Words can't describe all the things I've been feeling since news arrived of Forrest J Ackerman's death last week. Actually, these feelings have been churning since early November when the man fell gravely ill. The past few weeks have been a death watch for his many friends and fans, although one filled with hopes and prayers that the beloved 92 year-old Ackerman would pull through. At the very least, it gave thousands of people the chance to tell him one last time how much he's meant to them.
Ackerman is single-handedly responsible for science-fiction fandom in the world and, by extension, fandom and fanzine publishing of any kind. He was the first person to show up at a sci-fi con dressed in a costume. He even coined the term "sci-fi." And as editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland, he influenced legions of youngsters fascinated with monsters and spaceships. Some of those kids were Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, John Landis and many other artists who have publicly acknowledged their debt to him.
I read Famous Monsters all through the 1970s and it became an instant cultural and aesthetic touchstone for me. Its pulp pages were packed with rundowns on movies I'd never seen, everything from current drive-in schlock to classic Universal horror pics. Huge photographs featured heroes and villains that seemed to exist in some parallel universe just around the corner. I was helplessly doomed to spend countless hours hand-tuning the insectile antenna that rose from our old TV set. I knew that if I found the proper frequency, I might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of those amazing worlds.
Uncle Forry, as he was called, didn't just gush over genre movies. He featured extensive profiles of actors, writers, special effects gurus and filmmakers. He gave me my first real look at how movies are made. Behind the alien worlds and creepy ghouls were armies of real people like you and me. Forry's endless enthusiasm drew you in and encouraged you to pursue your own dreams, whatever they may be. Like Stan Lee with his loquacious Soapbox columns in Marvel Comics, Forry was a grown-up who never grew up, a cool and happy guy who made you feel like a member of the club.
I didn't know Ackerman personally. We met two years ago through mutual friends, and I got to tag along on a tour of the famed Bradbury Building downtown (designed by a distant relative of Ackerman's), a lunch at Clifton's Cafeteria, and later a dinner that included actor Angus Scrimm, the villainous Tall Man of the Phantasm series of horror pics. It was a pleasure just to sit back and listen to their stories.
I did share one private moment with Forry. We were sitting in the living room of his Los Feliz house, just a few blocks from where I now live. I didn't get to visit the original Ackermansion in Beverly Hills before it was vacated and torn down, its unparalleled collection of sci-fi fandom auctioned and scattered to the winds. I recall vividly a couple of pictorials in Famous Monsters that showed the depth of Forry's sci-fi & horror museum, and I can't tell you how much I yearned to visit Hollywood and take one of Forry's free tours. But as I sat in this cozy bungalow festooned with movie props, original art work and rare first editions, I had an inkling of the original museum's grandeur.
My friends decided to take a little drive into the Hollywood Hills and search for famous B-movie shooting locations. I was a bit weary and begged off so they left me to relax with Ackerman. He was very old and hard of hearing but a gracious guy nonetheless. I wanted to take a moment and tell him how much his work meant to me -- how I used to be a wide-eyed Alabama boy mowing lawns so I could subscribe to his magazine, and now here I was years later having followed those same dreams all the way to Hollywood.
Ackerman sat down in a recliner next to me and reached for the TV remote. As I was about to speak, he punched up his favorite afternoon show: Judge Judy. I sat there silently and watched him grin at the litany of courtroom absurdities. During one ridiculous case that had Judge Judy tearing into some buffoon, he turned to flash me a happy little sneer, a crooked smile that said, "Can you believe how silly people can be?" I grinned right back at him.
When the show was over, Forry's caretaker came to fetch him for his afternoon nap. I quietly floated around the living room, looking at the death mask of Bela Lugosi, a life-size 1970s Cylon robot, and framed prints from Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Forry's favorite movie. Soon I could hear Uncle Forry snoring lightly in the next room. I suddenly felt light-headed as I realized I was walking through his dream world, and it was a place I knew very well because it was also my own.
Thanks for all the dreams, Uncle Forry. Sleep well.