Melissa Mathison never wrote down to her audiences. Known for her family-friendly films like ET the Extra Terrestrial and the elegant The Black Stallion, Mathison's stories were rich with symbolism, adventure, depth, and darkness. With their intricate plots and grown-up themes of loneliness and loss, her films enchanted a generation of kids, and their parents. Mathison died Wednesday at age 65 after a bout with neuroendocrine cancer. She might never have matched the heights of her sophomore success, ET, which came out when she was in her early 30s, but the film's cultural resonance continues to reverberate more than three decades later. Steven Spielberg may have come up with the idea, but Mathison made it into a story. It earned Mathison her first and only Oscar nomination, though she lost out to John Briley for Gandhi.
The Los Angeles native's first credited work was in assistant roles on The Godfather: Part II and Apocalypse Now, before she broke out with her script for The Black Stallion in 1979. It was on the set of Apocalypse Now in 1976 that she met Harrison Ford, whom she married in 1983 and divorced in 2004. She and Ford had two children, Georgia and Malcolm. She often collaborated with producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall at Amblin Entertainment and worked with directors like Frank Oz on The Indian in the Cupboard and Martin Scorsese on 1997's Kundun, a biographical film about the Dalai Lama. But history will most fondly remember her for ET. According to Hollywood lore, Spielberg and her then-boyfriend Ford convinced her to write the screenplay on a 207-mile drive through the Tunisian desert from Nefta to Sousse during the shoot for Raiders of the Lost Ark.