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Saturday, Dec. 06, 2008|
Sci-Fi's No. 1 Fanboy, Forrest J Ackerman, Dies at 92
By Richard Corliss - Time
Fan as in fanatic. Fan as in fancier. Fan as in fantasy lover. Forrest J Ackerman, who died Thursday at 92 of a heart attack in Los Angeles, was all these things and many more: literary agent for such science fiction authors as Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, A.E. van Vogt, Curt Siodmak and L. Ron Hubbard; actor and talisman in more than 50 films (The Howling, Beverly Hills Cop III, Amazon Women on the Moon); editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and creator of the Vampirella comic book franchise. But each of these trades was an exponent of his educated ardor for science fiction, fantasy and horror, and his need to share that consuming appetite.
The Scifipedia, an online biographical dictionary, defines Ackerman first as "American fan." That's good enough. As much as almost any writer in the field, he created a devoted, informed audience for speculative fiction. If he didn't coin the term "sci-fi" — Robert Heinlein used it first — then by using the phrase in public in 1954 he instantly popularized it (to the lasting chagrin of purists, who preferred "SF"). Forry, as everyone called him, was the genre's foremost advocate, missionary and ballyhooer. His love for the form, stretching back more than 80 years, godfathered and legitimized the obsessions of a million fanboys. His passion was their validation. He was the original Fanman. (See TIME's collection of Hollywood's best robot movies)
Born in Los Angeles in 1916, Ackerman traced the birth of his vocation to 1926, when he read his first "scientifiction" tale in an early issue of Amazing Stories, the pioneering magazine published by Hugo Gernsback, for whom the Hugo Awards are named. (Ackerman won a 1953 Hugo as No. 1 fan.) Forry was hooked for life, as he would later hook so many others. Three years later the teenager found his stride. He had his first letter published in Science Wonder Quarterly; won a contest in the San Francisco Chronicle with a story about a voyage to Mars; and founded The Boys Scientifiction Club ("I would have included girls but at that time female fans were as rare as unicorns' horns."). His dream of bringing together the writers and readers of science fiction was starting to bloom. He brought his young friend Ray Bradbury to the Clifton's Cafeteria Science Fiction Club, hangout of Heinlein, Leigh Brackett, Henry Kuttner, Fredric Brown and other future giants of the genre. He bankrolled Bradbury's own fan magazine, Futuria Fantasia.
That was 1939, when Ackerman and his friend Myrtle R. Douglas attended the first World Science Fiction Convention in Manhattan — both dressed in space suits. (Trekkies, now you know who originated that imaginative eccentricity.) In a 1996 interview with Ed Grant of the New York City cable access show Media Funhouse, Ackerman recalled that 165 people attended the confab. "We had a banquet so expensive that only 29 of us could afford it," he told Ed. "I couldn't even afford to lend the money to Ray Bradbury, 'cause it was one dollar a plate. Of course no food, you understand, just a dollar for a plate." Forry wore the spaceman outfit around the city, attracting cries of "Buck Rogers!" and "Flash Gordon!" from local children. He added: "They had an Esperanto convention, the artificial language, which I know. ... So I was in this futuristic costume and I went up and explained in Esperanto that I was a time traveler from the future."
To many fan-dults of a certain age, Forry is revered for Famous Monsters. Its first issue came out in February 1958; it lasted nearly 30 years. The first serious (but never solemn) magazine devoted to horror and science fiction movies, FM included appreciations of old and new films, interviews with the genre's actors, directors, writers and special-effects men, all informed by the ripe musings and unabashed enthusiasm of its editor. The photos often came from Ackerman's archive; his collection was likely the world's largest in its category.
In the '80s and '90s, his "Acker-mansion," on Glendower Road in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of L.A., became a museum and a shrine — Mecca for fan-fans. Show up on a Saturday morning, walk past the Lincoln Continental in the driveway (license plate: SCI FI) and find smiling Forry at the door. He leads a tour of his home, every inch of which is crammed and wallpapered with memorabilia: Bela Lugosi's ring and Dracula cape; Ray Harryhausen's miniature of a shattered U.S. Capitol dome from an entire room dedicated to the silent SF film Metropolis; artifacts and fetishes from The War of the Worlds, Invaders from Mars, The Thing from Another World, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ad infinitum, ad gloriam. From a shelf crammed with books he pulls out that early issue of Amazing Stories.
Ed Grant recalls his visit with a friend: "Forry gave us two the full tour ('Don't back into that, boys, it's a maquette from King Kong' — placed so you had to back into it!). ... I'm sure he told the same stories to everybody, but he made it seem as if they were just for you." On the way out you sign a guest book and notice the signatures of early visitors: Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, Ray Bradbury, Ray Harryhausen, John Landis, Tobe Hooper, George Lucas... The swag was said to be worth $5 million. In 2002, his funds depleted by a long court case, Ackerman moved to a smaller home (the "Acker-mini-mansion"), where he still welcomed acolytes. For Forry it was always Halloween, and he was the warmest host to trick-or-treaters of any age.
Unlike some fandroids, Ackerman actually got married. His wife Wendayne, four years older than Forry, translated SF novels by the German authors Karl Herbert Scheer, Kurt Mahr and Walter Ernsting. She died in 1990 and is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, Calif., under the marker "Wife of Mr. Science Fiction." On his MySpace page, Forry wrote: "My life companion, Wendayne (the only one in the world) Ackerman, as the aftermath of a mugging in Italy, died some years ago, but not before translating 150 sci-fi novels from French & German, moonlighting while teaching for 20 years at university."
This futurist lived long enough to serenely contemplate his own future, or lack of it. "It would be nice to look forward to going to a Great Sci-Fi Convention in the Sky when I expire," he wrote. "I am vaguely contemplating opting for a cryogenic comeback but in case I don't become a human people-cicle, I, like Isaac Asimov and other thinkers I admire, don't expect to wake up in some spirit realm of an afterlife. I've been a secular humanist since I was 15, long before the term was invented, and nothing since has changed my mind."
The man who claimed he had written "the shortest sci-fi story in the World, consisting of a single letter," went out with a rather longer mystery tale. He had been ailing through the fall, and at the end of October posted a message on Facebook that he was "battling an infection this Halloween. Boo (hoo)." On Nov. 6 the Locus.com SF site, the British Fantasy Society and Wikipedia all announced Ackerman's death — then retracted it. Not so much undead as not-yet-dead, Ackerman stayed with us for another four weeks. Through this extended expiration, emails flooded into the Acker-mini-mansion — love notes from fans like him, recognizing their model and idol.
Forry must have been touched, because all he wanted was to be of use to people like him. On MySpace he had written: "I regard myself as a sci-fi sponge that should be squeezed for information and anecdotes as long as I'm here. So while I'm still around, squeeze me."