The writer on the edge of forever

 

© Los Angeles Times

 

Harlan Ellison, who was often categorised as a science-fiction writer although he once memorably warned anyone who called him a science-writer that he would come to their house and ‘nail’ their ‘pet’s head to a coffee table’, passed away in his sleep on June 27th at the age of 84.

 

In his lifetime the Cleveland-born Ellison authored some 1800 stories, scripts, reviews, articles and opinion pieces, but it’s as a short story writer that he was best known.  In fact, when he was in his prime, from the 1960s to 1980s, he was responsible for some of the boldest and most exhilarating short stories I’ve ever read.  As a writer, he seemed to push both his imagination and his writing energies to the very limit.  Describing his stories is difficult, but the nearest comparison I can think of is the fiction of Ray Bradbury.  However, Ellison’s work also had counter-cultural and radical political tones that encompassed both the idealism of the 1960s’ civil rights movement and Summer of Love and the cynicism and despair that came with the Vietnam War and Watergate in the 1970s.

 

Frequently his short stories contained a palpable anger too.  Yes, Ellison had a lot of anger in him.  More on that in a minute.

 

Incidentally, by focusing on his short stories, I don’t wish to denigrate his occasional novels.  Indeed, I’d rate 1961’s Spider Kiss alongside Iain Banks’ Espedair Street (1987) and John Niven’s Kill Your Friends (2008) as one of my favourite rock-and-roll novels ever.

 

© Pan Books

 

Ellison wasn’t a big name in the UK, but in the 1970s – perfectly timed for my development as a teenager – Britain’s Pan Books brought out editions of several of his short story collections, like The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World (1969), Approaching Oblivion (1974) and Deathbird Stories (1975).  All had gorgeously psychedelic covers by (I think) the artist Bob Layzell.  It’s fair to say that my 14 or 15-year-old mind was blown by these volumes.

 

I also loved how Ellison prefaced each story with a short essay describing how it had come into being.  These pieces gave insight not only into his combative personality but also into the rich life-experiences he’d had (or claimed to have had).  Before establishing himself as a writer he’d been, among other things, a truck driver transporting nitro-glycerine, a hired gun and a tuna fisherman.  This inspired me when I was a budding writer to try my hand at different jobs and build up my experiences too, though predictably the stuff I ended up doing – stacking shelves in Sainsbury’s, working in a shoe warehouse, serving as a deputy warden at Aberdeen Youth Hostel – was rather less glamorous than the items on Ellison’s CV.

 

Some of his work also appeared on television although TV was a medium he generally had a low opinion of – in a 2013 interview he accused it and other modern forms of entertainment and communication of having “reduced society to such a trivial, crippled form that it is beyond my notice.”  For instance, he scripted the 1967 Star Trek episode The City on the Edge of Forever, which has Captain Kirk, Mr Spock and Dr McCoy catapulted back in time to 1930s America and confronted with an agonising time-travel-related moral dilemma.  Do they intervene in an accident and prevent the death of a woman called Edith Keeler who (despite being played by Joan Collins) is a noble political activist dedicated to peace, pacifism and public service and with whom, predictably, William Shatner’s horn-dog Captain Kirk has fallen in love; or do they let her die, which means her political movement won’t gain power in the USA, delay her country’s entry into World War II and allow the Nazis to become masters of humanity, which will happen otherwise?

 

© Desilu Productions

 

Thanks to its inventive and thought-provoking spin on time travel, The City… is the best episode of the original series of Star Trek.  In fact, as I don’t like any of the later TV incarnations of Star Trek, I’d say it’s the best Star Trek episode full stop.  Ellison, however, was unimpressed with how the show’s producer Gene Rodenberry and his writing staff rewrote his script and watered down some of its themes and was never slow to sound off about it afterwards.  It may be significant that his later short story How’s the Night Life on Cissalda? (1977) features William Shatner attempting to make love to a revolting-looking alien creature.  Shatner’s toupee falls off in the process.

 

More time-travelling figures in the Ellison-penned episodes Demon with a Glass Hand and Soldier that he wrote for the TV anthology show The Outer Limits (1963-65).  Years later, he was incensed at what he saw as plagiarism of elements of his Soldier script by James Cameron while Cameron was making the first Terminator movie in 1984.  Ellison threatened to sue and got a payment of 65-70,000 dollars from Cameron’s financiers and an acknowledgement on The Terminator’s credits.  By 2014 Ellison had mellowed to the point where he could see the funny side of it.  He played himself in an episode of The Simpsons in which he gets into an argument with Milhouse Van Houten.  When Millhouse comments, “I wish someone would have come from the future and warned me not to talk to you,” Ellison grabs him by the throat and screams, “That’s my idea!”

 

In fact, Ellison was highly litigious.  After discovering his writing, I found an interview with him in an American magazine called Future Life where he talked about suing Paramount Television.  He accused Paramount of stealing the premise of a story about a robot policeman that he’d co-authored with the writer Ben Bova and turning it into a TV show called Future Cop (1976-78) without their permission.  “We’re going to nail their asses to the barn door!” he declared in the interview.  Later, when I was playing rugby for my school and while we were trying to psyche ourselves up against our opponents, I inadvertently let slip with Ellison’s phrase: “We’re going to nail their asses to the barn door!” I exclaimed.  That earned me some strange looks from my teammates.  Nailing asses to barn doors was not common lexical usage on south-of-Scotland rugby pitches.

 

I can honestly say that for a period when I was a teenager Harlan Ellison, with his mind-bending fiction, his braggadocio, his adventurous backstory and his take-no-shit-from-anyone attitude, was the person I wanted to be.  Of course, that changed as I grew older, became less impressionable and more mature, and learned more about Ellison and revised my opinions.  I began to appreciate that Ellison’s persona involved a fair bit of self-mythologizing, egotism and unwarranted cantankerousness and bloody-mindedness.  When Stephen King commented that he knew one writer who regarded Ellison as the reincarnation of Jonathan Swift and another writer who regarded him as a ‘son-of-a-bitch’, I found myself in sympathy with both viewpoints.  And by the time I read a profile of him in a non-fiction book about science-fiction writers called Dream Makers (1980), written by Charles Platt, I was disappointed but somehow not surprised to encounter a character rather too driven by vanity and rather too desperate to impress.  Ellison and Platt later fell out badly – violently, it’s said – though not as far as I know about the unflattering profile in Dream Makers.

 

Also falling out with Ellison was the English writer Christopher Priest, who took issue with Ellison’s editorship of the Dangerous Visions series of science fiction anthologies in the early 1970s.  There was meant to be a third volume in the series but for reasons known only to Ellison it never appeared, leaving a lot of submitted stories in limbo and depriving a lot of authors of potential earnings.  This seems hypocritical of Ellison considering how famously touchy he was about payment for his own work – he’s said to have once mailed a dead gopher to a wayward publisher as a protest.  And although Ellison was a vocal supporter of the USA’s Equal Rights Amendment, much of that good work was undone in 2006 when, in a moment of dirty-old-man madness, he fondled a female writer’s breast onstage at an awards ceremony.  From the footage I’ve seen of it, I suspect Ellison thought he was just indulging in some ‘innocent’ schoolboy malarkey.  Understandably, though, the writer at the receiving end was highly pissed off at him.

 

© Pan Books

 

But while I came to have mixed feelings about the character of the artist, my enthusiasm never waned for the art itself.  And Ellison’s literary legacy includes at least ten short stories that I’d number among my all-time favourites by any writer.  I’ve listed them below:

 

A Boy and His Dog: a post-apocalyptic satire that’s a spot-on blend of anarchy and irreverence, featuring as its main character a telepathic and sarcastic canine.  It was filmed in 1975 by L.Q. Jones and though the movie version isn’t perfect, it still holds up better than a lot of other, more portentous sci-fi films made in the same decade.

Along the Scenic Route: a biting analysis of the relationship between Americans and their cars.  Detailing how a couple out for a leisurely drive end up competing in a lethal demolition derby, it prefigures movies like the Mad Max ones.

Bleeding Stones: quite simply a story that made my jaw drop with its combination of brutality, blasphemy and surrealism.

Count the Clock That Tells the Time: describing how a lethargic never-do-well gets trapped in a weird, ghostly netherworld, this is a cautionary tale about the dangers of wasting your time and frittering your life away.

Delusion for a Dragon Slayer: an unremarkable little man suddenly finds his soul transplanted into the body of a Conan the Barbarian-type swordsman in a blood-and-thunder fantasy land.  What follows is a merciless dissection of the inadequacies of the nerdy males who read sword-and-sorcery stories.

Hindsight: 480 Seconds: a haunting story about a poet who volunteers to stay on an about-to-be-destroyed earth after the rest of humanity has been evacuated, so that he can provide a commentary on his planet’s dying minutes.

I’m Looking for Kadak: Kurt Vonnegut meets Woody Allen in this comedy about the frustrations of a group of aliens on a far-flung planet who’ve converted to Judaism.

One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty: another time-travel tale, this one about a man going back in time and befriending his younger self when he’s a bullied, insecure child.

Pretty Maggie Money Eyes: a sad and unexpectedly tender story of a woman’s spirit inhabiting a Las Vegas slot machine.

Shatterday: the unsettling tale of a man who accidentally phones his own apartment one evening and finds himself talking to himself.  In fact, this other self is a sinister doppelganger who’s appeared from nowhere and is planning to usurp him from his existence.

 

And that’s my Harlan Ellison Top Ten.  Thank you for the entertainment and inspiration, Mr E., and Rest In (non-cantankerous) Peace.

 

© Pan Books

 

The fickleness of acting fame

 

(c) Reynolds Pictures, Inc

 

The actor Gregory Walcott, who died a week ago at the age of 87, was hardly a household name.  But in a fickle profession – I’ll wager that 99.9% of all actors and actresses never win any degree of fame or recognition at all – he had a pretty good innings.

 

Between the 1960s and 1980s he made guest appearances on a slew of American TV shows that I remember well, if not always fondly, from my childhood and teens – western ones (Rawhide, Bonanza, The High Chaparral, Alias Smith and Jones, The Quest), cop ones (Kojak, McCloud, Barnaby Jones, Baretta, CHiPs, Vega$) and science-fiction ones (The Invisible Man, The Gemini Man, Land of the Lost, The Six Million Dollar Man).  He also turned up in those two big-haired, big-moneyed super-soap-operas that were an inescapable feature of Ronald Reagan-era TV, Dallas and Dynasty.

 

Cinematically, Walcott appeared in the supporting casts of several Clint Eastwood movies back when Big Clint was in his prime (and before he became better known for talking to empty chairs at Republican Party conferences).  These were Joe Kidd (1972), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), The Eiger Sanction (1975) and Every Which Way but Loose (1978).  Also, Walcott got to work with legendary director John Ford in 1955’s Mister Roberts; and in 1974 he appeared in The Sugarland Express, which was directed by a young, barely-started-shaving Steven Spielberg.

 

However, when Walcott’s obituaries appeared a few days ago, it wasn’t his extensive TV work or his associations with Eastwood, Ford and Spielberg that received attention.  No, the item in Walcott’s CV that the obituarists focused on was a low-budget science-fiction film that he’d made in 1956: a film whose script he considered to be ‘gibberish’ but which he went ahead and starred in as a favour to a friend, Ed Reynolds, who was the film’s executive producer.  Initially, Walcott wasn’t bothered about making this unpromising-sounding film and possibly damaging his acting reputation as a consequence.  He assumed it would sink without trace.  “I honestly thought,” he told an interviewer later, “it would only be shown out in the boondocks and no-one would ever see it.”

 

Walcott must have felt increasingly nervous as, during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, this particular film refused to stay in the boondocks.  Rather, it began to loom large in popular culture.  Inexorably, its fame – or infamy – grew.  Thanks largely to it being championed by movie critics like Michael Medved, filmmakers like Joe Dante and cultural commentators like Clive James, it became a contender for the title of Worst Film Ever Made.

 

By 1994, when Tim Burton made Ed Wood, a biopic of the movie’s director – with Johnny Depp in the title role of oddball, angora-obsessed and epically-incompetent filmmaker Edward D. Wood Jr – it was no longer just a contender for the title.  In the public consciousness, the movie, Plan 9 from Outer Space, now was the worst film ever made.

 

(c) Reynolds Pictures, Inc

 

These days connoisseurs of bad movies spend hours enthusing about Plan 9’s multiple shortcomings: about the cemetery headstones (obviously made of cardboard) that topple over on camera and the characters’ cars that change make from scene to scene; the flying saucers that look like they’ve been fashioned from hubcaps; the risible dialogue (“Inspector Clay is dead… murdered… and someone is responsible!”); the fact that the movie’s biggest star, Bela Lugosi, had died before filming started and his ‘performance’ was a combination of home-movie footage shot when he’d been alive and the use of a stand-in (actually Wood’s wife’s chiropractor) who looked nothing like him; the sets that’d apparently been assembled inside a cupboard, including one of an airplane cockpit with sides made out of shower-curtains and a very visible boom-microphone overhead; the barmy narration by Jerome King Criswell, a real-life, self-proclaimed psychic who intones, “Greetings my friends!  We are all interested in the future.  For that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives!”  And so on, and so forth.

 

With cruel inevitability, Plan 9 figured prominently in the headlines about Walcott’s death.  The Independent called him THE BLAMELESS ACTOR WHO COULDN’T SHAKE OFF BEING A PART OF THE WORST MOVIE EVER.  In the Times, he was the ACTOR WHO STARRED IN A FILM REGARDED AS THE WORST IN CINEMA HISTORY.  A slightly-more-circumspect New York Times declared, GREGORY WALCOTT, ACTOR IN ‘PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE’, DIES AT 87.

 

Walcott reminds me of a more famous actor who passed away in February, Leonard Nimoy.  Nimoy appeared in some classic TV shows (The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Mission Impossible) and was nominated for an Emmy for playing Golda Meir’s husband in the 1982 TV movie A Woman Called Golda.  He appeared in several acclaimed stage productions, including Fiddler on the Roof, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Equus and Twelfth Night.  He enjoyed parallel careers as a screenwriter, producer and director – he even directed and starred in a 1981 TV movie called Vincent, a biopic of Vincent Van Gogh.  And he was a photographer, poet and singer-songwriter too.  Despite all this, Nimoy went to his grave with five words etched (metaphorically) on his headstone: MR SPOCK IN STAR TREK!

 

(c) Desilu Productions 

 

No matter how much he tried to escape it – and by the mid-1970s he seemed pretty annoyed at the fact, because he penned a memoir called I am not Spock and refused for a time to be involved in the first Star Trek movie (which eventually did have him on board when it was released in 1979) – Nimoy was forever associated in people’s minds with a half-human alien who lived by the dictates of logic.  One who took orders from Captain William Shatner, incapacitated opponents using the very handy Vulcan nerve-pinch, and possessed the most famous pair of pointy ears on the planet.

 

Later, though, Nimoy seemed to make his peace with Star Trek and Mr Spock.  The second volume of his memoirs, published in 1995, was entitled I am Spock; and he continued making Star Trek movies into his old age.  He even appeared in the new, rebooted Star Trek films with Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg, Benedict Cumberbatch, etc., playing a venerable and sagacious Mr Spock from an alternative universe.

 

I have to say that, while I’m not a Star Trek fan, I think Nimoy made the right decision.  I’ve read some of his poems and heard a little of his singing.  And I like him much better as Mr Spock.

 

It must be galling for actors and actresses – trained in a profession where the goal is to become a human chameleon, to be able to step into the shoes of any character, inhabit their persona and imbue them convincingly with life onstage or onscreen – when your audience becomes fixated with one role you’ve played, or one TV show or film you’ve appeared in, and associates you with that for the rest of your career.  And very often, the role, show or film that the crass, fickle public saddles you with is something less than Shakespearean.

 

(c) De Laurentiis Entertainment Group

 

I can think of two well-known Scottish actors who’ve had to deal with this.  Craggy, Dundonian performer Brian Cox has enjoyed a distinguished career in the theatre, on TV and in films.  But in 1986 he had a supporting role in Michael Mann’s dark thriller Manhunter, based on the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.  He played an inmate in an institution for the criminally insane who’s onscreen for only a few minutes.  But that character was Dr Hannibal Lektor who, three years later, would win mass-popularity when Anthony Hopkins played him in Silence of the Lambs (with the character’s surname re-spelt as ‘Lector’).  For a long time afterwards, Cox had to put up with countless comments and queries about his turn as the first cinematic incarnation of Harris’s suave, Nietzschean super-cannibal.  Even now, he’s probably getting letters asking him what his thoughts are on the funky new leather jacket that Mads Mikkelsen will be wearing in season three of Hannibal.

 

Then there’s Crieff-born actor Dennis Lawson, who receives more mail about his role as Wedge Antilles in the original three Star Wars movies than about everything else he’s done put together.  This is despite the fact that he’s only in each movie for about a minute.  He’s seen climbing into an X-Wing Fighter before each big space-battle, sitting in the X-Wing Fighter during each big space-battle, and climbing out of the X-Wing Fighter after each big space-battle.  (Indeed, it was only when he filmed the climbing-out scenes that Lawson realised that his character had survived yet another movie.)  Still, his association with the films may have been welcomed in certain quarters of his family – two decades later, his nephew Ewan McGregor secured the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels.

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

Returning to Gregory Walcott – like Nimoy and Spock, he eventually learned to live with Plan 9 from Outer Space.  In an interview with the LA Times, he said of the film that “it’s better to be remembered for something than for nothing.”  Bearing his old director no malice, he agreed to a cameo role in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, which proved to be his final film appearance.  And last year, when a pub called the Plan Nine Alehouse opened in his neighbourhood, he allowed his son to gift it his old copy of the Plan 9 script.  (The script ended up as a decoration in the pub toilets).

 

Actually, I get slightly irritated when people identify Plan 9 as the worst film ever made.  It’s badly written and technically inept to a comical degree, I admit, but I think Ed Wood deserves kudos for at least investing it with a crazed enthusiasm.  He was a desperately bad filmmaker but he shouldn’t be condemned for being ambitious – the problem was that the realisation of his ambitions fell far short of what’d been in his imagination.  Tim Burton clearly recognises and sympathises with Wood’s creative yearnings because, near the end of 1994’s Ed Wood, he inserts a hypothetical scene where Wood, pissed off at his financiers’ meddling in the making of Plan 9, bumps into and chats with Orson Welles, who’s equally pissed off at Universal’s meddling in the making of Touch of Evil.  (“They want Charlton Heston to play a Mexican!”)

 

Plan 9 even contains a speech, delivered by an alien, which denounces humanity’s obsession with building bigger and evermore-terrible weapons of mass destruction.  It’s a noble sentiment but, as usual with Wood, this well-meaning speech becomes nonsensical.  The alien (played by an actor with the eccentric name of Dudley Manlove) starts raving about exploding sunlight-particles that’ll somehow trigger a chain reaction and destroy the universe.  Then he has a hissy fit: “Your stupid minds!  Stupid!  Stupid!”  And yet, in that artless scene, there’s probably more personality than you’d find in the entirety of Michael Bay’s Transformers, Transformers 2, Transformers 3 and Transformers 4.

 

I should say that I’m supported in this opinion by no less a personage than the TV star and movie critic Jonathan Ross.  In his 1993 volume The Incredibly Strange Film Book, Ross writes that he’d far rather watch an enjoyably shonky Ed Wood movie than some ultra-bland, boring mainstream Hollywood effort like 1987’s Three Men and a Baby.

 

Three Men and a Baby, incidentally, was directed by a certain Leonard Nimoy.  Yes, Mr Spock, would you prefer to be remembered for that?

 

(c) Touchstone Pictures