The Grim Reaper just keeps on reaping, sad to say.
I have lost another friend. Last night I got a phone call from Michael Cassutt in LA to tell me that our mutual friend Dr. Michael Engelberg had died. He was a victim of Covid-19, one of the half million we have lost.
Dr. Michael was a physician himself, an oncologist at Cedar-Sinai in Los Angeles, and one of the leaders in his field, though he retired from active practice a few years ago. Thankfully (knock wood) neither I nor anyone in my immediate circle ever needed to call upon his expertise in the treatment of cancer… but having a good friend who was also a doctor at one of the leading hospitals in the country was definitely something to be thankful for. He was always the first person I turned to for a second opinion whenever Parris or I had a medical issue of any sort. There was no one better. Twenty years ago, asking him for that second opinion saved Parris from having an entirely unnecessary heart procedure, for which we will be eternally grateful.
Dr. Michael lived a double life, however. By day he was a physician, one of the country’s leading oncologists. But he was also a hardcore science fiction and fantasy fan, and a film producer… and it was in that capacity that I first met him, back in the early 90s. I was doing a lot of screenwriting in those days, and Engelberg was looking for writers to script some of the projects he had in development at Disney, so my agent set up a breakfast for us… at Hugo’s, I believe. (That was a big industry breakfast-and-lunch place in those days. The food was great…. and, of course, with a name like that, there was no place better for two old fanboys to get together and talk SF). We hit it off at once, and two decades of friendship ensued.
We also worked together. Michael was a decade older than me and had been reading SF all his life. He had an amazing collection, especially of Golden Age material. He loved Asimov, Heinlein, Sturgeon, Simak, and his dream was to bring some of their classic works to the silver screen.
His favorite was Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Barsoom novels. Michael was the producer who first brought A PRINCESS OF MARS to Disney, and got it optioned by Hollywood Pictures, a Disney subsidiary. For more than a decade he fought to get it filmed. Writer after writer took a crack at it, and at least once the project got a greenlight with a director attached… but then the director demanded another rewrite, and the studio did not like it much, and the green light turned to red. The director left, and more writers came and went… the last team being me and Melinda Snodgrass. We did a couple of passes ourselves, and for a while it seemed we were going to get a green light for our version… but then the Mouse changed his mind, decided PRINCESS needed to be animated instead of live action, and took it away from us and Hollywood Pictures and assigned it to Disney proper. Where nothing happened. In later years the Disney option expired, and the Burroughs estate sold the rights to Paramount. Nothing happened there either, alas. So Disney came back into the picture and bought back the rights to Barsoom, but the Hollywood Pictures division was defunct by then, so a whole new group of people took charge of the project. I don’t think they ever even looked at the old scripts. Instead they made JOHN CARTER. Dr. Michael was not connected with that, and I think it broke his heart a little… but that’s development for you.
A PRINCESS OF MARS was his passion project, but by no means the only one he worked on. There was a time back in the 90s when I had four — yes, count ’em, four — films in active development at Hollywood Pictures, and Dr. Michael Engelberg was the executive producer and guiding hand on all of them. Besides PRINCESS, Melinda and I were also developing WILD CARDS as a feature film, collaborating on a screenplay built around our own most iconic characters, Dr. Tachyon and the Great and Powerful Turtle. Michael also picked up the rights to FADEOUT, an original SF screenplay I had written for a small independent that had gone bust. For a time there was talk of attaching Sharon Stone to that one, but when that fell through, so did the project. And Hollywood also optioned my historical horror novel, FEVRE DREAM. I was so busy with other work — the aforementioned PRINCESS, WILD CARDS, FADEOUT, as well as three television pilots, the Wild Cards books, and this fantasy novel I had started in 1991 — that I did not get around to writing the screenplay for FEVRE DREAM for a while, alas. Big mistake. By the time I turned in the script, Hollywood Pictures was on its last legs and had lost all interest in steamboats and vampires. They put the script in turnaround the day after I turned it in.
None of that was Dr. Michael’s fault. He was as frustrated as any of us by the vagaries of development hell. Maybe more so. I loved working with him, maybe because he had a trufan’s reverence for the original material. Whether dealing with ERB, RAH, or GRRM, he always argued for staying with the book and doing faithful adaptations.
In the end, Dr. Michael only got one of his numerous projects filmed: the 1994 adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s THE PUPPET MASTERS. That was another book he brought to Disney, and it gave him great joy when the cameras finally began to roll… although I know he would rather that one had stayed a bit closer to RAH’s novel as well. If Hollywood had more sense, PUPPET MASTERS would have been the first of many Michael Engelberg productions. Instead it proved to be the first and last.
My friendship with Michael lasted much longer than our working relationship. Whenever I visited LA, I would make sure I made time to visit him, so we could catch up and talk about the books we’d loved and the movies we wanted to make. Our favorite haunt was Hop Li, a Chinese restaurant in LA’s Chinatown, where we would gather around a big round table and share a feast with other writers, fans, and movie people. Melinda Snodgrass, Michael Cassutt, Alan Brennert, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, David Goyer, Len Wein, Chris Valada were all regulars at our Hop Li gatherings. And you never knew who else might turn up. One time it was Deke Slayton, which was pretty damn exciting.
If Covid ever ends and I get to return to LA again, I hope those of us who are left can gather at Hop Li once more and raise a toast to Dr. Michael Engelberg over some tangerine beef, peking duck, and walnut shrimp. He was one of the good ones.
Current Mood: depressed