John Mantley played the lead on “Buckingham Theatre,” which was the most prestigious program on Canadian radio’s coast-to-coast network. “It was necessary to do half a dozen shows a week to earn a halfway decent living,” he said. “Therefore, we learned to do old voices and young voices and all kinds of accents that would come in handy later on.” Mantley won several provincial and national awards for acting and directing with the New Play Society, Canada’s equivalent of the American ANTA.
Returning to California, he performed as an actor at the LaJolla Playhouse. “After that I went to New York City, where I starved. But eventually, I got to play three leads in several shows that were produced by Harvey Marlow, and I got to be friends with him.” Manley assumed Marlow’s job as producer of the television station WOR, when his friend was named general manager. Among three half-hour shows, he produced “Mr. & Mrs. Mystery,” written by John Gay, who later won an Oscar for “Separate Tables.” Mantley then wrote the half-hour series scripts and played Mr. Mystery, while his wife played Mrs. Mystery. For the original script and their combined performances, they received a grand total of fifty dollars in cash so they could collect unemployment insurance "in order to stay alive.”
The Canadian actor also produced the first foreign language television show in this country, starring an all-Italian cast, and had to change his name for the show to Giovanni Mantelli. It was during his years at WOR that he began to write for television, “because we didn’t have a budget, and I was doing all the things I had to do for a weekly salary of $103, barely enough to live in New York. We had no professional writers. We got our scripts from university students, and anybody who had an idea, and I had to fix them to make them work.”
Mantley spent four years in Rome, where he produced and directed a series of thirty-nine, half-hour dramatic anthologies for American television, a pioneering effort which played in some two hundred markets and earned investors a good return on their money. “I learned a tremendous amount in shooting the shows in Italy because when we got there, the Italians had never shot live sound. They had no way to do special effects, or even fades and dissolves. All they could do was print film. So it was a great learning experience.”
The Mantley’s first child was born in Italy, “and we survived there because part of the time my wife did the voices—post synchronization of the voices of Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren and many others.” Mantley said he translated Italian films into English by the lip syncing process because American audiences would not accept subtitles. “And because at that time the American motion picture industry would not sell their films to television because they were trying to destroy the media.”
Mantley borrowed the fare from his cousin Mary Pickford to return to this country, where he found that the entertainment industry had a short memory; no one remembered him or his work. It was then he began to write full time, turning out a number of short stories and articles. His first novel, The 27th Day, became a Book of the Month Club selection here and in England, as well as adapted to film for Columbia Pictures. “The book was somewhat of a minor classic in the science fiction field, I have to believe, because I just bought a first edition which cost me fifty-five dollars.” He subsequently wrote The Snow Birch, at the urging of his cousin, which was produced as the motion picture, “Woman Obsessed” by Twentieth Century Fox, starring Susan Hayward. Mantley recalls that “those books kept my nose above water financially until I began to write for television.”
His first freelance television script was for Desilu Westinghouse Theatre, for which he wrote five. He also wrote for “Harrigan and Sons,” “The Untouchables,” “Outer Limits,” “Kraft Theatre,” “Rawhide,” and nearly a hundred other shows. He freelanced scripts for “Gunsmoke” before he became executive story consultant, and held the same position with “Great Adventure.”
He produced “Gunsmoke,” the longest running dramatic show in television history, for the next ten years. The series had previously been produced on radio before it made the transition to television, and ran five more years.
(The conclusion of this interview will appear next weekend. John Mantley talks about what it was like to work with James Arness and much more.)