Friday, April 5, 2013

E is for Harlan Ellison, Who Called Me a Nazi

And, of course, E is for Roger Ebert: movie critic and devoted movie fan, who died yesterday. He will be missed.

Today is a great day, for it is Roger Corman’s birthday. He was born 87 years ago today, in Detroit, Michigan, to William and Ann Corman. I doubt very much that his proud parents suspected on April 5, 1926 that their firstborn son was Hollywood-bound.

Another product of the midwest is Harlan Ellison, renowned as a writer of what’s sometimes called speculative fiction. He was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1934, but also made his way to sunny California, where he sold many scripts to television. Though he and Roger share an interest in fantasy and science fiction, I think few people realize that they came very close to working together on a TV project. I should know: I was there.

When I first came aboard at Roger’s Concorde-New Horizons Pictures in 1986, Roger was thinking of branching out into television production. This despite the fact that the glacial pace of TV decision-making appalled him, and he was never fully comfortable in a roomful of men wearing business suits. After NBC showed itself willing to back a futuristic series produced by Roger, Harlan Ellison was hired to create the pilot for Cutter’s World. This was to be a father-son outer space saga modeled on the old TV western, The Rifleman (which had starred Chuck Connors and Johnny Crawford thirty years earlier).

At first working with Harlan on his script was a total joy. No novice (like so many of our usual screenwriters), he was a master at creating character, dynamic action, and atmosphere. He seemed to like me too: he told me that he would consider dubbing one of the female characters Beverly, were it not for the fact that I shared the name with his sister, whom he loathed. Then trouble arose. Once Harlan had written his first draft and we had accumulated extensive notes from NBC, his writing process seemed to grind to a halt. There was a network deadline to be met, and it was clear we would miss it. Under Roger’s direction, I had no choice but to make the changes myself.

When he found out I had dared to try improving his writing, Harlan was livid. His temper, as it turns out, was legendary, and I bore the full brunt of it that day. When I told him I had had no choice but to obey my boss, he sneered that I reminded him of the people of Hitler’s Germany, “just obeying orders.” That’s how, for the one and only time in my life, I was accused of being a Nazi. (No surprise: the series was derailed by NBC soon thereafter.) 


  1. Roger put up a good fight. bless his heart.

    Yikes you had to make changes? I bet he was livid.

  2. Mr. Ellison's famous temper. Wow. What a development. When Gene Roddenberry faced the same situation - rewriting a suddenly glacially slow Ellison to keep to a schedule on Star Trek - Ellison seethed about it for decades before writing an entire book about the horrific fiasco he'd been through in the land of the Philistines. I'm sorry you had to bear up under Hurricane Harlan, but at least he didn't lambaste you in book form!

    1. Actually, D.C. Fontana did the majority of the rewriting. Roddenberry -- as he did with so many things in his career -- took the lion's share of the credit, naturally. As for Ellison: the script he published in that book definitely backs up his complaints -- it IS much better than the heavily rewritten, and aired, version.

    2. Really interesting, Vinton. I'm not surprised to hear of the quality of Harlan's draft -- he is a terrific talent, though perhaps one not well suited to a collaborative art form. I appreciate your contribution. Please come visit Beverly in Movieland again soon!

    3. Vinton - regardless of the quality of Mr Ellison's original script (and it was well written) it could not have been filmed as an episode of a network television program in 1966. It was extravagant beyond the episode's budget or effects capabilities; and it featured Enterprise crew members dealing drugs and engaging in other activities that would have been frowned on by Network Standards and Practices. It had to be rewritten - whoever did the actual job.

  3. I love Ellison. Actually, he was one of my H's last year (I went with first name for alphabetic purposes).

    Happy A through Z blogging.

  4. Thanks to all of you. I'm certainly not as important as Gene Roddenberry, so I didn't merit a book by Harlan. I GUESS that's a good thing.

    Teresa and S.L., welcome to Beverly in Movieland. I hope you return for more lively stories of my movie world. I'll check out pensuasion immediately!

  5. O... M... G. hahaha! Did you get your tail chewed or what??? I loved this episode (these feel like episodes, how funny is that?) and look forward to tomorrow. I am so enjoying getting to know stuff I didn't know before, and because you are so passionate about it, your words flow easily and are a joy to read.

    Still visualizing his anger at you making the changes. hehe

    Waiter, drink please!

  6. Thanks, Dana. That's one of my favorite stories, but more are on their way!
    (I liked reading about your affection for your daughters, by the by.)

  7. Harlan Ellison was a really creative guy -- he's infamous for his temper and his decades-long rant against Roddenberry for daring to change the ending on "The City on the Edge of Forever" -- my favorite episode, as it is for many fans. After reading both the ending to the episode and to Ellison's original story, I have to agree with the producers' decision -- the episode as it aired had a much more powerful ending than Ellison's.

  8. Hi. I have heard of Harlan's temper. He didn't stay long as story editor on any of the series he worked on. I guess the demon with a glass hand is just going into the history annals of film as a difficult man. Gordon.

  9. Thanks, Gordon. I admit I don't know Star Trek as well as you and some of my other readers clearly do -- but you make me want to poke my nose into this brouhaha. (If that's physically possible!) Thanks for visiting Beverly in Movieland, and do drop in again soon!