Love! Ray

One day when I was ten or so, my Father brought home two library books for me. “The Martian Chronicles” and “R Is for Rocket.” I don’t know what possessed him to pick them; Dad’s not much a of a Sci-Fi fan. Maybe he had a feeling.

I devoured “The Martian Chronicles” in what I remember as about two hours but must have been more like six. When I cracked the book open it was early afternoon, and when I closed it the sun was setting. I was a loud, hyperactive kid, but that night at dinner I just sat there eating in stunned silence. My entire sense of the universe had been utterly changed. It was like being given a new brain, along with clumsy hands which I wasn’t quite sure how to operate. I sensed the world was darker and more fragile than before, and until I could maneuver my weird new self through it, I might fall a lot and shatter things.

After that, I read all the Ray Bradbury I could get my hands on. In 7th grade, when we got to the Creative Writing module in English class, we were told to write our own short story, based on one we liked from another author. I chose Ray’s “Frost and Fire.” It was the first real piece of fiction I ever wrote.

Twelve years later I moved to L.A. to get a Master’s in Screenwriting, and Ray Bradbury came to introduce a film in person: John Huston’s film adaptation of “Moby Dick,” starring Gregory Peck. Bradbury wrote the screenplay back in 1955, and he’d just published “Green Shadows, White Whale,” a book of stories inspired by the experience — the months he spent at Huston’s home in Ireland, trying to convince himself he was worthy of channeling Melville.

It was me, about 20 other screenwriters, and Ray Bradbury in a tiny campus screening room, and it was worth my entire grad school tuition, the loans for which I’ll be paying off for the rest of my life, to be there. I took breathless notes in my journal the whole time. “He’s standing one row ahead of me and three seats to my left,” I wrote. “He has white hair and jowls.”

I haven’t looked at those notes in a while, but a few hours after learning of Ray’s death yesterday, I fished them out.

He said some great stuff that night; pithy little anecdotes and one-liners and pearls of wisdom he probably dropped on all his audiences, but still pretty sharp for a 70-something guy whose knees, hearing and eyesight were all clearly failing. He was exactly the right blend of salty curmudgeon, living history book and wide-eyed poet.

About the movie:

“I only really saw ‘Moby Dick’ when I took my daughters to see the film. We sat front row center. It’s a goddamned good film.”

On waiting outside a movie studio, as a kid, to meet W.C. Fields:

“He signed my autograph book, held it out to me and said, ‘Here ya go, ya little son-of-a-bitch.’”

On Martin Scorcese’s “Casino:”

“The main character is well-developed. You don’t much care for the people around him, though. Also, too many F words.”

Advice to screenwriters:

“Read poetry every night before you go to bed. Cram your head with metaphors. If I had a cinema class, I’d have all my students write haikus. Then they’d shoot that.

But there are a couple of notes I’d forgotten, which now strike me, the screenwriter-turned-radio-guy, as important:

“I’m as good a writer as I am because of radio.” His first stories were based on the radio adventure series Chandu The Magician.

First job was reading newspaper comic strips aloud on the radio Saturday nights.

Ray finished talking, everyone applauded. Then he apologized for having to leave — he was recovering from an ear operation and couldn’t sit through the film and chat with us afterwards. He bowed and wobbled out into the hall on his creaky legs.

As the lights began to dim and “Moby Dick” began to roll, I watched the screening room door start to slowly close behind him. Just before it entirely shut I jumped from my chair and sprinted out after him.

“Mr. Bradbury I’m sorry but could you please autograph my journal you’re kind of my hero you’re why I’m here.”

He stopped, took the journal. Flipped it open and smiled when he saw the word stamped in ink on the inside cover — a message from the friend who’d given it to me a year before.

“Perfect!” he said.


RIP 1920-2012