I will never, ever forget how I first met celebrated science-fiction author Harlan Ellison. I was attending a morning showing of James Cameron’s breakthrough movie The Terminator in 1984, and signing in with the publicist on duty. When Harlan heard me say my name he approached me and offered a friendly hello. Then he told me why he was there: he had heard from reliable sources that the movie had taken key story ideas from his past work, specifically an episode of The Outer Limits called “Demon with a Glass Hand.”
The theater wasn’t crowded but we sat in separate rows, not far from each other. My experience watching this now-famous movie was punctuated by Harlan’s outbursts and expletives. (“Jesus Christ!” “I can’t believe it” and such.)
He later told me he fully intended to sue—a process that, I learned, was not uncommon to him—and sure enough, he won. The producers were forced to insert a credit for him in the closing crawl of the picture.
We ran into each other several times after that. Once, at a video award ceremony, he beat the head of MGM Home Video to the stage to nab a statuette for The Outer Limits, telling a startled audience that it was high time the writers got credit for the work they’d done so many years ago. The executive was gobsmacked.
In time, my wife Alice and I became friendly with Harlan and his ever-patient wife Susan. But even in their congenial company you never knew what to expect. He had appeared in a TV commercial campaign for the futuristic Geo automobile; while driving us to dinner he made a sudden swerve onto a neighborhood sidewalk for the length of a block, demonstrating the versatility of the car. We barely got our appetite back by the time we reached the restaurant.
At a surprise birthday party Alice threw for me, Harlan and Susan came and in introducing him to a friend I said, smiling, “This is the nicest he’s ever been.” He later wrote that he’d experienced a “frisson” of hurt from my remark, even though I thought it was merely being accurate. But being Harlan, he called ahead of time to warn me that the incident would be appearing in print.
He was exceptionally fond of Alice and our daughter Jessie. One evening at their home we were having pizza for dinner and young Jessie said it was “awesome.” With extraordinary patience, Harlan explained, “Look, sweetie, the Grand Canyon is awesome. This pizza is good.”
If my wife hadn’t loved him already, he sealed the deal with a diatribe about being asked to work on a project without getting paid that appeared in the documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth. You go, Harlan!
I’m sure many people have their own colorful stories to share, but I want to address something not everyone may have experienced: his kindness. When I had eye surgery some years ago he called and insisted on coming by so he could read to me. How many people can you name who would make such an offer?
“Colorful” seems too ordinary a word to describe Harlan Ellison. He was a gifted writer with a daunting vocabulary and a background that included singing in the chorus of the Broadway musical Kismet and being a test driver. He loved telling jokes, especially in a Jewish dialect, and when I heard one that he liked it gave me inordinate pleasure to pass it along.
A mutual friend once said it was a shame that Harlan didn’t have a signature novel, like his friend Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (A Boy and His Dog comes closest), because he preferred writing short stories. I’ll admit, it’s hard to identify Harlan to strangers who aren’t old enough to remember the TV series he worked on decades ago. I would venture to say that his greatest creation was Harlan Ellison, a unique individual who made a lasting impression on everyone he encountered.