The legend goes something like this: a young writer-turned-director is over at Universal Studios taking a tour of the facilities. He’s introduced to another young hotshot fresh off an assignment on Rod Serling’s Night Gallery TV show, who’s in the beginning stages of a TV movie of the week about a man being menaced by a 16-wheeler truck driven by an anonymous party set on destruction, but perhaps the truck is driven by no one at all. In some odd way, the seeds of the blockbuster book and movie Jurassic Park are planted on this occasion. The writer-turned-director, Michael Crichton, and the hotshot TV director, Steven Spielberg, will visit and revisit that theme of being pursued by something faceless, something foreign, and something that inexplicably wants to do harm without just provocation.
Sadly, that’s kind of how Crichton’s life has come to a close as well. He kept his fight with cancer out of the public conversation, but those who regularly stalk the local Barnes & Noble had to figure something was up the past year or so. Crichton was both studious and prolific, his stories steeped in detail and factual bits and pieces. It was that very trait that caused critics to scoff when Spielberg chose to adapt Jurassic Park (1990) for the big screen in 1993, as they couldn’t imagine how one would be able to adapt the author’s genetic ruminations into a plausible summer thriller. (Special effects wizard Stan Winston was instrumental in creating the physical, as opposed to digital, dinosaurs for the movie; he passed away in June due to complications from multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma.)
Crichton, for a time, could be counted on to write at least one book a year. His is a name that conjures up a genre in readers’ minds every time they hear it, just as the names King, Koontz, Grisham, and Clancy do. You may not know the actual story you’re going to get, but you know the stage it will likely be set upon. So the infrequency of his output in recent years seemed to be strange. Was it a semi-retirement? Was it a belief that he’d done whatever he wanted — including directing six feature films and creating the Thursday-night television staple ER, now in its 15th and final season — and the time had come to kick back? Now we know.
Among Crichton’s other achievements are the disaster film Twister (1996), which he cowrote with his fourth wife, actress Anne-Marie Martin (Sledge Hammer!); the sci-fi western Westworld (1973), his feature debut as a writer-director and the film that gave moviegoers the iconic image of Yul Brynner as a robot gunslinger with a detachable face; the 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, which he wrote while still in medical school; and that previously mentioned shelf full of books, both fiction and nonfiction. While not so much an achievement as a fun fact, Crichton also wrote and directed the futuristic thriller Runaway (1984), starring Tom Selleck as a cop and Gene Simmons as a domestic terrorist with killer-robot technology. You can’t win ‘em all, but that was the great thing about Crichton — sure, you knew his primary forte was dabbling in various sciences as he created his art, but he also appreciated a bit of the absurd and wasn’t above including that in his work.
He’ll be missed on the best seller list, but it’s gratifying to know he left so much behind for others to enjoy. Michael Crichton was 66.