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Novelist Michael Crichton, author of 'Jurassic Park,' 'Timeline,' dies of cancer at 66

11-05-2008 11:58 AM

By HILLEL ITALIE, AP National Writer

(Associated Press) -- Michael Crichton, the million-selling author of such historic and prehistoric science thrillers as "Jurassic Park," "Timeline" and "The Andromeda Strain," has died of cancer, his family said.

He died Tuesday in Los Angeles at age 66 after a long battle with the illness.

Chrichton was a brand-name author, known for his stories of disaster and systematic breakdown, such as the rampant microbe of "The Andromeda Strain" or dinosaurs running amok in "Jurassic Park," one of his many books that became major Hollywood movies.

"Through his books, Michael Crichton served as an inspiration to students of all ages, challenged scientists in many fields, and illuminated the mysteries of the world in a way we could all understand," his family said in a statement.

The 6-foot-9-inch author was also a screenwriter and filmmaker, earning producing and writing credits for the film versions of many of his titles. He also created the TV hospital series "ER" in 1994.

In recent years, he was the rare writer to get on well with President Bush, perhaps because of his skepticism about global warming, which Crichton addressed in the 2004 novel, "State of Favor." Crichton's views were strongly condemned by environmentalists, who alleged that the author was hurting efforts to pass legislation to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide.

A new novel by Crichton had been tentatively scheduled to come next month, but publisher HarperCollins said the book was postponed indefinitely because of his illness.

"While the world knew him as a great storyteller that challenged our preconceived notions about the world around us _ and entertained us all while doing so _ his wife Sherri, daughter Taylor, family and friends knew Michael Crichton as a devoted husband, loving father and generous friend who inspired each of us to strive to see the wonders of our world through new eyes," his family said.

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Best-Selling Author Michael Crichton

by Dennis McLellan

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Michael Crichton

LOS ANGELES, California -- Michael Crichton, the doctor-turned-author of best-selling thrillers such as "The Terminal Man" and "Jurassic Park" and a Hollywood writer and director whose credits include "Westworld" and "Coma," died Tuesday, November 4 in Los Angeles "after a courageous and private battle against cancer," his family said in a statement. He was 66.

"There was no one like Crichton, because he could both entertain and educate," Lynn Nesbit, Crichton's agent since the late '60s, told The Times today. "His brilliance was indisputable, and he had a grasp of so many subjects -- from art to science to technology. I respected him so much intellectually and as a writer. I loved him. It's like losing a very good friend as well as a client of so many years."

Director Steven Spielberg said in a statement today that "Michael's talent out-scaled 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."

Spielberg, who was a new contract TV director at Universal in the early '70s when he first met Crichton and was assigned to show the writer around the lot, described him as "a gentle soul who reserved his flamboyant side for his novels. There is no one in the wings that will ever take his place."

Crichton was still in Harvard Medical School when he wrote his first best-seller, "The Andromeda Strain," a fast-paced scientifically and technologically detailed 1969 thriller about a team of scientists attempting to save mankind from a deadly microorganism brought to earth by a military satellite. It was made into a movie in 1971.

With his success at writing thrillers, Crichton abandoned medicine to become a full-time writer whose novels in the '70s and '80s included "The Terminal Man," "The Great Train Robbery," "Eaters of the Dead," "Congo" and "Sphere."

Crichton made his feature film directing debut in 1973 with "Westworld," which he also wrote, about a fantasy theme park for wealthy vacationers whose fun is spoiled when malfunctioning androids turn deadly. He directed five other movies in the '70s and '80s, including "Coma," "The Great Train Robbery," "Looker," "Runaway" and "Physical Evidence."

As a novelist, Crichton came back stronger than ever in the 1990s with bestsellers such as "Jurassic Park," "Rising Sun," "Disclosure," "The Lost World," "Airframe" and "Timeline." During the same decade, he co-wrote the screenplay for "Jurassic Park," the 1993 Spielberg-directed blockbuster hit; and he co-wrote the screenplay for the 1996 action-thriller, "Twister," with his fourth wife, actress Anne-Marie Martin, with whom he had a daughter, Taylor.

Crichton also created "ER," the long-running NBC medical drama that debuted in 1994 and became the No. 1-rated series the next year. Dubbed "The Hit Man" by Time Magazine in a 1995 cover story chronicling his "golden touch," Crichton had more than 100 million copies of his books in print at the time. Indeed, the prolific writer who closely guarded his private life had become a dominant figure in popular culture.

Known for his intellectual curiosity, energy and drive, Crichton was a self-described workaholic. "He works hard," Anne-Marie Martin told Vanity Fair in 1994. "Toward the end of a book it's like living with a body and Michael is somewhere else. Then, when the book's finished, Michael comes back."

When he wasn't writing fiction, Crichton periodically turned to nonfiction, including "Jasper Johns," a 1977 portrait of the artist; and the 1988 autobiographical book, "Travels." He also wrote a book on information technology, "Electronic Life," in 1983, formed a small software company in the early '80s and designed a computer game.

He also shared a 1995 Academy Award for technical achievement for pioneering computerized motion picture budgeting and scheduling. "Michael has such an enormous range of interests and concerns, he has to try new things in order to keep himself completely engaged," Nesbit, his agent, told the Washington Post in 1999.

Sonny Mehta, Crichton's editor at Alfred A. Knopf, his longtime publishing house before he moved to HarperCollins earlier this decade, echoed that sentiment. "What I most admire most about Michael is the way that he can so easily do so many things and do them all so easily well," Mehta told the Post. "There are not too many people who are polymathic these days."

The oldest of four children, Crichton was born October 23, 1942, in Chicago and grew up in Roslyn, Long Island, New York. He developed wide interests at an early age, he later said, recalling his mother taking her children to plays, museums, movies and concerts several times a week.

Although he described his journalist father in his book, "Travels," as "a first-rate son of a bitch," he praised both parents for not setting limits on their children's exploration. "They were always saying, 'You can do that.' So I never had the feeling there was some area that I was incompetent in," he told Vanity Fair in 1994.

Crichton enjoyed writing and, he later said, he wrote extensively from an early age. In third grade, he wrote a nine-page play for a puppet show. At 13, he started submitting short stories to magazines, and he sold a travel article to the New York Times when he was 14. He also covered high school sports for the local newspaper and later wrote for the Harvard Crimson.

Intending to become a writer, he entered Harvard as an English major in 1960. But after his professors criticized his writing style, he changed his major to anthropology. After graduating summa cum laude in 1964, he spent a year on a fellowship as a visiting lecturer on anthropology at Cambridge University in England. Returning home, he entered Harvard Medical School.

To pay his way through medical school, he began writing paperback thrillers under the pen names John Lange and Jeffery Hudson. His 1968 medical thriller, "A Case of Need," written under his Jeffery Hudson pseudonym, won an Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel from the Mystery Writers of America.

His 1969 novel, "The Andromeda Strain" was his first book published under his own name. He also co-wrote "Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues," a 1970 novel with his brother Douglas under the name Michael Douglas. After receiving his medical degree in 1969, Crichton spent the next year as a postdoctoral fellow at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla.

But he continued to write, including "Five Patients: The Hospital Explained," a 1970 nonfiction book that earned him a Writer of the Year Award from the Association of American Medical Writers. His most recent novel, "Next," which dealt with genetics and the law, was published in 2006.

Crichton is survived by his current fifth wife, Sherri Alexander; his first wife, Joan Radam; his second wife, Kathy St. Johns; his third wife, Suzanne Childs; his fourth wife, Anne-Marie Martin and their daughter, Taylor Anne.

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