Scii-fi King Forrest J Ackerman died of heart failure at his home in Los Angeles on ecember 4 2008.
This interview ran in 2007 in Bizarre Magazine.
Back in the 1950s, goggle-eyed lovers of werewolves, mummies and monsters were a disparate, lonely and voiceless community of movie geeks. Without videotapes, computers or easy access to any film archive, resources about their favourite creature-features or Boris Karloff frighteners were extremely limited.
Lovers of fantastic film were forced to make scrapbooks and write lists, treasuring each minute of every movie release at their local picture palace or fuzzy midnight TV screening introduced by Vampira.
But everything changed in 1958 when a magazine called Famous Monsters Of Filmland was launched as a one-off special. Like an angry mob of villagers from a Universal horror movie, kids across America attacked newsstands for their first ever chance to read about their favourite subject matter, uniting a group of monster-loving misfits and inspiring a generation of future filmmakers and writers.
A second printing followed to fulfil eager children’s demands for more thrills, and the magazine quickly flourished
in a monthly form.
Deep in the bloody heart of Horrorwood, Karloffornia, we find its creator, Forrest J Ackerman, also known as Dr Acula, Mr Science Fiction or just plain Uncle Forry to his many famous friends and devotees, a man regarded as the world’s number one fan of fantastic film.
So successful was his landmark release, he wrote and edited Famous Monsters for two decades, its influence spawning spin-offs at Warren Publishing such as Monster World, Famous Westerns Of Filmland, Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella (the sexy vampire from outer space, also created by Ackerman). A whole wave of writing for monster-movie fans had been unleashed.
“I sat with an old mechanical typewriter for 20 hours a day working on the first issue,” explains Forry. “The publisher sent across a sign saying, ‘I am 11-and-a-half years old and I am your reader. Forrest Ackerman make me laugh.’”
As a consequence, every single edition was filled with delightfully goofy puns that made gory guys and ghouls laugh all the way to the morgue. The magazine was dripping with salivating monster interviews, terror-ific articles on retrospective and contemporary genre flicks, creepy comic-strip adaptations of classic movies, petrifying picture galleries, a popular letters page called ‘Fang Mail’ and regulars like ‘You Axed For It’, where readers could request certain photos to appear and ask all sorts of questions of Forry.
Ackerman was the ideal choice to helm the monster mag, felt New York publisher James Warren. Forry had lived in the vicinity of the Hollywood ‘nightmare’ factory all his life, not only amassing
a huge knowledge of these films but also his fanatical enthusiasm, which saw sympathetic studio workers giving him film stills previously destined for the dustbin. He also established good relationships with many of the stars of the day.
Forrest J Ackerman was the original super-fan. In 1954, he coined the phrase ‘sci-fi’, now found in every modern dictionary. The flash of inspiration came one day while driving with his wife, when he heard some mention of ‘hi-fi’ on the radio.
“Since science fiction had been on the tip of my tongue ever since 1929, I looked in the rearview mirror, stuck out my tongue and there tattooed on the end was ‘sci-fi’,” he recalls excitedly, his eyes squinting with delight as he begins a trip down memory lane. “To her immortal embarrassment my dear wife said, ‘Forget it, Forry – it’ll never catch on.’”
The kindly Mr. Ackerman has managed to acquire an astounding 300,000 science-fiction items, including those rare photographs (he had over 35,000 tempting terrors to offer the publisher when Famous Monsters was first published), props, books, artwork and memorabilia, a collection the Smithsonian once described as “one of the 10 best private collections in the country”.
Originally, it was all housed in the ‘Ackermansion’, an astounding 18-room giant cavern, jam-packed with all things fantastic including stop-motion models from King Kong, a signed first edition of Dracula, and even a Martian spacecraft from War Of The Worlds. But fangs ain’t what they used to be for Forry.
After an extensive legal battle in the US courts and a serious life-threatening illness, he very sadly had to strip down his collection to pay for all the expensive medical and legal costs.
Though frail, he’s still as bright as a spark in Frankenstein’s laboratory. At the mere mention of a photo opportunity with his original Bela Lugosi Dracula cape, he jumps from his chair like an excited schoolboy and tosses the rare artifact around his shoulders, grabbing a pair of fake fangs and making childish horror expressions.
It’s no surprise Forry still gives tours around his downsized bungalow, which has been dubbed the ‘mini-Ackermansion’. And there are still plenty of horrific delights to behold in the bastard mansion offspring and a treasure trove of tales to entrance from a man who befriended all the great horror-film icons of the sound era.
His star connections in the genre world grew naturally from his career. As a literary agent, he represented more than 200 authors, including such illustrious SF names as Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, L Ron Hubbard and Hugo Gernsback, but also
a number of more infamous low-rent writers.
“I was Ed Wood’s ‘ill-literary’ agent,” he giggles, nonetheless terribly annoyed he binned one of the director of Plan 9 From Outer Space’s ultra-schlocky manuscripts because it was so unbelievably awful. “Ed was talking about making a Bela Lugosi film, and I suggested he call him ‘Dr Acula’, and so he began giving me his short stories. I never saw him in drag, or he might have played ‘Dragula’! To me, he was mainly a drunken voice at two o’clock in the morning, babbling incomprehensible things.”
Over time, Forry was able to make strong connections with the horror glitterati, such as Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and the great Bela Lugosi. In Forry’s home, one group of items on display is dedicated to the famous screen Count.
Excitedly, Forry grabs my arm and pulls me towards a display cabinet. Inside is a purple monotone photograph of Lugosi, an ornately carved ring marked with ‘D’ and an aged autograph in black ink.
“You are now looking at the only signature of Lugosi in the world as Count Dracula,” exclaims Forry with youthful delight. “His fifth and final wife turned out to be a witch with a capital ‘B’.
Once, they were at a party of mine; Bela was in the dining room and she was in the living room. Since he was deaf, he didn’t realise how loud he was speaking and was singing the Hungarian blues to me about his wife.
I thought, ‘Oh God, she’s hearing every word. Wait till he gets home.’ After he died she once bragged to me, ‘I married Dracula, and I frightened him!’ Bela was very superstitious and believed you should sleep at night with a glass of water by your nightstand to keep away evil spirits. But she would terrify him by threatening daily, ‘If you don’t obey I’ll take the glass away.’”
Lon Chaney was originally signed to play Dracula onscreen but died before a frame was shot. Although Forry never met the silent-film star, he did meet Chaney’s son, Lon Jr, most renowned for his lead in Universal’s The Wolfman (1940), and another who hit the bottle in his later career.
“It was disappointing,” sighs Ackerman. “One time the Count Dracula society gave a banquet for him and I sat opposite on the table. I ate my banquet and he drank his.”
Forry’s favourite movie of all time is still well-represented in his Hollywood home, where tours and talks are still conducted every Saturday.
Standing proudly in one corner is a full-size replica of the False Maria robot from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), decked from top to bottom in fairy lights and wearing a bobble hat.
There is, in fact, an entire room dedicated to the movie, with busts of the Seven Deadly Sins that appeared in the futuristic silent classic, numerous film posters and rare stills.
Forry has sat through more screenings of Metropolis than he has lived years. With wrinkly eyes wide open, he joyfully remembers some of his memorable screenings of the film.
“I was in Berlin and it occurred to me some of the hundreds of children in the film could still be alive. On a radio interview, I asked if any would come to my hotel and meet me. So a man and a lady came and introduced themselves. We watched the Giorgio Moroder version and I had the pleasure of sitting with two of the children of Metropolis. They had been too young to see it at the time. The man now saw his long-dead little sister because there was a close-up of her in the arms of Brigitte Helm.
Another time, I was at a film festival in Rio with [Metropolis director] Fritz Lang. He was nearly blind. After the screening, the applauding audience wanted him to answer questions. It was very flattering, for he rose and said, ‘Anything you want to know about Metropolis, ask my friend Forry Ackerman. He knows more about it than I do.’”
It’s a pleasant surprise to find Forry’s fascination with robots is equalled by his admiration of the real female form. Ackerman takes delight in displaying a fully nude (and highly detailed) statuette of Hollywood legend Marlene Dietrich in his bedroom, and he houses a large collection of bondage erotica. He’s also an annual attendee of Hugh Hefner’s (the other editor who changed the publishing world in the 50s) wild New Years Eve parties, which he points out is, “very embarrassing. There are inevitably six young ladies so poor they can’t afford to wear a single thing!”
Other famous fans include Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Joe Dante, John Landis and Peter Jackson. A testament to Forry’s influence and importance is his appearance in over 100 films – a record for a non-actor, though as the octogenarian wryly notes, “My film career has lasted over 50 years and my total time on film is probably less than an hour.”
Still, he’s managed to show his face in everything from Michael Jackson’s Thriller video to the recent remake of King Kong, even getting cast as the first lesbian President of the US in the spoof Amazon Women On The Moon (1987).
In the early 80s, Famous Monsters finally closed the lid on its publishing coffin after James Warren became ill, while Ackerman resigned in the face of the increasing disorganisation and poor pay.
Though the magazine was revived in the 90s and carries on today, Forry has no involvement. However, the legacy of Forrest J Ackerman and Famous Monsters Of Filmland stretches well into the 21st century.
As Stephen King once said about his huge contribution to fandom, “Forry was the first; he was best and he is the best. He stood up for a generation of kids who realised that if it was junk, it was magic junk.”