Ben Mankiewicz hails from a famous film-making family, but that didn’t make him a shoo-in as one of Turner Classic Movies’ two hosts.
The channel’s weekend-afternoon guide also appears often in short pieces between the feature attractions daily — visiting iconic Hollywood sites or locations where legendary movies were filmed, among other activities — and he’s enjoying his steadily increasing TCM presence. By no means was he sure at the start, though, that he would land the coveted job.
“I had worked in local news, and I didn’t want to anymore,” Mankiewicz explains to Zap2it. “I auditioned for what seemed like a thousand shows, and I did the TCM audition and thought, ‘I know I did well, but I know I won’t get it, because it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever auditioned for.’ And as it turned out, I found the one place where they liked that my last name was Mankiewicz.”
In a business that usually likes easily spelled and said names, Mankiewicz has one that’s certainly known to any movie-lover. The son of journalist and political veteran Frank Mankiewicz — and brother of NBC newsman Josh Mankiewicz — he’s also the grandson of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (“Citizen Kane”), grandnephew of filmmaker Joseph L. Mankiewicz (“All About Eve”) and cousin of the late screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz (“Live and Let Die”).
Mankiewicz admits that when one of his relatives’ movies comes up on TCM, as “Citizen Kane” does often, “I’ve never known fully, in my nine years there, how I’m supposed to play that. I’m proud to be related to them … but also embarrassed by it sometimes, because you can feel you’re sort of attributing all your success to them. But I’m comfortable that that probably wasn’t true.”
Since he and primetime host Robert Osborne are the faces of Turner Classic Movies, other than those of the stars whose films are shown there, Mankiewicz acknowledges “it is a big responsibility. I think our audience is different from every other audience for every other channel on television. I don’t think any other fans feel the same kind of duty.
‘”It’s like they watch over it, like they’re guardians of it, constantly making sure that we don’t mess it up. It’s like we’re their elected leaders, and if you start screwing things up, they’ll throw you out. That makes the relationship different, because they’re not just fans of you, they really see you as playing a critical role in protecting something in their lives that they love.”
Firsthand feedback comes to Mankiewicz more than ever now, since he participates in TCM’s Classic Film Festivals and Classic Cruises. He also travels for TCM-sponsored “Road to Hollywood” showings of films with their stars as in-person guests, as with Eva Marie Saint and “North by Northwest” in such cities as Philadelphia and Houston recently.
Also the co-host of the now-ended program “At the Movies” for a time with another entertainment-family scion — Ben Lyons, son of veteran arts critic Jeffrey Lyons — Mankiewicz likes to inject his wry humor into TCM commentaries whenever possible. Still, he allows he’s had to get a feel for the right times and situations for it.
“I think that was an issue for some people at the beginning,” he notes, “because they didn’t know me, and they thought that perhaps I was displaying a lack of reverence. I totally understand why someone would think that, but look, it’s been nine years. I would say it took four or five for me to be fully accepted. I love it that people thought I was ‘hip,’ because no one who knows me does.”