Harlan Ellison, Volatile Legend of Science Fiction, Dies at 84

Harlan Ellison - 2014 3th annual Star Trek convention - Getty-H 2017
Gabe Ginsberg/FilmMagic

The writer and Gene Roddenberry famously clashed over "The City on the Edge of Forever," one of the finest episodes of 'Star Trek.'

Harlan Ellison, the eccentric science-fiction writer and fantasist whose innovative body of work spanned novels, short stories, comic books and one contentious episode of the original Star Trek, has died. He was 84.

Ellison died in his sleep Thursday. Christine Valada, a family friend and the widow of Wolverine creator Len Wein, shared the news on Twitter on behalf of Ellison's wife, Susan Ellison. 

Ellison produced more than 1,800 pieces of writing, beginning in 1949 when his hometown Cleveland News gave him his first byline when he was 15.

His best-known published works include his 1959 debut novel, Web of the City; the novellas Mefisto in Onyx and A Boy and his Dog — which was turned into a 1975 post-apocalyptic feature starring Don Johnson; and the short story "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream."

Stephen King, in Danse Macabre, his 1981 homage to horror fiction, praised Ellison's Strange Wine collection of short stories for being among the best published between 1950-80.

The Paradigm Agency expressed its sentiments regarding Ellison's death. In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, it wrote, "It was our immense privilege to know and work with Harlan over the past few years. His work speaks volumes, but we will always remember and appreciate his candor and caustic sense of humor, along with his unwavering commitment to his artistic vision. He was truly one of a kind and we already miss him."

Television beckoned throughout his long career, and Ellison wrote scripts for incarnations of The Outer Limits decades apart. He lent his expertise to The Twilight Zone revival in the 1980s and to Babylon 5 in the 1990s, and even wrote a 1968 episode of The Flying Nun, noting that the only reason he took the job was with the hope of bedding Sally Field.

When he wasn't satisfied with how his work eventually showed up on the screen, he insisted his name be replaced in the credits with the pseudonym "Cordwainer Bird." And he did that often.

Undoubtedly, Ellison's most revered and notorious TV script was "The City on the Edge of Forever," used for a 1967 episode he penned for the original Star Trek. In the first-season installment, the Enterprise crew travels back in time to New York in 1930, when Captain Kirk (William Shatner) falls in love with peace activist Edith Keeler (Joan Collins).

Learning that Edith is going to be killed in a traffic accident, Kirk considers saving her — but in doing so, he would change the course of history so radically that Nazi Germany would win World War II. Kirk realizes he must let her die.

Critics consider "The City on the Edge of Forever" to be one of the finest Star Trek episodes, and TV Guide in 1995 ranked it No. 68 on its list of "Most Memorable Moments in TV History."

"It's a tour de force. This is, for all intents and purposes, a perfect episode," Tori Atkinson wrote in a 2009 post for Tor.com, a website dedicated to sci-fi and fantasy. "There are no wasted scenes and no wasted lines. This is a piece about hope, about aspiring to do more than you think you could ever achieve. It's about believing, even when there's no evidence, even when there is no hope, that we can live in a better world."

Ellison had been among those recruited by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry to craft stories for his new NBC show. Roddenberry was enthralled by Ellison's initial pitch for "City" and had him expand it into an outline and then a script.

After a rewrite based on Roddenberry's notes, Ellison turned in a revised script, but it apparently was too costly to film. Further adjustments were made, with Roddenberry, story editors Steven W. Carabatsos and D.C. Fontana and producer Gene Coon all said to have had a hand in the script that was ultimately used.

Ellison was not happy, and he requested that Cordwainer Bird get the credit. Roddenberry refused and kept Ellison's name on it. When it came time for WGA awards consideration, Ellison submitted his version of his script, and the guild voted it the best episodic drama of the year. (The episode itself won Ellison a Hugo Award, one of nine he collected during his career.)

Ellison and Roddenberry didn't speak for years. In 1975, he copyrighted his script with the notes Roddenberry had returned on it, then had it published in Six Science Fiction Plays. Concurrently, Roddenberry spoke out in interviews about aspects of the writer's version that made it unable to be filmed. (He would falsely claim it contained a plot point that made chief engineer Scotty a drug dealer.)

Ellison related his side of the story once more in the 1995 book Harlan Ellison's The City on the Edge of Forever. Writing that he never saw more than a pittance from his work, he lamented that "every thug and studio putz and semiliterate bandwagon-jumper and merchandiser grew fat as a maggot in a corpse" based on his creation.

"If you want the truth, here it is," Ellison wrote. "For thirty years I've had to listen to others shoot off their faces about how they saved 'City.' How they rewrote this and trimmed that and suffered oh so awfully with the irresponsible Ellison."

In 2009, Ellison sued CBS Television Studios, seeking 25 percent of the net receipts from merchandising, publishing and other income from the episode since its original airing. The suit settled for an undisclosed amount.

Harlan Jay Ellison was born in Cleveland on May 27, 1934. As an adolescent, he was prone to wanderlust and ran away from home numerous times. He later supported his adventures with a range of jobs, including tuna fisherman, crop picker, bodyguard, truck driver, cook, cab driver and book salesman. On the occasions he did return home, Ellison acted on stage at the Cleveland Play House.

Ellison attended Ohio State University from 1951-53 but was expelled after he threw a punch at a professor who had criticized his writing. In 1954, EC Comics' Weird Science-Fantasy #24 featured "Upheaval," based on his story, "Mealtime."

The following year, Ellison moved to New York. Looking for inside dope for a novel he wanted to write about street gangs, he joined the Barons, a group of local thugs in Brooklyn, and the experience formed the basis of Web of the City (originally published as Rumble).

After he served in the U.S. Army from 1957-59, Ellison moved to Chicago and became an editor for Rogue magazine. He also had a hand in the creation of Regency Books.

In 1962, Ellison headed to Hollywood and worked at Walt Disney Studios — for a day. Not long after stepping foot on the lot, Roy Disney heard Ellison joking about making a pornographic movie featuring Disney characters and fired him on the spot.

Ellison's first TV gig came in 1963, when he wrote an episode for the syndicated TV series Ripcord titled "Where Do Elephants Go to Die?"

"They told me what Ripcord was about. What it was about was skydivers. Now, you're talking to a guy who went through 10 weeks of training at Fort Benning, Georgia," Ellison said in a 2013 interview for the Archive of American Television.

"So I said, 'Let me do a story about a writer who was as great as Steinbeck and Hemingway and Camus … and he knows he's dying of terminal cancer. And he wants to die. And he's not a suicide type. He wouldn't put a shotgun in his mouth. He wants to die and he thinks, ‘How can I do that in …' what became a bucket list later."

Ellison went on to also write for Route 66, Burke's Law, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Tales From the Darkside and Silver Surfer. His only movie screenplay was for the camp classic The Oscar (1966), starring Stephen Boyd and Elke Sommer.

His heated Star Trek experience was not an isolated incident. Ellison filed copyright suits against ABC and Paramount over the 1977 TV series Future Cop and against James Cameron and Hemdale Film Corp. over The Terminator (1984). And "Cordwainer Bird" wrote episodes of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Starlost (a Canadian sci-fi series that Ellison created) and The Hunger.

Ellison once mailed 213 bricks — postage due — to a publisher who wouldn't pay him and sent a dead gopher, designed to arrive at the start of the holidays, to another. During a 1969 speech at a Texas A&M science-fiction convention where he was the guest of honor, he reportedly referred to the university's Corps of Cadets as "America's next generation of Nazis." Ellison is alleged to have assaulted author-critic Charles Platt during a 1980s Nebula Awards ceremony.

"Let's face it, a lot of people don't like Harlan," Nat Segaloff, author of A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison, told Wired in 2017.

Ellison was married five times and had no children. Plans for a celebration of his life are pending.