February 22, 2020

Feisty, prolific SF author Harlan Ellison bares ‘Sharp Teeth’ in bio-pic

The first question in the book “Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism” asks “Can one doubt God’s existence and still be a good Jew?” Ask author Harlan Ellison and he’ll tell you that for him the answer is ‘yes.’

“It stems from and resonates with my blood and bones and gristle.” The Jewish-born atheist points to a quote by Mark Twain to articulate his beliefs: “If one truly believes there is an all-powerful deity, and one looks around at the condition of the universe, one is led inescapably to the conclusion that God is a malign thing.”

Like Twain, Harlan Ellison is a man of many words. Sometimes they’re written, sometimes spoken and often they are profound.

“Becoming a writer is easy. The trick is staying a writer.”

After 50 years of creating novels, short stories, essays, teleplays and screenplays, Harlan Ellison has clearly mastered the trick. Along the way, the outspoken author has collected a plethora of awards that include multiple Nebulas, Edgars, Hugos and Writers Guild trophies. The episode he wrote for “Star Trek,” “The City on the Edge of Forever,” was voted the best of the series. Ellison also holds the distinction of being the only writer to win a WGA award for an unproduced teleplay. In May 2006, Ellison received the Grand Master Award from The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, taking his rightful place among such literary giants of the genre as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. And now the celebrated writer is the subject of a new documentary, “Dreams With Sharp Teeth,” the title taken from a three-volume collection of Ellison’s stories.

The documentary by Erik Nelson traces Ellison’s life from his tumultuous childhood in Painesville, Ohio, where Ellison lived as “a Jew in a world where there were no Jews.” Ellison’s Jewish heritage made him a favorite target of physical and verbal abuse by the local bullies. He retaliated years later by naming the villains in his story after his childhood nemeses. “What gets you passionate and angry enough to write are the hurtful memories,” he told Tom Snyder during a 1974 television appearance.

Ellison’s hot-tempered antics are as legendary as his written works. Stories about his public scuffles have been passed around so often they sometimes take on a life of their own, blurring fact and fiction. During one segment of “Dreams With Sharp Teeth,” Ellison’s friend Robin Williams runs down a list of outrageous incidents attributed to the writer, asking Ellison for conformation or denial. One of the few stories Ellison denies is that he once threw a bothersome fan down an elevator shaft.

Author Neil Gaiman, another longtime friend of Ellison’s, offers his observance in the documentary, “You have to accept somebody who is partly one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and partly an … impish and furious 11-year-old boy — and at the same time a cranky old Jew who doesn’t just enjoy his cranky old Jewdom. He revels in it.”

Ellison himself is not sure what his raucous behavior stems from.

“I don’t know whether it’s my Judaism as part of my gestalt or my atheism that’s part of my gestalt, but I was trouble from word one. I was my generation’s Bart Simpson.”

And anyone who has ever attempted to plagiarize Ellison’s work knows just how much trouble he can be. In one his most famous litigations, of which there are many, Ellison successfully sued director James Cameron for “borrowing” elements from two different episodes of “The Outer Limits” written by Ellison and using them in the 1984 blockbuster “The Terminator.” Ellison also fought a David and Goliath battle against media giant AOL when he discovered several of his stories had been reprinted on Web sites without his permission or any financial restitution. Again he was victorious.

The name Harlan Ellison is usually associated with science fiction, but the author has explored his Judaism in several of his 1,700 stories, including “Mom” and “I’m Looking for Kadak,” both which can be found in “The Illustrated Ellison” collection.

“There are a lot of Jews in my stories and when I think I used Jews too many times I substitute with Italians, as I did in my story ‘Laugh Track,’ because the Italians line-up as Jews,” he said.

At 73, Ellison’s creative juices and feisty manner remain vital. He recently adapted one of his stories “The Discarded” for “Masters of Science Fiction,” which airs Aug. 25, 10 p.m., on ABC. Ellison even has a cameo in the show playing an old Jewish mutant.

Still, he is keenly aware of the shadows that surround us all.

“Death is hovering over your shoulder like a salivating fan boy at a ‘Star Trek’ convention. It’s just out of eyeshot but you know its there,” he said.

And for someone who has prided himself on being his own man, Ellison admits that his age has placed him in the ranks of a populous group.

“I’m like all old Jews. We know three things in life. We know guilt, we know Chinese food and we know the location of every pain in our body and we’ll tell you about it endlessly.” Ellison also knows a great appreciation for the important things in his life — his wife, Susan; his Sherman Oaks home; friends; and the occasional Pink’s hot dog.

“I’ve had a very full life.” Ellison said. “A life with which I’ve been enormously pleased and happy, and I’ve been rewarded for my endeavors. I’ve lived my life as if it were a work of art and I was busy hacking away at the sharp edges and trying to make a nice structure out of it, but it’s still a pretty craggy piece of work. The flaws the virtues, all of them are of my own doing. One my favorite phrases is ‘I am a self-made man, thereby demonstrating the horrors of unskilled labor.'”

The Harlan Ellison documentary “Dreams With Sharp Teeth” will be screened at The American Cinematheque Aero Theatre 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica, Thursday, Aug. 9, 7:30 p.m. Ellison will do a book signing beforehand at Every Picture Tells A Story (The Gallery), 1311-C Montana Ave., Santa Monica, 6:30 p.m.

Pat Sierchio is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America, West.