As the host of Turner Classic Movies, Ben Mankiewicz has access to the cream of the cinematic crop. So it may surprise viewers to learn that he has a soft spot for a certain action-comedy about a trucker hired to haul a tractor-trailer full of beer across state lines.
“ ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ thrilled me” as a 10-year-old, recalled Mankiewicz, who saw the Burt Reynolds vehicle three times in theaters. “If you had asked me, ‘What was the best movie of 1977?’ I would have said, ‘Smokey and the Bandit.’ ” (“Star Wars” came out the same year.)
Mankiewicz, 49, brings the same youthful enthusiasm to his role at TCM, known for its programming of classic feature films and in-depth documentaries about Hollywood history. And he’s happy to share his expertise with attendees at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.
On Saturday, he’ll interview Oscar-nominated actor and Templeton native Josh Brolin on stage at the Fremont Theatre in San Luis Obispo. Brolin is receiving the festival’s highest honor, the King Vidor Award for Excellence in Filmmaking.
Mankiewicz’s visit comes as film fans are mourning the loss of beloved Hollywood historian Robert Osborne, who had served as the primary host of TCM since the Peabody Award-winning cable channel’s inception in 1994. Osborne died March 6 at age 84.
“He played a bigger role than anyone else, including (Turner Broadcasting System founder) Ted Turner, in terms of cultivating a widespread appreciation for classic Hollywood,” Mankiewicz said of Osborne.
“It’s such a vital thing that that art form should not be ignored in this age of ‘Avengers’ ” and other splashy blockbusters, Mankiewicz said. “We’re beaten over the head with movies marketed to 16-year-old boys.” “As a former 16-year-old boy,” he added with a laugh, “they’re idiots.”
Like Osborne, who began his career as an actor, Mankiewicz’s roots in the entertainment industry run deep.
His grandfather, screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, wrote the Academy Award-winning screenplay for “Citizen Kane” with director Orson Welles and penned a string of classics including “The Wizard of Oz,” “Dinner at Eight” and “Pride of the Yankees.” His great-uncle, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, won Oscars for directing and writing “All About Eve” and “A Letter to Three Wives”; his other credits include “Cleopatra,” “Guys and Dolls” and “The Barefoot Contessa.”
Their descendents include “House of Cards” executive producer and writer John Mankiewicz, and Tom Mankiewicz, who worked on “Superman” and wrote screenplays for three James Bond movies.
“They were so highly respected,” said Ben Mankiewicz, but he wasn’t aware of his family’s show-business legacy growing up. “I didn’t know how much the family mattered in Hollywood.”
The influence that loomed larger in his life was that of his late father, Frank Mankiewicz, a journalist, political adviser, public relations executive and president of National Public Radio. He served as press secretary to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and presidential campaign manager for Sen. George McGovern.
“I idolized my dad, and so did everyone who came in contact with him,” said Ben Mankiewicz, who grew up in Washington D.C. “My dad shaped everything that I do or am.”
Like his dad, Mankiewicz went into journalism, studying at Tufts University and Columbia University. (His brother, Josh Mankiewicz, is a correspondent for “Dateline NBC.”) He worked as a producer, reporter and anchor for television stations in Washington, D.C.; Charleston, S.C., and Miami before moving to Los Angeles.
Mankiewicz made his debut as a TCM host in 2003, much to the chagrin of viewers who preferred the older Obsborne.
“TCM fans were resistant for a long time – years,” Mankiewicz said. “They revered Robert and they thought, ‘Who’s this young punk with a goatee?’ ”
But Mankiewicz eventually won them with his irreverent sense of humor and warm demeanor. His duties at TCM include speaking on TCM cruises and hosting screenings and doing interviews at the TCM Classic Film Festival, which returns April 6 through 9 in Hollywood.
In addition, he serves as a producer and host on the YouTube film criticism show “What the Flick?!” (Also on The Young Turks Network is the progressive news show “The Young Turks,” which Mankiewicz helped create with Cenk Uygur.)
“I have tremendous respect for film critics,” Mankiewicz said. “I think of myself as more of a guy involved in a conversation about the movie.”
“TCM is my bread and butter, and that’s the job I care about most and the one I want to be associated with most,” he said. “This is a TV channel that matters to people. It matters emotionally. It matters viscerally.”
Asked what he sees as the mission of TCM, Mankiewicz said, “We want to continue to be the signature destination of people who want to foster and advance that connection between movies and the audiences.”
“Classic movies mean something,” he said. “Classic movies represent a particularly American art form that ought to be appreciated and understood (in the same) way we read Mark Twain, John Steinbeck and J.D. Salinger.”
King Vidor Award ceremony
7 p.m. Saturday, March 18
Fremont Theatre, 1035 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo
$20, $15 students and film society members
9 p.m. Saturday, March 18
King David’s Masonic Lodge, 859 Marsh St., San Luis Obispo
$50, $40 students and film society members