Friday, June 29, 2018

Remembering Harlan Ellison: “For a brief time, I matter”

I’m sorry to learn of the passing of Harlan Ellison, the great writer of what’s sometimes called speculative fiction. He died in his sleep this past Thursday, at the age of 84. As readers and moviegoers know, he was famous for a post-apocalyptic novel, A Boy and His Dog, that was made into a cult film in 1975. He’ll also be remembered for his contributions to a number of TV series, including The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and the rebooted Twilight Zone. Science fiction and fantasy were his great loves, but he also wrote for such down-to-earth shows as Route 66. Not to mention The Flying Nun, which—given its heroine’s penchant for soaring through the air à la Mary Poppins—wasn’t entirely down to earth at all.

The news of Harlan’s death takes me back to those long-ago days when I was Roger Corman’s story editor at Concorde-New Horizons Pictures. Though Harlan and Roger shared an interest in fantasy and science fiction, 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 in suits. After NBC showed itself willing to back a futuristic series produced by Roger, Harlan 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 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, saying 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. In fact he was suddenly unreachable by phone, and today’s new-fangled methods of communication (like email and text messaging) did not yet exist. There was a network deadline to be met, and it was clear that by waiting for Harlan to re-emerge, we would miss it. Under Roger’s directive, I had no choice but to make the changes myself.

When he found out I had dared to try improving his writing, Harlan went livid. His temper, of course, was legendary, and I bore the full brunt of it that day. When I told him I had no choice but to obey the man who signed my paychecks, 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.) 

I eventually realized I wasn’t alone in facing Harlan’s wrath. His 1967 time-traveling Star Trek episode,  “The City on the Edge of Forever,” was widely praised, but Harlan was incensed that Gene Rodenberry, among others, had made changes to his script. He and Rodenberry then feuded for two years, and a lawsuit later followed. Surprising arrogance for man who’d said of himself, “For a brief time I was here, and for a brief time, I matter.”

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