Michael Crichton, Author of Thrillers, Dies at 66

michael-chrichtonMichael Crichton, whose technological thrillers like “The Andromeda Strain” and “Jurassic Park” dominated best-seller lists for decades and were translated into Hollywood megahits, died on Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 66 and lived in Santa Monica, Calif.

A statement released by his family gave the cause as cancer, but provided no other details.

A doctor by training — he also created the hit television series “ER” — Mr. Crichton used fiction to explore the moral and political problems posed by modern technology and scientific breakthroughs, which in his books defied human control or ended up as tools used for evil ends. In his fictional worlds, human greed, hubris and the urge to dominate were just as powerful as the most advanced computers.

Mr. Crichton’s fast-paced narratives often involved the arcana of medical technology, computer science, chaos theory or genetic engineering. But by combining old-fashioned storytelling with up-to-date, gee-whiz science, the books made for a compelling formula that was adapted easily by Hollywood. His books sold in the tens of millions and almost routinely became movies, many of them blockbusters like “Jurassic Park” and the sequel, “The Lost World,” as well as “Rising Sun.”

Reviewers often complained that Mr. Crichton’s characters were wooden, that his ear for dialogue was tin and that his science was suspect. Environmentalists raged against his skeptical views on climate change, first expressed in the 2004 novel, “State of Fear,” and subsequently in various public forums. Even his severest critics, however, confessed to being seduced by his plots and unable to resist turning the pages, rapidly.

“He had a ferocious, brilliant intellect and the ability to write entertaining narratives,” said Lynn Nesbitt, his agent since “The Andromeda Strain.” “I can’t think of many writers who can match that.”

John Michael Crichton was born in Chicago, the oldest of four children, and grew up in Roslyn, on Long Island. His father was the editor of Advertising Age and later president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies.

At Harvard, after a professor criticized his writing style, the younger Mr. Crichton changed his major from English to anthropology and graduated summa cum laude in 1964. He then spent a year teaching anthropology on a fellowship at Cambridge University. In 1966 he entered Harvard Medical School and began writing on the side to help pay tuition.

Under the pseudonym John Lange — the German word for tall was a sly reference to his height, 6 feet 7 inches — he wrote eight thrillers. Under the name Jeffery Hudson, he wrote “A Case of Need” (1968), a medical detective novel that revolved around moral issues posed by abortion. It won an Edgar Award for best novel.

In 1969, after earning his medical degree, Mr. Crichton moved to the La Jolla section of San Diego and spent a year as a postdoctoral fellow at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Already inclining toward a writing career, he tilted decisively with “The Andromeda Strain,” a medical thriller about a group of scientists racing against time to stop the spread of a lethal organism from outer space code-named Andromeda.

With a breakneck, suspenseful plot that played out against a carefully researched scientific setting, the novel — he was now writing under his own name — became an enormous best seller and a successful 1971 Hollywood film, a pattern repeated many times in the years to come. More than a dozen of Mr. Crichton’s novels became movies, and he turned his hand to directing, screenwriting and producing for film and television along the way. A television version of “The Andromeda Strain” was shown on the A&E network in May.

After publishing the nonfiction book “Five Patients: The Hospital Explained” (1970), Mr. Crichton returned to the best-seller list with “The Terminal Man” (1972), an updated “Frankenstein” in which an accident victim goes on a killing spree after a tiny computer implant, intended to control his brain, malfunctions. Technology, for Mr. Crichton, never worked quite the way it was intended.

Having directed “Pursuit,” an adaptation of one of his early novels, for television, Mr. Crichton turned to film, directing the low-budget “Westworld” (1973), for which he wrote the screenplay, about a virtual-reality theme park that made it possible to enter ancient Rome or the old West. The film’s highlight was a showdown between a renegade android gunfighter, played by Yul Brynner, and a luckless businessman played by Richard Benjamin.

Mr. Crichton followed this quirky project with a series of departures. In his novel “The Great Train Robbery” (1975), he turned back the clock to Victorian England to tell the story of a genteel archcriminal (Sean Connery in the film) who relieves a speeding train of its cargo of gold bullion. Then came the novel “Eaters of the Dead” (1976), in which he plunged into the mist-shrouded world of the Vikings. “Jasper Johns” (1977), a straightforward biography of that painter, completed this rash of projects.

After directing his adaptation of the Robin Cook novel “Coma,” with Geneviève Bujold in the starring role, Mr. Crichton returned to familiar territory in the novel “Congo” (1980), about a team of hunters on a jungle expedition in search of a rare variety of diamond capable of being transformed into a power source more efficient than nuclear energy.

A remarkably facile writer, with a restless imagination, Mr. Crichton continued to juggle roles as a novelist, screenwriter and director. His marital schedule was also crowded. Mr. Crichton married five times. He is survived by his wife, the former Sherri Alexander, and by a daughter, Taylor.

In the 1980s he directed a string of less than memorable films, including “Looker” (1981), “Runaway” (1984) and “Physical Evidence” (1989). The novel “Sphere” (1987), about the underwater discovery of a naval vessel from the future, struck many reviewers as a disappointment. He did manage to complete a well-regarded primer on computers, “Electronic Life” (1983), but for a time it seemed as though Mr. Crichton might have lost his magic touch.

Not so. In 1990 he published “Jurassic Park,” his immensely successful tale about a theme park inhabited by reconstituted dinosaurs who run wild after the park’s security system fails.

Part fantasy, part nightmare, the novel ingeniously blended the techno-thriller elements of Mr. Crichton’s previous work with the enduring appeal of T. rex and his prehistoric peers. The 1993 film version, directed by Steven Spielberg, became a phenomenal box-office success. Mr. Crichton returned to the dinosaur world in a sequel, “The Lost World” (1995), which Mr. Spielberg made into a film in 1997.

Those two men met during the filming of “The Andromeda Strain,” when Mr. Spielberg had just been hired as a television director by Universal.

“My first assignment was to show Michael Crichton around the Universal lot,” Mr. Spielberg said in a statement on Wednesday. He added: “Michael’s talent outscaled even his own dinosaurs of ‘Jurassic Park.’ He was the greatest at blending science with big theatrical concepts, which is what gave credibility to dinosaurs again walking the earth.”

Mr. Crichton took advantage of his medical training for a television series, “ER,” which he had been developing as a film, to be directed by Mr. Spielberg, when “Jurassic Park” pre-empted it. Rewritten for television, “ER” first appeared on NBC in 1994 and became a long-running hit.

The growing economic power of Japan inspired “Rising Sun” (1992), a political thriller with paranoid overtones. A murder investigation at the Los Angeles offices of a Japanese company uncovers a Japanese plot to displace the United States as a technological leader. A strange combination of crime novel and economic manifesto, the book became, as usual, a successful film, with Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes as the detectives on the case.

After fending off charges of racism and xenophobia for “Rising Sun,” Mr. Crichton found himself in the thick of the debate on climate change with “State of Fear,” an eco-thriller in which evil environmentalists whip up hysteria over global warming to advance their sinister agenda.

Mr. Crichton was attacked by environmentalists for presenting a tendentious picture of the issue. In his defense, Mr. Crichton said that he accepted the reality of climate change but thought that its dangers could not be known with any certainty and had been exaggerated by environmentalists.

Mr. Crichton seemed to spin out his best-selling yarns effortlessly. A voracious consumer of scientific data and a vivid imaginer of unintended consequences, he drew on nanotechnology to populate “Prey” (2002) with horrible tiny robots. In “Next” (2006), his most recent novel, pioneering work in genetics and biotechnology unleashes creepy mayhem.

“He was extraordinarily knowledgeable about art, science and medicine,” Ms. Nesbitt, his agent, said. “He felt that he had a responsibility to educate as well as entertain.”

One Response

  1. I just stopped by your blog and thought I would say hello. I like your site design. Looking forward to reading more down the road.

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