He is a man of words among men of images, whose craft harkens back to other forms -- short stories, plays -- that movies have helped to destroy. There is an old Hollywood joke, setup and punch line at once: "Did you hear about the actress who slept with the screenwriter to get a part?" Such is the paradox of writing for Hollywood, where everyone agrees that only good screenplays make good movies, yet screenwriters themselves are the least powerful men in a business that knows only power.

"Everybody always has an opinion on the script," says screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, sitting in his opulent offices on the Warner lot in what is known, 330 days a year, as "sunny Burbank, California." "And if you're getting paid enough money, your opinion suddenly counts for something." A tall man in sweater and slacks, mustached and mostly bald, with those bleary blue Mankiewicz eyes like his father, writer/director Joe, and his uncle, Herman, (who penned "Citizen Kane"), Mankiewicz is second-generation Hollywood royalty, second-generation being about as far back as Hollywood royalty goes.

When he talks, his forehead ripples and his eyebrows bow, as if he's straining to keep from giving you a big wet hug; except for the bas-relief of Superman on the wall, the framed program for "Georgy Girl," the large color stills from the upcoming "Ladyhawke" (which he cowrote), he might be in a common room back at Exeter -- he has the preppie's effusiveness, his good-natured malice in savoring gossip, plus that special well-bred polish of people indifferent to well-bred polish.

On his desk stands a nameplate reading "Dr. Mankiewicz," the only indication that today, Mankiewicz is Hollywood's leading "script doctor," the man directors and studios are most likely to turn to when their movie is ailing or, sometimes, when it's lying on the table with a flat EKG.

"You're sort of like a paid gunslinger who comes to town and you're gonna fix the script," says Mankiewicz. "Bo Goldman once said in some interview (I guess you would call it a backhanded compliment), 'You have to watch out, make sure you do what the studio wants, otherwise you'll find that Tom Mankiewicz is rewriting your script.' "

"I got a reputation -- and how I got the reputation I don't know -- of being somebody who took somebody else's script and rewrote it," says Mankiewicz, pouring coffee from a high-tech black plastic-and-burnished-aluminum thermos that seems to be standard issue out here. "Writers get typecast just like actors. I was for a long time typecast as a fella who was a fixer. And unless you take very careful stock of yourself, and watch yourself, it's like smoking cigarettes," he says, smoking a cigarette. "It seems to be so easy to read somebody else's script and say, 'Well, the whole point of the thing is that the guy should be a woman.' And everybody jumps up and down and says, 'How brilliant!' "

Mankiewicz forged his metier on a series of James Bond films, rewriting "Diamonds Are Forever" and "The Spy Who Loved Me," as well as writing the original screenplays for "Live and Let Die" and "The Man With the Golden Gun" and the conception of "Moonraker." In between, he wrote and produced "Mother, Jugs and Speed" for director Peter Yates, who approached him when "The Deep" fell into deep trouble.

Calling Dr. Mankiewicz!

"Peter had called from the British Virgin Islands, where they were shooting," remembers Mankiewicz. "I said, 'I'm just really tired, I really don't want to do it,' and he said, 'Well, can we send you the script and get your thoughts on it?' And I said, 'Sure.' And I read it and I said, 'Jeez, there's a lot of problems here,' and Yates said, 'Why do you think I'm calling you?' In those situations, they always say, 'C'mon, it's 10 days or two weeks, you'll come down, it's beautiful down here.' And you think of yourself as the fella who's gonna step off the plane in the Virgin Islands and Robert Shaw is gonna run up to you and say, 'Thank God you're here!'

"In truth, it is very unrewarding writing, once you get over the fact that people are perhaps willing to pay for it. If the picture doesn't work, you didn't carry off the miracle and you screwed up some other writer's script, as far as some other writer is concerned. If you do carry it off, the other writer gets up and wins the Oscar and you don't get any credit for it anyway. 'The Deep' was the hardest work I ever did, and the least rewarding. I couldn't ever really get a handle on it, and I tried very hard."

Mankiewicz's most celebrated effort came in "Superman," which came to him with a tangled history. Robert Benton and David and Leslie Newman rewrote Mario Puzo's original script, and after Benton left to do "The Late Show," the Newmans wrote additional drafts. Richard Donner took over as director from Guy Hamilton, and didn't like the script.

Calling Dr. Mankiewicz!

"He has a voice that you can never mistake, Dick Donner, a deep, booming and unbelievable voice," says Mankiewicz. "He called me from Paris and he said, 'I've got the greatest thing here. I'm doing 'Superman' and you're doing it.' I said, 'Dick, I don't want it, I just don't want any more.' And it's 4 o'clock in the morning and he said, 'A woman's on her way over to your house right now with the script, and I know you're gonna stay up because you're a nice guy; you would never go to sleep and make this woman come all the way across town and not stay up.' So sure enough the doorbell rings. There's this poor woman standing there with these enormous scripts. The heaviest, longest things I ever saw.

"I went back upstairs and the phone rang half an hour later, and it's Dick saying, 'Are you reading? Are you reading?' I said, 'Dick, they're so heavy I can't get them upstairs.'

"I called Benton and I said, 'Do you mind if I go on this?' Oddly enough, I'm very sensitive in the beginning when you see a script, unless it's clearly not good, of going onto somebody else's script because a director feels it has to go this way, a star feels it has to go that way. Benton said, 'Look, I have no emotional attachment to "Superman" whatsoever, I think you could probably help out a lot,' and I went and did it."

The title of "script doctor" comes from the theater. Such legendary general practitioners as Abe Burrows, George S. Kaufman and George Abbott were said to be able to take any out-of-town flop and make it a hit before it landed on Broadway.

The greatest of Hollywood script doctors, in recent years, was Robert Towne, who was even on contract to Warner's for a time as a sort of in-house scriptologist; Dean Riesner had the same arrangement with Columbia (his rewrite of "Starman" led to a flap over credits with the Writer's Guild, with director John Carpenter finally appending "Thanks to Dean Riesner" at the end of the credits). Elaine May does a lot of it (for example, "Tootsie"); so does Jay Presson Allen. John Milius reigned for a while as the leading script doctor; working under pressure on "Dirty Harry" (on a script Riesner had already rewritten), Milius played a classic holdup game, telling the studio he couldn't work because he was obsessed with thoughts of a certain $20,000 shotgun. He got the gun, and contributed the oracular Eastwood line, "Do I feel lucky today?"

In its purest form, script doctoring is the domain of the "bang-out artist," who comes in at the last minute, or even when the film is already in production, to write scenes that go straight from the typewriter to the set (as Mankiewicz did with "The Deep"). The most minimal form of script doctoring is the "dialogue polish" -- a writer is called in to take a fundamentally sound script and make the lines brighter, or funnier (something Harold Ramis is known for). The more extensive the revisions, the less the work falls under the category of "doctoring."

"Many times there is a script with a sensational idea, a wonderful sense of character, but isn't terribly well-written," says Mankiewicz. "And you do a big rewrite, and then get credit. 'Doctoring,' on the other hand, can be . . . well, this morning, Spielberg called me and he said, 'I just got a crazy idea. What if the guy suddenly starts quoting Shakespeare, and he's supposed to be a dumb guy, what could another character say to him that would be funny?' And I said, 'Steven, if I get an idea, I'll call you back.'

"There are literally dozens of movies where somebody has come to me and said, 'Will you please read this and can I sit with you for a couple of hours and talk about it?' I guess in that sense it's 'mental doctoring.' You sit around because you like somebody, or they would be willing to do it for you. Sometimes it's a director or an actor who you've always wanted to work with, and it's kind of flattering. You say, 'Gee, I'd love to spend a couple of hours with him or her.' "

As an example of what's involved in rewriting, Mankiewicz returns to the "Superman" script. "The balcony scene between Superman and Lois Lane , for example, was three pages long in the script I got, and she was watering her flowers and he landed on the balcony and they spoke for three pages and he flew away. I expanded it to about seven pages, set up the fact that she got a note saying 'I'll be at your apartment tonight,' and then said, 'Why doesn't he take her flying at the end of it?' That's what you do. Take those three pages, which were very funny, and say, 'Could it be a little more tender? A little more like two kids trying to get to know each other, over a longer period of time?"

Tom Mankiewicz grew up in New York, son of one of the most celebrated filmmakers of his era. When Tom was 7, his father won writing and directing Oscars for "A Letter to Three Wives"; a year later, he won writing, directing and Best Picture Oscars for "All About Eve." "I always wanted to be in the business," he says. "It's not that different from if you're a lawyer's son and you get exposed to the law all the way during your life. I would think an awful lot of lawyers have sons who are lawyers."

After Exeter, he went to Yale to major in drama, and performed in summer stock. He was thinking of becoming an actor. "I remember I was playing a small part in 'The Visit' in Williamstown, a production with Nan Martin and E.G. Marshall. My father came up to see it, and I thought I was pretty good. He came backstage afterwards and he said, 'Tom, I've always told you you can be anything you want in life; you can run a filling station, be a dentist. But for God's sake, marry them, divorce them, sleep with them, talk to them, write for them, direct them, go out with them, ignore them, but please don't be one.' "

So Tom headed for Hollywood to try writing. "I think part of the reason I came back here, with no animosity, was that my father was living in New York. And in the beginning, it was very difficult. Easier in many ways, because your last name was well known and you could get people on the phone and all of that, but more difficult because it was a scary kind of thing. 'God, what if I'm no good?' And people saying, 'Well, he got that script because he's Joe Mankiewicz's son.' So it took awhile, until you suddenly started to realize that people were asking you because it was you."

He started out as an assistant to Stuart Millar and Larry Turman, who were producing "The Best Man"; he rewrote a Chrysler Theatre (a TV anthology show) and some musical TV specials for Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and the like. His first screen-writing work came on "The Sweet Ride," a surfing movie with Tony Franciosa, Bob Denver and newcomer Jacqueline Bisset.

"Then I went to New York and I did a book for a musical of 'Georgy Girl,' which was nominated for six Tonys and closed in three nights, at a loss of $700,000. Came back here absolutely broke. And quite by accident one of the 500 people who had seen 'Georgy Girl' was David Picker, who was running United Artists at the time. And they needed a writer who was American but could write in the British idiom for a James Bond movie called 'Diamonds Are Forever.' They had a draft, Cubby Broccoli was looking for somebody to do a rewrite."

Calling Dr. Mankiewicz!

Ever since Irving Thalberg, the boy wonder of MGM in the '30s, brought the concept of the assembly line to Hollywood, rewriting (and allowing your own work to be rewritten) has been a fact of life for screenwriters. Mankiewicz tells a typical story that involves the writing of "The Cincinnati Kid." Paddy Chayefsky wrote the original script; he was fired by director Sam Peckinpah, who hired three or four more writers and was subsequently fired himself. Norman Jewison, the new director, hired two or three writers, and finally delivered the script to Chayefsky for another rewrite. "But I wrote the first draft of that script!" Chayefsky said. "Really?" Jewison said. "Your name wasn't even on it."

While it occasionally leads to some acrimony over credit (David Newman, for example, somewhat vehemently refuses to comment on Mankiewicz's contributions to "Superman" and "Superman II"), most writers accept it as part of the game. "I usually think of myself as a high-paid busboy," says Bruce Jay Friedman (who cowrote "Splash"). "You know, come to Hollywood and get your feelings hurt and get paid a lot to get your feelings hurt."

Peter Benchley, whose script for "The Deep" was rewritten, first by Tracy Wynn and then Mankiewicz, agrees. "Does it bother me? No way, no! After a while, there comes a point where you've done a few drafts of the screenplay and the director, if he's a pleasant fellow, says to you, 'I think the time has come to add another sensibility.' There's no deception, and therefore no rancor. I don't think you can afford to have an ego in this business. On the other hand, if you were doing a novel and somebody said, 'It's time to add another sensibility,' well, that's 'go-to-hell' time."

The compulsion to assign rewrites is a prime factor in what has been called "the death of screen-writing," the creeping feeling that movies have entered an age of unprecedented mediocrity. "Whenever you have a problem, it's usually in the script," says Francis Ford Coppola, who should know -- five weeks before he began shooting "The Cotton Club," he didn't have one. The movies that rely on genuine characters and the continuity of a single vision simply aren't written anymore -- every movie comes out sounding the same. "What you get out of it is a square wheel," says Tracy Wynn. "Because you have too many cooks. I'm not saying that anybody did a good job or a bad job, it's just when you do that, it's like trying to decorate a house with four different interior decorators."

For every "Tootsie" (written by eight different writers), there are dozens of movies that are a jumble of different impulses, movies that are fundamentally "unwritten." "High concept" movies, like "Flashdance," almost require hacks; the point is a story so cliche'd that the audience can move directly to what the movie is selling -- a catchy "look," a catchier rock score. "If somebody today comes up with a 'high concept' -- a mud wrestler who is in fact a CIA agent and falls in love with a kid who's fighting for his right to tap dance in a provincial town -- you may go through six drafts, with six writers," says Mankiewicz. "You'd say, 'Well, we got a great tap dance sequence out of him, but I think we could help it here.' 'High concept' is the enemy of the writer. The friend of the writer is the human being, the full-blooded character interacting with another character."

Screenwriters are well paid (as much as $1 million a script), but not as well paid as directors, producers, and stars; and once the draft is turned in, the writer is forgotten. If the nature of rewriting in the '30s was dispiriting, it also tended to be collegial; the impulse to assign additional writers today can be insidious. As screenwriter William Goldman has been known to say, "This is no way for an adult to make a living."

Much of this is simple economics. The swollen budgets of movies today (the average has jumped to $14 million) make rewrites almost automatic, even when they're not needed -- it's a way for a nervous studio executive to cover himself. "People are scared to death that they're spending all this money on a film and it can always be a little bit better, can't it?" says Mankiewicz. "It can always go to somebody for a 'polish.' "

And much of the problem stems from who commissions the rewrite. The producer used to command the helm, trusting his own judgment; today, a producer is anyone with money and a can of Diet Coke ("You're an independent producer," says one mogul. "All you have to do is say so.") So it's up to a studio exec, many of whom don't have the slightest idea of what makes a good movie, so they make decisions that aren't necessarily good, but are justifiable. Or to star directors, some of whom assign rewrites as a way of asserting their own power (divide and conquer).

Worse still is the current phenomenon of stars who have sufficient clout to commission rewrites according to their own specifications, or sometimes, to write their lines themselves. Unless it's Eddie Murphy or Bill Murray, that's a recipe for disaster. "You have actors today, a whole group of them, who are the original 300-pound gorillas," says Mankiewicz. "Who can do whatever they want. Can you imagine on a Clint Eastwood movie, telling Clint Eastwood, 'No Clint, you're wrong -- this is the way it's got to be.' That's not to knock him -- that's just an economic fact of life."

The generally suggested solution is for the writer to become more than a writer. "I've advised my friends, 'If you're going into television, that is the best place for a writer to get control, but you do it by becoming a producer," says one studio chief, "and if you're going into motion pictures, you'd better be a director." This is, in fact, Mankiewicz's solution -- later this year, he'll begin his directing career with "The Practice," a medical thriller he cowrote.

But those who remain simply writers remain powerless. "It's not like doing a production of 'Streetcar Named Desire,' and when the curtain comes down, the play can be done in the next town by the next cast," says Mankiewicz. " 'Lawrence of Arabia' is 'Lawrence of Arabia' is 'Lawrence of Arabia.' It's possible that two big stars sit out in the middle of the desert, and you've written a wonderful scene, and the two of them look at each other and they're hot and they're tired and they say, 'You know what? Let's just say, 'Hi.' And if the director says, 'Yeah, it is hot. That'll work just as well,' the writer has nothing to say about it. Usually, the writer's not even there."