Harlan Hits Hollywood

June 30, 2018

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Harlan Ellison wrote some of my favorite television episodes, and hopefully some of yours.  There are the acknowledged classics for The Outer Limits and Star Trek, yes, and the combative stints on The Starlost and the eighties Twilight Zone.  But there are lesser-known gems, too.  There’s the quartet of gleefully horned-up Burke’s Law whodunits, all of which call out or lean into or send up the lust and misogyny that became Aaron Spelling’s golden ticket.  If you want a truly pure exercise in pop, sexy and slick, put on “Who Killed Alex Debbs?,” a riff on Playboy Club glamour that opens with the Hugh Hefner character’s corpse stuffed in a gilded cage.

There is the harrowing addiction story “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” which Ellison wrote for his friend Zalman King’s ambitious series The Young Lawyers (and which, because it overlapped with the truculent scribe’s short-lived TV column for The Los Angeles Free Press, became one of the best-documented cases of network neutering in an especially timorous era).  And there is Cimarron Strip’s “Knife in the Darkness,” a bold genre hybrid that followed Jack the Ripper to the American frontier.  “It was an examination of urban violence versus western violence, and urban violence wins every time,” the series’ producer, Christopher Knopf, told me.  Ellison, one of the twentieth century’s greatest complainers, thought “Knife in the Darkness” was badly directed.

Early in my career I interviewed Ellison about one of his early works, an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour based on his 1961 book Memos From Purgatory.  Starring a young James Caan as a thinly disguised, flatteringly buff version of Ellison, “Memo From Purgatory” was the science fiction writer’s first television sale, even though  it sat on the Hitchcock shelf for a couple of years (due to protracted rewrites or network squeamishness or both; Ellison’s memory was atypically vague, and the production records are inaccessible, although he was right for once about this one, which took on a West Side Story phoniness in the execution).  By the time it aired, in the no-one’s-watching Christmas week slot of 1964, Ellison had already done storied battle with the likes of Spelling, Irwin Allen, and the Control Voice (which mispronounced the word “Sumerian” in his narration for “Demon With a Glass Hand,” a flub that Ellison was still mad about decades later).

It could have gone the other way, given how unenthusiastically he suffered fools, but when I called Ellison from my dorm room that afternoon, I caught him in a generous, expansive mood.  Over the course of a ninety-minute conversation Harlan ended up telling me the tale of his ill-starred trek to Los Angeles to follow “Purgatory” into purgatory. That portion of the interview was such a lively digression that I set it aside with the hope of someday asking him to rewrite it as a foreword to one of two relevant books I was working on – a plan complicated somewhat by the fact that I still haven’t finished either manuscript.  Well, so much for that idea.  Harlan, who died on Thursday at the age of 84, has recounted parts of his cross-country odyssey in several essays and interviews, but I think this version may contain a few details not recorded elsewhere.

*

How did your book, which was a work of (mostly) non-fiction, end up on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour?  It was an odd fit for that series and I didn’t know until you told me that it was actually your first script for television.

I guess it was Norman Lloyd or Joan Harrison, I never have been sure which, but it was one or the other, read the book.  It was either recommended to them or they stumbled across it.

I got a call from the Hitchcock office that they wanted to option Memos From Purgatory.  So, I was preparing to divorce my second wife at the time – it was kind of a strange situation – and she said, “As long as you’re going to divorce me, at least take me to California where it’s warm.”  Which seemed like an odd thing to say, but it made a bizarre sort of sense, so I said okay, and I accepted this offer to buy Memos, but only on the condition that I could write the script.  So they sent back word: “Yes, it’s okay, have you ever written any scripts?”  

And I, of course, lied in my teeth and said, “Oh, many.”

I had never even seen a script.  I had never done a teleplay in my when I accepted the gig.  They said, “We’re going to the one-hour format next season, and we’re going to want this script fairly quickly.”  So I said, okay, I would come out. I was sort of commuting between Chicago and New York at the time with my almost ex-wife and her fourteen year-old son from her previous marriage.  And I had no money at all. We got stuck in Cleveland [his hometown] and I had to wait until a check came through for this book I was doing.

We drove out from Chicago in the middle of winter, December [1961], Christmastime.  We were on the road, we got hit by this drunken cowboy on the access bridge leading down to Fort Worth.  We’d have been killed had we not had all our baggage and everything. My typewriter and everything was in the trunk and the backseat, and when this guy hit us doing about 60 miles an hour down this icy bridge, it stove in the back of the car and we got thrown into a whole pile of cars that were sort of smashed up on the bridge.  We got stuck in Fort Worth because we didn’t have the money to get out, and we were in a motel and there was a newspaper columnist who learned that we were there and he knew my name. He did this little bitty piece about “the author Harlan Ellison is stuck in a motel, his typewriter’s been smashed,” and the sheriff [actually police chief] of Fort Worth – I’ll never forget his name, his name was Cato Hightower – Cato Hightower sort of took me under his wing.  All of a sudden there was a garage that offered to fix the car for nothing, there was a stationery place, a typewriter shop that gave me a new Olympia. But we had no money – we had just enough money to pay for the motel.

We had enough money to limp out of Fort Worth, and it was still a long drive to Los Angeles.  We had only enough money for either gas or food, and so for the last I guess about six [or] seven hundred miles, all we had to eat, the three of us, was the last of a box of Stuckey’s pecan pralines.  To this day, to this day, the sight of pecan praline makes me want to throw up.

We limped into L.A., literally limped into L.A.  I had no idea where I was going. I had no contacts at all here.  We came in on the Hollywood Freeway, and I recognized it was Hollywood because I saw the Capitol [Records] Tower.  I turned off, and we went down Vine Street until I saw a TraveLodge and we went in there. We stayed there overnight until the next day, when I could call GAC [General Artists Corporation, a talent agency to which he had been referred] and bluff them into believing that I was this famous writer from New York, and that they’d better hurry up and send a car for me.  And they did! It was a complete and total bluff. It was like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

They put us in a TraveLodge on Santa Monica Boulevard across from the Mormon Tabernacle.  I didn’t have any money at all. We had no way to get out of there, so I had to borrow two hundred bucks from Robert Bloch, an old friend.  And I borrowed from Bob a couple of teleplays, and I, sitting on toilet of this tiny little motel room of the Santa Monica Boulevard TraveLodge while my almost ex-wife and her son slept, I put a board across my lap and I sat there night after night and I wrote the very first teleplay I wrote, which was “Memos From Purgatory.”  It was just after New Years’, so it had to be sometime in January 1962.

Which is interesting, because “Memo From Purgatory” wasn’t broadcast until December 1964, nearly three years later.

There was some kind of an upheaval on the show or at Universal, I don’t know what it was, and they put the script aside for awhile.  Finally, when they got around to needing a rewrite, I already had an apartment. Billie, my almost-ex, a very nice woman, was living up in Brentwood and I was working my ass off to keep her up in this apartment in Brentwood, while I was living in this $135-a-month, two-room little house in Brentwood.  It was a treehouse in Beverly Glen. It’s not even there any more. The street isn’t even there any more. The street got washed away in one of the floods. And on the basis of the Hitchcock script, I was able to get more work and bluff my way through and learn as I went along, and I think along about my fourth or fifth script won the Writers Guild Award for best teleplay of the year in whatever category it was, [for] The Outer Limits’ “Demon With a Glass Hand.”

I was going to ask you if you remembered watching “Memos From Purgatory” when it was first broadcast, but perhaps you don’t, since it wasn’t actually the first one.

It’s a moderately funny story about what happened the night it aired.  I was living in Beverly Glen, in this little treehouse. The television set that I had was a real small TV, with rabbit ears, and the antenna was up the side of the mountain behind the house.  I mean this house, literally and actually, sat half on a rock ledge and the other half sat in the crotch of a gigantic banyan tree. It was raining that night, it was raining terribly. And the antenna, which was up the hill – rabbit ears down in the house and an actual antenna up on the hill; I mean, there was no cable – well, the antenna fell over.  

I had invited all these people to come and see the show, and we couldn’t get any reception.  So a friend of mine volunteered to go up, and he put on my raincoat, and he stood up there in the pounding rain, a really torrential downpour.  He stood up there holding the fuckin’ antenna up. And I was kind of, you know, upset that he was up there, not to mention that there were cougars or mountain cats – really, there were catamounts or cougars or whatever the fuck they are – up there running loose, because it’s all watershed land.  And I was terrified that he was going to get eaten, or washed away, or drowned, or fall off the mountain, or something. So about midway through I went up and I took his place. And I came back drenched, soaking wet, I looked like a drowned rat, and everybody was raving about this thing, and I had only seen about half of it.

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Cosmopolitan ran a behind-the-scenes article on the inner workings of Burke’s Law in January 1964.  Is that Harlan, who’s mentioned in the text, at the typewriter?  Photo by C. Robert Lee

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7 Responses to “Harlan Hits Hollywood”

  1. David Eversole Says:

    That is Harlan in the photo, yes.


  2. My best friend, Artie Poole, now deceased was a manic-depressive, back when it hadn’t yet been renamed ‘bipolar’. Tetchy to the max, he would fight (or threaten to sue you) at the drop of a hat. All the same, he had more prolific, free flowing talent than any five people I knew. Much of Harlan’s m.o. as I read this, puts me in mind of Poole. We had planned to get a house out at Cherry Grove – “Beach on Wheels”. Anarchic non-stop folks who think outside the box can wear us all out. But oh man, do I miss him. Thanks for this wonderful piece, which I’m forwarding to a beloved friend in California.

  3. Lex Passaris Says:

    Great stories, as always! And farewell to Mr. Ellison — or as I often thought of him, given another story I had heard about him during his days writing on the 80s Twilight Zone revival, the man in the bunny suit.

  4. Nat Segaloff Says:

    I love reading stories about how supportive Harlan was of other writers. He must certainly have sensed your intelligence and integrity, and your regard for him comes through in this lovely remembrance. Thank you for posting it.

  5. Nick Caputo Says:

    Thanks for sharing this interview. Harlan was quite a personality and storyteller. I had the pleasure of seeing him speak at several comics/Star Trek cons in the 70s and early 1980s and he was never dull! I still have several tapes I recorded on cassette when he was on the Tomorrow Show, the programs have shown up on youtube and are worth checking out.


  6. Great story.
    Besides a young James Caan, the episode featured A pre-Chekhov Walter Koenig, Lyn Loring, and a nice performance by a pre-Toma Tony Musante. It’s one of the only episodes where Hitchcock doesn’t crack wise at the end (also your interview explains why the subject of juvenile delinquency, which was so prevalent in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s seems slightly dated by 1964).
    Harlan wrote a follow-up story about being incarcerated (I think for a gun charge) and he ran into the gang leader a couple of years later in jail. Almost all the characters from the story were dead or in jail.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Harlan visited the set, only once, I think, but ended up making lifelong friendships with Koenig and Zalman King that day.

      The ending of the TV adaptation was sanitized (and the overall tone much more melodramatic than Harlan’s book). He said that the publisher imposed an ending on the book — I think he meant the part about meeting the guy in jail, although I’m not sure — although his original preference had been to for the protagonist to just bail, as he actually had, and never learn what became of the gang members or offer the reader any kind of phony closure.

      Relative to his ongoing ire about the changes made to “City on the Edge of Forever,” “Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” and even relatively faithful adaptations like “Demon With a Glass Hand,” Harlan struck me as surprisingly dispassionate about the compromises made in the Hitchcock show. Basically he’d already caved on the book and was therefore less invested in the integrity of the TV version, I think.


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