Screenwriter for 'E.T.,' Melissa Mathison, dies at 65
LOS ANGELES -- Melissa Mathison never wrote down to her audiences.
Known for her family friendly films such as the unequaled "E.T. the Extra Terrestrial" and the elegant "The Black Stallion," Mathison's stories were rich with symbolism, adventure, depth and darkness.
With intricate plots and grown-up themes of loneliness and loss, her films enchanted a generation of kids and their parents.
Mathison died Wednesday at 65 after a bout with neuroendocrine cancer, her sister, Melinda Mathison Johnson, said.
"Melissa was a remarkable friend not only to me but to everyone who had the privilege to know her," Mathison's longtime friend and collaborator Kathleen Kennedy said in a statement. "She was fiercely intelligent, confident, soulful, strong and had a smile that would light up a room. I will miss her terribly."
Mathison was just in her early 30s when she found success with "E.T." The film's cultural significance continues to resonate three decades later. Steven Spielberg may have come up with the idea, but Mathison made it into a story.
As far as Hollywood currency goes, she crafted one for the ages.
"Melissa had a heart that shined with generosity and love and burned as bright as the heart she gave 'E.T.'," Spielberg said in a statement.
Mathison, a Los Angeles native, had a humble but high-profile start. Her first credited work was in assistant roles on "The Godfather: Part II" and "Apocalypse Now," before she broke out with her script for "The Black Stallion." Carol Ballard directed the warmly received adaptation released in 1979.
It was on the set of "Apocalypse Now" in 1976 that Mathison met Harrison Ford, who she married in 1983 and divorced in 2004 after multiple separations. She and Ford had two children, Georgia and Malcolm.
Throughout her career, Mathison often collaborated with producers Kennedy and Frank Marshall under their Amblin Entertainment banner.
Mathison also worked with directors such as Frank Oz on "The Indian in the Cupboard" and Martin Scorsese on 1997's "Kundun," a biographical film about the Dalai Lama.
"Kundun" struck close to Mathison's personal passions. An active supporter of Tibet freedom, she was also on the board of the nonprofit advocacy group International Campaign for Tibet.
But history will most fondly remember her for fleshing out the story of the friendly, homesick alien E.T. The film, directed by Spielberg and released in 1982, became one of the highest grossing of all time.
Hollywood lore has it that Spielberg and Ford, then her boyfriend, convinced Mathison to write the screenplay on a 207-mile drive through the Tunisian desert during the shoot for "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
The script for "E.T." earned Mathison her first and only Oscar nomination. She lost to John Briley's "Gandhi" screenplay.
In a 1995 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mathison, one of five children born to a journalist father and a mother who sometimes worked in publicity, remembered the Hollywood Hills household in which she grew up as a place where independence and creativity were encouraged.
"We weren't your mainstream '50s family," she told the newspaper. "Both my parents had wonderful, eccentric, artistic friends who treated us as friends as well. How your mind worked was considered important."
Mathison was a political science major at UC Berkeley when she took a leave to work as Francis Ford Coppola's assistant on "The Godfather: Part II," the Times reported.
Her last credited work is on Spielberg's big screen adaptation of Roald Dahl's beloved novel "The BFG," set for release next year.
AP Film Writer Jake Coyle contributed from New York.