92-year-old science-fiction fan Forest J. Ackerman - founder of Famous Monsters of Filmland- died last night, just before midnight. Ackerman became famous as the world’s number one fan of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror films; at a time when the genre was considered beneath contempt by the mainstream media, he started the very first magazine devoted to the genre, Famous Monsters, which became famous for offering a cornucopia of rare and amazing still photographs, usually captioned with Ackerman’s infamous bad puns (e.g., a shot of a robot being repaired in FUTURE WORLD was accompanied by this bon mot: “First a Clockwork Orange. Now a Clockwork Lemon,” a joke so weak that Ackerman felt the need to explain that the robot kept malfunctioning). Fortunately, the silliness became part of the magazine’s charm, and eager monsters kids were thrilled to have a publication that filled with interviews and articles about everything from Dracula to Godzilla.
I was not an avid reader of the magazine, but it was good to know it was out there, doing its job, and the issues I did own made for engrossing reading during the long car trips my family took for summer vacations. In those pages, thanks to some photographs of Carlos Villarrias as the Count, I first learned of the existence of the Spanish-language version of DRACULA that was shot simultaneously with the famous Bela Lugosi classic in 1931. I was amazed by behind-the-scenes shots from the filming of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962). I learned behind-the-scenes details about many of the movies I loved while growing up: Poe films starring Vincent Price, Hammer horrors with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
Ackerman also kept an eye on new movies, but his love for the classics could not be diminished. At one point he even opined that THE EXORCIST had earned a place among the greats, but it was no replacement for old black-and-white films like THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and FRANKENSTEIN.
Not content to sit behind the editor’s desk, Ackerman used his magazine to achieve his own small slice of fame. Low-budget filmmakers eager for any kind of recognizable name or face would put him in low-budget exploitation films like DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN. Later, young filmmakers who had grown up reading Famous Monsters would give him cameos in their films (as when Joe Dante had Ackerman walk through THE HOWLING, carrying some old issues behind his back).
Ackerman eventually convinced foreign filmmaker Michael Bergman to make a film more or less about him. Bergman had contacted Ackerman, a former literary agent, about finding the rights to an old science fiction story, but Ackerman pitched himself as the subject for a movie. Bergmann agreed and concocted a tale about an obscure old silent movie monster who escapes from the screen into real life; desperate to find his way back into the movie where he belongs, he seeks out the world’s foremost authority on old horror films, Ackerman. The result was MY LOVELY MONSTER (1990). Ackerman helped add some “name” value to the low-budget production by having some friends from the industry show up to play bit parts in a party scene: actor Ferdinand Mayne (DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES, actress Bobbie Breesee, sci-fi writer Ib Melchoir, journalist Bill Warren, filmmaker and special effects artist Mike Jittlov, and horror icon Boris Karloff’s daughter, Sarah. Somehow, I myself managed to become one of the party guests, but you would need sharp eyes to spot me devouring kiwi fruits in the background. (Hey, they lured me down with the promise of a free lunch, but the only food was the stuff visible on screen.)
Ackerman’s fame was of a cult sort, but he did become the poster boy for Sci-Fi Fandom. Twenty years ago, in the wake of the post-STAR WARS blockbuster success of the genre, when a local television news station wanted to do a feature about the fact that science fiction was now mainstream, no longer the sole province of nerds and geeks, whom did they show as an example? Ackerman himself, draped in an old Dracula cape, creeping around dark corridors, doing a corny Lugosi imitation as he looked into the camera and urged, “Don’t be afraid…”
Since Famous Monsters ceased publication, Ackerman’s influence on the genre waned somewhat, but he was still the ultimate fan, beloved by other fans who remembered him from the childhood days. And Ackerman remained well known as a collector who frequently allowed guests to tour his “Acker-Mansion,” where they could see his extensive collection of books, posters, props, and costumes from classic movie monsters. In later years, Ackerman wanted to donate the collection to the City of Los Angeles for a museum, but that never came to pass.
I perhaps was born just a bit too late to be as fully enamored of the Ackerman Mythos as many fans are. I preferred a more serious approach to science-fiction, which is why I gravitated toward Cinefantastique. Yet even so, I have to acknowledge Ackerman’s work as a trail-blazer. There is something to be said for being first. And throughout his life, he retained his devotion to the genre that he loved, making personal appearances at local revival houses screening films like THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and SHE. Anyone who who makes an effort to get people to see old movies on the big screen - not at home on television - deserves my eternal gratitude.
I only ever met Ackerman once or twice, and he seemed just as affable in person as he did in any of his public appearances or television interviews. The wide-eyed, almost naive enthusiasm was, I think, not a pose but a genuine expression of his character. In the pages of Famous Monsters, this may sometimes have expressed itself in gag-worthy puns, but there is no doubt that Ackerman possessed, as few people truly do, a genuine Sense of Wonder.