John Mantley was a writer, actor, executive story consultant and producer of the long-running TV series, "Gunsmoke." Mantley was almost predestined to earn his livelihood in the entertainment industry. Both parents were actors who encouraged him to write as well as act. Of his early movie star cousin, he said, "Mary Pickford and I were great friends, and I was deeply honored to do her eulogy."
The ambitious Canadian was born in Toronto eleven years after his sister, who still taught dancing in her late seventies. "She was the one who was born in the trunk," he said, "but strangely enough, I was the one who ended up being involved in television and films." His father, Cecil Clay Van Manzer, adopted the stage name Clay Mantley, and in later years operated a carnival. He was frequently away from home and his wife ran a number of concession stands in a park across the lake from Toronto. Excursion boats ferried hundreds of vacationers to the Mantley concessions where young John operated the candy booth and learned to make saltwater taffy. "I could throw three loops of candy onto the hook at one time, and I made candy apples, and cut and wrapped the suckers. It was great fun.
"As a child, I loved books and I can remember the excitement and my heart pounding when I rode my bicycle up to the library at St. Catherine's to get the newest book of James Oliver Curwood or Fenimore Cooper. Reading was a very big part of my young life."
Mantley attended a number of public schools in Toronto, but spent most of his teenaged years at St. Catherine's Institute of Vocational Training. "I wanted desperately to become an actor, so I persuaded a really splendid lady to open a dramatic society, and I became the first president and remained so through the years I was in high school. And therefore, I got to play the leads in all sorts of marvelous melodramas."
He also composed poetry as a child, "and I later wrote long, long letters to my cousin Mary from England, Italy, and India. And from this many years later came my first novel, The 27th Day." He then wrote the screenplay.
But it wasn't all fun and games. "Writing is pain, pain, pain, the hardest work I've ever done. The best part of writing is the money you take to the bank, and the first time you see a bookstore with a window entirely filled with your books. But other than that, there is no satisfaction from writing, for me at least.
Mantley was trained as a fighter pilot during World War II, and was sent to to England during the waning years of the war when combat pilots were no longer needed. His company was eventually sent to India, where they were trained as commandos by enlisted men. "They just about crucified us," he said, recounting the ten-mile runs with full packs--and further abuses. While on leave, he produced troops shows for the British Armed forces stationed in the Far East.
After the war he studied at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he graduated cum laude. He earned his master's degree and performed in a variety of roles in the legitimate theatre as well as summer stock with Dorothy McGuire. Exhausted although exhiliarated from his Playhouse experience, his weight dropped to 118 pounds and his doctor advised him to take an extended vacation. He returned to Canada, and while recuperating, England issued a tax on American films.
"Hollywood went into complete chaos, and entire departments of all the major studios were dismantled and it was a really bad time for the film industry." Mantley had planned to work for Mary Pickford upon graduation from Pasadena Playhouse, but she sold her production companies when it appeared there was no future for the industry.
"I was stuck in Canada, and I started to do radio shows with Lorene Green (of later "Bonanza" fame), and half a dozen actors who had made successful careers. Pay was terrible in those days in radio. . .
(Continued next week . . .)