Well before author Ray Bradbury appeared on stage, the audience at Sunday’s West Hollywood Book Fair eclipsed the number of available seats. When he arrived, Bradbury was greeted by applause. Needing no introduction, the writer began to tell the audience about love. “Over a period of years, [I’ve discovered] the answer to everything is love,” he told the crowd. Bradbury loves films, plays, and people. His passion for these things has afforded him an extraordinary life. With a new production of “Fahrenheit 451” opening soon, many of Bradbury’s thoughts focused around the novel and play. His story began with actor Charles Laughton.
“Charles Laughton was my teacher and my good friend. He asked me to write a [stage] version of ‘Fahrenheit 451,’” Bradbury recalled. “He took me to Disneyland and I flew over [Peter Pan’s London] with Charles Laughton. You can’t beat that, can you?”
It was on this trip that Laughton asked Bradbury to write a long-form play. The result was “Fahrenheit 451.” “One night, he called me and took to dinner with Paul Gregory, his producer,” Bradbury said. “Over dinner, they gave me two double martinis before they gave me the bad news. My play didn’t work.”
Bradbury famously wrote the novel version of “Fahrenheit 451” in the basement of the Powell Library at UCLA. “When I first got married, and we had two children, it was hard to write around the house. I needed an office, but I had no money,” he remembered. “I was wandering around UCLA one day at the Powell Library and I heard typing downstairs. I went down to see what was going on.” It turned out there was a typing room in the basement with a pool of twelve typewriters. “You could rent one for ten cents an hour,” Bradbury recalled. “I said, ‘Oh my god! This is going to be my office! I don’t need money!’ I went to the bank; got ten dollars worth of dimes. I went to UCLA, moved into the typing room and in nine days, I spent nine dollars and eighty cents and wrote the first version of ‘Fahrenheit 451.’”
This drew applause from the crowd. “So it was a dime novel, wasn’t it?” he joked.
Written during the McCarthy era of suspicion and paranoia, Bradbury had a hard time placing his novel for publication. He recalled the person that eventually did publish it. “A young man came along. He was starting a new magazine. He was roughly the same age as I was.” Bradbury was twenty-six at the time. “He said, ‘I don’t have much money, can you sell me a story of some sort?’ I said, ‘Look, I’ve got this new novel in three parts, ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ can you buy that from me?’ He said, ‘Yes, I’ll give you three hundred dollars.’ So, in late winter of 1953, ‘Fahrenheit 451’ appeared in the first issues of Playboy Magazine. Hugh Hefner has been a good friend for fifty years.”
Around this time, twenty-seven of Bradbury's stories were adapted by EC Comics. “They stole the stories! I caught them at it!” he recalled with a smile. “I trapped them and they started to pay me and the adaptations came out very well. The illustrations were beautiful. I am very proud of my association with that comic magazine.”
Despite the way that situation began, Bradbury feels his stories appearing in comics form made sense. “I started my life with comic strips. When I was nine years old, Buck Rodgers came into my life. I looked at Buck Rodgers. He pulled me into the future and I never came back. Buck Rodgers is one of my fathers. It’s natural I would want to be in comic strips.”
Shifting from the stage and magazines to the screen, Bradbury talked about his early cinematic experiences. “I started going to films when I was three-years-old. I saw ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ with Lon Cheney. I saw ‘Phantom of the Opera.’ I saw the dinosaur film, [The Lost World], when I was seven and dinosaurs changed me for life. I met Ray Harryhausen when I was eighteen and we promised each other to someday do a film together.” In 1952, Harryhausen created the creature for “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” based on Bradbury’s short story, “The Foghorn.”
“The Foghorn” grew from Bradbury’s boyhood love of dinosaurs. Like “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” that love would lead to another film, John Huston’s 1956 version of “Moby Dick.” “[‘The Foghorn’] was the first story in [the short story collection] ‘The Golden Apples of the Sun,’” Bradbury explained. “I gave a copy of that book to John Huston. He read that first story and later told me he gave me the job because he read my story about dinosaurs.” Working on the film was not the happiest of experiences and would later form the basis for the novel, “Green Shadows, White Whale.”
It was during this time that the stage entered the circle of Bradbury’s loves. “I went to work in Ireland for a whole year writing screenplay of ‘Moby Dick,’” he remembered. “While I was in Dublin, I saw the work of Sean O’Casey on the stage there. I saw George Bernard Shaw’s production of ‘Saint Joan’ and these productions began to teach me to write for the stage.” All the while, he would receive letters from friends sure that Bradbury would come home and write something about Ireland. He would write back with, ‘No, I don’t think I will.’ Eventually, that position changed. “When I’d been home about a year, a voice cried out inside my head, ‘Rick, darlin’!’
“I said, ‘Who is it?’
“He said, ‘It’s your cab driver that drove you every night from Gillcock to Dublin and from Dublin to Gillcock to meet with John Huston. Do you remember all that, Ray?’
“I said, ‘Yes.’
He said, ‘Would you mind putting it down?’ So I began to write one act plays about Ireland and I didn’t know if they were any good or not.”
Eventually a friend of Bradbury’s asked about the plays. “He said, ‘Come to my house next Thursday night. I’ll have some actors there and they’ll stand up and read your plays to you and you’ll be able to tell if they’re any good.’ So, the next Thursday night, I went to his house and he had actors there and they read my plays and we fell on the floor. The goddamned things work! So at long last, I was thirty-seven-years-old, [and] I was beginning to write plays that worked.” This would eventually lead to his long form play about Ireland, “Falling Upward.”
Working out of Desilu Studios (now part of the Paramount lot), Bradbury put on productions of plays such as “The Pedestrian” and “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit.” Performed with amateurs and minimal lighting and direction, Bradbury discovered despite the technical difficulties, his plays really did work. He opened “The World of Ray Bradbury” in New York in 1964. “You feel your way, don’t you,” Bradbury said. “You love something and you do it. Then it works, or it doesn’t. Then you do something else that you love.”
Eventually, Bradbury even made that stage version of “Fahrenheit 451” work.