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Melissa Mathison, E.T. Screenwriter, Dies at Age 65

  • Associated Press

FILE - From left, actor Harrison Ford, the Dalai Lama of Tibet and Harrison's then-wife, Melissa Mathison, pose at a fundraiser for Tibet at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles, Aug. 1, 1996. Mathison died Nov. 4, 2015, at the age of 65.

FILE - From left, actor Harrison Ford, the Dalai Lama of Tibet and Harrison's then-wife, Melissa Mathison, pose at a fundraiser for Tibet at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles, Aug. 1, 1996. Mathison died Nov. 4, 2015, at the age of 65.

Melissa Mathison never wrote down to her audiences.

Known for her family friendly films, like 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 their intricate plots and grown up themes of loneliness and loss, her films enchanted a generation of kids, and their parents.

Mathison died Wednesday at age 65 after a bout with neuroendocrine cancer, her sister, Melinda Mathison Johnson, confirmed.

She might never have matched the heights of her sophomore success E.T., which came out when she was in her early 30s, but the film's cultural resonance continues to reverberate even over three decades later.

Timeless movie

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.

The 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, which came out in 1979.

It was on the set of Apocalypse Now in 1976 that she met Harrison Ford, whom she married in 1983 and divorced in 2004 after multiple separations. She and Ford had two children, Georgia and Malcolm.

Throughout her career, she often collaborated with producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall under their Amblin Entertainment banner and worked with directors like 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 support of Tibet freedom, she was also on the board of the nonprofit advocacy group International Campaign for Tibet.

Homesick alien

But history will most fondly remember her for fleshing out the story of that friendly, homesick alien E.T. The film, directed by Spielberg and released in 1982, would become one of the highest grossing of all time.

According to Hollywood lore, Spielberg and her then-boyfriend Ford convinced her to write the screenplay on a 207-mile drive through the Tunisian desert from Nefta to Sousse during the shoot for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The script for E.T. earned Mathison her first and only Oscar nomination. She lost out to John Briley's Gandhi screenplay for the prize.

In a 1995 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mathison, who was 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 in 1995.

Her last credited work is on Spielberg's big screen adaptation of Roald Dahl's beloved novel The BFG, which comes out next year.

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