Earlier this week, Melissa Mathison, Oscar-nominated writer of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, passed away at age 65. The cause, according to family, was complications due to neuroendocrine cancer.
Mathison’s first credited work was as an assistant on The Godfather: Part II and Apocalypse Now, and her first script was with with Jeanne Rosenberg and William D. Wittliff for The Black Stallion in 1979. This drew the attention of director Steven Spielberg, who was mulling a new idea for a story about an alien who came to Earth. Spielberg had the chance to meet Mathison when she visited the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark, starring Harrison Ford, who was married to Mathison from 1983 to 2004.
“It was 120 degrees, and everybody was miserable and looking to finish that part of the film,” Mr. Spielberg said in an interview on Thursday. “When I found out she was the one who wrote The Black Stallion, I immediately thought she’d be right to write this story I’d been kicking around for years. So between shots we’d take long walks and I’d try to convince her to write E.T., and she tried to convince me she wasn’t the right writer for it.”
“I always thought of E.T. as very, very old, and Steven, I think, always thought of him as young,” Ms. Mathison told The New York Times in 2002. “We were striving to achieve ideas about responsibility, about unconditional love, about the unimportance of appearance and communicating on a deeper level.”
The script, when handed in to Columbia Pictures, was deemed by the studio to be “a wimpy Walt Disney movie,” according to Spielberg’s biography. The filmmaker then took the project to Universal, where it went on to become one of the highest-grossing films of all time and garnered Mathison’s only Oscar nomination, losing to John Briley for Gandhi.
Her other credits include a television movie, Son of the Morning Star (1991), based on Evan S. Connell’s book about Gen. George Armstrong Custer and the battle of Little Big Horn, and Kundun (1997), Martin Scorsese’s film biography of the 14th Dalai Lama. During her career, which spanned thirty years, Mathison frequently collaborated with producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall.
In a statement, Kennedy said, “Melissa was a remarkable friend not only to me but to everyone who had the privilege to know her. She was fiercely intelligent, confident, soulful, strong and had a smile that would light up a room. I will miss her terribly.”
“Melissa had a heart that shined with generosity and love and burned as bright as the heart she gave E.T.,” said Spielberg in a statement.
Mathison’s most recent project had been a reunion with Spielberg on the film The BFG, based on the children’s story by Roald Dahl. Mark Rylance will play the title role, the Big Friendly Giant.
“She began working on it five years ago, and we had been working together intensely for the last 24 months,” Mr. Spielberg said. “Not just the script. She was on the set in Vancouver this summer, making changes. It was a fluid process, and that’s the way she liked it. She liked epiphanies. She liked to pitch me something that came to her in her sleep the night before.”
Brother Dirk Mathison told CNN, “She was a lovely and brilliant woman and she will be greatly missed. She was a central figure in so many lives because she was so kind and giving and just a brilliant screenwriter.”