Ray Bradbury passed away today at the age of 91. More or less the entire world is weighing in on his death, and for good reason. Bradbury was a pillar of the science fiction literary community, with honors to stagger the imagination. He worked with both Disney and Hitchcock, which should give you an idea of the breadth of his interests and abilities. The Internet is filled to bursting with Bradbury anecdotes and interviews, and they’re all wondrous, but if you would indulge me, I’d like to share my one and only personal Bradbury story.
It’s a bit of a doozy.
Like most adults my age (35), Bradbury wasn’t originally much of an icon to me beyond his role as an author of Fahrenheit 451, his seminal novel most of us were assigned at some point in school. (If not, now is the time to beat your school board about the head with a titanium cluestick.) To pardon the pun, the book didn’t precisely set me afire. I was more a Vonnegut man, as far as school-mandated sci-fi classics were concerned, particularly “Harrison Bergeron”.
In 2002, that all changed thanks to Comic-Con International.
A friend and I ventured to Comic-Con for the first (and only) time that year, thanks in no small part to depressed travel prices after 9/11. We were there for the comics and any other media figures we met were strictly good fortune. On the Saturday of the convention, in the infamous Hall H, we made plans to see Ray Bradbury speak, mostly as a warm up for the next two headliners in the same venue: J. Michael Straczynski and Joss Whedon, respectively. Taking in Bradbury was just a way of snagging a good seat.
Ray was about to preemptively punk Joe and Joss by virtue of unmitigated awesome.
Bradbury strode in to the stage with a bit of frailty, being a mere 81 at the time, to a thunderous ovation. He took his seat, and was greeted by a nondescript moderator who asked him a series of utterly forgettable questions, most of them about Bradbury’s “ironic” fear of flying. Fortunately, said moderator quickly had to bow out to run another panel, and in his place perhaps unknowingly organized one of the great happenstance reunions in the history of science fiction.
Ray Bradbury spent the next 50 minutes being “interviewed” by Julius Schwartz, the Editor Emeritus of DC Comics who practically invented the Silver Age and, prior to his work on funnybooks, just happened to be the literary agent for one Ray Bradbury. What began as a tepid Q&A panel quickly became one boisterous old friend goading another into recounting his greatest and most amusing accomplishments.
Bradbury, you see, had accidentally invented big chunks of the 20th century, and Schwartz was going to make him take credit. I’ll convey what best I can remember of this legendary exchange.
Where to begin…
Bradbury began his career at 13, sending off handwritten sample scripts to the Burns & Allen radio show. One was good enough that George Burns actually wrote back with show notes. That’s like Tina Fey having a professional exchange with a middle schooler who sent in a fan script for 30 Rock. Ray had pre-pubescent writing chops.
Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 mostly as an excuse to get out of the house. His daughter was very young and he couldn’t stand being cooped up in his LA home with a wife and baby, so he’d take a bag of dimes to the UCLA library and rent a typewriter for 10 cents per half hour. He could only write as long as he had dimes. The book was actually a rewrite of some short stories and a novella, but he knew there was a novel there somewhere and he wrote it in fits and starts with no initial editing. Fahrenheit 451 is considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, which outlines the threat of censorship and information warfare, and it was written on a rented typewriter simply to get Ray out of the house.
Fahrenheit 451 wasn’t all that successful at first, but in 1953 Bradbury was approached by a young man looking to launch a magazine, and he was looking for a bit of a name to put on his first issue to help sell it. Unfortunately, the publisher didn’t have much money. Bradbury agreed to let the guy serialize Fahrenheit 451 across three issues, paying him only for the first installment and, if the magazine took off, finishing out his rate for the next two bits. The publisher? Hugh Hefner. The magazine? Playboy. Without Ray Bradbury, there might never have been a Playboy magazine. Without Playboy, Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t get famous. Let that sink in.
Ray did as much screenwriting work as he did prose, and he became friends with both Walt Disney and Ray Harryhausen. Bradbury would actually play with clay models in Harryhausen’s garage. That’s like George Lucas letting you build game avatars with ILM equipment.
Disney had Bradbury (and Werner von Braun) write some films in the 1950s about the hypothetical future of manned spaceflight. As such, Bradbury became sort of a media go-to guy for interviews about the space race. Unfortunately, considering that Soviets were clobbering the U.S. early on, most of these became ambush interviews where Bradbury was mocked as the starry-eyed writer who was professing technically impossible space nonsense just to sell books. Not to worry, Bradbury kept a list of all the anchors and journalists that treated him as such and, on the day Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, Bradbury called each of them up. Of course they answered, hoping for a reaction quote from the great Ray Bradbury. Once the host was on the line, Bradbury simply snarked “stupid son of a @!*%#” and hung up. Ray Bradbury pranked major media figures on behalf of the space program.
Bradbury and Disney were personal friends, and as such one summer they took both their families to a carnival near Santa Monica pier — a particularly dingy and disappointing carnival. Disney told Bradbury he should write a story about the dark side of circuses and traveling amusements. Bradbury agreed, and wrote Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bradbury told Disney he should use all his Mickey Mouse money to build a decent carnival for their kids. Disney agreed, and built Disneyland. Seriously. Ray Bradbury told Walt Disney to build the most successful amusement park in history — and he did it.
I’m leaving out two-thirds of what I heard and saw in Hall H ten years ago, but these slivers convey exactly who and what Bradbury was, and his effect on our modern world. To sum up:
- Wrote the seminal sci-fi novel arguing against censorship
- Made Playboy magazine possible
- Talked Walt into building Disneyland
- Made the media treat NASA with respect
Not bad for a guy who started with a free afternoon and a bag full of dimes. Let us all be grateful for the life and works, known and unknown, of Ray Bradbury. We may not see his like again.