Melissa Mathison, ‘E.T.’ Screenwriter and Ex-Wife of Harrison Ford, Dies at 65

Melissa Mathison Dead
Harry Myers/REX Shutterstock

Melissa Mathison, who was Oscar-nominated for original screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial” and also wrote “The Black Stallion,” died Wednesday at UCLA Medical Center of neuroendrocrine cancer, her brother Dirk Mathison said. She was 65.

She recently reunited with Spielberg to write the screenplay for Roald Dahl adaptation “The BFG,” which is in post-production and will be released next year. Mathison, who was married to Harrison Ford from 1983 to 2004, had two children with the actor, Malcolm and Georgia.

Mathison also served as associate producer on “E.T.,” which was produced by Kathleen Kennedy.

Spielberg, who worked closely with Mathison on the concept for the film partially inspired by his parents’ divorce, said in a statement Wednesday, “Melissa had a heart that shined with generosity and love and burned as bright as the heart she gave E.T.”

On a DVD special edition of the 1982 classic, Spielberg described her contribution: “Melissa delivered this 107-page first draft to me and I read it in about an hour. I was just knocked out. It was a script I was willing to shoot the next day. It was so honest, and Melissa’s voice made a direct connection with my heart.”

Mathison explained on the DVD: “I would write for four or five days in my little office in Hollywood, and then drive out to Marina Del Rey where Steven Spielberg was editing in a little apartment on the beach. I’d bring him my pages and we’d sit and go through them…It took about eight weeks for us to get the first draft, which was quite fast, I think.”

In a statement, Kennedy said, “Melissa was a remarkable friend not only to me but to everyone who had the privilege to know her.  She was fiercely intelligent, confident, soulful, strong and had a smile that would light up a room.  I will miss her terribly.”

Mathison also wrote screenplays for Martin Scorsese’s 1997 “Kundun,” during which she started a friendship with the film’s subject, the Dalai Lama.

She had a particular feeling for children’s literature, adapting classic novel “The Indian in the Cupboard” for Kennedy-Marshall Prods. She also wrote screenplays for “The Escape Artist,” a segment in the “Twilight Zone” movie as well as the TV movie “Son of the Morning Star.”

Mathison was born in Los Angeles on June 30, 1950, and grew up in the Hollywood Hills. Her father was Richard Mathison, a journalist who worked at the L.A. Times and then Newsweek. She attended UC Berkeley, majoring in political science, but put her studies on hold to work as an assistant to Francis Ford Coppola on the 1974 “The Godfather, Part II.”

She is survived by her two children; brothers Dirk and Mark Mathison; and sisters Stephanie Mathison and Melinda Johnson.


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  1. kenneth says:

    Rest in peace melissa may god bless your soul

  2. Dave J. says:

    Great talent for screenwriting, and may Melissa Mathison rest in peace!

  3. Duder NME says:

    Reading this filmography highlights what an accomplished career she had, which makes her passing all the more heartbreaking considering her current output. She wasn’t done, not by a longshot. Goodbye, Melissa.

  4. LMC says:

    Sad news to hear.

  5. norah smith says:

    I knew of her and respected her talent way before him. He was a lucky man to have crossed paths with her and yes, his name should not have been in the same headline with such a wonderful human being.

  6. Eric says:

    To me, the bigger deal is her work on “The Black Stallion.” Fabulous film. She will be missed.

    • Angelina Smith says:

      @Norah Smith. Wow. You have to cut down Harrison Ford to “support” her passing. You’re an idiot. He is just as wonderful. #foolishremark

  7. LCinLA says:

    Such an accomplished writer … Why did you saddle her headline with the name of her ex-husband?

  8. SAJ says:

    She wrote one of the most beloved screenplays of all times, yet Variety feels the need to shackle her headline with an ex husband. Give me a break.

  9. Pamela says:

    I used to be so jealous of her being married to hottie Harrison & being a great screenwriter as well!

  10. That’s terrible news, she was a true talent.

  11. 85wzen says:

    Most people have no idea what a screenplay is, then there are like so many less who know what a good screenplay is… then there are like even fewer who know how great a screenplay like ET was… She was wonderfully talented.

  12. Debra Cowley says:

    My such an amazing life of accomplishments she will be missed by her children and love ones..

  13. Heidi says:

    Why are her accomplishments not good enough for a headline and you have to throw in a failed marriage?

    • Pamela says:

      Honestly, 21 yrs is hardly a “failed marriage.” Sounds like they just grew apart…. it happens. For most of his & her career they were a power couple, so it makes sense to highlight it, IMO.

    • iPerson says:

      Because of who she was married to. If she were the ex-wife of some accountant or dentist, it wouldn’t get a mention. But she was married to a world-famous movie star, so of course it’s going to be brought up.

      • Jana J. Monji says:

        While it is natural that her former relationship with Harrison Ford would be brought up, Variety could have found a photo of her by herself and made a better headline. She was Oscar-nominated. Surely over ten years after her divorce that is more important in defining who she was.

  14. Lee says:

    Damn! She did some great work.

  15. JT says:

    Sad news. She was a real talent and helped bring us a classic in “E.T.”

  16. Phil Ayling says:

    Nice person and a real talent.

  17. Zoe says:

    Awful news.She will live on through her incredible body of work.RIP Melissa.

  18. Such a great loss. She will be sorely missed.

  19. Truth is stranger than fiction says:

    RIP to a fine writer, which is a far more interesting piece of information than the fact that she happened to be married to Harrison Ford a hundred years ago. What a lousy headline, Variety, shame on you.

    • Zach says:

      You know her credit for ET is in the headline, before the Harrison Ford bit? What are you even upset about?

    • Paige says:

      Particularly since he started cheating on her in 2002 with Calista Flockhart. I hate when actors take on much younger girlfriends after these fabulous women have been there with them through the tough times. Mathison was an incredibly kind and generous person, on top of being a talented writer. You’re right, Ford shouldn’t even be in the headline. He doesn’t deserve any acknowledgment related to her success.

      • norah smith says:

        She probably died of a broken heart also.

      • Dr. Kim Lurie says:

        Paige….you are right on point! He is her ex who no doubt caused her great pain for his cheating on her during their marriage. He does not deserve to be mentioned in a tribute to her life. Perhaps if Variety insists on mentioning him, give him his credit, that during their marriage he choose to hurt her.

      • Equipment guy says:

        Very true. Her success was her own, the marriage should have been a foot note.

  20. JustSayin' says:

    What sad news. She really knew how to tell a good story. Her art will be missed but her legacy lives on in her writing and her children. Thoughts and prayers to the family.

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