When Henriette Mantel grew tired of waiting tables at a ski resort, the Castleton State College graduate wrote job-seeking letters to three of her idols.
Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead and cartoonist Charles Schultz never responded, but public-interest lawyer Ralph Nader sent an encouraging reply.
"He told me it was because of my return address," recalls Mantel, a native of Newfane who was hired in 1978 as Nader's Washington, D.C., office manager. "His favorite grade-school teacher had been from Vermont."
Although Nader now says his memory of all this is a bit fuzzy, he reconnected with Mantel three decades later for "An Unreasonable Man," a profile of him that she co-directed with Steve Skrovan.
The two-hour documentary will unspool at 7 tonight, officially opening the fourth annual MountainTop Film Festival. The event runs through Sunday at Waitsfield's Big Picture Theater & Cafe.
Mantel, 52, is scheduled to be on hand for post-screening questions from the audience. Nader intends to participate via a live Internet hookup.
At 72, he is a controversial figure who has been hailed as a hero and denounced as a traitor to the cause. His "Unsafe at Any Speed," a groundbreaking 1965 book that criticized the American automobile industry, ushered in an era of consumer awareness. Many people on the left, however, blame Nader's Green Party candidacy for the 2000 election of George W. Bush.
"An Unreasonable Man," opening commercially next month, is among 15 feature-length documentaries under consideration for an Academy Award. On Jan. 23, this so-called shortlist will be whittled down to five nominees.
Asked if he would attend the Hollywood ceremonies, Nader wonders: "Can you imagine that?" He doesn't own a tuxedo, but quips, "I hear there are rentals."
Although widely perceived as a gloomy gadfly, Nader appears to have a wry sense of humor. So his collaboration with the two filmmakers might be less illogical than it seems, given that Mantel is a stand-up comic and Skrovan was until recently executive producer of the CBS sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond."
Did the duo nonetheless join forces for the creation of biographical cinema? Well, not quite.
"Steve had a development deal with CBS," Mantel says of Skrovan, her friend since the 1980s. "We came up with the idea of a sitcom based on Ralph."
The network turned down their proposal, which was drawn from Mantel's anecdotes about the quirky characters she had met as a Nader employee.
"The more Steve and I thought about it, the more we were convinced that the story had to be told," Mantel says. "We had both done TV reality shows, so it wasn't too farfetched a plan."
She won a 1997 Emmy as a wordsmith for the game show "Win Ben Stein's Money" and another in 2002 as a segment producer for "The Osbournes." But her previous experience with socially relevant material was primarily a 10-month stint in 1999 writing for "The Awful Truth," Michael Moore's satirical investigative-journalism series.
Mantel cherishes her proverbial humble beginnings. She grew up on a defunct dairy farm as one of five children helping their parents hay, raise goats and chickens, and tap trees for maple syrup.
"I have to brag a little," Mantel says. "In seventh or eighth grade, I came in third in an essay contest on what Vermont forests mean to me."
Those woods apparently didn't mean quite enough to keep her down on the farm. After high school, she studied political science and theater at Nebraska Wesleyan University thanks to a scholarship.
For her final three semesters in academia, Mantel transferred to Castleton as an American studies major. Various odd jobs followed, such as cleaning Yellowstone National Park cabins, but eventually gave way to the gig with Nader.
She quit and moved home when her brother Jeff, a former state trooper, was killed in a 1979 motorcycle accident. "That's when I decided I wanted to be a comedienne," recalls Mantel, who felt compelled to cheer up her grieving family.
Mantel's mother, Fannie, 86, still lives in Newfane. A sister, Laurie Mariani, is a retired Edmunds Elementary teacher in Burlington. A niece, Sarah Mariani, is the state's assistant medical examiner.
But Henriette Mantel left Vermont for show business, with a 1982 debut performing standup at small comedy clubs around the country. She took two years of acting lessons in New York, then relocated to Los Angeles in 1993 to take advantage of other opportunities.
Mantel's roles were eclectic, from Alice the sardonic housekeeper in "The Brady Bunch Movie" (1995) to guest spots on TV programs such as "Roswell," "Will & Grace," and "Friends."
One day, while auditioning for a part in a low-budget film that was also sought after by two Oscar-winners, she had an epiphany: "I told my friends I wanted to write," says Mantel, who remains a thespian mostly to keep her Screen Actors Guild health insurance.
She might have turned a corner with "An Unreasonable Man," which took five years and Skrovan's "Everybody Loves Raymond" savings to bring to fruition.
"I'd love to do more documentaries," acknowledges Mantel, who's been subletting a New York apartment since September. "The problem is you've got to raise money, and I'm not very good at that. But it would be a dream to make one about Vermont. I always tell people Vermont is my strength."
Fund-raising is equally problematic for Nader. He says it's one of several hurdles that would probably keep him from making another run for the presidency in 2008. But, while continuing to fight government and corporate corruption from the sidelines, the consumer advocate shares Mantel's fondness for the Green Mountain State.
"You have the country's healthiest political activity up there," Nader says. "Along certain criteria, Vermont is No. 1."
Should "An Unreasonable Man" prove to be No. 1 at the Feb. 25 Academy Awards, it might come at the expense of "An Inconvenient Truth," the Al Gore environmental documentary that's also short-listed. If indeed he's pitted against his former Democratic opponent, Nader believes a very lively broadcast would ensue.