Harlan Ellison, a prolific writer who was lauded for his science fiction, fantasy, crime fiction, horror and television scripts, but who had such a penchant for pugnacity that his own book jackets called him “possibly the most contentious person on Earth,” died June 27 at his home in Sherman Oaks, California. He was 84.
His death was announced by his agent, Susan Shapiro. The cause was not disclosed.
Ellison began publishing stories in the 1950s, writing in part to spite a college professor who told him he had no literary talent. He became one of the most popular and influential writers of science fiction of his generation – yet was willing to take a swing at anyone who limited him to the sphere of science fiction.
He preferred the term “speculative fiction” and saw himself as an heir to such writers as Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges. Ellison published scores of books and more than 1,500 stories, reviews and essays in a career of exceptional productivity. As a publicity stunt, he once went on a tour of bookstores, composing one short story a day while sitting in a display window.
Several of his stories, including ” ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (1965), “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” (1967) and “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World” (1968), are recognized as science fiction classics.
In his finest work, Ellison showed “at times a raging but dignified sense of the pain of the world,” critic John Clute, a co-editor of “The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction,” said in an interview. “He was always uniquely present in his works. You saw him pounding the table and aiming his blows.”
Subtlety was not Ellison’s strong suit. His writing was contained a palpable sense of outrage toward injustice, ignorance and moral tawdriness.
“I go to bed angry every night,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1990, “and I get up angrier every morning.”
Many of his works are set in a bleak dystopian future, in which sinister forces threaten to eradicate independent thinking and enforce a numbing conformity.
“There was light filtering down from above, and we realized we must be very near the surface,” he wrote in “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” “But we didn’t try to crawl up to see. There was virtually nothing out there; had been nothing that could be considered anything for over a hundred years. Only the blasted skin of what had once been the home of billions.”
Ellison also wrote widely about film and television, and collections of his critical reviews are taught in college journalism courses. He lambasted the films of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas for a lack of imaginative depth and for appealing to young viewers “for whom nostalgia is remembering breakfast.”
“Even at his most maddening, as he caroms from subject to subject,” film historian Robert F. Moss wrote in the New York Times in 1989, reviewing the essays collection “Harlan Ellison’s Watching,” “Mr. Ellison has some of the spellbinding quality of a great nonstop talker, with a cultural warehouse for a mind. They haven’t invented the subject about which he lacks an opinion.”
For decades, Ellison was in demand in Hollywood as a writer and script doctor. (Only one of his screenplays was made into a film, the forgettable “The Oscar” from 1966.) He wrote dozens of scripts of TV shows, including “The Twilight Zone,” “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” “Burke’s Law,” “The Outer Limits,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and even “The Flying Nun.”
He was credited with one of the most memorable episodes of “Star Trek,” 1967’s “The City on the Edge of Forever,” in which the interplanetary travelers aboard the Starship Enterprise return to the 1930s with an opportunity to rewrite history.
Several times, Ellison sued Hollywood studios when he thought they had stolen his ideas, winning hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements. One of his successful lawsuits concerned the 1984 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle “The Terminator,” which he said appropriated his plot line of an android-turned-assassin. The film’s director, James Cameron, dismissed Ellison as “a parasite,” but his name was included in the credits of the video version of the film.
“Everywhere I go I find that writers are treated as if they are invisible, as if they don’t matter,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “In this town, particularly, the writer has a history of being brutalized because it is a town that flies almost entirely on horse pucky and hot air.”
In 1985, he left a $4,000-a-week job with a rebooted version of “The Twilight Zone” after the studio decided not to film a segment written by Ellison about a black Santa Claus who exacts revenge on white bigots.
“I told them, ‘You pull the plug and I walk,’ ” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1990.
They did, and he did.
Early in his career, he was hired by the Disney studio but was fired in his first week when he talked about making a pornographic film featuring Disney cartoon characters. (He said his comments were overheard by Walt Disney’s brother.)
Another time, when a studio executive muttered, “All writers are hacks,” Ellison leaped over a desk and punched him in the throat.
His hair-trigger temper was frequently on display to critics, producers and people he casually encountered, including the equally combative Frank Sinatra. In a memorable passage from Gay Talese’s 1966 Esquire article, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” the singer confronted Ellison at a private club in Beverly Hills over the way he was dressed.
Ellison was playing billiards at the club and was wearing, in Talese’s words, “brown corduroy slacks, a green shaggy-dog Shetland sweater, a tan suede jacket, and Game Warden boots.”
Sinatra questioned him about the boots – were they Italian? Spanish? English? – until Ellison finally responded, “Look, I donno, man.”
The room went silent as Sinatra, accompanied by bodyguards, approached the 5-foot-5 Ellison, then asked, “You expecting a storm?”
“Look,” Ellison said, “is there any reason why you’re talking to me?”
“I don’t like the way you’re dressed,” Sinatra said.
“Hate to shake you up,” Ellison replied, “but I dress to suit myself.”
More words were exchanged before Ellison walked away.
Harlan Jay Ellison was born May 27, 1934, in Cleveland. His mother was a store clerk, and his father was at various times a dentist, bootlegger and jewelry salesman.
Ellison grew up primarily in Painesville, Ohio, where his smart mouth, small size and Jewish heritage left him feeling tormented.
“When you’ve been made an outsider, you are always angry,” he said in 2008 documentary, “Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth.”
He said he first ran away from home at 13 to join a carnival, then later roamed the country, working as a truck driver, fisherman and lumberjack.
He dropped out of Ohio State University after arguing with a professor who said he had no talent as a writer. Ellison then moved to the New York and promptly began selling stories; for the next 20 years, he sent the professor a copy of everything he published.
Ellison joined a Brooklyn gang as resesarch for his first novel, “Rumble” (1958) – later published as “Web of the City.” He took part in civil rights marches, covered race riots and, for a while, ghostwrote a men’s magazine column for comedian Lenny Bruce.
Ellison moved to Los Angeles in 1962, aiming to break into the lucrative screenwriting trade, but continued to publish a stories and novels, many under assumed names, most notably “Cordwainer Bird.” He also edited several major anthologies of science fiction.
One of his most renowned works was a 1969 novella, “A Boy and His Dog,” which portrayed a rebellious young man roaming a post-apocalyptic landscape with a dog possessing extrasensory powers. It was made into a film in 1975, and Ellison later expanded the idea into a novel, “Blood’s a Rover,” published this year.
Despite his disdain for television, Ellison won several awards for his TV scripts from the Writers Guild of America. He also received multiple Hugo, Nebula and Edgar awards for his science fiction, fantasy and crime fiction, including for lifetime achievement.
He made occasional appearances as an actor and voice-over artist – including for a computer game based on one of his stories – and was a frequent talk-show guest, most recently on “Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher.”
Ellison described himself as “a blatant elitist” and said his first four marriages ended in divorce, in large part because “a lot of the time I’m a pain in the ass.”
Survivors include his wife of 32 years, Susan Toth of Sherman Oaks.
Ellison lived in a futuristic house surrounded by a library estimated to have between 75,000 and 250,000 volumes. He was injured during a 1994 earthquake and in 1996 had quadruple-bypass surgery after a heart attack. He later had a stroke, but his productivity was barely affected.
Asked in 1990 to describe the urge to write, Ellison told the Los Angeles Times: “You do it because all writers in some insane place believe that to write is a holy chore – that what one wishes to do is speak to one’s time, to make a difference, to say, ‘I was here. I was a force for good in some way.’ “