Sam Mendes was an only child. ''I wasn't a very bright schoolkid,'' Mendes told New York Times journalist Lynn Hirschberg (7/7/02). ''But I was good at sports, specifically cricket. Hitting a small ball with a big stick is one of my talents. And I was captain of the team, so I got used to bossing people around.''

When Sam was three years old, his parents divorced. His father, an English professor who grew up in Trinidiad, stayed in Manchester. Sam joined his mother in London. She wrote children's books. Sam saw his father on weekends.

''I was a television kid,'' Mendes tells the NYT. '''Fawlty Towers,' Monty Python, all comedians. The first play I remember seeing was 'Godspell,' around 1978. I thought it was brilliant. I remember the woman who played the voluptuous madam stopping at the end of my row and saying, 'How are you doing, big boy?' That scarred me for life. I'm sure that moment has affected every performance I've staged since.''

In 1984, Mendes went to Cambridge. ''In my first term, they converted a lecture hall into a theater. And I thought I should try and put on a play that I'd found on a friend's bookshelf called 'Little Malcolm and the Struggle Against the Eunuchs,' about students who are trying to overthrow their art school. A light bulb went off the first day of rehearsal. I thought, 'I love this.'''

After graduation, Mendes wrote letters to all of London's 70 theaters applying for directors' apprenticeships. John Gale, who ran the Chichester Festival Theater, hired him.

Writes Lynn Hirschberg in the 7/7/02 NYT: "By the time Mendes took over the Donmar, London was teeming with innovative theater directors, many of whom have gone on to make movies. In the early 90's, R.S.C. directors included Nicholas Hytner (''The Madness of King George''), Danny Boyle (''Trainspotting'') and Roger Michell (''Notting Hill''). In part because of their heightened visual style -- a set would dismantle midperformance; scenes flowed together with cinematic grace -- these directors were embraced by Hollywood. By contrast, in America, the last theater director to become a major filmmaker was Mike Nichols. Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax, explains: ''In America, everyone is crazy about the movies, but in London, it's the theater guys who have their ears to the ground. They're hungry, and Sam Mendes is one of the hungriest.''

" In 1994, Mendes tried to adapt ''The Rise and Fall of Little Voice,'' a play starring his girlfriend at the time, Jane Horrocks, for the screen. Miramax bought the play, but Weinstein hired another director, Mark Herman. ''Now Sam doesn't take my calls,'' he sighs. ''For a Jew, Sam Mendes knows how to put me in penance.''"