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Harlan Ellison: How I Snookered Hollywood

Being brazen got the famous writer his big Hollywood Breakthrough.

It’s hard to say whether Harlan Ellison has gained more recognition for his speculative fiction or as a combative personality and unofficial spokesman for writers, but in both cases, his output is prodigious. It includes two novels, rafts of short stories and classic episodes of “Twilight Zone,” “Star Trek” and “Outer Limits” that won him three of his record four WGA awards. A documentary about him, “Dreams With Sharp Teeth,” was just released on video. Ellison spoke with Eric Estrin about coming to town broke, snookering his first Hollywood agents, and how he paid the bills while waiting for Alfred Hitchcock.

It was completely and totally circumstance that I wound up in Hollywood at all. I was divorcing my second wife. We were in Chicago, and I had been doing books and magazines, and I had been editing Rogue magazine for a publisher in Evanston. And my wife said to me, “If you’re going to leave me, at least take me to California where it’s warm.” It sounds whimsical and flighty, but in fact it made perfectly good sense.

I said, yes, I would do that, being an honorable chap, and she being a very, very fine woman. And after much sturm und drang and genuine travail, we arrived here on Jan. 1, 1962.

We had been stove in by a drunken cowboy with a bottle in one hand and a blousy blonde in the other at Ft. Worth at Christmastime, and we had been stuck in a motel in Ft. Worth. We limped into L.A. literally with 10 cents — that’s exactly what I had; this is not hyperbole. I had a dime in my pocket.

I had no agent in town, but fortunately my literary agent in New York, Bob Mills, was associated with the huge talent agency, GAC, that was owned by Universal. At GAC there were two people Bob knew from New York, because they had been in publishing there. One of them was Malcolm Stuart, who with Otto Preminger’s brother Ingo had the Preminger-Stuart Agency, and they had sold themselves to GAC.

So, I was a legacy to Malcolm and Ingo by way of Bob Mills, but I had never met them, I had never pitched a script, I had never seen a script.

I call GAC and I get an underling, Malcolm’s personal secretary or whatever, and I say, “This is Harlan Ellison’s personal secretary. I believe Mr. Robert Mills has called, and Mr. Stuart is expecting a call from Mr. Ellison.”

So Malcolm Stuart gets on, and I say, “Mr. Stuart? Will you please hold for Mr. Harlan Ellison?” I now put the phone to my chest, wait three beats, come back on and say, “Malcolm? Harlan. Well, I guess Bob told you that I was expanding and going into film now, and he thought GAC and I would be a good marriage. Could you send a car for me?”

He did in fact go to the mailroom and send Budd Moss, who later became a very, very influential actors’ agent, to pick me up in a car. So Budd comes with a couple of other people, and I say, “Oh listen, my wife is sitting here, would you take her to lunch?” So one of the guys took Billie up Vine Street to the Brown Derby and took her to lunch while we went to Beverly Hills.

Now we get to Beverly Hills and we get up to the office, and they call all the agents into the room, because here’s the big novelist Harlan Ellison, and Malcolm has said this guy is bright, up-and-coming … this is shortly after one of my books got a Dorothy Parker review, so I was entering into one of my 15-minute periods of fame, which have occurred over the years. And they begin talking to me about doing scripts, about getting me jobs.

Now, one of the reasons I was out here, and so they already knew about this, was that Alfred Hitchcock had bought my book, “Memos From Purgatory,” and I was going to write that as a script, but I needed money immediately. So I said Yes, I’d like to dip my toe in. As I said, I had never seen a script in my life. They proceed to send someone to pay our hotel bill, and they moved us to the Travelodge across from the Mormon Tabernacle on Santa Monica Boulevard, which was very nice.

The two guys who represented me were Stuart Robinson, who became the Stuart Robinson Agency when he went out on his own; and Marty Shapiro, who joined up with Mark Lichtman and became my agent for the last 40 years. I’ve never had another agent in this town after GAC.

So Stu Robinson with whom I became very, very tight — I let him in on what was really going on, and he thought it was hilarious how I had snookered them into doing for me what they would have done for, I don’t know, Kurt Weill or Christopher Isherwood back in the day. And they never asked me for the money to pay them back for the cost of the motel or the meals or any other goddamn thing.

And Stu got me an episode of “Ripcord.” And I wrote this episode of “Ripcord” while I was writing the Alfred Hitchcock script.

The Hitchcock script I handed in later, but the “Ripcord” that I did was called “Where Do the Elephants Go to Die?” And that was how I got into the business.