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An Interview with Forrest J. Ackerman

"Mr. Science Fiction"

Forrest (Forrey) Ackerman has won six Hugo awards and two Golden Saturns, has had appearances in over 52 science fiction and horror films, has edited a number of fanzines including "Famous Monsters of Filmland", has been an agent representing over 200 writers (including Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, L. Ron Hubbard and Hugo Gernsback), and has virtually grown up and spent his life immersed in the science fiction, horror and fantasy genres. We interviewed him on June 7, 1997 at his Ackermansion Museum in the Hollywood Hills. His 18 room home/museum is crammed with an extensive collection of over 300,000 books, magazines, artworks, rare photographs, movie props and memorabilia lovingly gathered in over 70 years of avid collecting. For the last 45 years he has generously shared his collection with the public, leading regular tours through his museum for an ever growing body of sci-fi enthusiasts. Forrey, who is 80 years young, is a wonderful raconteur and is a warm, energetic, compelling and giving man who continues to look enthusiastically into the future. (AW)

Update September 2002: Bill Hilliard wrote us with the following sad news: "Ackermansion at an End In order to pay for his mounting medical bills, Forrest J. Ackerman has moved out of the Ackermansion, where he has lived and entertained fans for several years. Following his hospitalization earlier this year, he announced that he would be auctioning off portions of his collection. It now appears that he was unable to raise enough and is now selling the house and living in an apartment.

ARMCHAIR WORLD: Forrey, you've been an actor, an editor, a literary agent and a collector - a major collector. Is it possible to give us a capsule summary of your long and varied career?

FORREST J. ACKERMAN: Well that sounds like past tense and I'm on my way to my 81st birthday now. At my 80th there were 220 people from around the world celebrating with me. I'm aiming at being the George Burns of science fiction and make it to one-hundred. I suppose they'll have to rent the Hollywood Bowl for that occasion.

It all began October 1926 when a little nine-year-old me was standing in front of a newsstand and the Hugo Gernsback magazine "Amazing Stories" jumped off the newsstand, grabbed hold of me and - most people are too young to know, but in those days magazines spoke - and that one said "take me home little boy. You will love me!" And everything grew from that.

After three years, four months, and 29 days of World War Two, I was weary of saluting and being at the mercy of microcephalons and decided I wanted to do something on my own. So I hung out my shingle as a literary agent specializing in science fiction. And the first year I made $1075 in sales and spent $1025 submitting these stories. I made a big fat $50 for the first year of my activities but began to catch on and before I knew it had built up to 200 clients.

There was A.E. Thanbolt and Harry Bates who gave us "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and Raymond F. Jones. One of his works became the cult film "This Island Earth."

So I was deep into agenting when, toward the end of 1957, I met up with a publisher I was selling to. I'd come back from the World Science Fiction Convention in London. I'd been over to Paris afterwards and picked up a movie magazine that had The Werewolf of London on the cover and inside were stills and stories about Frankenstein, Dracula, King Kong and so on. The publisher took one look at it and felt that he could probably get it translated into English (for a magazine) and borrow the stills . But, long story, that didn't work out.

So I spoke up and I said that I had 35,000 of these stills and memories of these movies ever since I was 5-1/2 in 1922; and I think I can put together such a magazine. So the next thing I knew I was sitting in front of a smoking typewriter; it was going so fast and smoking so badly I was afraid it was going to die of cancer. For twenty hours a day I was writing the first issue of "Famous Monsters of Filmland". And the publisher was sitting with an imaginary bulletin board in front of me that said "I'm 11-1/2 years old and I'm your reader. Forrest Ackerman, make me laugh!"

I'd had no intention of funning around with Frankenstein, Dracula or King Kong or anything but that's what the publisher was paying for. He paid me $400 to create the first issue of "Famous Monsters" which went on for 190 issues. At least three times I've had fans come to me with first issues asking me to sign them - and in each case they (had) paid $1300 for that 35-cent magazine!

The late Willy Ley who (in 1949) was one of the major rocket experts of the world at the time first called me "Mr. Science Fiction" in the public print. That caught on. Well, I've been on television ever since 1949, I believe all around the world. I've been (on television) in Hungary, Yugoslavia, the Czech Republic, even in Transylvania. And as soon as I began appearing on television, that led to more and more interviews in newspapers and magazines.

It's led to my being in 52 films doing cameos. At one point I was a curator of the last museum on earth after World War III had destroyed civilization in a film called "Aftermath." And I played the President of the United States - a future president - in a movie Universal put out called "Amazon Women on the Moon." And after being President of the United States I graduated to President of the World. And after two terms I was out of a job and all I could get was to be a judge in "Nudist Colony of the Dead." It was quite a comedown from being President of the World.

Now-a-days I just live in a surfeit of science fiction activity. Ever since 1951, approximately 40 times a year as long as I'm here and not in Transylvania, Taiwan or some place, I have an open house. Approximately 25,000 people have visited me during the last 45 years.

At the first World Science Fiction Convention - of which I've attended 54 of the 55 by now - there were just 185 of us - and here in my own home, this 18 room Ackermansion as it's called, I once had 186 science fiction people including (astronaut) Buz Aldrin.

At the first World Convention out of 185 of us - including a young Ray Bradbury who was busy getting autographs rather than giving them - we had a banquet so expensive that only 29 out of 185 could afford it. I couldn't even afford to lend the money to Ray Bradbury. I was lucky to get there myself. After all, it was a dollar a plate!

ARMCHAIR WORLD: You've been a literary agent for a number of writers including Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Hugo Gernsback and L. Ron Hubbard (among many others). Do you have any personal reminiscences of L. Ron Hubbard?

FORREST J. ACKERMAN: In 1937 or 1938 I was in a little second-hand magazine shop on Hollywood Boulevard and I came to pay for my purchases. In front of me was a dynamic looking redhead and he was telling the proprietress all about - well, it seemed he had just won a world record for gliding; I never did know if he had been in the air the longest time or gone the highest or gone the greatest distance or what, but it was some kind of a gliding record. And then he mentioned that he'd had fiction published ever since 1932. And he was reeling off (the names of) stories about air war and detectives and romance and (the) foreign legion and I was waiting to hear the magic word - science fiction. But he got through and I said "Oh sir, do you ever write any science fiction?"

And a young L. Ron Hubbard said "Well no, but you know in about 40,000 years from now there could be a new ice age here in Southern California." And he was off and running right off the tip of his tongue, creating a science fiction story. I eventually became his agent for many years of his science fiction and fantasy.

ARMCHAIR WORLD: And the rest is history. Ray Bradbury, you've known him for years.

FORREST J. ACKERMAN: I edited and published Ray Bradbury's first story - a little literary skeleton we rattle in his closet - called "Hollerbocken's Dilemma." Yes, I introduced him to the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society - a club that's had over 3000 meetings. I was at the very first one. I've been to 1500 meetings of it. I've been director and secretary and treasurer and librarian and trash collector, everything you can think of in that club.

ARMCHAIR WORLD: There are so many people that have come through your life - some of whom might not be well known - for example, the legendary producer George Pal. You actually gave the eulogy at his funeral. Do you have any anecdotes or reminiscences of George Pal?

FORREST J. ACKERMAN: Well, George was a dear person. We were together in Rio De Janeiro in 1969 at a fantasy film festival and we went walking about nine o-clock at night by the sea shore. It was still well lit. Immediately, two young ladies sidled up to us and it was evident to me what their interest was, and they said "Do you boys have the time?" And Pal looked at his empty wrist and said "I'm sorry my dear but I never wear a watch." (laughter)

And the next day he and I went out for lunch and on the menu the only two entrees they had - we had a choice - we could either have a spit sandwich or rattled-out turkey cock. Neither of us was adventurous enough to go for a spit sandwich or rattled-out turkey cock - whatever that may have been. (laughter)

ARMCHAIR WORLD: You knew Vincent Price for a number of years. What was your association with him?

FORREST J. ACKERMAN: Well, first of all, many people thought that Vincent and I looked a good deal alike. I am very flattered. When he was dying, he decided that the time had come to quit giving autographs. He gave me the very last autograph. Because we were quite look alikes, every once in a while when they couldn't afford Vincent Price in a film, they got me for half price.

ARMCHAIR WORLD: (laughter) Moving right along... Boris Karlof?

FORREST J. ACKERMAN: When you took off the mask of the monster, there was Santa Claus. He was a dear man and when he was nearly 80 he made his final four films in five weeks in a little hell hole on Santa Monica Boulevard.

I don't know where they got the nerve even to call it a studio. But he was a consummate actor. He had to get out of his chauffeured limousine and get into a wheel chair with a tank of oxygen by his side and metal braces on his legs and half a lung. He was such a consummate actor. In one scene he was being very busy being the mad doctor in his laboratory and suddenly clutched his heart and fell against the door. It was so realistic we were ready to run in and rescue him without realizing it was just part of the script.

Well there were four kids in a family that all wanted to come and meet Mr. Karloff. Mom and Pop, and rightly so, felt that that was too much, so the lucky one selected to represent the quartet was Ricky. He was a little eight year old war orphan whose GI father had abandoned him in Korea. Well the moment came for the little eight year old to meet his hero. And I took him by the hand and he was swallowing and trembling and he came forward and said, "Oh Mr. Karloff, I've waited for this moment all my life." (laughter) Karloff put his arm around him, "Photographer, lets have a picture." That is his proudest picture.

And then Verne Langdon who got Boris Karloff in his final appearance on TV on Halloween - He called me and he said "Forrey, don't you think it would be great to get Boris Karloff to do a photograph album?" Well I certainly agreed with him.

And he said, "Will you give a little listen? I've written a script. Do you think he'll go for it?" So he started to read it and you heard a squeaky door and Karloff saying "I bid you welcome. Do come (in). Oh, be careful of the spiders, they're my friends, you know."

It sounded okay to me. But that night at 11, Verne called and he said "Oh dear, Mr. Karloff was very gentle but he let me down."

I commiserated with him and Verne then said "I'll be right over." Well, the crying towel was soaking wet and I replied "at 11 o'clock, what can I do for you?"

"Karloff says if I show him a new script by nine o'clock tomorrow, one he likes, he'll stay an extra day and do it."

Well, I did a fast forward. "Where in God's name between now and nine o'clock tomorrow? I presume you could go to a couple of guys who have Grammy's under their belt and they meet on the golf course and, you know, six months from now you'd have a rough draft and Karloff's wife hates it. You're never going to get anything by 9 o'clock tomorrow."

So he says "Yes, Yes, you're going to do it!!"

"I never wrote a script in my life. I don't know anything about the format, the language.. ". "Yes, yes! You can do it!"

So at 11:30 he arrived and I said "Well, I sure wish I had about seven years of psychology at the University level under my belt, but the only thing I can think of is that Karloff didn't like the funny stuff so let me think of things I've heard him say in my presence. Maybe if I feed his words back to him he'll feel comfortable with them."

So Langdon wanted to watch the magic words come out of my fingers. I said "No, no. Go out to the piano and give me some mood music from Karloff's film 'the Mummy'." So he went out and played. (Forrey hums).

At two-thirty in the morning I wrote "The End" and thought "lost cause." Nobody - even in my autobiography - is going to know I ever tried this.

Next day at 5 o'clock a call (came). "Karloff loved it. His wife okayed it, the agent said fine, front office says 'all systems go'. Be here at 9 o'clock tomorrow and you can hear it happen."

So for one magic hour, every word that came out of Boris Karloff's mouth, I had put in. And afterwards we complimented him, knowing he was nearly 80 years old and asked him how he managed this (to be still working). And he said " I don't know gentlemen. I guess good clean living. That was at the age of six." (laughter)

ARMCHAIR WORLD: When you were much younger, I heard that you had the opportunity to hear H.G. Wells talk.

FORREST J. ACKERMAN: This great literary god came down from Mount Olympus and moved among us mortals for about forty-eight hours here in Los Angeles. It was said that in the year 2000 atop Mount Everest a statue would be erected to him reading "H.G. Wells, First of Civilized Men."

Well I was in the audience to hear his lecture. And Robert Heinlein was inspired to write a story called "Solution Unsatisfactory" which was published in "Astounding Science Fiction."

ARMCHAIR WORLD: When was this?

FORREST J. ACKERMAN: 1938 or 1939. This was the short lived period of the wire recorders and I didn't notice anyone recording him and I thought I'd better pay close attention. And so, some days, as I do now, when I have weekly meetings here, I bring back the voice of H.G. Wells.

Because he was such a literary giant who'd given us "The War of the Worlds", "The Time Machine" and "The Island of Dr. Moreau", I guess I expected a sort of an Orson Welles - indeed a deep, booming, impressive individual. I was quite surprised at the squeaky little voice that came out of this small, roly poly, ruddy complexioned gentleman with thin greying hair. He said (Forrey imitates his voice) "I am going to talk to you for about an hour. Today, East is West and West is East. And they are coming together with a bang." And indeed he was quite prophetic. East and West did collide and we were off into our war with Japan.

ARMCHAIR WORLD: Your grandfather, (George Herbert Wyman) - this is an aside- was responsible for architecting the Bradbury Building.

FORREST J. ACKERMAN: In 1892 there was a chap named Bradbury - nothing to do with Ray Bradbury - but he had become a millionaire out of a silver mine in Mexico. So he decided he wanted the first million dollar building in Los Angeles in his honor. So naturally he went to the leading architects of the day. And he was becoming completely dissatisfied with them and he happened by my grandfather's desk.

Well my grandfather was just an apprentice. He wasn't even recognized yet as an architect but he had read the best seller of the day, the science fiction novel by Edward Bellamy called "Looking Backward", about a man who went to sleep in 1885 and woke up in the year 2000. And in the book there is one page which describes the interior of an office building in the 21st century. And my grandfather had been making some sketches and Bradbury saw them and he said "Well, that's the kind of a building I want. I want you to create it."

Well, it's like offering a kid a 100-million-dollar Trump Tower today when he's never even made a dog house. My grandfather really thought "My Lord, can I really handle that?"

Well, spiritualism was very big in the country at that time. Mediums were coming over and going to private homes and having seances and ectoplasm was appearing and trumpets were blowing and my grandparents were very interested in spiritualism. And one night in 1892, they got out what is called a planchet. It's a heart that is carved out of wood with a hole through it so you can put a pen there and each one puts a hand on it and if all goes well they get a message.

My grandfather had a little brother called Mark Wyman who had died at the age of eight. And it (the message) came back "Mark Wyman take the Bradbury Building and you will be.." and then something that nobody could read.

And they said "Would you please write that last word legibly?" And they went back and copied everything that had been written before. Finally, somebody came over and looked at it to see if he could determine what the last word was. And he was upside down to the whole thing and the last word upside down and backwards was "successful."

ARMCHAIR WORLD: That's quite an amazing story. People are still taking tours of the Bradbury Building. It's part of the whole rejuvenation of downtown Los Angeles.

FORREST J. ACKERMAN: I found that my grandfather could do better things than create buildings. I must have pestered him by the hour. He drew me about sixty aliens from Mars and Venus and imaginary planets.

ARMCHAIR WORLD: Do you still have them?

FORREST J. ACKERMAN: I sure do. I have (his drawing of) the center of the earth and everything.

ARMCHAIR WORLD: You've been credited with coining the term "sci-fi".

FORREST J. ACKERMAN: (exasperation) You know, nobody has ever got around to acknowledging it, but I understand that in the forthcoming International Edition of the Oxford Dictionary, it is going to establish that Forrest J. Ackerman in 1954 was the first human being on earth to utter 'sci-fi.'

I was riding around in the automobile with my wife and had the radio on and some mention was made of hi-fi. And since science fiction had been on the tip of my tongue since 1929, I looked in the rear view mirror, struck out my tongue and there - tattooed on the end of my tongue - was "sci-fi". (laughter). And to her immortal embarrassment, my wife said "Forget it Forrey, it will never catch on." (more laughter)

If Harlon Ellison had anything to do with it - he's been trying his devil best for 44 years or something like that to destroy the term. He had an absolute hemorrhage apparently the moment he heard it. He has stated that he will not set foot in the home of the man who created this scurrilous term - sci-fi.


FORREST J. ACKERMAN: No. (laughter) Not since he made that statement. Some years ago I was offered the opportunity to come out to the University of California and give lectures for ten weeks on science fiction. I would dearly have loved to have done that but I was sitting up with bloodshot eyeballs editing three pocket books a month and more or less single handedly, as I did for 120 issues, writing "Famous Monsters of Filmland" and representing the 200 authors. I just didn't see where I could eke out an hour to drive there, an hour to lecture, an hour to come home - three hours more a week.

So I gave up on it. They then selected the last person on earth I would have recommended to substitute for me. Particularly since Harlon Ellison, as far as I know to this day, declares he doesn't write science fiction. But they chose him to give the lectures. So I had to go just one night to see how he would handle it versus what I would have done.

First of all, he was infuriated because it was held in Ackerman Hall. (laughter) There was a great coach over there so that they named it Ackerman.

Well, the first words out of Ellison's mouth to his captive audience were "You must never, ever, under any circumstances use the abominable, the nauseating sci - phooey - fi. What is it? It's ugly, it's the sound of two crickets screwing." (more laughter)

My God, is that what I let loose upon the world! You must really have your ear down in the dirt to hear two crickets screwing. So I got down to Australia and there was a little scrib about me in the paper. "According to Forrest Ackerman, the sci-fi pundit here for the World Convention, his term has been defined by Harlon Ellison as the sound made by two crickets while mating."

Next day a little kid at the convention had made a button "I love copulating crickets." (more laughter)

ARMCHAIR WORLD: For a number of years I have been fascinated by the 1939 World's Fair in New York. I wonder if by any chance you had the opportunity to go to that fair?

FORREST J. ACKERMAN: I not only went, I performed. I was a shy, introverted, tongue-tied kid at 22 when I went out to the first World Science Fiction Convention. I traveled with every clickety-clack of the railroad track - 3000 miles across the country. ... When I got off the train, there were a couple dozen fans to greet me. One of them was a fifteen year old chap with a bit of a paunch. He was dribbling cigarette ashes down his front and he looked me up and down disdainfully and he said "So you're the Forrest Ackerman who's been writing all those ridiculous letters to the science fiction magazines." And the man who was to become the collaborator with Fred Pohl on the "Gravy Planet", Cyril Cornbluth, punched me in the stomach.

Welcome to fun city. For this I've come 3000 miles? Well, I was kind of like when Superman is Clark Kent and is kind of shy but he steps into the telephone booth and comes out as Superman. I had brought along a costume. I was the only one out of 185 fans who wore a futuristic costume. And in that costume I went out to the World's Fair.

They had a platform there and a microphone and they were inviting people from around the world to speak in their native language, in Russian, in Spanish or whatever. So I got enough nerve in this costume to go up to the microphone and speak in Esperanto and I said that I was a visitor from the future where we all spoke Esperanto.

Yes indeed, I was there and I saw their world of the future and I saw them. They put a 1939 issue of "Amazing Stories" in a time capsule along with a number of other things.

I was reading a newspaper article just the other day of how many time capsules are lost - that people no longer know where they are. I knew of one in 1930. The film "Just Imagine", which was a prediction of the world in 1980, (was shown) here at the Carthay Circle theater. Under the walkway to it they buried things from the film "Just Imagine" and other things for the future.

But today there is a huge bank, I think, built on top of it. When 1980 rolled around nobody on earth, I think, but me remembered (the capsule buried there) and it was too late.

ARMCHAIR WORLD: Did you have any connection with "Forbidden Planet"?

FORREST J. ACKERMAN: No connection whatsoever. I saw the preview of it with H.L Gould, the editor of Galaxy Magazine. And oddly enough, it has become something of a cult classic. But everyone of us who saw it at the time were miserably disappointed in it.

ARMCHAIR WORLD: What about one of George Pal's films, "Destination Moon?"

FORREST J. ACKERMAN: I was delighted with it. I was on the set with Heinlein. And in particular, the artist Chesley Bonistell took my wife and myself around and showed us the great moonscape that he had drawn.

Heinlein, I think, told me they wanted to make a musical out of it and when they got to the moon have dancing girls there and so on. He totally objected to that. So fortunately he got his way.

ARMCHAIR WORLD: To go on, I'd like to ask you about your pivotal collection of over 300,000 items you have here in your Ackerman Museum. How did this collection evolve? Did it evolve through some conscious effort, conscious direction, or did it just - one thing build on another?

FORREST J. ACKERMAN: Well in the beginning in 1926 when I discovered "Amazing Stories", I didn't even realize what a magazine was and that four weeks later there would be another issue of it. So four or five months went by until I saw the same "Amazing Stories" but with a different picture on the cover. And I thought, "Oh Gosh, there's one of these every month.

So at the time there was just the one magazine and Gernsback tried an experiment and he put out an annual with the first publication of Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Mastermind of Mars." That was so successful, it began to be brought out quarterly. So now I had the monthly, quarterly and annual. Then Gernsback lost control of "Amazing" and he brought out immediately a new magazine called "Science Wonder Stories." If you subscribed to it even before it had a title, you could get it for 12-1/2 cents a copy for the rest of your life. So I was one of its first subscribers.

And then "Science Wonder Stories" announced a sister magazine called "Air Wonder Stories", and "Air Wonder Stories" announced "Scientific Detective". And then "Amazing Stories" started having quarterlies and in January 1930, along came "Astounding Science Fiction" which is today's "Analog".

Well now I was getting about nine magazines a month and it was in the depths of the depression and 20 cents or a quarter was kind of hard to come by. I had my first letter published in the first "Science Wonder Quarterly" in 1929 and my father was kind of proud of that and so I caught on that if I had a letter in every issue of the magazine, why my father would naturally want to get it to brag about his son. I became the greatest letter writer of the time. I think that in one issue of "Astounding" I had three letters - one under my own name and two pen names.

ARMCHAIR WORLD: So this collection started with..

FORREST J. ACKERMAN: One magazine. In those days I was like a man dying of thirst in the desert. Every drop of water was important. And I branched out to mundane magazines. There were millions of them in those days. Magazines called "Top Notch" and "The Blue Book" and "Yellow Book", and "Green Book" and "Doc Savage" and "Argosy" and so on.

"Argosy" in particular had some story in it by Ray Cummings or A. Merritt or Edgar Rice Burroughs. So I was just getting every speck of science fiction I could find because you sort of didn't know whether it was going to disappear tomorrow and there wouldn't be any more, you know....

ARMCHAIR WORLD: Well, thank you so much. This has really been an experience meeting you and having you take this time to talk to us.

© 1997 Gary Fisher, Armchair World

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