What can be written of a writer who so often took readers to unrivaled heights of imagination and wonder? What lofty accolades can we heap upon a man whose prolific catalogue has been self-evident thereof for so many decades? Perhaps the better question, how can a man so fundamental to modern popular culture, a linchpin in American prose, television, and film be largely unknown to the same audiences who have enjoyed his creations throughout the years?
From the artistic explosion that 1960s television and popular culture rendered, many would be forgiven associating the fecund decade with the likes of William Shatner and Adam West, but it was science-fiction scribe, Harlan Ellison, who penned some of the generation’s most seminal scripts. In addition to writing for Star Trek, Ellison wrote what would have been the introduction of the character, Two-Face, into the Batman series of 1966 if it had not been cancelled weeks before his episode would air. The man could, and often would, write about any genre or topic that struck his fancy, as evidenced by his for-hire work on the Flying Nun and Route 66. It was Ellison’s contribution to the science fiction genre that proved as essential as it was prolific, having penned scripts for the Outer Limits, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, among others. The comic book world was not without Ellison’s contribution as his infamously comedic issue of DC’s Detective Comics Featuring Batman, “The Night of Thanks, but No Thanks” proved a biting satire of the genre.
A Cleveland native, Ellison first established roots in his hometown before ascending to Hollywood. He featured in several productions at the Cleveland Playhouse and attended Ohio State University. That is, until a foolhardy professor questioned his writing abilities. Ellison subsequently dropped out only 18 months in, but was sure to send that same professor a copy of his published works for the next twenty years. There were also several stories sold and published by the Cleveland News in 1949, but it was a story he sold to the horror-themed comic publishers EC Comics in 1950 that paved the way for his West Coast pilgrimage.
His subversive and, at times, caustic personality was endearing for readers but challenging for those around him. His marriage to Charlotte Stein lasted four years and was described by the author as “four years of hell sustained as the whine of a generator”. Not surprisingly, his own dust jacket described him once as “possible the most contentious person on Earth”. He once continued a grudge as far as to mail 213 bricks and a dead gopher to a publisher, postage due. An outspoken anti-war activist, Ellison once greeted Texas A&M’s Corps of Cadets while speaking as a guest of honor as“…America’s next generation of Nazis.”
Ellison was employed Disney for the sum total of a single day when Roy Disney himself overheard Ellison joking about making a pornographic version of their beloved family-friendly animated films. Always one to outdo himself, one of Esquire magazine most infamous articles, “Frank Sinatra has a Cold” detailed a fight that Ellison and Sinatra got into after pool game went sideways.
Ellison was no stranger to the court system either. An independent author, Ellison often felt incredibly protective of his ideas. He sued Fantagraphic comics for alleged defamation and won. ABC television and Paramount Pictures were sued by Ellison after he claimed their TV series Future Cop was based on his short story “Brillo”, in which he won a $337,000 verdict. Even James Cameron’s Terminator was forced to offer a settlement payment and partial creative credit to Ellison after a ruling saw that the film franchise owed a debt of inspiration to an Ellison Outer Limits script, “Soldier”.
Ellison’s legacy would continue no less impressive as the years progressed. He penned the short story and helped develop the screenplay for 1975’s post-apocalyptic film, A Boy and his Dog. Ellison would later serve as a creative consultant for the 1980s remake of The Twilight Zone series as well as Babylon 5.
Ellison’s golden years were arduous. In 1994, he underwent a quadruple coronary artery bypass surgery for a serious heart attack. In the years that followed, the author struggled with clinical depression. In 2014, he suffered a stroke which left him paralyzed on the right side of his body before succumbing to old age June 28th, 2018 at the age of 84. In his prime, Ellison ultimately penned over 1,700 short stories and scripts that came to define popular culture for entire generations to come, garnering him multiple prestigious writing awards, including Hugos, Nebulas, and Edgar Awards.
According to Stephen King, “There was no one quite like him in American letters, and never will be. Angry, funny, eloquent, hugely talented. If there’s an afterlife, Harlan is already kicking ass and taking down names.” Comedian, Patton Oswalt, remarked of Ellison’s passing, “My heart is broken. Off to gather what few thoughts I can for a while. What an awful day. Harlan Ellison is dead.” Sandman and American Gods author, Neil Gaiman, said of his interactions with Ellison, “Harlan told me about wasting time and I thought, fuck it, I could be a writer. And he told me that anything more than twelve minutes of personal pain was self-indulgence. … When I got home I took all the pain and the fear and the grief, and all the conviction that maybe I was a write, damn it, and I began to write. And I haven’t stopped yet.”
For so many countless others, just like Gaiman and King, Ellison has been an indispensible wealth of inspiration, if not a cautionary tale. Few people truly affect institutional shifts in culture and art as prolifically as Ellison has, all while allowing his words to belie the equally monumental persona behind them. Mirroring the advice Gaiman received from Ellison, rather than indulging in a man’s death, celebrate the innumerable works that live on.