Melissa Mathison wrote iconic family films in which children were often the heroes, her most famous and critically acclaimed being E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Melissa’s other claim to fame was being the wife, for 21 years, of actor Harrison Ford.
On Wednesday, Mathison passed away at UCLA Medical Center from complications of neuroendocrine cancer at age 65, Entertainment Weekly reported. Shortly afterward, the man who asked Melissa to bring the story of alien stranded on Earth to life, Steven Spielberg, released a statement, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“Melissa had a heart that shined with generosity and love and burned as bright as the heart she gave E.T.”
One of five kids born in L.A. to Times religion editor Richard Mathison and wife Pegeen, Melissa grew up in the Hollywood Hills. Mathison attended UC Berkley to study political science but took some time off to work in the movies with a family friend.
That friend turned out to be Francis Ford Coppola, whose kids she babysat, and Melissa soon became his assistant on the set of The Godfather, Part II. Mathison was immediately spellbound with the movie business and Coppola encouraged her to write.
Melissa took his advice and penned her first screenplay — The Black Stallion in 1979. After that came The Escape Artist in 1982, the same year Mathison’s most famous movie, E.T., was released.
The script came about after Spielberg approached Melissa and asked her to put his idea, about a stranded alien, into words. For the next eight weeks, Mathison wrote E.T., which she called a ” boy-meets-dog story” of “resurrection and redemption.”
For that eight weeks of work, the film earned $793 million worldwide, and Melissa was nominated for an Oscar. Mathison lost the statue to John Briley, who won for Gandhi, CBS News added.
Melissa’s most well-known and respected film represented all the screenwriter sought to achieve when she wrote a story — depicting children in a respectful way. In a 1995 interview, Melissa said few screenwriters portrayed kids well.
“I go to movies with my children and see fat kids burping, parents portrayed as total morons, and kids being mean and materialistic, and I feel it’s really slim pickin’s out there. There’s a little dribble of a moral tacked on, but the story is not about that. We’d get back in the car after seeing a movie and I’d say, ‘Now what did you think about this?,’ and they’d have nothing to say.”
The Times characterized Melissa Mathison’s depiction of young characters as “heroically sensitive.”
Melissa’s other notable film was 1997’s Kundun, which was the culmination of an interest in Buddhism and Tibet that began in college with the seed of an idea — the story of the Dalai Lama’s childhood. Mathison worked with Richard Gere to meet the spiritual leader and worked alongside him to craft the tale.
Melissa Mathison’s last film — another Spielberg collaboration — will come out next year, and is an adaptation of the 1982 Roald Dahl children’s book about an orphan girl and a kind giant who team up to save the world. The film is called The BFG, or “big friendly giant.” It stars Mark Rylance, Bill Hader, and Rebecca Hall.
Melissa Mathison leaves behind two children — Malcolm Carswell Ford, and Georgia Ford — from her 21-year marriage to Harrison Ford, which ended in 2004. The family lived on a 700-acre ranch outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in the mid-80s when her kids were little and she took a break from her career.
Melissa’s other survivors include sisters Melinda Johnson and Stephanie Mathison, and brother Mark Mathison.
[Photo By Kevin Winter / Getty Images]