WASHINGTON: Last week, prolific science fiction-fantasy author Harlan Ellison died in his sleep at his Los Angeles home. During his 84-years, this brilliant writer produced 75 books and 1,700 short stories and articles. But in many ways, his life was as interesting as his substantial body of writing and screenplays.
I remember Harlan Ellison
I attended one of Ellison’s lively lectures in the late 1970s while attending a science fiction convention that also included the cast of the original “Star Trek” television series. Outside the hotel banquet room where Ellison was to speak hung a handwritten sign. It warned that strong language would be employed liberally and that youngsters should not attend.
I recall Ellison’s deep admiration for composer Ennio Morricone, who penned the musical score for that classic Clint Eastwood spaghetti western, “A Fist Full of Dollars.”
“Morricone is my best companion,” he later noted, “when I’m deep in the world of what I’m writing.”
Looking back, I also remember Ellison’s two distinct affectations. First, he smoked a pipe. In addition, he boasted a most alluring female hanging on his arm. And, no doubt, every mesmeric word Harlan Ellison uttered.
But in truth, standing at just 5’ 2½” tall, Ellison presented a rather diminutive Hugh Hefner at best.
The essence of Harlan Ellison unfolds, warts and all, in a documentary film centered on his work, life, and quirkiness. That film, “Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth,” is now streaming on Amazon Prime’s streaming service.
The music in Ellison’s words
In this film, author Neil Gaiman noted the melodic nature of Ellison’s writing.
“The words. There’s an attention to the words. There’s an attention to the sound of the words. You’re reading them in your head and they sing.”
After moving to Los Angeles in 1962, Ellison entered the realm of television with scripts for such shows as “The Flying Nun,” “Route 66,” and the “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” But his first memorable science fiction offering was the teleplay for “The Outer Limits.” It was entitled “Demon with a Glass Hand.”
The opening narration is pure, musical Ellison.
“Through all the legends of ancient peoples – Assyrian, Babylonian, Sumerian, Semitic – runs the saga of the Eternal Man, the one who never dies, called by various names in various times, but historically known as Gilgamesh, the man who has never tasted death… the hero who strides through the centuries.”
In this episode, actor Robert Culp plays an eternal robot who carries within his circuitry the digitized remnants of the human race. He awaits a time when the alien Kybens no longer pose a threat, thus allowing him to reconstitute humanity.
The story earned Ellison the Writers Guild of America Award for Outstanding Script for a Television Anthology. The same story also netted him the George Melies Fantasy Film Award for Outstanding Cinematic Achievement in Science Fiction Television.
Ellison, “Star Trek,” and a troubled portal in time
In contrast, a different kind of real life story arose from another memorable Ellison script. He penned this one for the pop-culture phenomenon “Star Trek.”
In “City on the Edge of Forever,” as the U.S.S. Enterprise is rocked by ripples in space caused by time distortion, Dr. Leonard H. “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelly) suffers the effects of an accidental drug overdose. As a result, in a crazed state, McCoy beams down to a planet where the “Guardian of Forever” oversees a time portal. Taking advantage of this opportunity, McCoy jumps through it and back in time.
Unfortunately, when Captain James Kirk (William Shatner) and First Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) beam down to search for him, they learn McCoy has somehow altered time. The Enterprise no longer exists and Kirk and Spock enter the portal in an effort to restore the time-line of their existence.
Ellison’s Angry Man routine
That “Star Trek” episode earned Ellison the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Episodic Drama on Television. But Ellison was furious with “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry for altering his script. In an appearance years later on NBC’s “Tomorrow,” he told host Tom Snyder:
“I felt they had mucked it [his screenplay] up badly. It took, I think, about six or seven years before Gene Roddenberry and I even spoke to each other again after the show. The thing that always troubled me about the series was that… they were always presenting great moral messages. And, to me, they were always lightweight. Any time you tried to really deal with what Faulkner called ‘the heart in conflict with itself,’ either the network or the production people said, ‘No, no, our characters wouldn’t act that way.’ In other words, they always had to be heroes.”
From this and other incidents, we learn that Harlan Ellison had always nurtured a disquieting mean streak. “I think revenge is a very good, terrific thing for everybody,” he said. According to the documentary film on his life, this trait arose from his confrontations with the bullies that terrorized him as a kid:
“When you’ve been made an outsider, you are always angry. You respond to it in a lot of different ways. A lot of people get surly. A lot of people get mean. A lot of people turn into serial killers. I got so smart that I could kill them with logic or their own mouths [words].”
Ellison off stage
Yet Ellison could also be circumspect. In the documentary, Ellison’s friend and fellow author Dan Simmons offered one observation of the elderly author’s attitude toward his inevitable death and legacy.
“The only time I ever heard him not talk, not answer a question, was down in Florida. [T]here was a panel [where] they asked four big writers on stage, ‘How will posterity treat you. And do you think about it a lot?’ And he just passed. He didn’t answer.
“And then later, in private, he said that he thinks about it constantly. He’s interested in what his literary legacy will be. And I think the very serious writers feel that way. And he does. He just doesn’t talk about it.”
Volunteered Simmons: “I think his work will last.”
“Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth” is currently streaming on Amazon.
Top Images: Harlan Ellison. “Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth” screen capture. Insets from Amazon.com.