Movie Legends: How Harlan Ellison Got an Acknowledgement on Terminator

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Some errant comments from James Cameron got Harlan Ellison a special credit at the end of Terminator.

On the home video release of 1984's The Terminator, there is the following credit...

It's a very interesting credit, as it doesn't really say "based on Harlan Ellison's work" or anything like that, just a general "Hey, here's an acknowledgement."

How that acknowledgment came to be is a curious case of movie history that, due to various agreements, we'll probably never get the FULL story on how it happened, but from what we do know, it sounds like a few errant comments from James Cameron ended up getting Ellison the credit.

Okay, in case you're unfamiliar with either "Soldier" or The Terminator, let's fill in the blanks a bit.

The Terminator is about a robot (dubbed the Terminator) that is sent back in time (from the future to the present of 1984) to kill the mother of the man who will later lead a counter-revolution against the robots following the robot uprising. An agent from the future is sent to stop the Terminator from achieving his goal (as an aside, I did a Movie Legends years ago about how close OJ Simpson came to playing the Terminator role).

"Soldier" is an episode of the Outer Limits by Harlan Ellison, adapted from Ellison's short story, "Soldier From Tomorrow," about two soldiers in the future (in a future where people are pretty much built just to continually fight an unending war) who are caught in a timewarp. One of them ends up in 1964, where he is befriended by a man who slowly teaches the man from the future how to live his own life outside of being a "soldier" until the other soldier also ends up in 1964. The original soldier sacrifices himself to save his new friends.

As you might have noticed, the two stories are not particularly similar. However, the opening of The Terminator is extremely similar to the opening of "Soldier." We see the fighting in the distant future, we see the people sent back in time and we see them end up on a city street. The first few minutes of the film and the first few minutes of the TV episode were very similar.

When Harlan Ellison saw the movie, he instantly felt that his story had been used for the film's opening. He contacted Orion Pictures and they were initially dismissive, but Ellison had a trump card.

First off, Ellison's friend, screenwriter and producer Tracy Torme, had told Ellison before the movie even came out that he had visited the set of the film and when he asked where the story came from, Cameron had told him, "Oh, I ripped off a couple of Harlan Ellison stories."

More damning, though, was an infamous Starlog interview with Cameron. Here is the article as it was published. However, apparently the article as published wasn't what was originally written. From David Brennan on JamesCameronOnline.com,

So, Ellison and his attorneys then contacted Hemdale (the financiers of The Terminator) and Orion (the movie's distributor) to discuss a payment or settlement, with the obvious threat of a lawsuit in case none was offered. And soon after this initial contact, Ellison's complaint received even more support. A Houston criminal defense attorney might have agreed that Ellison seemed to have some grounds for a lawsuit

“About a week after my attorney contacted Hemdale, I got a call from the editor of Starlog magazine. ....It turned out Cameron had given an interview to Starlog and, after I began inquiring at Hemdale, [The Terminator producer Gale Anne] Hurd sent Starlog a legal demand to see the interview.” According to Ellison, Gale Anne Hurd then modified Starlog's article on The Terminator. She omitted a quote from Cameron in the article that read, “'Oh, I took a couple of Outer Limits segments.'” The reason that the Starlog editor had contacted Ellison was to provide him with the original version of the article, the one without Gale Anne Hurd's editing. Said Ellison, “At this point we went to Hemdale and to Orion and we said, 'I'm afraid we got him with the smoking gun. Now do you want to do something about this or do you want us to whip your ass in open court? We'd be perfectly happy to do it either way.'” Between the account of Tracy Torme and the Starlog interview, the attorneys for Hemdale and Orion quickly realized that they wanted no part of a lawsuit, by Ellison's accounts. “They took one look at this shit and their attorneys said, 'Settle.'”

It is disputed exactly how much money Ellison got besides the acknowledgement credit. He said 65-70,000, but other reports said it was closer to 400,000 all said and done.

The fact that they settled on a relatively weak infringement claim (it's literally the first three minutes of the film and that's it) certainly does suggest that Ellison is not lying when he says that the Cameron comment was edited out of the Starlog article. That's a huge smoking gun.

Hemdale, the financiers of the film, and Orion were willing to go to court still on the matter, but only if Cameron was willing to pay them if they lost.

Cameron later recalled, "It was a nuisance suit that could easily have been fought. I expected Hemdale and Orion to fight for my rights, but they abandoned me. The insurance company told me if I didn't agree to the settlement, they would come after me personally for the damages if they lost the suit. Having no money at the time, I had no choice but to agree to the settlement. Of course there was a gag order as well, so I couldn't tell this story but now I frankly don't care. It's the truth. Harlan Ellison is a parasite who can kiss my ass"

So, again, the fact that they settled sure does make it sound like Cameron's comments were what hurt them, so I'm willing to go with this legend as....


Thanks to David Brennan for his excellent article that I linked to earlier. Great, great work on the topic. Thanks to my buddy, Chris Nowlin, for asking me to look into this.

Be sure to check out my archive of Movie Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of film.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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