R.I.P. Paul Mantee 1931-2013

Written by Whitney Scott Bain Monday, 11 November 2013

Movie News

It is with deep regret to inform Starburst readers that actor/writer/novelist/incredible chef Paul Mantee, who portrayed one of the most influential characters in science fiction film as Commander Christopher “Kit” Draper in Robinson Crusoe On Mars passed away in Malibu, California. 

Born Paul Marianetti, January 9, 1931 in San Francisco, California, he enjoyed imitating characters like Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney when he was a child, moving on to studying drama in high school in the theatre arts program.

A born actor, he moved to Hollywood in the mid-1950s to try and break into the business going on daily auditions while supporting himself with a series of odd jobs that included moving furniture with another struggling actor, turned writer who would become his life long friend; Jack B. Sowards, working as a maitre’d at a restaurant where they couldn’t pay him, but they would give him free meals (as Paul once told me, “man, could I eat too!”) and serving ice cream at a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop.

Paul and Jack would hang out with another crowd of up-and-coming actors at the world famous Googie’s restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood that included Nick Adams, Natalie Wood, Dennis Hopper and even James Dean who was the first of the group to make in film. They would take turns when they were working steady buying hamburgers, French fries and milk shakes for those who were unemployed in the group.

Paul soon got his first break in 1958 as an uncredited sailor in the film Onionhead, working alongside Andy Griffith and Walter Matthau.

A few television appearances followed in Steve Canyon, Cheyenne, Dragnet, Ben Casey, The Rifleman, The Lieutenant (created by Gene Roddenberry) and The Untouchables that kept him active along with a bit part here and there in feature films, but his career had still not taken off.

Then, in 1963, director Byron Haskin was searching for an unknown actor to play an astronaut in the science fiction film written by Ib Melchior, entitled  Robinson Crusoe on Mars for Paramount studios. Paul auditioned for the part and got it along with two unknown actors named Adam West - who would play Colonel Dan McReady - and Vic Lundin portraying the escaped alien, Friday (sadly, Mr. Lundin also passed away recently leaving us on June 20, 2013). Added to the list of actors was Mona the Woolly monkey that was originally to be a Martian creature Draper finds on the red planet, but the cost of the make up for creating it was deemed too much.

Still, the budget was quite expensive for its time: $1,200,000.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars was released on a double bill in 1964 and initially wasn’t a major success, but it became an instant classic with every little boy and girl who saw the film over and over and over. They were mesmerized by it including this writer. They wanted to explore the unknown pretending and playing in their backyards wanting to become astronauts just like Commander Draper.

A sequel to the film called Columbus In Space was planned, but because of the lack of  box office success, it was sadly shelved.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars became the catalyst of his long successful career that put him on the map.  Out of all the roles he had played over the years, this was the one he received the most fan mail on. Men and women would write to him telling him how much they were influenced by his performance and how he affected their lives when they were children. Letters came from people that worked at NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the Naval Academy at Annapolis and the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, Colorado. The academies also made up a system where if you were successful in your training, you were known as a Draper, if you were good, but could do better, you were known as a Friday and if you were doing bad, you were a Mona.

In 2011, there was a special screening of a 35mm Technicolor print of Robinson Crusoe on Mars at a theater in Hollywood to a sold out crowd where Paul was in attendance.

It was a special moment watching him see the film with an audience. Everyone enjoyed it and there were whistles from the ladies when he jumped in the small pool nude (he really had no clothes on, he later told the crowd). Very risqué for 1964, but the ladies in the audience didn’t seemed to mind with one woman that was sitting next to Paul and I whispering to him, “nice buns.” Paul blushed a nice shade of red and laughed.

When the film was over and the audience cheered, Paul had tears down his eyes.

He told me that he thought people had forgotten about him. I said, “no Paul, you influenced a generation with this film. You are our hero and you will always be our hero.”

I think that is a fitting epitaph for this great man and my friend, Mr. Paul Mantee.

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