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Friday, June 29, 2018

R.I.P. Cordwainer Bird

FYI: This is a cross-post on both my book and movie blogs.

It is always sad when a great talent, who has been contributor to our culture for years, passes away. So it is with the writer Harlan Ellison, who has died in Los Angeles at the age of 84. The impact for me is just that bit greater when it so happens, as is the case with Ellison, I actually met the man once.

In my ill-spent youth in California’s San Joaquin Valley, my best friend Eric and I had dreams of writing and drawing comic books. When we were in high school, we met Ed and Jake who had a similar dream but, being a couple of years older than us, they had taken their dream quite a bit further. For a while the four of us had a great time reading each others’ comics, throwing around ideas and making grand plans for super-heroes and fantasy storylines. This culminated in the four of us making a journey down to Los Angeles for my first-ever attendance at a science fiction convention. For a small-town kid like myself with an overactive imagination, it was heaven. There were well-known sci-fi authors everywhere, panel discussions, exhibits of props and costumes from our favorite movies and TV shows. Naturally enough, there was a heavy emphasis on the original Star Trek series, which had only gone off the air a couple of years earlier.

Of all the people we met there, the one that stood out and has always stuck in my memory was Harlan Ellison. I don’t know if I would actually have recognized him, but upon running into him, Ed went crazy like the total fanboy he was. As we blocked his way and chattered away incoherently, the diminutive author (he never quite achieved 5'3") stared up at us two giants (both a full 6'4") and muttered, “Well, a couple of all-American boys.” His attitude was brash and sarky but not unfriendly. For years to come I would laugh whenever I would (frequently) hear of some outrage the writer caused with his prickly manner and bulldog stubbornness. After all, I had gotten my own brief glimpse of it.

As a wannabe writer myself, I saw him as something of a role model. He was working for all the people I wanted to work for. A promising early job with Walt Disney Productions was cut short, though, when he had the bad timing to joke about—and act out—in the studio commissary the idea of a Disney porn flick—within earshot of Roy Edward Disney.

He was a prolific writer of short stories and novels and oft-heralded by the Hugos, the Nebulas and the Writer’s Guild. Perhaps his best known title is the 1969 novella A Boy and His Dog, which was adapted into a 1975 movie starring a very young Don Johnson. He was also a prolific contributor to television shows. He wrote journeyman teleplays for the likes of Burke’s Law and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., but of course his writing really shone when writing for The Outer Limits, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Star Trek, for which he penned the famous City on the Edge of Forever episode, which featured Joan Collins and which Gene Roddenberry insisted on having rewritten to make it less dark. To Ellison’s further ire, Roddenberry would not allow him to replace his own name with that of his customary nom de plume for projects he wanted to be dis-associated from: Cordwainer Bird. Ellison’s Hitchcock episode was “Memo from Purgatory,” which was based on his own experience, at 20, of infiltrating an inner-city gang for research purposes. It starred James Caan.

A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Ellison was a lifelong advocate of gun control. He was credited with convincing DC Comics’s publisher, with a phone call, to end its practice of running ads for BB guns. He also took filmmaker James Cameron to court and won, forcing the director to add Ellison’s name to the credits of The Terminator after the author insisted that the plot was similar to one of his stories.

Ellison was friends with fellow sci-fi writer J. Michael Straczynski and had a credit as “conceptual consultant” for JMS’s TV series Babylon 5 throughout its run. He also wrote the stories for the episodes “A View from the Gallery” and “Objects in Motion.” Not only that but he provided the voices for Sparky the Computer and the comedian Zooty, as well as appearing in a walk-on as a Psi-Cop. One of the great things about being a B5 fan was that JMS was an early pioneer in communicating regularly with fans on the internet, so we got a lot of interesting background anecdotes about B5 in detail. None were more entertaining than the ones about Harlan and his escapades.

I refer to Ellison as a science fiction writer advisedly, as I understand he did not like that term. He preferred to be described as a fantasist. On that topic, he once said, “Call me a science fiction writer and I’ll come to your house and nail your pet’s head to the table.” Here’s another of his choice quotes, about working in Hollywood: “This town is filled with weasels and wormers and people who will stab you in the front if they can’t reach your back.” And another: “The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen… and stupidity.”

I could dine on his bons mots all day. Here he is on popular science fiction: “Star Wars is adolescent nonsense; Close Encounters of the Third Kind is obscurantist drivel; Star Trek can turn your brains to purée of bat guano; and the greatest science-fiction series of all time is Doctor Who! And I’ll take you all on, one-by-one or in a bunch, to back it up!” Perhaps his most self-aware comment: “My role in life is to be a burr under the saddle. I didn’t pick that for myself, it just happens that’s the way I am.”

The difference, of course, is that when the burr is gone, we usually do not wish that it was still there.

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