From Autograph Hound to Screenwriter, Ray Bradbury Had a Lifelong Love Affair With Hollywood
Ray Bradbury at his home in Cheviot Hills in 2011
The following excerpt is a chapter from Sam Weller's Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews, a companion to the author's authorized biography of Bradbury. Weller interviewed Bradbury between May 2000 and April 2011, largely in the Cheviot Hills home where Bradbury lived until his death in June 2012. Originally published in 2010, a new hardcover deluxe edition of Listen to the Echoes will be released in October by Hat & Beard Press. This chapter is called "Hollywood"; it's been edited for length.
Until the end of his days, Ray Bradbury kept a stack of weathered autograph books, each roughly the size of a standard-issue banking checkbook. When he moved with his family at the age of 13 to Los Angeles in April 1934, Bradbury immediately began frequenting the old film studios: Paramount, RKO, Columbia and MGM. On his very first sojourn, riding atop steel-wheeled roller skates, he encountered the peerless W.C. Fields, who begrudgingly signed an autograph for the star-crazed teenager and, upon handing back the signature, said, “There you are, you little son of a bitch!”
The autographs in Bradbury’s collection were a veritable who’s who of the Golden Age of Hollywood: Clark Gable. Marlene Dietrich. Judy Garland. Jean Harlow. Henry Fonda. “Best Luck to Ray, Fred MacMurray.” “To my pal Ray, Irvin S. Cobb.” “Here’s to Ray. Sincerely, George Burns.”
Bradbury spent countless sun-drenched afternoons outside the gates of the studios during the heyday of Hollywood, taking photographs, filling his autograph books, and sometimes, on separate occasions, gathering two, three, even four signatures from the same star.
“I was madness, maddened,” he said, looking back on his days as an impetuous autograph hound.
Film had always been at the center of Bradbury’s life, going back to his early years growing up in Waukegan, Illinois, during the Jazz Age.
“I have seen every film ever made,” he liked to say. And while this was a slight overstatement, it was not too far off. Ray Bradbury’s knowledge of movies was encyclopedic.
An argument can be made that Bradbury was the first true 20th-century literary writer to have his sense of narrative shaped by cinema. Bradbury was an idea man. Many of his stories were “high-concept.” His plots were instantly memorable and easily articulated, similar to Hollywood films.
The last dinosaur on Earth lumbers from the depths of the sea, mistaking the moan of a shoreline foghorn for the call of its lost mate.
An assassin storms an amusement park exhibit to shoot a robotic Abraham Lincoln.
A foundling adolescent child, raised by a family of vampires, yearns to be like his loved ones.
The strikingly visual nature of Bradbury’s writing certainly reflected the influence of movies on his imagination. Who could ever forget the Tyrannosaurus rex in “A Sound of Thunder,” with its “pebbled skin the mail of a terrible warrior”? Or The Illustrated Man covered in a “riot of rockets and fountains and people, in such intricate detail and color that you could hear the voices murmuring small and muted, from the crowds that inhabited his body”?
Addressing the visual nature of Bradbury’s oeuvre, filmmaker Sam Peckinpah said to Bradbury once: Adapting Bradbury is easy, just “rip the pages out of the book and stuff them in the camera!”
From his earliest childhood recollections of film, to his experiences of living in Hollywood during its golden era, to his own accomplished work as a screenwriter, film was always a vital component to his identity.
What are your earliest recollections of cinema?
My mother took me to see a movie when I was 2. I’m trying to remember; it was with Erich von Stroheim. It was about some sort of Russian or German wedding. Then, when I was 3, everything changed because she took me to see The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Lon Chaney at the Elite Theater in Waukegan [Illinois]. The Hunchback appealed in some secret way to something inside me, which made me feel, at the age of 3, that perhaps I was some sort of hunchback myself. How this film could have evoked in a 3-year-old a feeling of sympathy, I don’t know, except Chaney was so incredible at doing his portrayal and his lost love was so touching and immediate that my whole soul went forward at that young age and, it seems amazing that in my small body, I would crouch down inside myself and become the Hunchback. A few years later, when I was 5, I saw The Phantom of the Opera and then The Lost World and I was in love.
You moved to Hollywood in April 1934. For a movie fanatic, that must have been nirvana.
I went crazy. My parents let me roller skate into Hollywood, day after day, all during 1934, 1935, 1936, I was away from home. Where was I? I was in front of Paramount Studios and all the other film studios seeing famous people and collecting autographs. It’s a nutty thing. I had one good friend that I hung around the studios with, Donald Harkins. He’s buried near the Eiffel Tower in Paris. So when I go to Paris, I go to visit him. But no one else I knew from my school was outside the film studios like I was, day after day, collecting autographs and taking pictures. I stood outside the Brown Derby restaurant ... every day getting autographs. In 1935 I saw Shirley Temple set her feet in cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I was all over Hollywood.
Bradbury's collection of autographs
How do you think the movies shaped you as a storyteller?
I wouldn’t be where I am without them. All the Lon Chaney films deeply affected me. When he died, it was the end of the world. I thought to myself, “If Mr. Death can die, we’re all in trouble.”
You used to mill about outside the old Uptown Theater in Los Angeles, and you saw many stars of old cinema. What are your memories of that period?
The theater has been gone 30 years or so now. They tore it down. It was a quality theater. MGM put on all their previews there. So there was a preview about one night a week. I saw Laurel and Hardy, and Irving Thalberg in his tuxedo, and Norma Shearer wearing a silver lamé evening gown. After the theater, they’d go over to the Cocoanut Grove. I helped Norma Shearer get into her limousine when I was 14. When we lived in an apartment on Hobart Avenue, I stood out on a balcony and I could see all the way to the theater. There was a red light on top of it and when it was on and blinking — that meant a preview. And I’d get all excited and rush over to the theater.
What sort of golden-era Hollywood encounters did you have while on the job?
People used to come to the corner and talk to me. I must have been a good talker. John Barrymore used to buy newspapers from me, and Buster Keaton, and James Dunn, who made films at 20th Century Fox. Pedro de Cordoba was a customer. He played the priest in Ramona with Loretta Young, which was made in 1936 when I was in high school.
Is there anyone during the golden era that you wish you had met? Is there anyone you didn’t get an autograph from?
Bette Davis. But I did meet her very briefly at the Academy Awards in February 1935 at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A. I was there with a mob of people. They had no barriers and no police to stop us. I looked at a side door and saw Bette Davis trying to get in and she couldn’t open the door. So I ran down and I opened the door for her. I helped Bette Davis get in to win her first Academy Award. I never saw her again after that. I wish I could have.
Do you have a favorite film?
Citizen Kane and Fantasia. I fell in love with those movies in the same year. They are unusual. Nothing like Fantasia has ever been made since. It’s all by itself. And Citizen Kane is a real combination of director, screenplay and acting — all those elements in one film. I knew the first time I saw it that it was the greatest film ever made. Long before film critics started putting it at the top of their “best movie” lists. My intuition worked for me. I came out of the theater and God told me, Citizen Kane will be in your heart forever. I go with my instincts. I saw it again the other night and I’ve never changed my mind.
You began your career as a prose writer. How did you learn to write screenplays?
Going to movies helped. I accumulated all these films in my subconscious, and by the time I was 14, I was seeing as many as four or five films a week. When I was in high school, I was seeing half a dozen films a week or more. So I was putting all this junk into my system, along with the great stuff, and I was learning all the time. The best kind of learning is the secret learning you’re picking up and you don’t really know it, and then you go back later and you dredge through all this material and it helps you write screenplays.
You wrote the narration to the 1961 film King of Kings, yet you were not given a screen credit. Why not?
The author of the screenplay didn’t want to give me credit because he read the screenplay but he didn’t do the narration. He didn’t let someone else give me credit for the narration even though it was true. He wouldn’t allow it.
How did you come to write the screenplay for Moby Dick?
In the late 1940s, my friends started asking me, “Ray, when are you going to do a screenplay?” My answer always was, “When John Huston asks me.” Huston was my hero and I knew that I wanted to work for him. Well, I gave John all of my books of short stories one day in 1951, and he wrote back from Africa where he was making The African Queen and said, “Yes, I agree with you, someday we’ll work together. I don’t know on what.” In 1953, the day finally came. I came home from the Acres of Books bookstore in Long Beach. I was there with my friend Ray Harryhausen looking for dinosaur books. When I walked into the house, Maggie said, “John Huston just called. He wants you to come to the Beverly Hills Hotel.” I went to John Huston’s hotel and I walked into his room. He put a drink in my hand and he sat me down and he leaned over and he said, “Ray, what are you doing during the next year?” I said, “Not much, Mr. Huston. Not much.” And he said, “Well, Ray, how would you like to come live in Ireland and write the screenplay for Moby Dick?” And I said, “Gee, Mr. Huston, I’ve never been able to read the damn thing.” Well! He’d never heard that before, and he thought for a moment and then he said, “I’ll tell you what, Ray. Why don’t you go home tonight, read as much as you can, and come back tomorrow and tell me if you’ll help me kill the white whale.” So I went home that night and I walked in the house and I said to my wife, “Pray for me.” She said, “Why?” I said, “Because I’ve got to read a book tonight and do a book report tomorrow.”
In your 1992 novel Green Shadows, White Whale, you documented your experience of working in Ireland with John Huston. You have been very candid over the years about Huston’s dark side. How soon after you arrived in Ireland, in September 1953, did the relationship begin to sour?
Fairly early on — perhaps a month into the project. I was at lunch one day with John and some English reporters and John said, “I don’t really feel that our young writer here has his heart in writing the screenplay of Moby Dick.” And I froze. I couldn’t move for the rest of the lunch. I couldn’t eat. I was so horrorstruck that he would say that to strangers. When it was over and they were gone, John looked at me and said, “What’s wrong, Ray?” I said, “My God, John, did you hear yourself in there? Here I am adapting the work of one of the greatest American authors, Melville, and I’m working with one of the greatest American directors — you, there’s no one else in the world I want to work for. How could you have said that I didn’t have my heart in the project?” And I began to cry. And John ran over and put his arms around me and said, “Oh, Ray, Ray, it was a joke.” So he apologized and we went on with the friendship and then, a week later, he did something just like that all over again. He couldn’t resist. There was a thing in him that he had to tantalize people. I saw him do it to his secretary. I saw him do it to his wife. The very first day in Ireland that I visited Huston at his home in Kilcock, he made his wife cry right in front of me. It’s a shame. On the other hand, when he wanted to be sweet, no one could romance you better. I’ll give you an example: At dinner one night out in Kilcock, he had a lot of people invited in from Dublin and London and I was seated at one end of the table and John started talking. He said [imitates Huston], “I read a short story the other day about a lighthouse and a foghorn and a monster in the deep, rising up and falling in love with the lighthouse when hearing the foghorn.” John told the story completely. It took 10 minutes. When he was finished he said, to all of his guests, “That story was written by that young man right there,” and he pointed to me. “Well! You’d kill for him, wouldn’t you?” I blushed with pride! My hero had praised me in front of a dozen other people. So you’d kill for him. Then, a week later, bang, in goes the knife in your back.
What other film projects over the course of your career were you offered?
When I returned from Ireland after writing the screenplay for Moby Dick there were several offers but I turned them all down. I had offers to write Good Morning, Miss Dove; Anatomy of a Murder; Les Diaboliques; Friendly Persuasion; and The Man With the Golden Arm. Those were the main ones. I remember walking down Hollywood Boulevard a couple of years later and three of the films I had turned down were playing at theaters at the same time: Good Morning, Miss Dove; Anatomy of a Murder; and The Man With the Golden Arm.
Why did you turn those offers down?
The Man With the Golden Arm, drugs. Anatomy of a Murder, rape.
So it was the subject matter?
Yeah. And I wanted to spend time with my family. I also knew that no one ever remembered screenwriters. How many can you name?
You have a point.
And I didn’t do Friendly Persuasion because they already had a screenplay, written by a Communist sympathizer — or maybe he wasn’t — Michael Wilson, and they went ahead and used his screenplay under an assumed name and later the screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award. They didn’t reveal the writer’s name until many years later. Terrible, terrible period.
They offered it to you but it had already been written?
Robert Wyler, William Wyler’s brother, came to me and said, “We want to do Friendly Persuasion, and we have the rights to the book and here’s a screenplay that’s been done and we think it needs work.” Well, I read it and I said, “It doesn’t need work, shoot it.” And they said, “We can’t.” And I said “Why not?” “Because this guy’s on the list with McCarthy,” and it was after McCarthy had retired even, as I recall, and I said, “Be brave, make the film.” “Well, we can’t do that. Will you work on it?” And I said, “I can’t work on it because it’s perfect and I’m not going to lend my name to a project like this. Change the name and shoot the film and then later you can reveal who the real author is, as long as you pay him, huh?” So they did that and they paid him.
Let’s talk about your relationship with Rod Serling and your work for his series The Twilight Zone. Where did you first meet Serling?
It was around 1958. His series started in ’59 or ’60, something like that. We were at an awards dinner together. He was a friend of writer John Gay, and John Gay was working at producers Hecht, Hill, Lancaster with me on various scripts. We did White Hunter, Black Heart, the John Huston film, together. During this time Rod was doing two-hour specials and he was beginning to be well known, so the night of the awards banquet at the Writers Guild, we sat with Rod and his wife and John Gay. After dinner, Rod said he was starting a series, a fantasy series, but he didn’t really know what he was doing, he needed help. I said, “Come to the house with me right now and I’ll give you books that will help you.” I gave him copies of books by Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, John Collier and Roald Dahl. I said, “Now you’ve got a complete idea of what your show should be like. Buy some of these stories or hire these authors to work for you, because you can’t do the whole thing yourself.”
You have been pretty vocal over the years that you felt Serling stole ideas from you. Can you explain?
He was unconsciously aggressive. He plagiarized unknowingly.
You really believe that?
The first program of The Twilight Zone is based on a story from The Martian Chronicles. He invited me to a screening with my friend Bill Nolan and the other boys in the gang, you know, and when we came out we all looked at each other and said, “God, that looks a little bit like a story from The Martian Chronicles.” I didn’t say anything because I was embarrassed and a month or so later, Rod called me on the phone and said, “Why didn’t you tell me?” I said, “Tell you what?” He said, “Well, my pilot script is based partially on a story of yours from The Martian Chronicles?” He said, “I was in bed reading with my wife and Carol turned over, she was reading The Martian Chronicles and she said, ‘Rod, read this, it’s like your pilot.’” And he said, “My God, I realized that inadvertently I’d stolen part of your idea.” He said, “I’ve gotta buy your story and make amends.” I said, “No you don’t, the very fact that you called me and recognized that happened, that’s it. There are no problems.” Then he hung up and he calls back two weeks later and he said, “I can’t stand it, you know. I can’t stand it. I’ve gotta buy your story. My lawyers will call you.” He hung up and the lawyers never called. He shouldn’t have made the second call. He was off the hook. I let him off the hook. And then he called and talked about his lawyers and they never called. Well, after that, he stole from Henry Kuttner, he stole from John Collier.
Well, again, no, of course not, it was all indirectly, but I got a phone call one night from Bill Nolan, I think it was, who said, “Turn on your set, Rod’s done it again.” And I turned it on and it was a variation of “Presenting Moonshine,” a John Collier story. I don’t think Serling knew what he was doing.
I’m trying to be generous. He wrote too much too soon, you see, and forgot what he was digesting.
Bradbury's movie collection; he's said that Fantasia and Citizen Kane are his favorites.
You helped create a film appreciation society in Los Angeles. Tell me the history of that.
I started it in 1960, I believe. I was on the board of the Writers Guild. I came to a meeting one night, and all the other members of the guild — seven or eight members — were there. I said, “Last night, I saw this film.” They didn’t see it. Then I said, “Two nights ago, I saw that film.” They didn’t see it. I said, “Last Saturday, I saw this third film.” They didn’t see it. I said, “Jesus Christ, this is the screenwriters board. You’re the executive committee. Don’t you see films? That’s stupid!” And the head of the Writers Guild said to me, “Ray, why don’t you start a film society and teach us?” I said, “I will, I will.” So everybody there made fun of me that night. I said, “Don’t make fun of me, I’ll found a film society. I’ll educate writers and change history.” So I turned to Ivan Moffat, who was a screenwriter standing next to me. I said, “Ivan, will you help me form this?” I turned to another writer, his name will come to me, and I said, “Will you help too?” So the three of us founded the film society and within two weeks, we had 2,000 members who joined by giving us $10. And over a period of five or six years, we had $200,000 in the bank from members because we got the films for free (the studios would loan us the films), so we didn’t have to rent them. So we put the money in the bank and when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences got rid of its theater, we bought it. It was the Fox Theater, built in 1921. They moved into it. It was theirs at the Academy, and then I moved in with my group sometime around 1965. Before then, we were showing our films in the basement of a bank. So we were in the basement for about five years, then we moved over to the Fox Theater.
Does the film society still operate today?
Yes. It changed Hollywood. The film society has 3,000 members right now.
Of all the cinematic adaptations of your work, what do you think is best?
The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit is my favorite. The director followed my script. It’s that simple. It’s a beautiful film. It was released direct-to-video. I’ve asked the Disney people to rerelease it to the theaters. I wish they would.
The Martian Chronicles has never been made into a feature film. Going back to the 1950s, Fritz Lang was interested in doing it. John Huston talked about making it into a movie. You have written several scripts for various studios yourself, beginning with MGM in 1962. With all of this interest, why do you think The Martian Chronicles has never been produced as a film?
I don’t know. The studio people want something more sensational. More male macho-ness. There’s not enough killing. Not enough violence. At least it was made into a miniseries on television. It wasn’t great, but it’s there.
You didn’t like the 1982 NBC miniseries?
It was OK. It was just boring.
Does a studio currently own the rights?
Universal. They hired a young writer who did three screenplays for The Martian Chronicles, each worse than the last. I’ve got the scripts in the basement.
What did you think of François Truffaut’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451?
It’s very good, but he made a mistake by casting Julie Christie in double roles as Montag’s wife and as Clarisse. I love the music by Bernard Herrmann. He was a great composer. I helped get him the job working on Fahrenheit. I knew he had just been fired by Hitchcock. They had had arguments over the film Torn Curtain. It’s not a good film. And the point was, if you don’t have much to work with, you can’t write good music. So Hitchcock and Herrmann parted ways. I called Truffaut and said, “Do you have a composer for Fahrenheit 451?” and he said, “No.” I suggested Bernard Herrmann and Truffaut hired him. I’m responsible for that. I’m very proud of that. The music is beautiful.
What are your thoughts on the current films coming out of Hollywood?
The secret of films is screenplays. It has always been. And when an actor who is not known gets a screenplay that’s brilliant, overnight he’s famous. Like Russell Crowe, who won an Academy Award for his role in Gladiator. He’s not a great actor. He’s a nice, bland, character player, but he has good taste in screenplays. Russell Crowe has selected things that improve his image all the time. But he’s not a great actor, just very nice. Take a film like L.A. Confidential. All those actors could be replaced by other actors, but it’s a great screenplay. But you have Kevin Spacey and Russell Crowe and they are wonderful, but they are not great actors — that was a great screenplay. So you think you are watching great performances, but they are just good actors who perform well with a good screenplay. Put Kevin Spacey into a boring film like The Shipping News and you go right to sleep. It’s paint drying, huh? Nicolas Cage is another good example. I love Nicolas Cage. But he’s had good screenplays. He’s worked with great directors, like the Coen Brothers. Raising Arizona is wonderful. And Moonstruck is terrific. But most of those actors are interchangeable. Most people haven’t discovered this, including Hollywood, that the secret is screenplays.
Follow Sam Weller on Twitter at @Sam__Weller.
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