Hollywood screenwriter

Born: September 16, 1936

Died: September 11, 2019

MARDIK Martin, who has died aged 84, was an American screenwriter of Armenian descent who was most famed as a close early collaborator with the director Martin Scorsese, his friend and creative colleague since they studied at New York University together in the 1960s. Their association continued through Scorsese’s breakthrough film Mean Streets (1973), which Martin wrote and which also launched the careers of actors Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel, up until 1980’s Raging Bull, the acclaimed biography of boxer Jake LaMotta.

For Mean Streets, a realist tale of Italian-American New York street punks, Martin dictated the dialogue into a tape recorder to lend it a natural edge. For Raging Bull – spurred on by De Niro’s desire to make a boxing film and in the face of Scorsese’s scepticism – Martin researched LaMotta’s life and wrote three sprawling early drafts over a period of two-and-a-half years, before writer Paul Schrader was brought in to create the final drafts. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning two, and Martin and Schrader were jointly nominated for a Golden Globe as writers.

Martin’s other major credit with Scorsese was as co-screenwriter, alongside the story’s original writer Earl Mac Rauch, of the 1977 post-war musical drama New York, New York, which starred Liza Minnelli and De Niro. He also wrote the treatment for the concert film The Last Waltz (1978), Scorsese’s document of the final performance by The Band, but – the exploitation flick Revenge is My Destiny (1971) aside – his only major credit away from Scorsese was as co-writer with director Ken Russell of Valentino, Russell’s 1977 Rudolf Nureyev-starring biography of actor Rudolph Valentino.

After Raging Bull, Martin struggled to get further screenwriting projects on the go; he was apparently attached very early on as the writer of the 1993 Al Pacino gangster film Carlito’s Way, but subsequently let go, while he also failed to get a biopic of the photojournalist Weegee off the ground. In 1986 he became a full-time professor teaching scriptwriting at the University of Southern California.

Despite their living on opposite sides of America since Mean Streets, Martin remained a close friend of Scorsese’s. His shift in career came about due to a number of cumulative factors, among them his preference for living on the West Coast, his distaste for Hollywood’s move in the 1980s from drama to special effects-led blockbusters, and his own cocaine use over a period of time. He wrote one more feature film in his life – 2014’s Venice Film Festival Golden Lion nominee, The Cut, with Turkish director Fatih Akin, whose focus on the Armenian genocide appealed to Martin’s sense of identity – after which he intended to semi-retire into a part-time professorship at USC.

In 2008, the documentary Mardik: Baghdad to Hollywood detailed Mardik Vartan Martin’s unusual life story. He was born in Iran in 1936 to Armenian parents, and raised in Baghdad, Iraq, where he worked as a teenager in a local MGM distributor’s office. His father sent him to New York to study economics at NYU – and to avoid the Iraqi military draft – but he switched to filmmaking, paying his way through his studies with work as a bellhop and a waiter. .

Married for six years but later divorced, Martin died at home in Studio City, California.