Crichton goes to School
Michael Crichton was easily spotted in a Roslyn High crowd,
and not just for his looming presence
By David Behrens
THERE ARE TWO Michael Crichtons.
One has a reputation for being difficult in public, withdrawn and as curt as a psychoanalyst when he is asked about his early family life, his marriages or his inner feelings.
The other Crichton came home to Long Island recently - to visit his old alma mater for the first time in 17 years. Back at Roslyn High School, he spent hours responding to questions from a new generation of students. He displayed an abundance of wit and good spirits, and not a hint of curtness.
Of course, the return of the school's most famous alumnus was timed deliberately, a first stop on a national tour to promote his new novel, "The Lost World," a return to the Jurassic world of dinosaurs reborn.
By 1978, when he last visited, Crichton had the credentials of the author of intelligent, screen-bound thrillers such as "The Andromeda Strain," "Westworld" and "The Great Train Robbery." Since then, with the success of "Jurassic Park," the sale of "Rising Sun" and "Disclosure" to movie-makers for millions more, and the cheers for his Emmy-winning TV series "ER," he has become an international celebrity.
In Roslyn his visit seemed to bridge the generations, his slim 6-foot-9 frame evoking jaw-dropping stares as he moved through the halls of his old school.
For the entranced youngsters who filled the school library, there was a chance to inquire about the nature of success. For a half-dozen former teachers who came back to greet one of the stars of the class of 1960, there was time to recall a bygone era and the promising boy they had taught.
They had no trouble calling up mental images of Crichton's schoolboy days: an A student, Latin scholar, student journalist, basketball star - 6-foot-7 and still growing - before he left for Harvard.
"Michael was one of the exceptional students in an extraordinary class," recalled Bill Howard, his American history teacher. And his face turns up throughout the 1960 yearbook: as news editor of the school paper, in the Honor Society, as vice president of the student government and one of six students elected to the school's Senior Hall of Fame...as "Big Mike."
He even found time for the Rocket Club, popular with teenagers in the late 1950s after the Russians launched their Sputnik satellite into space. By the late 1960s, as rocket launches became seemingly routine, the club disbanded.
After 35 years, it was clear that the school still held a special place in Crichton's heart. He handled inquiries that might have ended question-and-answer encounters elsewhere. Like how much money does he make? Did he enjoy success? How does he deal with critics? How come he's gotten married so often?
He and his wife, Anne-Marie Martin, a former actress, had just taken a quick look at his old house at 49 Barberry Lane. His parents, John and Zula Crichton, had moved into a William Levitt home in 1948, when Michael was 6. At the time, he recalls, the lots were muddy with frail little trees that provided no shade. John Crichton was an executive and working journalist with Advertising Age.
"So, very early, I saw someone making a living by pounding a typewriter," Crichton recalled.
His wife had never seen the house before: "It's so small with such low ceilings, I can't imagine Michael and his brother sharing that bedroom."
"Roslyn was another world," Crichton reflected during a phone interview a few days earlier.
"Looking back, it's remarkable what wasn't going on. There was no terror. No fear of children being abused. No fear of random murder. No drug use we knew about. I walked to school. I rode my bike for miles and miles, to the movie on Main Street and piano lessons and the like. Kids had freedom. It wasn't such a dangerous world...
"We studied our butts off, and we got a tremendously good education there."
Later, history teacher Bill Howard reminisced about a trio of brilliant juniors in his old history class: Michael Crichton, Alan Weinstein and Richard Gilbert. Weinstein, now a professor at the University of California, is an expert in mathematical physics, while Gilbert specializes in internal medicine and nephrology in Manhattan.
"They dominated the class and sometimes turned it into a tennis match," Howard recalled, "the other kids turning back and forth, from them in the back to me in the front, being challenged every day by those guys."
In those days, Crichton remembers, the main source of tension was getting good grades and getting into a good college. "I was really prepared for Harvard. This was a no-nonsense place - and very competitive."
The final phrase set off an explosive burst of laughter, a student statement perhaps that life in Roslyn hadn't changed that much.
On familiar ground, Crichton seemed to grow more mellow, obviously happy to be surrounded by young faces.
No, he mused, he's too old and creaky to play basketball any more. "They must have moved the basket."
No, he never dreamed that "Jurassic Park" would become a blockbuster movie. "I didn't think any movie producer would be willing to spend the money to make the dinosaurs look real," he said.
But it became the biggest box-office hit of all time, and now Steven Spielberg is planning a film sequel for 1997.
Crichton now is content to hike and camp out. No more scuba diving, mountain-climbing or shark chasing. With a 6-year-old daughter, he's not into risky behavior anymore.
None of the students asked Crichton about his relationship with his parents, an uncomfortable subject for the author. In "Travels," a 1988 collection of autobiographical essays, Crichton reflected briefly on his father's death: "My father and I had not had an easy time together. We had never been the classic boy and his dad. And it hadn't gotten better as we got older."
Later in the day, he said he hoped to eventually return to the subject of his early family life, but not for some time.
"I tend to have no regrets, but I've done some really stupid things in my life, wasted a lot of time, behaved badly, been married a lot."
How many times? he was asked.
"Four," he said, evoking murmurs of surprise.
Well, he grinned, that was only a bit above the Hollywood average. But being the father of a child, his daughter Taylor, has brought him joy. "I do the best I can," he said.
Doing his best is one of the lessons he learned in Roslyn, he remembered. "We had a young coach named Joe Lettera who grew up in a tough neighborhood. He told us, `We're going to build character through winning.' That was the spirit at the time. So I wanted to come back again and see where I came from."
* * *
In the trophy case near the school's front entrance, the varsity basketball team of 1959-60 is remembered. Winners of a Nassau divisional championship, the team beat a favored Lynbrook five in post-season tournament play.
Then, in the semi-finals against a powerful Plainview team, Crichton scored 14 points in the first 10 minutes, coach Lettera recalled, as if it were yesterday.
Now living in California, Lettera had coached more than 600 varsity games before he retired in 1989, and he ranked Crichton among his five best players - "and the best center I ever coached."
Crichton had been sidelined early in that season with a staph infection and missed four games. "When he returned, we won nine straight games as he got better and better," Lettera said. "At the end, he was scoring thirty-four or thirty-five points a game. We upset Lynbrook, and were on our way to a county title. Then Michael broke his ankle on a jump ball in the second quarter - and we lost by six points. With him in there, we all felt we would have been county champs," Lettera observed, replaying the game in his mind one more time.
Crichton, on the all-Nassau county basketball team, was named Roslyn's most valuable player, setting three school records that still stand: "For most rebounds in a game, highest rebound averge per game and highest field goal shooting percentage in a season," Lettera enumerated.
His work ethic, the coach believes, was established during those school years.
"He was over 6-foot-5 and very thin as a sophomore, but he worked hard to become as good as he became," Lettera said.
Early on, Lettera worked as a summer counselor in the Roslyn playground program. Before the start of Crichton's junior year, the coach recalled, he would come by every afternoon to work on foul-shooting. "He knew he'd be fouled a lot, so he worked on it every day, even in the hottest weather. He didn't need basketball, but it was just one more challenge for him to overcome."
Talking to the students of 1995, Crichton noted that tough-minded discipline has paid dividends for him off the court, too, with a painstaking approach to work.
In preparing to write "Rising Sun," for instance, he went to conferences on Japanese-American relations, read the literature and knew all the arguments on every side. And when he started to write, he began work at 5 a.m., sometimes earlier.
His focus almost shuts out family life, though he does try to show up at dinner. "It's like living with a body and Michael is somewhere else," his wife has noted. When he was writing "Lost World," Crichton said, his daughter once asked impatiently, "When are you gonna finish that book?"
That prompted a boy in the back of the room to ask,"So how much money do you make?"
"I honestly don't know," the author said. "I try to stay focused on my work. But I'm doing fine."
The students giggled at the well-honed understatement. Crichton would not mention the $3.5 million he received for the movie rights to "Disclosure" even before it was published. Nor did he own up to the just-published figure from Forbes magazine, listing his gross income for 1994-1995 at $39 million, 20th on the roster of highest-paid entertainers. "And he's so handsome," one of the senior girls whispered. Yes, one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People in the World," too.
What was all this success like? asked the boy in the back of the room.
"Hey, you're the one who asked about the money," Crichton scolded.
"It's a mixed bag," he went on. "When you come back to your old high school, people act like you're important. And success does get you a table in a crowded restaurant. But then you are never alone. When you're at dinner, you have to have really good table manners, because people watch you all the time. To have people always watching when you eat? That's weird!"
Despite the success, criticism still fills him with anxiety, he says. "I start to wonder: `Who's going to care to read this stuff.' I'm always surprised when my work is popular."
The racism charges evoked by "Rising Sun" almost prevented him from writing his next book, "Disclosure," which was criticized for being anti-feminist.
Even "Jurassic Park" had its detractors, with bio-tech companies attacking Crichton for being "anti-science." One of the Roslyn students asked if he agreed with critics that the film version didn't capture his cautionary message about commercialized technology run amok.
"Give me a break!" Crichton exclaimed. "It's a movie!"
But then, people always complain about their lives, he conceded. In high school, for instance, he wrote tons of unpublished fiction about teenage angst. "About relationshps turning out badly, bad dating experiences, people not going out with you, unrequited love, that's what I knew - the story of my life at the time."
He was more specific about this youthful angst earlier, during the phone interview: "It's very tough to be teenager. It goes with the age." And he mentioned a young woman who had refused to date him. "I've never forgotten that."
But by 1960, the basketball star had a steady girl friend, fellow student Joan Radam. They were wed in 1965, the year Crichton entered Harvard Medical School. But the marriage ended in divorce five years later after the Crichtons moved to California.
He had been hired as a medical writer in 1969 at Jonas Salk's Institute in Biological Studies in San Diego. There, surrounded by Nobel prizewinners, he said, "it was weird enough to prepare me for Hollywood." Then he was invited to the set where "The Andromeda Strain" was being filmed, and "I decided this is what I wanted to do." After that visit, he said, he gave up any thought of a medical career and he went on to direct his own thrillers, "Coma," "Westworld" and "The Great Train Robbery."
* * *
Crichton hadn't planned on medical school, he told his audience. He wanted to become a story-teller like his favorite authors, Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson. But the English department at Harvard, he said, was more interested in producing professors, not writers. In his English class, his papers routinely got C-minus grades, and once, in frustration, he turned in an essay written by George Orwell.
Orwell's work got a B-minus.
"Now Orwell was a wonderful writer, and if a B-minus was all he could get, I thought I'd better drop English as my major."
So he majored in anthropology, taking just enough pre-med courses to fulfill requirements for applying to medical school and earning a Phi Beta Kappa key on the way.
The following year, he started writing spy thrillers to pay his tuition - finishing each book during his two-week Christmas break, just in time to get back a check to pay his medical school bill. In four years, he wrote six thrillers under pseudonyms, including "A Case of Need," about a young Chinese-American obstetrician who is unjustly accused of performing an illegal abortion on the daughter of a prominent Boston surgeon. The book won a 1968 Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America for a first novel - "and I decided I wanted to be a writer." Then came "Andromeda Strain" under his own name. He was 27, it was his first hit, and he was Hollywood-bound.
Concluding the question-and-answer session with a quote from Mark Twain, Crichton observed: "It's a terrible fate being talked to death."
Then Crichton sat down at one of the library tables to gossip with a group of his former teachers. "I still feel I should call you `Mister' or `Missus,' " he said.
Eileen Bennett, his freshman English teacher, would recall her prize student - with pink cheeks, curly hair and cherubic face. "An utter gentleman, always cheerful, with that same nice quiet wit he had as a boy, and as good-looking as today." But he was more than just gentlemanly: "Even as a freshman, he would take disparate ideas and come up with conclusions that no one else, including his teacher, had thought of."
Former math teacher Tony DiLuna, like his colleagues, recalled the Class of 1960 as "the most unusual class I ever taught." For three decades, teachers would compare any given class with the 1960 group, he said. Invited to the 20th reunion, DiLuna said, "I was amazed at the accomplishments - the number of doctors and PhDs who came out of the class, and Michael was one of the most unusual."
Robert McGrath, Crichton's advanced-literaure teacher, is one of the few instructors the author remained in touch with over the years. "I do keep poking him to do what I would call a great piece of writing. I think he could do it," he said.
"Of course, Michael's doing quite well in a popular genre. But I'd been bugging him for years to put more meat into his novels. So when he wrote "Congo" in 1980, he sent me a copy with a note: `Dear Bob, this doesn't have any more meat on it - but it does have cannibalism.' Now, that's typical Michael."