A wordsmith and a story sage.
Having suckled on the Milky Way adventures of Asimov, Clarke, Del Rey, and Heinlein, I luckily had a protective coating in my stomach before Harlan and his "New Age" crew skipped the food and went directly to gastric acids and bile. What a trip. Whether it was the 60's or merely a swing of the pendulum, Harlan & Co. brought my head back from the stars and into the stinks and slimes of reality, the controversial issues of the day artfully crafted in stories of speculative fiction. Whether the simple act of a boy feeding his injured dog in the eponymous story [and not a bad film starring Don Johnson], or the Kafkaesque world of pain and despair in the guts of the machine, being unable to scream.
Whatever, this is not about me... well, yes, it is... but in this I am just mimicking Harlan.
For decades I admired and, when I later had the means, collected Harlan's works. His cleverness to the point of not only being brash but rude in his tete-a-tete's with Isaac Asimov as sanitized and presented on THE HUGO WINNERS collections first amused me but later no longer seemed new and fresh. Reading of acts of outrage by Harlan would make me shrug, though admittedly smile, and think, "That's just Harlan."
And I was still smiling when I received an interesting phone call from Harlan one winter evening.
I don't know why he, the great Ellison, bothered to track me down, a small town physician living along the sleepy coast of Maine, as far away from the lights and hustle of L.A. as an American could get, except... "that's just Harlan."
You see, Harlan had asked his readers in I, ROBOT: THE ILLUSTRATED SCREENPLAY [DEC 1994, Warner Books] to "write to... Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California. "Tell (them) you've read this book. (Tell them) to get this film made..." followed about how Isaac loved this film, to do it for him, for Isaac to posthumously live on. Etc. [Personally, I think Asimov's writings, not Harlan's screenplay, will be his lasting legacy--but this was pure Harlan chutzpah].
His plea was very heartfelt. Harlan, beneath the poison spines, is truly a mensch, a term he'd use often [Yiddish: a person of integrity and honor. But don't get me started on his "Jewishness," for despite his wonderful understanding of Jewish angst and his wonderful stories with Jewish words and themes, to claim to be a Jew who denies God is like claiming to be the Pope and deny Jesus--just my opinion, of course. I did say this was about me].
Anyway, Harlan inspired me to write Warner Brothers. So I did.
I, too, wanted to "get the film made."
There was just one thing.
I did not like one element of the screenplay.
In this book full of robots, U.S. Robotics, robomeks, robopsychologists, one character observes another not aging and concludes, "He's immortal!" Not, "He's a robot!"
And as much as I praised the screenplay and asked it to be made into a film, I mentioned this one dislike as unbelievable.
And the Powers That Be at Warner Brothers read my letter.
And they read it to Harlan at a meeting on the Lot.
And Harlan tracked me down and called me.
I'd just gotten home with my wife and six-year-old daughter on a snowy February Maine evening. The phone was ringing. I didn't even have the time to take off my coat. Picking it up, the caller asked for me by name, and I asked who was calling but I recognized the voice. "This is Harlan Ellison..."
His voice was very pleasant, quite personable. I settled myself in a comfy chair in the living room, but didn't bother to turn on the lights. I just had the light from the streetlamp outside casting shadows in the room. I felt a knowing smile on my face. I'd debated for days whether to send that letter, you see; and I had received a reply from WB thanking me but unfortunately stating they "had no plans at this time to proceed with a filmed version of the script."
Harlan continued to talk amicably, confirming I had written Warner Brothers, etc., that I had read his screenplay and thought it would make a great film...
And I just waited.
Finally, I said, in effect, "Just go ahead and say it, Mr. Ellison. I know why you called."
And for the next few minutes he reamed my ass half-way to Tuesday for having the gall to negatively critique his work. He, Harlan Ellison, multiple-time winner of the Hugo award, Nebula award, Bram Stoker award... and WB execs had held up my single letter to balance against his screenplay and the greatly respected body of his work...
And I sat there and enjoyed it.
I could add my name to the list of "a$$holes" reamed out by Harlan Ellison.
...until he said, "This is what I do for a living."
Then the guilt hit.
This was his livelihood.
If my one ignorant comment (truly ignorant, as I was then completely naive to the strange business of Hollywood) actually was the cause for not green-lighting his I,ROBOT screenplay...
Well, I apologized profusely and meant every word. I promised to write WB again (I did), and verbally groveled for about a minute. I was appropriately humbled.
And Harlan knew it.
Then a strange thing happened.
Harlan became subdued. Almost apologetic. Almost.
We spoke calmly for another minute before he said goodbye.
I wrote a second letter to WB, effectively saying Harlan was God and I was wrong for ever questioning his brilliance. They should not have misconstrued my first letter as in anyway suggesting the screenplay would not make an excellent film that would earn them buckets of money. "It is good to belong." I was Everett C. Marm from "REPENT, HARLEQUIN!" SAID THE TICKTOCK MAN [which I own in a wonderful oversized signed collectors'edition], and I received a second reply from Warner Brothers. It read, "Please be assured that we recognize and appreciate your enthusiasm for the screenplay, and your original intentions have not been misconstrued. Although we have no plans at this time to proceed with a filmed version of this script, we appreciate hearing from you and will keep your enthusiasm for your project in mind" [Feb 13, 1995].
In short, Harlan knew the film was not going to be made regardless of my critique of that one point in his script. But I, a hapless hick from Maine, was a good outlet for his ire.
Here's to you, Harlan. Some may love you, some may hate you, some may do both, but they will never forget you. The good news is your legacy will be your literary work, not your personal idiosyncrasies--though both have given thousands, if not millions of us both pleasure and food for thought. May the God you deny greet you warmly and with love and set you at a table of your few peers and many friends.
P.S. Not that it matters, but it is ironic that a childhood and close family friend of mine is now the President of Warner Brothers Pictures.