Thursday, December 11, 2008

Uncle Forry inspired Hollywood with his love of sci-fi, horror

The world’s greatest fan has died.

But Forrest J  Ackerman was more than just a fan. With his boundless enthusiasm for horror and science fiction, he inspired a generation of Hollywood filmmakers.

Ackerman, 92, died Dec. 4 of heart failure at his home in Los Angeles. His death elicited tributes from the many who knew him and the many more who only knew of him.

How different might the world have been without the man everyone called Uncle Forry? 

“Many of the technicians, special effects masters and filmmakers that work in the realms that Forry loved … do so in no small part based on the childhood passion that Forry gave them,” wrote Harry Knowles at his Web site, Ain’t It Cool News.

Knowles is often guilty of overstatement — just read some of his movie reviews — but not this time. For many young, would-be storytellers, Uncle Forry was the center of the universe.

Imagine a world without “Star Wars” or “Jaws.” George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are two of the many directors, writers and producers who were captivated by Ackerman’s magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland. Imagine a world without “The Martian Chronicles” and “Fahrenheit 451.” Ray Bradbury credits Ackerman with helping him get his start as a writer.

“Forry changed my life,” Bradbury said in 2000, when both he and Ackerman visited Florence. “He paid attention when no one else cared.”

As Bradbury later told The Associated Press, Ackerman paid Bradbury’s way to New York for an authors meeting that launched Bradbury’s career.

“I hadn’t published yet, and I met a lot of these people who encouraged me and helped me get my career started, and that was all because of Forry Ackerman,” Bradbury said.

It started in the 1920s, when Ackerman, then 9 years old, discovered Amazing Stories. That magazine, which inaugurated the Golden Age of science fiction, gave the young Ackerman his lifelong love of the genre. He would keep that first issue his entire life, and it would become the cornerstone of his private museum of SF and horror memorabilia.

But at that point, Forry was still just a fan. In his teens, he and several other teenage SF fans — including future DC Comics editors Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger — founded the first science fiction fanzine, The Time Traveller(two Ls). It was a start, but Forry’s big breakthrough came in February 1958. That was when Warren Publishing unveiled the first issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, with Ackerman as its editor.

Aimed at adolescents and young teenagers, Famous Monsters featured stories about the greatest horror, fantasy and sci-fi filmmakers of the day. It capitalized on the newfound popularity of classic monster movies from the 1930s and ’40s, which were beginning to air on TV stations throughout America.

Note that I’m now using the term “sci-fi” instead of “science fiction” or “SF.” That’s because Uncle Forry coined it. Without Ackerman, the Sci-Fi Channel would have to call itself something else.

Famous Monsters let its readers in on the inner workings of sci-fi and horror movies. Some of those readers got the idea that they could make movies, too.

Ackerman left Famous Monsters in the late 1970s, and the magazine’s original incarnation ceased publication a few years later. But Ackerman still found ways to inspire the next generation of fans.

Every weekend, Ackerman opened his home to visitors, who traveled from just about everywhere to see the artifacts he had spent decades assembling. When I met Uncle Forry eight years ago, he had a few mementos with him: the cape Bela Lugosi wore in the stage production of “Dracula,” the ring Boris Karloff wore in “The Mummy” and face paint that had belonged to Lon Chaney Sr. And each item had a story.

Uncle Forry’s gift for storytelling is what set him apart. He seemed to know everything and everyone, and he counted people like Bradbury, Karloff and Vincent Price among his closest friends.

Sure, he edited a magazine and several books. And he had small roles in numerous films made by the people he helped lure into moviemaking. But he remained, first and foremost, a fan. And his infectious love of sci-fi helped change the world.

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