Writing the BUCK ROGERS Novelizations
By RICHARD A. LUPOFF
A version of this essay originally appeared in Earl Kemp’s December 2005 edition of efanzine and is reposted here with the permission of the author, Richard Lupoff.
When I walked away from a nice secure job in the computer biz in 1970 I thought I had a pretty good game plan worked out. I’d already sold a couple of novels and a nonfiction book. I figured I could turn out two books a year plus assorted shorter pieces and take good care of my family that way.
Oy! Was I ever in for a rude awakening!
At first things went pretty well. I had a couple of contracts in my back pocket and I was able to turn out copy at a pretty rapid pace. I also managed to pick up a fairly steady series of assignments from journals you may or may not have heard of: Ramparts, Crawdaddy, SunDance, Night Times, The Organ. I landed steady gigs reviewing books for the San Francisco Chronicle and for Andy Porter’s slick magazine Algol. Those provided lots of checks, as did occasional shots at the Washington Post and the LA Times. And, not to go into excessive detail, I garnered some bucks via steady albeit part-time teaching at the College of Marin and occasional guest appearances at UC/Berkeley, UCLA, and Stanford.
Sounds pretty good, dunnit? It was a lot of fun and produced some nice publishing credits and copy for my resumé. But somehow the number of dollars received versus the number of hours required just didn’t add up right and my financial condition was steadily deteriorating. We had three small children and taking care of them was a full-time job for Pat. Our savings were just about exhausted and things were looking desperate.
One day my agent phoned and asked if I was familiar with Buck Rogers.
Jeez, what a question! Any science fiction fan of that era knew Buck Rogers whether he wanted to or not. All you had to do was mention science fiction outside fannish circles and you knew the next words you were going to hear: “You really read that crazy Buck Rogers stuff?”
At least it wasn’t, “Do you believe in UFOs?”
Sure, I knew the comic strip, I’d seen the Buster Crabbe serial, and I’d even read Armageddon 2419 AD, by Philip Francis Nowlan in the sweet little Avalon edition put together by one of my personal heroes, the great Robert W. Lowndes.
“You know, there’s a Buck Rogers TV series in the works,” my agent went on. “There’s a chance to novelize a couple of screenplays. Are you interested?”
Dell Books had arranged to publish a series of novels based on the forthcoming television show. The editor responsible was Jim Frenkel, for whom I’d done a couple of science fiction novels.
While my agent tussled with the other parties involved, Jim and I talked about the project. The contract negotiations were more complex than they are for a normal book. You don’t just have an author and a publisher involved. You have a license holder, a production studio, and a television network, too. After a while my agent sent me a preliminary binder-agreement to sign and return while everybody and his lawyer worked out the full-scale contract.
Jim Frenkel, in the meanwhile, promised to send me the scripts of the two episodes I was supposed to novelize, along with production notes, character and background bibles, and cast photos.
I would have to write fast because they wanted to get the books onto the stands while the TV series was fresh and getting a publicity rush. There was another reason for me to write fast. Nobody was certain that the TV series was even going to happen. The network brass were dithering. I guess this is par for the course. It certainly accounts for some of the heavy drinking that goes on in the industry, not to mention the strains on personal relationships.
The arrangement, then, was this: Glen Larson Productions would send all the source materials to Dell. Dell would send them on to me. I would start work. If the TV series aired, I would complete two novels, Dell would publish them, and I would receive a nice paycheck. If the decision was made not to air the series, I would be notified to stop work forthwith and deliver to Jim Frenkel as much “product” as I had completed. Dell would presumably deep-six it. Or, more likely, cold storage it in case the project was ever revived. And I would be paid pro rata for however much work I had done.
Yes, that will assure promptness, won’t it?
The package from Dell arrived late in the afternoon. The older kids were home from school. The little guy was playing on the swing set in the backyard. Pat was working on dinner. I opened the package, took one look at the contents, and decided that I was not going to let it ruin my evening with my family.
Next morning I sat down with the materials Frenkel had sent me.
There were two scripts, one titled simply, “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century;” the other, “Buck Rogers: That Man on Beta.” No bible. No cast photos. I picked up the phone and called Jim Frenkel. Where was all the material I’d been promised?
Tough luck, buddy, you’ve got all we’ve got.
Well, when you can’t write through a problem, you write around it. If I wasn’t going to be able to describe “Buck’s steely gray eyes” or his “deep brown eyes” or his “brilliant blue eyes,” I’d just write something like “Buck’s glinting, determined eyes.”
I started reading. “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” would be the pilot episode of the series. As scripted by Glen A. Larson and Leslie Stevens, this was a wildly revisioned version of the Buck Rogers story, created by Phil Nowlan in Amazing Stories and processed and reprocessed through endless comic strip and comic book and Big Little Book and movie versions. I finished reading the script, heaved a sigh of resignation and turned to “That Man on Beta.”
This one really bothered me. It concerned a plot by the Evil Alien Empire to create an army of ubermenschen with which they intended to conquer the Earth. Buck Rogers is kidnapped and assigned the task of impregnating all the prospective mothers. What a wild Nazi fantasy. The mothers involved were selected for perfection in their own infancy and fed some kind of wacko growth hormone that brings them to full maturity at age four or five.
What kind of weird sickos were writing for Glen Larson? And what in the world made them ever think that this kind of stuff could make it onto network TV? These guys were talking about serial rape of four- and five-year-olds.
I grabbed my telephone again and called poor Jim Frenkel. I asked if he’d read those Buck Rogers scripts. Of course he hadn’t. So I told him about them. He said there was nothing he could do. Just shut up and write.
I said, “There’s no way I’m going to put my name on this kind of disgusting trash.”
Jim said that Dell had already had the covers designed and sent out publicity materials with my byline prominently displayed on the covers of the books.
I told him I didn’t care; I wasn’t going to have my name besmirched that way. Unless he agreed to remove my name from the books, I was not going to write them. This was not easy for me to say. Not with three small kids to feed. But there are limits.
Finally, reluctantly, Jim agreed.
Now it was time to start writing. I’d spent a day reading the scripts, got as much of a night’s sleep as I could, had my fight with Frenkel, and was now ready to settle down to my task of creative typing.
I was using a great old red-painted IBM Selectric in those days. My desk faced a window beyond which bloomed a pyrocantha bush. A large and talented spider had set up shop in the window-frame and spent her days busily building and then tending her web. Beyond the web, brilliant scarlet berries burgeoned in the bush, shimmering with morning dew.
I set up with the first Buck Rogers script just to the left of the Selectric. Pat brewed a pot of ultra dynamite java, filled a cup, and set it down to the right of the Selectric. I took a deep breath, reread the first few paragraphs of Larson and Stevens’s script, raised my eyes to the spider and started typing. Oh, did my fingers ever fly over that keyboard! Oh, did I ever down cups of coffee! Oh, did I ever maintain eye contact with that spider!
After a while, as the level in the coffee pot fell and the stack of manuscript pages rose, the sun melted the morning dew off the pyrocantha berries and a gorgeous emerald-hued hummingbird arrived to take her breakfast. Now I had two lovely examples of nature to study, the spider in her web and the hummingbird hovering over the pyrocantha berries.
Thank heaven for touch-typing!
By early afternoon I felt I’d accomplished a good deal. I was well into the script and well into my “novel.” I was also exhausted and totally wired thanks to Pat’s coffee.
I’m not much of a tippler, but after those hours of mad typing and powerhouse coffee, I really, really needed something to help me relax. I opened a bottle of wine and downed glass after glass of the stuff. By dinnertime I was able to sit with Pat and our kids and enjoy the meal. After that – early to bed.
Next day, more of the same.
It took me five days to write that “novel.” I’ve never reread it in the 27 years since it was published, but if you’ll wait right where you are I’ll see if I can find a copy in the house and take a look at the first paragraph.
Okay, here the sucker is.
Here’s how it starts:
The spaceship, standing tall and proud in the early morning sunlight at Cape Canaveral, Florida, was the most advanced production of Free World technology. Its lines were clean. Its command module was functional, efficient, manufactured to the micromillimeter by the most brilliant engineers, the most expensive machinery, and with the most sophisticated techniques that mankind had ever conceived.
* * *
Ehh, kinda stinky, I think. But what the heck. It’s a novelization. At least there are real sentences there, complete with subjects and predicates, initial caps and periods at the end and commas in the middle. Let’s look at:
An incredibly antiquated spaceship tumbled aimlessly, out of control, through the blackness between the planets. Why it had never found its way out of the solar system, to drift forever in the space between the stars, was a matter of cosmic laws. In its disastrous tumble, Buck Rogers’s ship had failed to reach solar escape velocity. Falling freely, with no propulsion system functioning, it had reached the farthest point of its orbit and then arched back toward its point of origin.
* * *
Well, okay. Immortal prose it isn’t, but what the hell, who buys these novelizations anyway? I’ve often wondered about that. I have a feeling that it’s people who just love the movie or TV show so much; they just have to have it to keep for themselves. At one time I thought the availability of videos would kill the market for novelizations. If you can actually own the movie, why do you need the book? But I seem to have been wrong.
My preliminary agreement with Dell had called for a flat payment for each of two books. My agent assured me that the full-scale contract would have a royalties clause in it.
The day after I finished Buck Rogers in the 25th Century I didn’t touch my Selectric. I phoned my agent. The final contract wasn’t ready yet. I phone Jim Frenkel. He didn’t know whether the TV show as going to air or not. I took my dog for a relaxing walk in the park. I went home and read a good book. I’m not sure what it was, not after all these years, but I think it was The House of Mirth, by my favorite author, Edith Wharton. I enjoyed dinner with my wife and children. I went to bed early.
The next day I started work on Buck Rogers: That Man on Beta. I had worked out my strategy for sabotaging this vile book. I turned the sexual part into a farce and Buck into a buffoon who couldn’t get laid in a whorehouse with a no-limit Platinum Card in his wallet. The Glen Larson people had brought in an R2D2 clone robot named, I think, Tiki. A loathsome, disgusting creature. I introduced a gigantic mainframe computer in the book and had poor Tiki fall madly, hopelessly in love with it.
That was my strategy for sabotage: I turned this would-be sex novel into a frustration burlesque.
I wrapped up the two books in eleven days, counting my day off between books. My spider friend had captured and eaten 126 bugs in that period. The lovely green hummingbird had eaten 242 pyrocantha berries. I had drunk ten pots of strong coffee and consumed ten bottles of cheap wine.
I still didn’t know whether the TV show was going to air, and I didn’t care. I mailed in my manuscripts. I got my paycheck. My children got their dinners. Pat got her husband back. I never did get my full contract. A few months later I ran into Nick Austin, an editor from England who had published UK editions of several of my books. He mentioned that he’d bought the British rights to the two Buck Rogers novels, and did I happen to know who this fellow was who wrote as “Addison E. Steele.” I admitted to Nick that I was that person.
Nick said he hoped I’d got a good share of the money he’d paid for the books, because he’d paid plenty. Of course, I never got a nickel beyond my first flat payment. The UK money and payments for German and Hebrew editions went to Dell and to Glen Larson and to Frank Dille, the company that owned the character Buck Rogers.
As for me? As Jon Stewart would say, “Ahh – maybe not so much.”
A few weeks later I picked up the morning paper and learned that the Buck Rogers pilot was to receive limited theatrical release, and in fact was about to open at a theater near my home. Pat and I went to see it with our friend Jerry Jacks. It was very, very strange, I tell ya, sitting in the theater, watching Gil Gerard and Erin Gray or whoever the hell played those roles acting out that story and speaking those lines. Not that I’d created them. That’s a whole other peculiar experience.
And eventually the series did air, and had a moderately successful run of two or three seasons on network TV.
But a couple of years ago I was in Southern California attending the Mission Hills Paperback Collectors Show. Some of the participants arrived early and went book-scouting in Hollywood. Lacking anything else to do I went with them. At one point I found myself wandering through a musty bookshop. I noticed a couple of my new-found collector friends puzzling over a pair of Dell paperbacks.
I peered between them and got a very strange feeling. Those books looked oddly familiar but I didn’t remember ever reading them. In fact, they were books of a type I almost never read – TV novelizations. But still – but still – and then it came to me.
“Say,” I injected myself into the collectors’ dialog, “I know those two books.”
“Yes. I wrote ’em a few years ago. I’d completely forgot about them. But I wrote those things.”
This elicited a skeptical response. “It says Addison E. Steele on the covers.”
“Yes. I wrote them. I used that name on them.”
The two collectors pondered for a while. Then one of them said, “Suppose we buy them. There are two of them, two of us. Would you sign them, one for each of us?”
I hesitated briefly. Then I said, “Okay.”
One of these days I suppose the Buck Rogers TV series will be out on DVDs, if it isn’t already.
I don’t want a copy.