The celebrated writer Harlan Ellison passed away the other day at the age of 84. If you jump over to Mark Evanier's site, he has a couple of good pieces on him here and here. (And check back there in a few days, as well, because he's swamped now, but has some other stories he'll be posting.) However, there's also an excellent, long and detailed obituary that's really more of a personal remembrance of Ellison in the Chicago Tribune. You can read that here.
Among other things, I had no idea about him suing the makers of The Terminator (though him suing anybody doesn't remotely surprise me) and winning a settlement, which included adding an acknowledgement to him in the film's credits.
All the articles on his passing have one thing in common -- their conflict between praising a tremendous writer and wonderful man...and his profound curmudgeon who could be brutally harsh. One thing that writers did love him for is his unabashed support for writers against their mistreatment by publishers, studios, executives and pretty much anyone. He could get away with it because, being Harlan Ellison, he couldn't be any other way, but also being such a wonderful writer who worked in many different fields, he had no fear of being confrontational.
I only crossed paths with him a couple times, and he certainly was a unique fellow. One time was at Writers Guild retreat where he was one of the guest speakers. I remember his first line, even though it was from over two decades ago. "I'm a better writer than everyone in this room." (He probably was. But what a way to win over a crowd. He did eventually, but it took a while...)
The first time I came into contact with him was from a two-day seminar he lead when I was at UCLA grad school, getting my MFA in screenwriting. For Day 1, he got three famous sci-fi writers to discuss what a planet society could be like (the climate, landscape, people, politics…), and then that was put into a pamphlet. Then on Day 2, three other famous sci-fi writers discussed what stories could come from that. I recall they named the planet, “Medea: Harlan’s World.” I had the presence of mind to save my pamphlet – though like a fool, didn’t take many dozens – and got all those participants present to sign it. Those who participated in Part 1 but who weren't there were Poul Anderson, Larry Niven, Frederick Pohl, and Hal Clement. But the people who did sign my pamphlet were Ellison, Frank Herbert, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Silverberg, and Thomas Disch. If you don't read science fiction, you likely won't know these names -- though may know Frank Herbert, who wrote Dune. If you do read science fiction, you're likely agog. (What ultimately came from this pamphlet and seminar is a book with those short stories and others. You can read about it here.
Probably a couple decades later, I ran into him when I was working at Universal Pictures, and I had a rare treat – being able to impress Harlan Ellison. I told him that I had a copy of that pamphlet with all those signatures, and he was boggled. “That’s worth a lot of money, you know…” Just impressing Harlan Ellison may have been worth more.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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