Once referred to as the "20th Century Lewis Carroll," writer Harlan Ellison, one of the most prolific and outspoken authors of speculative fiction, also earned a well-deserved reputation as an ingenious screenwriter during a career that spanned more than a half-century. The author of dozens of novels and thousands of short-stories, articles, essays and columns, Ellison garnered multiple Hugo and Nebula awards, a pair of Edgar Allen Poe awards and four Outstanding Teleplay trophies from the Writers Guild of America, to name but a few of his accolades. Ellison's revered television work included "Demon with a Glass Hand," a tale from "The Outer Limits" (ABC, 1963-65) and the script for "City on the Edge of Forever," an acclaimed first-season episode from the groundbreaking science fiction series "Star Trek" (NBC, 1966-69). Nearly as well known for his contentious and litigious nature, Ellison won a law suit decades later, claiming that the concept for the James Cameron film "The Terminator" (1984) was inspired by his "Demon with a Glass Hand" script. Despite his combative relationship with Hollywood, it was one that continued to bear fruit with such projects as the early Don Johnson film "A Boy and His Dog" (1975), based on Ellison's novel of the same name, and writer-consultant-actor work on the space adventure series "Babylon 5" (TNT, 1994-98). Few other purveyors of science fiction/fantasy/horror could lay claim to have had as influential or lengthy an impact on the genres as had Ellison.
Born May 27, 1934 in Cleveland, OH, Ellison was raised in a Jewish household in Middle America. According to his own accounts, the future scribe took on a variety of odd jobs as a young man, working as a taxicab driver, a short-order diner cook, and a door-to-door salesman. Almost without question was his undying love for science fiction; as a boy he devoured both ambitious novels and the garish pulp publications of the day, going so far as found his own "fanzine" dedicated to the genre by the age of 17. After briefly attending Ohio State University, Ellison dropped out, following continued run-ins with the established academia. He moved to New York in 1955 to begin his writing career, and in just a few years, churned out more than 100 science fiction short stories and articles. During that time, the feisty, temperamental writer invented a pseudonym, "Cordwainer Bird," which he would use, first, in writing soft-core adult stories, and later, as his own "Alan Smithee" credit when he wanted his name removed from works he deemed tarnished by editors or executives.
After a stint in the U.S. Army from 1957 to 1959, Ellison moved to California to begin writing for television. In a relatively short time, he had sold scripts to such shows as "Route 66" (CBS, 1960-64) and "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour" (CBS/NBC, 1962-65). During this time, he would write two teleplays that would bring him both fame and infamy. His script for a second-season episode of "The Outer Limits," entitled, "Demon With a Glass Hand" (1964) and starring Robert Culp, won Ellison a Writers Guild Award for best teleplay. The story involved a man suffering from amnesia, being pursued by alien beings through a modern-day city, with only his bizarre robotic hand offering clues to his origin. Decades later, Ellison would see similarities between this episode (as well as another, "The Soldier," which he had also written) and the popular "Terminator" series of movies. After filing a lawsuit against filmmaker James Cameron, he would win a settlement and an "inspired by" credit in reissues of these Arnold Schwarzenegger films.
Ellison's other infamous teleplay was "City on the Edge of Forever" (1967), a first-season episode of "Star Trek" (CBS, 1966-69) wherein the crew of the Enterprise finds themselves trapped in an alternate 1930s timeline which threatens to change history. The original teleplay featured a drug-addicted crewman, as well a degree of moral ambiguity in the storyline. Series creator Gene Roddenberry objected, insisting that his vision of the future would, by then, be free of such human frailties. Ellison loudly protested, and for years circulated memos and his own recollections, castigating Roddenberry for betraying his own original take. The episode went on to win a Writer's Guild Award, as well as various science fiction awards. In 1992, Ellison finally made peace with his decades-long beef, publishing a book about his experiences and including his original script for comparison.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, even as he continued to write periodically for TV shows such as "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." (NBC, 1964-68) and "Logan's Run" (CBS, 1977-78), Ellison became a vocal critic of television in general, insisting that its focus on the bottom line resulted in watered-down ideas and dumbed-down storytelling. He often lamented that the television business missed its opportunity to communicate with mass audiences on a more intelligent level, so much so, that he published two essays on the subject: The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat. In 1973, Ellison co-created an original science fiction show, "The Starlost," resulting in his pilot teleplay winning a Writer's Guild Award. However, as usual, Ellison, upset with changes made by the producers, threw his weight around, successfully having his name removed from the credits and replaced with his pseudonym, Cordwainer Bird. The show, which starred "Star Trek" regular Walter Koenig (Chekov) and revolved around a group of refugees from a dying planet Earth, struggling to survive onboard a massive spaceship, aired only in Canada and was seen in the U.S. primarily on bootlegged videotapes swapped and sold at science fiction conventions.
Despite, or perhaps, because of his tendency to ruffle feathers of the powers-that-be, Ellison continued to be sought after for original ideas and adaptations. His novella, A Boy and His Dog, a grim account of the depths of friendships, was turned into a 1975 movie starring Don Johnson. Ellison was also commissioned to write the screenplay adaptation of "I, Robot," based on the short stories of Isaac Asimov. Ellison's version was published on its own in the mid-1980s, when the project's silver screen future appeared dormant. His take hewed closer to the original Asimov work and bore little resemblance to eventual 2003 film starring Will Smith. In 1985, Ellison was named creative consultant for a new TV version of "The Twilight Zone," produced by Steven Spielberg, which aired on CBS for four years. He wrote an installment for the premiere episode, entitled "Shatterday," starring then up-and-comer Bruce Willis, and went on to write several more. He also wrote an episode of the similarly-themed 1984 cult hit, "Tales From the Darkside" (syndicated, 1984-88).
Ellison fell away from series television for a few years, concentrating on novellas and short story collections. In 1995 he returned to the fray as a conceptual consultant on the sci-fi hit, "Babylon 5." He also wrote two season five episodes and appeared in occasional cameos. The show, which lasted five seasons and returned for 1999 made-for-TV movie, was a cult hit, and helped usher in a new era of successful science fiction television. Despite his presence in futuristic, speculative fiction, Ellison allegedly never used a computer or word processor to write, insisting on a manual typewriter instead. He also remained ambivalent about computers and the Internet altogether. However, he did allow a prominent short story, I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream to be adapted into a video game. Both were about a group of humans trapped in a vast underground labyrinth, who are tortured by a malevolent, all-seeing computer, for which Ellison provided the voiceover on the game. He also provided the audio components for books-on-tape from science fiction authors such as Orson Scott Card and Arthur C. Clarke. Among the ongoing controversies with Ellison was his long-promised third installment of his Dangerous Visions book series, a collection of science fiction stories from prominent authors; the first two published in 1967 and 1972, respectively; with the third volume repeatedly postponed.
He wrote the teleplay "The Discarded" an installment of the short-lived anthology series "Masters of Science Fiction" (ABC, 2006-07), about a group of despised, exiled mutants seeking refuge on Earth. Never camera shy, the writer also contributed an acting cameo to the lauded episode. One year later, Ellison was the subject of the feature documentary "Dreams with Sharp Teeth" (2008), which featured such luminaries from the realms of film and literature as Robin Williams and Neil Gaiman discussing Ellison's work and his impact on speculative fiction, film and television.