increasingly rare breed of directors who hail from television’s Golden Age. “Marty,” written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Mann for both TV and the bigscreen, was a forerunner to the “angry young man” dramas taking root in England, and helped pave the way for the kind of social realism that marked many studio feature efforts in the ’50s.
When Mann received an Oscar nomination for “Marty” (1955), his feature debut, he faced some formidable competition, including Elia Kazan, David Lean and John Sturges. At the ceremony, Mann, then 35, was simply glad to be in such estimable company.
“I was so stunned at being called the winner, I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I didn’t have a speech prepared. I simply stood up and said, ‘Thank you very much’ and walked off the stage.”
Unlike his episode of speechlessness almost a half-century ago, Mann, now 82, says he is prepared to accept the DGA’s honorary life member award Saturday. The laurel was first awarded to D.W. Griffith in 1938 and recognizes outstanding creative achievement or contribution to the DGA or the profession of directing.
“It’s stunning and flattering, and I feel so totally unworthy of it. Nevertheless, I will accept it gracefully,” says Mann, who served as DGA prexy from 1967-71 and received the guild’s Robert B. Aldrich award for extraordinary service in 1997.
New York state of mind
Before his foray into features, Mann spent a number of years in New York directing live TV programs for NBC, starting in 1949 with “The Philco-Goodyear Playhouse” and expanding to “Playhouse 90,” “Producers’ Showcase” and others. After helming a successful TV version of “Marty” in the early ’50s, Mann was invited by producer Harold Hecht to come to Hollywood and shoot a bigscreen version.
“When I came to California, I couldn’t get a hold of where the heart of the town was, and stayed here only long enough to do the pre-production, shoot the film and then head back to New York because I was, in my own mind, a New York television director,” says Mann. “I didn’t realize at the time that live television was already dying.”
A graduate of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., where he acted in several community theater productions, Mann entered the Air Corps after college. It was there, during World War II, that he decided he wanted to become a director.
“I had a personal experience flying a mission over France one day that made me realize that life is very short, and I had better try to do with my life what I really wanted to do the most, which deep down in my heart was theater,” says Mann. “I made my decision that if I survived the war, I wanted to get some theater training and become a director.”
After the war, Mann enrolled in Yale’s school of drama and graduated with a master’s of fine arts in directing.
His other credits include the 1960 theatrical release “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs” and several made-for-TV movies in the 1960s and ’70s, including “Heidi” and “Breaking Up,” which earned him one of three Emmy noms. Mann’s last helming effort was the 1994 TV movie “Lily in Winter,” which starred Natalie Cole.