Filmmaker Erik Nelson began shooting the multi-award winning author of some 75 books, 1700 short stories and essays and a raft of classic teleplays (The Outer Limits' "Demon with a Glass Hand," Star Trek's "City on the Edge of Forever") -- back in 1981 for a PBS segment and continued to film the notoriously contentious Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Grand Master for the next 25 years. The result is a fascinating, if cautious, portrait of a great writer and a world-class crank who is never less than compelling and often completely justified in his rants. Nelson opens with Ellison's friend Robin Williams posing a number of outrageous questions culled from Ellison lore, only to find that much of it is true: Did you really mail a dead gopher to a publishing house? (Yes.) Did you really break the pelvis of a network exec? (Yes.) Have you really slept with over 500 women? (No. The number is closer to 700.) Did you ever throw a fan down an elevator shaft? (No. But given Ellison's hair-trigger temper, that may change.) By his own account -- and Nelson allows the brutally frank Ellison to tell his own story, often through readings from such autobiographical works as "One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty" and "All the Lies that Are My Life" -- Ellison grew up a bullied, smart-mouthed Jewish pipsqueak in a small, anti-Semitic Ohio town, who cut his literary teeth writing for the penny-a-word pulps in New York City in the mid-1950s. After a two-year stint in the Army, Ellison eventually landed in L.A. where he began building on a body of work that already included novels and hundreds of stories. He also became something of a counterculture icon, touring college campuses, penning trippy, mind-bending TV scripts, editing the important sci-fi anthology series Dangerous Visions and joining Martin Luther King in his march in Selma, Alabama. Ellison's first foray into screenwriting -- the 1966 camp classic THE OSCAR -- would be his last, but his stories would continue serve as the inspiration for a generation of writers and filmmakers (like TERMINATOR director James Cameron, whose blatant borrowings from "Demon with a Glass Hand" and "Soldier" prompted successful lawsuit by Ellison).
With friends/fans like Neil Gaiman, Ronald Moore (Battlestar Galactica) and Williams on hand to put his achievement and his personality in perspective (Gaiman describes him as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, who can also act like a furious five-year-old), Ellison emerges as the unpredictable guest who can either make or break your party, railing against the devaluation of writers and writing, American anti-intellectualism, the women who burned him, editors and directors who muck around with his stuff, and anyone who thinks they're going to get something out of him without paying for it; his righteous rant against Warner Bros., who wanted to use a interview with Ellison as a bonus feature without cutting him a check, should serve as a manifesto for young writers. But he's also a tireless and litigious champion of writers' rights -- he recently spent the bulk of his savings on a lawsuit against AOL after a user uploaded Ellison's work to a Usenet group without permission -- and if Nelson doesn't press him on subjects that would lead to a temperamental explosion, the relative calm allows us to catch a glimpse of a man who, for many, is and always will be a hero. leave a comment --Ken Fox