Ray Bradbury famously said, “People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it.” You might think he would have wanted to prevent this.
Imagine one of America’s most beloved writers encouraging you to paint a wicked-looking scar down the side of his face, glue on a preposterous beard, dress him up in funny clothes with a stovepipe hat, amputate his right leg at the knee, well, sort of, and prop him up like that in front of a camera holding a spear. What would that be like? Yet the very man whom The New York Times called “the writer most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream,” whose legacy of the written word includes “Fahrenheit 451” and “The Martian Chronicles” would continue to inspire readers, in spite of what I did to him.
As an assignment for Los Angeles Magazine’s 1986 “Trick-or-Treat” edition, for Halloween, I was asked to portray a number of Hollywood VIPs in the guise of any character they chose. I dressed author Robert Bloch as Jack the Ripper brandishing a butcher’s knife dripping with blood. His novel, Psycho, inspired the 1960 Hitchcock movie. Katherine Helmond, channelling Cleopatra, wore one of Elizabeth Taylor’s gowns from the eponymous 20th Century Fox production of 1963; she of a starring role in my favorite Terry Gilliam film, “Brazil” (1985), and a mainstay of TV sitcoms. The list of celebrity poseurs was long. But I’ll include only one more because it deserves a chortle.
Actress Linda Blair, who will unremittingly be remembered for her revolving head and projectile-barfing routine in William Friedkin’s 1973 horror flick, “The Exorcist,” needed a make-over. I photographed her as Glinda the Good Witch of Oz. We couldn’t get the original MGM costume, but we winged it. “The Exorcist,” by the way, must have come close to bankrupting the Andersen’s Split Pea Soup company. You’ll know what I mean if you saw the movie. And somewhere, in a drawer, I have a Polaroid snapshot of Linda posing next to me, holding a can of that viscous green goop.
I photographed Linda on top of a pile of fake snow in my studio wearing a sparkly chiffon ballgown and tiara, brandishing a magic wand. What I hadn’t known, until after the picture was published, was that she had been indicted on felony drug charges. She pleaded guilty and got probation. I made her look like she was standing on top of a kilo of cocaine. Linda was a good sport.
Bradbury chose his all-time favorite character in the canon of American literature to be his avatar: Ahab from Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” He explained that he wrote the screenplay for John Huston’s 1956 film adaptation of that book, which starred Gregory Peck. Ray said he could do a better job in that role (tongue in cheek), while elaborating on his admiration for Ahab, for being part whale, given a prosthesis made from the jawbone of one of Moby Dick’s cousins, and having survived Moby’s having made a light snack of the original limb. Because Ahab’s self-indulgent quest for the White Whale was sanctified by a firery bolt of lightning that struck him in the head, Ray was having fun picturing him — not so lightheartedly in his screenplay as in my studio — less as “an ungodly godlike man,” as Melville put it, than as a monomaniacal fruitcake. Ray didn’t let any of Melville’s sophisticated allusions get by him; we were just goofing for the photo.
If Ray’s harpoon doesn’t look exactly true to form, it’s because my stylist, Shari Geffen, and I had less than a day to come up with all of the props we would need to turn Ray into Ahab. But Shari was a genius. She fabricated a harpoon facsimile with found material and procured the rest of the costume and props, including the peg leg, from Western Costume, a rental company famous in Hollywood. Lisa-Ann Pedrianna, our makeup stylist, painted a collodion scar on the side of Ray’s face and attached the beard. My personal contribution to the costume was to rattle-can a silver dollar with gold paint, representing the Spanish doubloon Ahab nailed to the mast of the Pequod. “[W]hosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!” Thus spake Ahab. And, of course, I had to title the portrait “Rayhab.”
The peg leg required Ray to endure having his ankle cinched up behind his back and tied with a rope around his waist. No Photoshop! He stood that way for several hours. Then, to show off to his wife, Marguerite, he hopped into a cab — actually hopped — and rode home that way. Ray never learned to drive. He must have been the only car virgin in L.A.. The cabbie was Ray’s frequent chauffeur, and he returned the costume and the peg leg the next day.
Ray Bradbury was a sweet man. He wrote me a note, in his own hand, to say how much fun he had during the shoot. We both had a whale of a good time. For a couple of years, he sent me hand-drawn Christmas cards, festooned with doodled characters. He loved cartooning. As a boy, he drew “Sunday panels,” following the motif of newspaper comic strips, to illustrate the fledgling stories he wrote in the style of Edgar Rice Burroughs, his first inspiration à la “Tarzan of the Apes” and “John Carter of Mars.”
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