Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Forrest J Ackerman (1916-2008)

Forrest James Ackerman, who has died aged 92, was known by many names: Forest was usually shortened to Forrey by friends and colleagues; for letters it became 4e, 4sj, although might equally have been signed with any one of a dozen others—Dr Acula, Claire Voyant or Pharaoh J Ankh-Er-Man amongst them. Wordplay and punning names were a way of life to Ackerman. As editor he produced anthologies with titles Ackermanthology (1997) and Martianthology (2003), Boris Karloff was described as “The Frankenscience Monster” in Ackerman’s 1969 biography and he used “imagi-movie” to cover the broadest spectrum of horror, fantasy and science fiction films. Infamously, he coined the term “sci-fi” in 1954 as an up-to-date, post-atomic acronym to replace the cumbersome “scientifiction” and “science-fiction”. Fans continue to argue its merits over fifty years on.

Ackerman was a populariser of science fiction and horror in all forms and was first called “Mr Science Fiction” by rocketry expert Willie Ley in 1949. He was named “Number 1 Fan Personality” at the World SF Convention in 1953 and subsequently was an inductee of the Monster Kid Hall of Fame and earned a Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1997.

Born in Los Angeles on 24 November 1916, Ackerman became an obsessive movie fan after seeing the 1922 comedy fantasy One Glorious Day. He discovered Amazing Stories, the first science fiction magazine, when it launched in 1926 and contacted fellow fans through the letters pages of Amazing and Wonder Stories. A prolific contributor to fan-produced magazines, he was one of the founders of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, editing the LASFS magazine Imagination!, and introduced teenage fan Ray Bradbury to some of the leading lights of the day—Robert A. Heinlein, Fredric Brown, Henry Kuttner and Leigh Brackett amongst them—who met up at Clifton’s Cafeteria.

Ackerman, wearing a futuristic costume designed by his girlfriend (the precursor to all fan costume wearing), attended the first World Science Fiction Convention in 1939 in New York and could boast of missing only two of the subsequent 65 Worldcons.

His obsession with movies spilled over into collecting movie memorabilia and Ackerman’s house in Los Feliz was filled with over 300,000 items, ranging from movie props—a full-size replica of the robotrix from Metropolis, dinosaurs from King Kong, masks from Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu and five of the Seven Faces of Dr Lao; 125,000 stills, complete runs of 200 different magazines and many tens of thousands of books filled the 18 rooms of the Ackermansion, which he opened up to visitors in 1951. On one memorable night he entertained 186 visitors, including Buzz Aldrin.

Ackerman made cameo appearances in over 50 movies playing everything from the curator of the last museum on Earth (Aftermath) to the President of the United States (Amazon Women on the Moon); he was “Man Eating Popcorn” in Michael Jackson’s "Thriller" video.

Movie memorabilia and his own memories of meeting such stars as Bela Lugosi Boris Karloff, Lon Cheyney and Vincent Price inspired the publication of Famous Monsters in Filmland, published by James Warren from 1958. Warren published dozens of spin-off titles, including the famous Vampirella comic; Ackerman named the alien vampiress as well as writing her origin story.

Ackerman remained at the helm of Famous Monsters until 1983 when the magazine folded. He later became involved with a revived version in 1993 but fell out with the new publisher, Ray Ferry, and filed a lawsuit against him when Ferry continued to use Ackerman’s punny pen-names and material. Ackerman was awarded $382,000 in compensation and almost the same again in damages—a judgement upheld in 2002 after Ferry appealed—but the publisher immediately went into bankruptcy.

Soon after, aged 86, Ackerman was hospitalised following a stroke and part of his collection was sold off to pay his legal fees from the case while he was comatose and not expected to survive. Recovering, he decided to sell the Ackermansion and much of his collection; he retained some favourite items, including Bela Lugosi’s cape from Dracula and a Cylon robot from Battlestar Galactica, and moved to a bungalow, dubbed the Acker Mini-Mansion, in the Hollywood Hills.

At 89, Ackerman told a reporter, “I take a tablet each morning and the manufacturer guarantees that it’s going to let me live to be 125. And if I don’t make it to 125, I’m going to demand my money back.”

Ackerman, recovering from pneumonia, had a heart attack and was hospitalised. His death was announced on 6 November, quickly followed by a retraction. Ackerman chose to receive no further medication and return home where he died of heart failure on 4 December.

He was married to Wendayne Wahrmann in June 1949 who died in 1990.

Obituaries: LA Times (6 December 2008); Daily Telegraph (8 December 2008); The Guardian (8 December 2008); The Times (9 December 2008); Financial Times (26 December); The Independent (31 December).

(* Photo: Alan Light.)

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