Harlan Ellison is an author, essayist, commentator, actor, activist, and quite possibly the most contentious man alive today. In over fifty years of writing, he has created over seventy books, ten screenplays, innumerable television scripts, and seventeen hundred short stories. The Washington Post called him "one of the greatest living American short story writers," and the Los Angeles Times anointed him with the title of "20th Century Lewis Carroll." This same man has made enemies of many producers and directors (walking out on television studios that change his scripts) and as rumor has it, was nearly punched by Frank Sinatra over his screenplay The Oscar. Despite some interesting stories, Ellison continues to be honored with awards from across the genres and is admired as an amazing writer.
On May 27, 1934 Louis Ellison and Serita Rosenthal gave birth to their second child, Harlan Jay Ellison. Soon after, Louis Ellison took the fall for a friend caught smuggling liquor across the Canadian border, and served time in prison. He did not return to his former dentistry practice after release, and instead, became a jewelry salesman. The Ellison family lived in Painesville, Ohio, and was the only Jewish family in the area, a fact that Ellison said labeled him as "the green monkey" of the area. Prejudice thrived in his neighborhood, where he says he was beaten up regularly. "And I had no friends," he says. "Not just a few friends, or one good friend, or grudging acceptance by other misfits and outcasts. I was alone." Perhaps because of this early experience, Ellison would later become a strong proponent of civil rights, joining Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the historic 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery.
When he was thirteen years old, Ellison ran away from home to join a carnival, where he worked odd jobs. Though he's been a professional writer for a half-century, Ellison could still go back to his teenage existence. "I've been earning my own living since I was thirteen years old, and if I couldn't do it as a writer I'd go back to bricklaying or driving a truck." After the carnival, he attended The Ohio State University in Columbus, but left halfway through his sophomore year, after punching a professor who said he had no talent. Now twenty-one years old, Ellison moved to New York to write. There he masqueraded as a teenager and fell in with a Brooklyn gang for ten weeks. Soon after, he was drafted into the Army, where he finished his novelized account of gang life, Web of the City. Not surprisingly, Ellison did not agree with the military life, and after he left the Army he returned to writing. A few years later, he moved to Southern California -- his reputation as one of the best science fiction writers around quickly growing.
Ellison began writing film reviews, essays, and political commentaries, where his opinions on race relations, free speech, and the Vietnam War took hold of his writing. His stories were thought provoking, volatile, anti-authoritarian, and very popular. He published two of his most well-known stories, "I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream" and "The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World," in 1967 and 1969 respectively.
He started to write for the television and film industry, including shows such as The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and The Twilight Zone. However he did not get along with the typical budget and word cuts and left many projects. Despite his well-known contempt for the effect of television in the world, Ellison has returned many times to the industry. "I wanted to be part of history," he says. "…So I went back to it. And I worked on the (The Twilight Zone) for a year, and…I had a wonderful time with wonderful people. And then I walked off the show because of the censors. They wouldn't let me do a show about racism that I wanted to do at Christmastime."
Currently, Ellison holds the record as the only man to win the Writers Guild of America award for Most Outstanding Teleplay four times. Among his collection are eight Hugo awards for science fiction, two Edgar Allan Poe awards of the Mystery Writers of America, four Horror Writers Association awards (including the Lifetime Achievement Award), and the Silver Pen for Journalism from P.E.N., the international writer's union. He has an end credit for "Inspiration" on John Cameron's Terminator trilogy. And although he still produces original writing, he gets somewhat frustrated about the constant call for new work. "What does it matter if something is old? Charles Dickens said any book you haven't read is a new book…. Yes, of course I'm still writing, but I'm 64 years old now, and I write more slowly."
Harlan Ellison is famous both for his novels and his personality. He is listed in Who's Who of America with the quote, "The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen...and stupidity." His work has appeared under more than twenty-five pseudonyms. He has written complete stories in bookstore windows for publicity stunts, is known to make up fantastical biographies to include in his book jackets, and he still gives out loans to struggling writers. First and foremost, however, Ellison is an author; a recent Booklist magazine review declared of him: "One thing for sure: the man can write." And for his readers and fans across the globe -- that is the only thing that matters.
Photos courtesy of Chris Cuffaro and the Ellison Collection.