Ray Bradbury’s close encounters with W.C. Fields, George Burns and … Bo Derek?

Aug. 18, 2010 | 1:41 p.m.

Susan King writes about classic Hollywood for the Los Angeles Times (and now for Hero Complex) and has interviewed many of the giants of cinema and pop culture over the decades. She says one of the more memorable encounters was a visit to the wonderfully cluttered desk of Ray Bradbury.

Ray Bradbury in his office 2010

Ray Bradbury has the most amazing dreams. “I write screenplays,” he says with a wink, “in the middle of the night.” When he wakes in the morning, he calls his daughter in Arizona and dictates his dispatch from the Land of Nod, the latest story in a life of imagination,

Ray Bradbury Dandelion Wine

Bradbury turns 90 on Aug. 22, but though many people seem to lose their sense of wonder through the years, his is there waiting for him every morning, just like a cup of coffee. “Ideas just show up,” he says, “just like that. I just finished a new book I sent off to the publisher. It has 22 short stories in it. It’s going to be published at Christmas. It’s called ‘Juggernaut.’ ”

Speaking of unstoppable momentum, Bradbury marches on despite the strokes that have caused him to lose the use of his right arm, the sight in one eye and much of his mobility. The stories still come, though, and the shelf of classics — Fahrenheit 451.” The Martian Chronicles,” “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” “The Illustrated Man” — only gather more acclaim through the years.

On Friday, the Los Angeles City Council is scheduled to consider a resolution that would declare Ray Bradbury Week in Los Angeles, and, of course, they will vote yes. There are several speakers who will step up to the microphone to sing the praises of Bradbury, and one of them is Steven Paul Leiva, a novelist and screenwriter who has known Bradbury for the better part of three decades. He’s the man behind a still-widening citywide Bradbury celebration to mark the milestone birthday in the life of the American literary lion.

Ray Bradbury Martian Chronicles

The events include an Aug. 24 screening of François Truffaut’s 1966 version of “Fahrenheit 451” at the Writers Guild Theatre, which will be preceded by a discussion with Bradbury and Hugh Hefner (moderated by Los Angeles Times staff writer Geoff Boucher) and, on Aug. 28, a special program at the Paley Center for Media featuring three vintage television productions based on Bradbury’s work, with actors such as Peter O’Toole, Maureen Stapleton and Fred Gwynne. All the Bradbury events are free, but reservations are a must. A good place to start is at the Ray Bradbury Week page on Facebook, set up by Leiva.

“Part of the reason I did this was I couldn’t tolerate the idea that his 90th birthday would come and go and there wouldn’t be something more than just people coming up and saying, ‘Happy birthday,’ so I just wanted to take a week to send back some of the love he sends,” Leiva said. “I can’t tell you how many people I have talked to who said that reading Ray Bradbury changed their life and made them want to be creative. And I can tell you that happened to me too.”

Ray Bradbury Illustrated Man

Bradbury has lived in the same yellow house on a tree-lined street in Cheviot Hills for nearly 60 years. It’s a bucolic street in the quiet neighborhood that seems lifted from Green Town, the fictionalized version of his hometown of Waukegan, Ill., which he wrote about again and again in short stories and novels such as “Dandelion Wine.”

The inside of the house resembles a whimsical FAO Schwarz. The quaint living room is filled with oversized stuffed animals — a huge Old English sheepdog resides on one sofa, a panda is perched atop a piano stool, and a huge Bullwinkle with a daft expression sits on one of the chairs. Bradbury used to work in his basement, but — after the strokes — he spends most of his hours in a study piled high with posters, memorabilia, books and a huge framed photograph of his favorite cat, Halloween, who died just last month.

One shelf is stacked with well-worn VHS tapes of vintage movies including W.C. Fields’ 1934 classic, It’s a Gift.” Bradbury broke into a wide smile when a visitor mentioned the film and began to tell the story of when his family moved west  in 1934, when young Ray was 13, and he would skate by Paramount Pictures. One day, he spied Fields and asked the rotund superstar for an autograph.

Ray Bradbury SomethingWicked this Way Comes

“He handed it back to me and said, ‘There you are, you little son of a bitch.’ ” Bradbury cackled at the scene. “I have a big box of autographs. I took photographs of me and Marlene Dietrich, me and Ida Lupino. I took pictures of Myrna Loy and Joel McCrea in front of the studios. I loved Hollywood. I have 500 autographs and 500 photographs I took.”

Bradbury began writing for George Burns for the Burns and Allen radio show when he was just 14.

“I went down on Figueroa Street in front of the Figueroa Playhouse,” Bradbury said. “I saw George Burns outside the front of the theater. I went up to him and said, ‘Mr. Burns, you got your broadcast tonight don’t you?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘You don’t have an audience in there do you?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Will you take me in and let me be your audience?’ So he took me in and put me in the front row, and the curtain went up, and I was in the audience for Burns and Allen. I went every Wednesday for the broadcast and then I wrote shows and gave them to George Burns. They only used one — but they did use it, it was for the end of the show.”

Ray Bradbury I sing the body electric

Decades ago, Bradbury presented an award to Steven Spielberg at the Cocoanut Grove. “I looked over in the corner and there was George Burns,” Bradbury said. “I stopped everything and said I want to give a personal award to George Burns because he told me when I was 14 I was a genius and I was going to make it as a writer. When the program was over, George Burns came running to me and said, ‘Was that you? Was that you? I remember you!’ He embraced me. He was a wonderful man.”

Bradbury also has a strong relationship with Bo Derek. “She is a fan of mine,” Bradbury said, smiling. “In Paris, 30 years ago, I was in a railway station and this beautiful young girl came walking up to me and said, ‘Mr. Bradbury, I love you. Will you ride on the train with me to the south of France?’ So I rode with her to a film festival and spent the next two days with Bo Derek. We became good friends.”

Signature works such as “The Martian Chronicles” have earned Bradbury the tag of “science-fiction writer” in the public mind, but he doesn’t like the limitations of the word, especially when his vast body of work extends in so many other directions. He likes to refer to himself as a fantasy writer and a “teller of tales.” The pesky sci-fi description, he says, “came early, and I was not responsible for the label.”

Bradbury offered his left hand to say goodbye and, with a smile, invited his visitor back for another visit. “We think alike,” he said.

— Susan King


Fahrenheir 451

Bradbury will attend “451” screening on Aug. 24

STAR WALK: Bradbury and the magic of story

Bradbury: “Our country is in need of a revolution”

Ray Bradbury’s “Dark Carnival” and painting with words

GUEST ESSAY: Searching for Bradbury

“Fahrenheit 451” and the credibility of comics

Leave a birthday message for Ray at UCLA site

Disney done dark — the legacy of “Something Wicked”

PHOTO GALLERY: Bradbury’s 89th birthday at Clifton’s

Ray Bradbury dreams of a different downtown

Photo: Ray Bradbury in his study. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

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2 Responses to Ray Bradbury’s close encounters with W.C. Fields, George Burns and … Bo Derek?

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