Fantasy author and iconic dreamer Ray Bradbury, who died Tuesday evening at age 91, didn’t just write influential novels, he also had a strong legacy in television that dates back to the 1950s. In fact, the small screen’s pace and payoff seemed better suited to Bradbury’s rhythms than the big screen, which came again and again to him with promises of projects that never got off the ground.
“They say they are going to make movies and then the calls just stop, there’s silence, nothingness,” the irascible author said in 2009 when asked about the rumors that Zack Snyder (director of next year’s “Man of Steel”) would be turning “The Illustrated Man” into a new feature film. “This is nothing new when it comes to the Hollywood films.”
There were feature films of course — François Truffaut’s “Fahrenheit 451” and Disney’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” spring to mind — but it was on television where an adaptation of his work reached its widest audience: “The Martian Chronicles,” which many critics viewed as an elegant and surreal three-part version of Bradbury’s red planet epic.
Back in early 1980, Bradbury was less than thrilled by the final product (“Just boring,” was his succinct appraisal), but the NBC milestone moment was a powerful memory for then-young viewers such as Damon Lindelof, who would grow up to be co-creator of “Lost” and one of the screenwriters for the new sci-fi film “Prometheus.”
“I remember watching the miniseries as a kid with my dad,” Lindelof said Wednesday, “and having intense nightmares afterwards that he had been destroyed and replaced by one of those very Martians.”
As the years passed Lindelof came to know the face, voice and work of the writer who, like Alfred Hitchcock or Rod Serling, had the charisma to step in front of the camera and address his audience directly.
“I remember Ray’s weekly trip up the elevator in ‘The Ray Bradbury Theater’ and always wondered if he actually lived in that house filled with endless stacks of books,” Lindelof said. “Most of all, I remember how he treated genre as literature and used it as a way to comment on the world we’re living in and somehow made it feel relatable instead of preachy.”
Early anthology series such as “Lights Out,” “Suspense” and “Out There” presented adaptations of his short stories. Over the years, his quirky, scary and sometimes funny short stories appeared on anthology series, most notably “Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby is a Friend of Mine,” which aired in 1982 on PBS’ “American Playhouse” series.
Bradbury also wrote for several series, most notably “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” — his first outing for that series was in 1956 when he supplied the story and teleplay for something wicked called “Shopping for Death” — and he also lent his talents to Serling’s landmark “The Twilight Zone,” penning the 1962 episode “I Sing the Body Electric,” about a recent widower who orders an android grandmother to help him with his three children. In 1982, he retooled that into the TV movie “The Electric Grandmother” with Maureen Stapleton.
Bradbury’s view of “Martian Chronicles” — that it was dry and barren, just like Mars — probably left him wishing for more control over the television launchpad. He got that with his anthology series “The Ray Bradbury Theater.”
“The Ray Bradbury Theater” began on HBO in 1985 and continued on USA in 1988, where it ran for four more seasons. Not only did he host the series, he had writing credit on a staggering 58 episodes, many of which were based on his short stories, such as “A Sound of Thunder.”
The door to Bradbury’s imagination always swung free on its hinges — and the key to that door was persistence in his craft. He wrote every day, first thing, although the process changed through the years. In an interview two years ago with The Times, Bradbury playfully noted that the most amazing dreams were making things easier. “I write screenplays in the middle of the night,” he said. And every morning, he would call his daughter in Arizona and dictate the latest dispatch from the Land of Nod.
— Susan King and Geoff Boucher
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