Saturday, May 4, 2013

Mike Gray, Co-Writer of "China Syndrome"

Mike Gray, ‘China Syndrome’ Writer, Dies at 77

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Mike Gray, a writer and filmmaker who tackled thorny contemporary issues in his work, including race relations in Chicago, American drug policy and, most notably, the safety of nuclear power plants — the subject of the 1979 film “The China Syndrome,” for which he wrote the original screenplay — died on Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 77.
Mike Gray
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Jack Lemmon and Jane Fonda in the film “The China Syndrome,” which was released in 1979.
The cause was heart failure, said his wife, Carol.
Mr. Gray brought an activist’s passion to projects in a variety of formats. He produced a pair of documentaries — “The Murder of Fred Hampton” and, with Chuck Olin, “American Revolution 2” — that examined race, politics and civil turbulence in Chicago in the 1960s. His magazine journalism included articles for Rolling Stone about a heroin overdose epidemic in Plano, Tex., and for GQ about voter fraud.
He wrote several books, including “Angle of Attack,” which detailed the failings of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration during the Apollo space program; “Drug Crazy,” about the history of American drug policy, which he characterized as folly from beginning to end; and “The Death Game,” about capital punishment.
“The China Syndrome,” which starred Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas, who was also the producer, was a fictional story about a near disaster at a nuclear power plant and the power company’s attempt to cover it up. It was well researched: Mr. Gray did his homework on the potential dangers of nuclear power. But it was also denounced as alarmist by supporters of nuclear power.
Then, only weeks after the film was released, the nuclear plant at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania suffered a partial meltdown, allowing a small amount of radioactivity to escape into the atmosphere. To many Americans, the film now seemed prescient.
Mr. Gray’s screenplay was changed somewhat — Ms. Fonda’s character, a television news reporter, had been in his version a male documentary filmmaker — and two co-writers are credited, T. S. Cook and the director, James Bridges.
Mr. Gray said he had written the script with the idea that in the rush to embrace nuclear power, the potential consequences had not been thought through. But he was, he acknowledged (to his family, at least), a novice at screenwriting.
“Before he started, he typed out the whole screenplay of ‘The African Queen’ to teach himself the format,” his wife said. “And he wrote the whole thing standing up, because he read somewhere that that’s how Hemingway wrote.”
Harold Michael Gray was born in Racine, Wis., on Oct. 26, 1935. His father was a traveling salesman, and the family moved to Darlington, Ind., where young Mike grew up. He graduated from Purdue, where he studied aeronautical engineering, and afterward worked in New York as an editor for Aviation Age.
By the mid-1960s he had moved to Chicago and formed a film company with a partner, making television commercials and documentaries. It was filming the violence during the Democratic National Convention in 1968 that changed the course of his life. Before that, he said, he had defined himself as a Goldwater Republican; afterward he was angry at the status quo.
“He was a small-town Indiana boy,” said his wife, the former Carol Hirsch. “He was really transformed. He was motivated by injustice. That’s how he described himself.”
Mr. Gray wrote a science fiction film, “Wavelength,” which was released in 1983, and produced and wrote episodes of “Starman,” a short-lived science fiction series, in the mid-1980s. He later produced episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
In 1982, in the wake of the Three Mile Island accident, Mr. Gray and Ira Rosen recapitulated the event in a book, “The Warning.” After his book “Drug Crazy” was published in 1998, Mr. Gray became an activist on behalf of drug-policy reform, appearing at conferences and serving as the chairman of Common Sense for Drug Policy, an advocacy group.
Mr. Gray’s first marriage ended in divorce. So did his second, to the former Ms. Hirsch, whom he married in 1968, divorced in 1986 and married again in 1996. He is also survived by a brother, Dudley, and a son, Lucas.
“He used to say, ‘We got a divorce but it didn’t work out,’ ” his wife said.

Mike Gray dies at 77; co-wrote 'China Syndrome' screenplay

Mike Gray, an author, activist and documentarian, developed the movie's provocative story about a cover-up at a nuclear power plant.

May 02, 2013|From a Los Angeles Times staff writer

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  • Mike Gray is shown in 1998. He also wrote "Drug Crazy: How We Got into This Mess and How We Can Get Out" and made several documentary films.
Mike Gray is shown in 1998. He also wrote "Drug Crazy: How We Got into… (Chuck Berman / Chicago Tribune )
Mike Gray, an author, activist and documentarian who co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for "The China Syndrome," the provocative 1979 film about a cover-up at a nuclear power plant, died Tuesday of heart failure at his Hollywood Hills home, his family said. He was 77.
Gray developed the "China Syndrome" story after reading books and interviewing scientists about the dangers of nuclear power. No one knew how timely the subject would prove. A nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania went into partial meltdown barely three weeks after the opening of the movie, which starred Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas and became a box-office and critical success.
A Newsweek reviewer described the film as "a rare phenomenon — a piece of popular entertainment that immediately foreshadows a major news event and then helps explain it."
"I meant 'China Syndrome' to educate people about what I'd found … that our heavy reliance on nuclear plants hadn't been clearly thought through," Gray, who co-wrote the script with T.S. Cook and James Bridges, told the Chicago Tribune in 1998.
Born Oct. 26, 1935, Gray was a native of Darlington, Ind., who earned an engineering degree from Purdue University before moving to Chicago in the early 1960s. He was making TV commercials for major brands like Kentucky Fried Chicken when the Democratic National Convention came to Chicago in 1968. When police began beating protesters in the streets outside the convention hall, Gray took a film crew to record the events.
"When we came back to our studio at 3 a.m.," Gray, who had been a Goldwater Republican, told the Tribune, "we were different people. We had been changed, transformed."
He gave up TV commercials and turned to projects that reflected his new political sensibilities. With Howard Alk, a founder of Chicago's Second City comedy group, he collaborated on documentary films, including "American Revolution II" (1969), about the social and political turmoil of the 1960s, and "The Murder of Fred Hampton" (1971), about the FBI raid in which Chicago Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton was killed.
After moving to Los Angeles in 1973, Gray wrote screenplays and several books, including "Angle of Attack," about America's race to the moon, and "Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess and How We Can Get Out," about the failures of the U.S. war on drugs.
At his death he was working on a documentary about former Black Panther and Houston community organizer Robert E. Lee III.
Gray is survived by his wife, Carol, and a son, Lucas.

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