November 6, 2008
Science Inspired His Fiction
By Bob Minzesheimer
He scared millions of us by cloning dinosaurs with prehistoric DNA in Jurassic Park and by unleashing a virus from outer space in The Andromeda Strain.
But author Michael Crichton, who died Tuesday at age 66, was more than just the king of the cinematic techno-thriller whose books and screenplays became 13 movies.
He also created ER, one of TV's longest-running dramas. As a movie producer and director, he pioneered the use of computer-generated special effects.
In best-selling novels, he raised contrarian questions about global warming and sexual harassment.
And all that after graduating from Harvard Medical School.
In a statement Wednesday, his family said Crichton died in Los Angeles after a "private" battle with cancer.
His books sold 150 million copies worldwide. He never won a Pulitzer or was even nominated for a National Book Award, but did have a newly discovered dinosaur named for him in 2002: the Crichtonsaurus bohlini.
At his best, he was a master at blending fact and fantasy. He was as much a researcher as a novelist who popularized technical topics and put the science back into science fiction.
"I don't want to just make it up," he told USA TODAY in an interview in 1996. "I'd rather have something with the awkward contours of real events."
In Twister (1995), he explored the violence of nature. Sphere (1987) dealt with black holes. Rising Sun (1992) was about international economics, back when Japan seemed to be a threat.
At 6-foot-9, Crichton was hard to miss. In 1995, Time crowned him "The Hit Man" in a cover story about his commercial success in books and movies.
His breakthrough novel was The Andromeda Strain (1969), but his biggest hit was Jurassic Park (1990). Both it and its sequel, The Lost World (1995), were turned into blockbuster movies.
When he was writing the original novel, he was asked what he was doing. He replied, "I'm writing the most expensive movie ever made."
"That was said as a joke," he said later. "I thought, 'Who can make this?' This was in the late '80s. A hundred and fifty million? Maybe. Two-year-shooting script? Ridiculous. Out of the question."
Directed by Steven Spielberg, Jurassic Park went on to make $915 million worldwide. With $357 million in North American ticket sales, it's the 13th-highest-grossing movie of all time. In all, Crichton's books and screenplays generated $1.3 billion domestically and $2.8 billion worldwide.
The adaptations lost some box-office steam late in his career (the $80 million Timeline, about time-traveling graduate students from Yale, earned just $19 million in 2003), but Crichton was one of the most powerful writers in Hollywood.
He wrote and directed 1973's Westworld, about a Wild West theme park gone haywire. It pioneered the use of computer-generated special effects.
He mined his own medical training to create ER, which made George Clooney a star and is now in its 15th and final season.
"One of the things that distinguishes that show from other television shows is the degree to which it is based on real stories," Crichton said. "Viewers can tell."
His novel Airframe (1996), a technological whodunit about a midair accident, was triggered when he noticed a crew struggling to close a plane's door.
That got him thinking: "This is nothing but a big machine that someone made. I had never thought of it that way before."
The novel, which questioned air safety, also attacks TV disaster coverage for its focus on emotions at the cost of information. And that prompted a question in an interview with USA TODAY:
Was it ironic that ER's creator was complaining about TV's superficiality?
"Where's the connection?" he snapped in response. "Because ER is successful, I should think TV is wonderful? ER is entertainment; I'm talking about news. Once, those were very separate things. Now they're not, and that's part of the problem."
He seemed to enjoy stirring up controversy with his fiction.
Feminists didn't like Disclosure (1994), in which a male executive sues his female superior for sexual harassment. It was turned into a movie starring Michael Douglas and Demi Moore.
Environmentalists attacked State of Fear (2004), which questioned whether global warming was a major threat. It was a novel, but it won The American Association of Petroleum Geologists Journalism Award and praise from President Bush, who hosted Crichton at the White House.
He was born Oct. 23, 1942, in Chicago and raised in Long Island, N.Y. His father was a journalist. "So it seemed like a normal occupation, to sit down and type something as your job," Crichton told the British newspaper The Guardian. "I was the weird kid who wrote extra assignments the teacher didn't ask for.
"I just did it because I liked writing so much. I was tall and gangly and awkward and I needed to escape, I guess."
His writing career began at 14, when he had an article published in the Travel section of The New York Times. He helped pay his way through medical school by writing mysteries, including A Case of Need, written under the pen name Jeffrey Hudson, which won the 1969 Edgar Award for Best Novel from the Mystery Writers of America.
He was known as a workaholic. He was married five times and divorced four. His fourth wife, Anne-Marie Martin, publicly complained after their divorce that his work habits left her feeling abandoned: "'It's like living with a body and Michael is somewhere else."
He is survived by his wife, Sherri, and only child, a daughter, Taylor, 19.
He cited his major influences as Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain and Alfred Hitchcock. As a novelist, his plots were often better than his writing. But Crichton didn't seem bothered that he was more popular with readers than critics.
He said his primary goal in writing books or making movies or TV shows was to "entertain people. It's fun to manipulate people's feelings and to be manipulated."
As for critics, he said, "Every critic assumes he's a code-breaker; the writer makes a code and the critic breaks it. And it doesn't work that way at all. As a mode of working, you need to become very uncritical."
Contributing: Scott Bowles (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>>