‘China Syndrome’ Screenwriter Mike Gray Dies at 77

Greatest Hits: "The China Syndrome" (1979)
Everett Collection

The movie about an accident at a nuclear reactor, starring Douglas and Jane Fonda, coudln't have been better timed: It was released 12 days before the partial meltdown at a reactor at Three Mile Island.

The thriller, about a cover-up at a nuclear power plant, opened 12 days before the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979.

Mike Gray, who co-wrote the prescient Oscar-nominated screenplay for the nuclear-disaster film The China Syndrome, died April 30 of heart failure at his Hollywood Hills home, the Los Angeles Times reported. He was 77.

Gray developed the story for the thriller, which starred Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas, after researching the dangers of nuclear power. Twelve days after China Syndrome opened in theaters on March, 16, 1979, a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania went into a partial meltdown.

In the film, a physicist warns that the "China Syndrome" -- a fictional worst-case result of a nuclear meltdown -- would render “an area the size of Pennsylvania” permanently uninhabitable. The movie became a box-office hit, grossing $51.7 million domestically, even though Columbia Pictures pulled the film from some theaters in the immediate wake of the accident.

“I meant China Syndrome to educate people about what I’d found … that our heavy reliance on nuclear plants hadn’t been clearly thought through,” Gray, who co-wrote the script with T.S. Cook and James Bridges, told the Chicago Tribune in 1998.

Gray, Cook and Bridges won the WGA Award for best original drama, and their screenplay received Golden Globes and BAFTA nominations.

A native of Darlington, Ind., who earned an engineering degree from Purdue University, Gray also wrote, produced and directed for the ABC sci-fi series Starman and produced 13 episodes of the syndicated Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Gray also collaborated with Howard Alk (a cinematographer on D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back) on documentaries including American Revolution II (1969), about the turmoil of the 1960s, and The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971), about the FBI raid in 1969 in which Chicago Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton was killed.

Gray also wrote books including 1992’s Angle of Attack, about America’s race to the moon, and 1998’s Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess and How We Can Get Out, about the U.S. war on drugs.

Survivors include his wife, Carol, and son Lucas.