Harlan Ellison: The Don Rickles of the Literary World

The first thing Harlan Ellison did when he entered the classroom was ask for a paper cup. He then told the seventeen UCLA students, “Every time one of you pinheads uses the word ‘like’ as if you were a Valley Girl, you will put a quarter in this cup.”

He next barked at a student who was writing in his notebook, “You don’t have to write anything down! This will not be on a test.  I hate stereotypes of Asian Americans who write everything. You are Asian American aren’t you?

“I’m Filipino,” the stunned student answered.

“That’s Asian…sort of…well…it’s not actually Asian. It’s semi-Asian,” Ellison said.

When the girl next to the Filipino student leaned over to whisper something, Ellison challenged her. “You don’t have to soothe him. He’s an adult. He can take care of himself. If he gets really upset he can start to weep and then I’ll come over and slap him.”

Then he said to them all, “Essentially I hate everyone your age. Mostly because you actually believe the Internet is a positive thing, and you cannot be separated from that shit music for more than three seconds. It is my hope that all of you who walk down the street with an iPOD plugged into your head are hit by a Seven Santini Brothers moving van. I look down on a lot of you,” he continued, “not because you’re not terrific people, but because you’re not stupid, you’re ignorant. Big difference. Ignorance is never having seen a film by Akira Kurosawa. It’s not knowing who Guy de Maupassant is.”

Mind you, I hadn’t yet introduced Harlan Ellison to the class. They, of course, knew who he was and what he had accomplished because we had been preparing for him for a month. He had insisted that they read the large collection of his stories The Essential Ellison and that we see Dreams With Sharp Teeth, the documentary film about him that hadn’t yet been released. But no matter what you read about him, or see on film, you can never be fully prepared for the head-on assault that is Harlan Ellison.

He promised that by the end of the evening, he would have insulted everyone in the room. “By the way if I miss, during the evening, saying something offensive to you, insulting your sexual proclivity, your physical disability, your race, your religion, your sex, anything, please, raise your hand. I’ll get to you, I promise. I’ll say something really nasty.”

As the class was supposed to interview him, he was asked a question. 45 minutes later, he came around to answering it. During this stream-of-conscious free-associating response he touched on movies and books that were meaningful to him, admonishing the students that if they didn’t know who or what he was talking about, they were ignorant and unworthy of graduating from UCLA.

“How many of you have never seen Singing in the Rain? Write down ‘Singing in the Rain.’  Who knows what a roustabout is? What a sand shack is? There are some things that if you want to be an educated person in this life that you absolutely must know. You don’t need to know what the Elgin Marbles are. You don’t need to know what the Boxer Rebellion was actually about. But you must know some things. Otherwise you’re a f***ing illiterate.”

Harlan Ellison– winner of 8 Hugos, 3 Nebulas, 5 Bram Stoker Awards, 2 Edgar Awards, 4 Writer’s Guild Awards for Most Outstanding Teleplay, the Horror Writer’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and the first Living Legend Award by the International Horror Guild–was just getting started. The students were in for a night they would never forget.

Some of them turned to me, as if to say, “Help. I’m too ignorant for this guy. How do you interview a whirling dervish motor mouth who doesn’t pause or come up for air during his harangues?”  But I just smiled. I told them this was going to be a challenge. After all, Harlan Ellison didn’t earn his reputation as a ballsy, in-your-face, audacious, smug provocateur writer/lecturer by allowing you equal time and space. Ellison’s bravado was that he kept you off balance. Short guys are like that.

His reputation for being brash, obnoxious, wisecracking and prolific precedes him. Back in 1967 Ellison’s book of stories, I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream, and the richly acclaimed book of stories by other science fiction writers called Dangerous Visions, which Ellison edited, brought these similar assessments by two at the apex of the speculative fiction genre: Isaac Asimov and Theodore Sturgeon.  “Harlan is a giant among men in courage, pugnacity, loquacity, wit, charm, intelligence—indeed in everything but height,” wrote Asimov in the introduction to Dangerous Visions. “He is…colorful, intrusive, abrasive, irritating, hilarious, illogical, inconsistent, unpredictable, and one hell of a writer,” Sturgeon wrote in his introduction to I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream.


I’m not sure when I first met Harlan, but I think it was in 1975, when he joined fellow sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon and scientist Gentry Lee, the mission-operations Manager for the Viking Unmanned Mars landing, in an Antioch College/West sponsored seminar called Science Fiction to Science Fact: the Mission to Mars.  I was the assistant director of the college at the time and though we held this seminar in a funky space on the corner of Fairfax Ave and Santa Monica Blvd, the room was crammed full of fans of the writers and of techno-nerds from Cal Tech. As pugnacious as Ellison can be, he showed respect for Sturgeon and for Lee, who would later go on to co-write a novel with one of the deans of the speculative genre, Arthur Clarke.

Next, I remember being in the same movie theater during a screening of Blue Collar in 1978, thirty years ago, when Ellison started complaining out loud that he was too short to see over other people’s heads, asking why so many people had long hair? Early in the film Richard Pryor says to a woman about Yaphet Kotto, “Better leave your fingerprints behind, because he’s going to eat everything else.” Ellison broke out into loud hysterics, repeating the line so everyone in the audience could hear it again. “That’s one of the greatest f***ing lines I ever heard,” he shouted.

After the World Trade Center was destroyed in 2001, Harlan and I were among 34 writers (including Ken Kesey, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Maxine Hong Kingston, T.C. Boyle, Ishmael Reed and Alice Walker) who were asked to contribute essays about the event for a book called September 11: West Coast Writers Approach Ground Zero. We appeared together at a book reading and signing at a Border’s Bookstore in West Hollywood. Harlan came with a box of some of his other books to sell and sign. He also brought a half dozen fancy, expensive fountain pens, which he laid in front of him, so he could pick and choose which one to use. He obviously enjoyed the process. And when he read his essay—about how he decided to turn down appearing on Bill Mahr’s Politically Incorrect show because he had nothing to say about what to do with Osama Bin Laden and the fight for increased Homeland Security—he read it with gusto, especially the parts about how much he disliked Jerry Falwell, who appeared on Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club and blamed the Twin Tower bombings on “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians…the ACLU, People for the American Way…I point the finger in their face and say, ‘you helped this happen.’”

Here’s what Ellison had to say about that: “In the dead of night, masked marauders should stalk and ensnare Jerry Falwell in his bed, his coiffed cap of majestic silver hair mussed as a haystack, drag him into the bayou, to an abandoned cray fisherman’s shanty, hang him up with his arms handcuffed behind his back on a slaughterhouse hook screwed into the top half of a Dutch door, strip him to his gourmand gut, slick and pale as a planarian worm, and beat him across the belly with an aluminum ballbat till his piss runs red.”

“I’m pretty big on revenge,” Ellison told the students after describing how he once threw a giant woofer over a hotel balcony when a gang of partygoers were disturbing his sleep with their loud music. When one large tattooed guy made a move toward him, Ellison dug his own fingernails into his forearm to draw blood, egging the guy to make a move. The guy backed off, thinking Ellison had to be crazy.  “If somebody screws with me, the chances are good that I will get ‘em. But I will wait. I’m patient. I’m like a mean snake on a warm rock. You don’t poke me, I won’t bite you. But if you poke me, I will get you if I have to chase you all through the desert and you will go to your grave with my teeth in your throat. That’s the way I operate.”

When asked how he had developed his “blue collar” work ethic, he answered, “I’ve been on my own since I was thirteen. I grew up having to use my wits. My parents were not wealthy. We weren’t poor, but we had a lot of meals with noodles. I was born during the Depression.  My parents died pretty much penniless. Every dollar I’ve ever made I earned myself. I don’t believe in luck. Louis Pasteur said, ‘Chance favors the prepared mind.’ The smarter you are, the more you know, the better. I was the only Jew in town and I was my generation’s Bart Simpson. I knew the world could be mine.”

He didn’t come to that conclusion in his teens, admitting that he hadn’t kissed a girl until he was nineteen. But once he sold his first story and moved to Los Angeles, his life, and his perception of himself, changed. “I was having carnal knowledge of at least four women a day,” he bragged. “I stopped counting when I hit 700. Plus, I was writing at the peak of my form.”

That peak would last a lifetime. “I’ve got fifty years of writing,” he said. “I’ve spent my whole life putting everything on paper. My posterity is on the shelf. The best part of me is in the books.”  What’s in those books are 1700 short stories, nine novels and novellas, essays and TV criticism,  graphic adaptations, anthologies he’s edited, as well as screenplays, TV shows, and recorded audio tapes. He has appeared in bookstore storefronts writing stories suggested by his audience. He married five times.

“I married women at stages in my life when it seemed like the thing to do,” he said. “When I look back at them they always seem very silly to me. Four marriages are serious mistakes, they are not idle mistakes. I had to go through that. I got it right finally with Susan, whom I’m nuts about.”

The one relationship he didn’t want to talk about was the one with his sister Beverly. “With the exception of saying, ‘Hello, Beverly,’ at my mother’s funeral around 1981, the last time I spoke to my sister was December of 1962. I was in Cleveland some months ago and my niece, whom I adore, was desperate to have me come see [her mother] Beverly. What is there to say after fifty years? She just didn’t like me and she treated me badly. My sister and I never got along. There’s a great quote by Alexander Dumas: ‘There are some words that when spoken, close an argument like an iron door.’ There is some shit you just don’t say. She went over the line and she breached that which was supportable to me. She doesn’t exist in my universe. Gone. She’ll go to her grave and I’ll go to mine.”

The class was supposed to last two hours and after that I gave the students permission to leave, but none of them did.  Harlan talked for five hours, and when he left he told me, “I usually get $10,000 to do what I did tonight.”  Instead, I said, “You’ll get seventeen essays describing how they saw you.”

What Harlan would read about himself were lines like these: “A one-man circus is a more accurate description of what occurred the night that Harlan Ellison came.”     “…like a caffeinated cartoon.”

“He only answered seventeen questions out of potentially hundreds in the span of five hours.”

“He talked faster than anyone I’ve ever met and threw out enough obscure cultural references to make me acutely aware of my meager 21 years as compared to his 73.”

“His way of speaking forces one to question the sufficiency of the exclamation point.”

“He drenched the class in juxtapositions, and with accents ranging from trucker to Yiddish.”

“Ellison is like a James Joyce book, in that he contains far more in between the lines than on the surface.”

“With a venomous tongue, truth-seeking eyes and unfathomable depth of mind, Harlan unlocks a beastly perception of the world where nothing is fair, most everyone is a pinhead and God, if She exists, has deserted the human race out of utter disgust for what we have become.”

‘He seemed burdened with the need to prove himself to the world.”

“Harlan Ellison brought with him a picture of he and Steve McQueen, the man he said literally saved his life. During the course of the interview he never explained how his life was saved.”

“His writing career has made him well of financially, though he does not classify himself as rich—Stephen King and Anne Rice are rich.”

“Ellison entertained me more than I ever could have expected. He morphed our interview into a collage of everything from his childhood to current political crises, regularly weaving in his angry temperament. When he got angry, he screamed at the top of his lungs and his eyes bulged out of their sockets.”

“Perhaps one of the most enigmatic qualities of Ellison is that he is a walking panorama of the many gradients of anger: he can have the confrontational ferocity of a belligerent Napoleon-esque figure; he can foam at the mouth like a vicious bull dog; and then instantaneously transform into a Jewish, more provocative version of the gassy grandpa archetype so lovably and irritatingly manifested in the cantankerous Frank Barone character of TV’s Everybody Loves Raymond.”

After such a performance—and performance seems the appropriate word—I must say that in all the years I have known and read Harlan, he has been consistent in his sense of who he is.  He is, by almost all accounts, a remarkably singular man. A man who will always manage to get the last word.

“I go to bed angry every night, I wake up angry every morning. There are certain injustices in this life you’ve got to do something about. You can’t just say that you can’t fight it, or it’s too much trouble, or that you don’t have the time or the effort, or that you can’t win. Forget all that. Fight them all! I fight them all because you never know which one is the big one. You never know which you give up and then it will come back and bite you in the ass. You never look away from a mountain lion, you lock eyes and you don’t let him get behind you.”



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