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WORLD FOCUS: Skeleton in the family closet

January 19, 2017
By FRANK SHATZ , Lake Placid News

Ellen Jaronczyk has been aware for a long time that there was a skeleton in the family closet of her brother-in-law, Dr. Joe Sack, a noted psychiatrist.

He has been married to her sister, Diana, for 42 years.

It was a benign skeleton that had bestowed fame and respect on her brother-in-law's family. It was his uncle Abby Mann, one of America's most esteemed screenwriters, whose best-known work is the screenplay for "Judgment at Nuremberg," for which he received the Academy Award for Best Screenplay.

But Mann also was known as a script writer of serious dramas and a visionary in making movies for television, a genre he helped to pioneer.

"His script, often derived from real cases, delivered withering critiques of the criminal justice system, frequently examining the denial of the rights of the accused," states a New York Times critique of his work.

While working for television, Mann created the highly popular series "Kojak," staring Telly Savalas. He later complained that the series veered from his social and moral vision and became "just another formulaic cops-and-robbers potboiler."

It is said that Mann's reputation for integrity and high morals was such that once Spencer Tracy, star of the movie "Judgment at Nuremberg," threatened to quit if any word in Mann's script was changed.

While on a recent family visit here, I had an opportunity to interview Dr. Sack. I asked him how his famed uncle was perceived by members of his own family.

"He was not the usual first-generation American-Jewish son," Dr. Sack said. "Instead of going into his father's jewelry/watchmaker business, he wanted to write scripts for Hollywood. His preferred subject matter seemed to be exposing and hopefully correcting unfair treatment of individuals and minorities by the larger society. I believe this originated from his early experiences in his life."

Dr. Sack explained that Mann was the only Jewish boy in his working-class East Pittsburgh school district and often the focus of much prejudice. He was also aware that his father and mother came to America to escape the Russian pogroms of the 1890s, and that they bore witness to Hitler's persecution of the Jews.

I asked about what a discussion at the dinner table with Mann present was like.

"Whenever he was in Pittsburgh, there was a large family dinner at my grandmother's," Dr. Sack recalled. "Inevitably, there would be discussions about U.S.-Soviet relations and the plight of Israel. On the whole, uncle Abby was quite liberal, very idealistic, and at times rather simplistic in his views of what should be done. His strong idealism, I'm sure, made for good dramatic script but ignored the complexity of the issues."

As a youngster, while he was attending U.C.L.A. summer programs, Joe Sack was living at Abby Mann's home, on Rodeo Drive in Hollywood. Mann never learned to drive a car; thus Joe was driving him around. I asked whether he ever let his hair down. Talk about his disappointments.

"He was not a man to be disappointed," said Dr. Sack. "He always had a new set of projects that he was working on. And perhaps his belief in creating another hit movie or TV series, which he actually did with some regularity, kept him from dwelling on setbacks of feeling a need to save money between successes. Regardless of his circumstances, he had many very wealthy Hollywood friends and girlfriends and he felt he needed to display a lavish lifestyle in order to belong. He always seemed very buoyed up whenever he compared his Hollywood circumstances to those of his origin."

When Abby Mann died in 2008, at the age of 80, he left behind not just a treasure chest of family tales but also a legacy of a screenwriter who never shied away from controversial subjects, presenting them as captivating social dramas.

Frank Shatz's column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette, Shatz is a Lake Placid seasonal resident. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," a compilation of his selected columns.



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