By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 6, 2008
Michael Crichton, 66, a writer and filmmaker whose enormously popular and entertaining novels such as "Jurassic Park" and "The Andromeda Strain" explored the limits and consequences of science, and who also created the long-running television medical drama "E.R.," died of cancer Nov. 4 in Los Angeles.
Mr. Crichton began his literary career as a Harvard University medical student in the late 1960s and parlayed his knowledge of technology, medicine and science into a series of swiftly paced techno-thrillers. He sold more than 150 million books, and more than a dozen films were made from his novels, several with him in the director's chair.
He made scientific arcana comprehensible to the layman and generated plausible suspense on subjects including deadly alien bacteria ("The Andromeda Strain," 1969), brain surgery ("The Terminal Man," 1972), a race of super-apes that guard diamonds ("Congo," 1980), mysterious underwater spacecraft ("Sphere," 1987), scientists who play God by cloning dinosaur DNA ("Jurassic Park," 1990), the military uses of nanotechnology ("Prey," 2002) and global warming ("State of Fear," 2004).
At times, Mr. Crichton's talent for provocative stories thrust him into a national debate. With "State of Fear," he emerged as a leading skeptic of human-caused global warming and was castigated by environmentalists for hindering legislation to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. A White House meeting with President Bush, a fan of his books, also alarmed many believers in global warming.
"Every decision has a cost somewhere else," he told the Times of London. "People say our grandchildren will loathe us, but they will also loathe us if we waste trillions of dollars tackling a problem that is nonexistent."
Earlier, in "Disclosure" (1994), Mr. Crichton addressed sexual harassment but with a twist of a woman as the aggressor -- a book that became central to the divisive social issue of reverse discrimination. His "Rising Sun" (1992) was a murder mystery set in Los Angeles that also functioned as a highly critical -- some reviewers said toxically xenophobic -- look at Japanese business intentions in the United States.
Although his books were undoubtedly page-turners, Mr. Crichton often fell short with reviewers for lackluster character development. Critics said he wrote for instant Hollywood adaptations.
Mr. Crichton's interest in moviemaking was based on a childhood fascination with Alfred Hitchcock. After resettling in California after medical school, he became a fixture on movie sets in the early 1970s when several of his novels were adapted into motion pictures -- "Andromeda Strain"; "Dealing," about a college-based marijuana operation; and "The Carey Treatment," based on his book "A Case of Need," a detective story involving abortion.
With the exception of "Coma" (1978) -- a hit thriller based on Robin Cook's novel about a hospital's plot to sell body parts from healthy patients -- his direction was considered efficient but undistinguished, and often mediocre.
Mr. Crichton was a creator and executive producer of the NBC program "E.R.," which began its 15-year run in 1994 and was based on his early experience in medicine. Steven Spielberg, who directed the 1993 movie version of "Jurassic Park," had initially planned to make "E.R." as a film.
John Michael Crichton was born Oct. 23, 1942, in Chicago and grew up near New York, in Roslyn, on Long Island. In his 1988 autobiography, "Travels," he spoke of his father, a journalist who became executive editor of Advertising Age, as physically abusive.
The younger Crichton was, at 13, well on his way to his full height of 6 feet 9, and writing and movie-watching became means of escaping from his physical awkwardness. His heroes were Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain and Hitchcock. "I was the weird kid who wrote extra assignments the teacher didn't ask for," he told the London Observer.
He entered Harvard in 1960 with the intention of becoming a writer but was turned off by an English professor who was highly critical of the student's work. In disgust, he turned in an essay by George Orwell -- and got a B-minus. He graduated in 1964 with a degree in anthropology.
To finance his Harvard Medical School tuition, he wrote paperback adventure novels under various pseudonyms -- one was Jeffrey Hudson, a 17th-century dwarf in the court of King Charles II of England. It was estimated that Mr. Crichton wrote 10,000 words a day before finishing his degree in 1969, and he became a campus celebrity after "Andromeda Strain" was sold to Universal studios for $250,000.
He later credited his editor, Robert Gottlieb, with the wise advice to rewrite the book as straight as a magazine article to heighten its credibility.
Mr. Crichton spent a year at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., as a postdoctoral fellow before giving up a medical career to focus on writing and the movies. At the early peak of his fame, he persuaded ABC to let him film his thriller "Binary," about stolen nerve gas that threatens a political convention. It aired in 1972 as the made-for-television movie "Pursuit."
He began his movie-directing career with his own script for "Westworld" (1973), which starred Yul Brynner as one of the many out-of-control robots at a fantasy theme park. In 1979, he directed "The First Great Train Robbery," starring Sean Connery and based on his book of the similar name about a 19th-century gentleman crook who orchestrates an elaborate theft of gold bullion.
He also wrote a novelistic homage to the poem "Beowulf" called "Eaters of the Dead" (1975) and, as a collector of modern art, wrote a biography of Jasper Johns (1977).
He appeared to have let work take precedence over family life, said his fourth wife, Anne-Marie Martin. Their divorce cost Mr. Crichton $31 million, including their art collection and 20 horses. They had co-written "Twister," a 1996 film about tornado chasers.
His marriages to Joan Radam, Kathleen St. Johns and Suzanne Childs also ended in divorce. Survivors include his fifth wife, Sherri Alexander, and a daughter, Taylor, from his marriage to Martin.
Mr. Crichton said he had become "a lot more hawkish" on the war in Iraq and other issues involving the use of force after armed robbers entered his home in Santa Monica, Calif., several years ago and tied up him and his daughter.
When asked by an interviewer in 1993 whether he thought the human race was doomed, Mr. Crichton replied: "I am optimistic by nature. My prejudice is that we are sufficiently resourceful to see the road ahead, and that we have the capacity to change our behavior. I envision a long lifespan for the species. We've got a few million years ahead of us."