Melissa Mathison was an award-winning American film and TV screenwriter and a prominent activist for Tibetan freedom. Born in Los Angeles, she grew up in a happy home with her four siblings. Although she joined the ‘University of California, Berkeley,’ she left without graduating when family friend and employer Francis Ford Coppola offered her a job as an assistant in some films of his, including ‘The Godfather, Part II’ (1974). It was his encouragement that led to her to write her first screenplay, for the film ‘The Black Stallion’ (1979), which led to more screenplays. Selective about her work, she has written screenplays for hits such as ‘E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982) and ‘The BFG’ (2016), collaborating with Steven Spielberg. She died of neuroendocrine cancer on November 4, 2015, at the age of 65.
Childhood & Early Life
Melissa Mathison was born Melissa Marie Mathison, on June 3, 1950, in Los Angeles, to Richard Randolph Mathison and Margaret (Pegeen) Jean Mathison (née Kieffer). Her father was the Los Angeles bureau chief of ‘Newsweek,’ and her mother was a food writer and a convenience-food entrepreneur.
She had a happy childhood in Hollywood Hills and grew up with four siblings. In 1968, she graduated from ‘Providence High School.’ She then joined the ‘University of California, Berkeley’ (UC Berkeley), deciding to major in political science.
Mathison would babysit the children of Francis Ford Coppola, who was a family friend. Coppola offered her the opportunity to work for him as an assistant. She quit her studies at ‘UC Berkeley’ to work for the films ‘The Godfather, Part II’ (1974), ‘The Conversation’ (1974),
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During her stint with Coppola, she was encouraged by him to write the screenplay for ‘The Black Stallion’ (1979), based on the novel of the same name.
This caught the attention of Steven Spielberg, who approached her with a story, which eventually became the much-loved film ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982). She wrote the screenplay for the film in collaboration with Spielberg and won multiple awards and nominations for it.
Mathison also wrote the screenplay for ‘The Escape Artist’ (1982), which was based on a book by David Wagoner and directed by Caleb Deschanel.
She wrote the screenplay for the 1983 film ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie,’ which featured four famous directors directing four separate segments of horror and science-fiction adapted from classic stories. It was based on Rod Serling’s famous TV series.
She also wrote the screenplays for a few episodes of a TV Western named ‘Son of the Morning Star’ (1991).
Mathison wrote the screenplay for the film ‘The Indian in the Cupboard’ (1995), based on a children’s novel by Lynne Reid Banks.
In 1997, she wrote the screenplay for the film ‘Kundun’ (1997), a biographical drama about the Dalai Lama. It was directed by Martin Scorsese.
Her last screenplay was for the film ‘The BFG’ (2016), although she passed away before the film released. Based on the 1982 novel of the same name by Roald Dahl, ‘The BFG’ was again made in collaboration with Steven Spielberg, who dedicated the film to her.
One of Mathison’s best-known works has been her screenplay for ‘E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982), for which she received immense critical acclaim and recognition. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the film was a tender portrayal of the friendship between a young boy and an extra-terrestrial left behind on Earth.
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Mathison wrote the script for ‘E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982) in 8 weeks, and Spielberg apparently found it so perfect that he began to shoot almost immediately. A ‘Universal Pictures’ film, it was an immediate blockbuster and held the record for the highest-grossing film till it was surpassed by ‘Jurassic Park’ (1993).
Another major work by Mathison was her script for ‘Kundun’ (1997), based on the writings of Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama and a well-known spiritual leader of Tibet. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the film was nominated for four ‘Academy Awards,’ though it did poorly at the box office.
‘The BFG’ (2016) was Mathison’s last film and his last collaboration with Spielberg. It was released posthumously. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Roald Dahl, the film had a budget of $140,000,000 and grossed $183,000,000 at the box office. It bore the typical hallmark of her work and displayed her grasp of a child’s point of view, elements of fantasy, and an “ear for idiosyncratic language.”
She worked as an associate producer for ‘The BFG’ and ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’ and as a co-producer for ‘Kundun.’
Awards & Achievements
Mathison won the ‘Saturn Award’ for the ‘Best Writing’ for ‘E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982) in 1983, awarded by the ‘Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films.’ She was also awarded the ‘New Generation Award’ by the ‘Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards’ in 1982 and the ‘WGA Award (Screen)’ for the ‘Best Drama Written Directly for the Screen’ in 1983 by ‘Writers Guild of America’ for the same film
She has also received nominations for several prestigious awards, such as the ‘Academy Awards,’ the ‘Golden Globes,’ the ‘BAFTA Awards’, and the ‘Hugo Awards,’ all for her work in ‘E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982)
She also received ‘BAFTA’ and ‘Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films’ nominations posthumously for her work in ‘The BFG’ (2016).
Family & Personal Life
Mathison got married to actor Harrison Ford on March 14, 1983. They divorced in 2004. She had two children with him, Malcolm (born on March 10, 1987) and Georgia (born on June 30, 1990). She also became a stepmother to Ford’s two children from his first marriage.
Mathison had previously had an affair with Francis Ford Coppola when she was working with him and had reportedly been confronted about this by Coppola’s wife, Eleanor.
She had a lasting friendship with the Dalai Lama, whom she met while working for ‘Kundun’ in 1990. She served as a lifelong activist for Tibetan freedom. She also served on the board of the ‘International Campaign for Tibet.’
Mathison was soon struck by neuroendocrine cancer. She passed away on November 4, 2015, in Los Angeles, at the age of 65.
Mathison worked as a babysitter for the children of American director, producer, screenwriter, and film composer Francis Ford Coppola and his wife, Eleanor Coppola.
Her divorce from actor Harrison Ford in 2004 resulted in one of the most famous payouts in legal history. She was awarded $85,000,000 as a settlement amount.