In the elevator of a Beverly Hills parking garage a small, elderly woman stares, awestruck, at a pair of 14C penny loafers. Her gaze moves upward to a 44 XXL sports jacket and finally stops, 81 inches above the floor, at the tousled head of Michael Crichton. “My goodness! You’re so tall,” she gasps. “You must be a basketball player.” “No, ma’am,” Crichton replies, with only a slight wince. “I’m a jockey.”
Consider it a lapse. Novelist-director Crichton (rhymes with heighten) usually disdains comment about his altitude. When Albert Finney, who is the star of Looker, a thriller Crichton wrote and just finished shooting, cracked: “I always wanted a director I could look up to,” all he got in response was a bored “Hmmmmm.” “Men are uncomfortable with my height,” Crichton reasons. “There’s a sexual connotation to being tall, and let me tell you,” he guffaws, “all the rumors are true!”
Jokes aside, Crichton is a veritable multimedia giant, a protean man. At 38, he has already been educated as an M.D. at Harvard (but never practiced), written 15 books (among them bestsellers like The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man), and directed three moneymaking movies (Westworld, Coma and The Great Train Robbery). He is a devoted paladin of modern painting whose collection, which includes works by Frank Stella and Robert Rauschenberg, recently toured California museums. In 1977, because the subject intrigued him, Crichton wrote the catalogue for a Jasper Johns retrospective at Manhattan’s Whitney Museum. “Art interviewers tend to be more formal and discuss esthetics—’Why did you put the red here and the blue there?’ ” says Johns. “But Michael was trying to relate me to my work. He is a novelist and he brings that different perspective.”
Crichton’s latest literary enterprise is Congo (Alfred A. Knopf), a technology-packed adventure tale about a computer-led diamond hunt in the wilds of Africa. Accompanied by a friendly gorilla named Amy, Crichton’s characters confront everything from an erupting volcano to ferocious apes bred to destroy anyone who approaches the diamonds. The novel has bobbed onto best-seller lists, despite critical sneers that it is “entertaining trash.” (A New York Times reviewer called it “literarily vapid and scientifically more anthropomorphic than Dumbo.”)
Crichton cheerfully admits that Congo owes more than its exotic locale to Sir Henry Rider Haggard’s classic King Solomon’s Mines. “All the books I’ve written play with preexisting literary forms,” Crichton says. A model for The Andromeda Strain was H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The Terminal Man was based on Frankenstein’s monster. Crichton’s 1976 novel Eaters of the Dead was inspired by Beowulf. “The challenge is in revitalizing the old forms,” he explains.
Crichton taps out his books on an Olivetti word processor (price: $13,500) and bombards readers with high-density scientific data and jargon, only some of which is real. “I did check on the rapids in the Congo,” he says. “They exist, but not where I put them.” His impressive description of a cannibal tribe is similarly fabricated. “It amused me to make a complete ethnography of a nonexistent tribe,” he notes. “I like to make up something to seem real.”
As a film director, Crichton sticks more closely to convention. His movies come in on time and within budget, results held in increasing regard in the post-Heaven’s Gate era. “I take moviemaking very seriously,” he says. Yet Crichton approaches his art with a good humor that is almost collegiate. On the set of Looker, a fast-paced suspense drama about computerized TV commercials, Crichton ambled around like a jovial giraffe. “Groovy!” he yelped to the crew after an especially good take, then dangled a clothespin rakishly from one ear. When Susan Dey, the female lead, did a nude scene, Crichton cracked one-liners to relax her.
Of course, such casual behavior sometimes masks his obsessive side. While writing, Crichton ritualistically eats the exact same lunch every day: nothing but tuna fish during The Great Train Robbery, barbecued beef and salad while writing Congo and open-faced turkey sandwiches with mashed potatoes as he cranked out the screenplay of Looker. “I have this desire to freeze time until the book is over, to hold the conception,” he explains. “I’d wear the same clothes every day if they didn’t get smelly.”
Crichton’s appetite for experience has turned him into a restless world traveler who enjoys filming in remote locales. During Train Robbery he descended upon bemused Irish villagers with a Brobdingnagian mattress and blankets stitched together to accommodate his bulk. In 1976 he set off for Malaysia to attend the birthday of the Sultan of Pahang. Friends had told him it was a celebration of uncommon ritual and splendor. “It turns out I had the birthdate of the previous sultan, who had died,” laments Crichton. His party plans awry, he loped off to nearby jungles. “I had this Chinese guide who kept saying: ‘It’s not like Africa. It’s not like Africa,’ ” Crichton recalls. Naturally, he then had to see Africa, where he decided to test himself on 19,340-foot Mount Kilimanjaro. “It was extraordinarily difficult,” Crichton remembers. “I don’t like to be up high or to be cold. At 11,000 feet my heels were bleeding and they told me to go back. I refused. I said, ‘Here I am, and I am going to finish.’ And I did.”
Crichton’s romantic yearnings—and love for movies—were nurtured in the Long Island suburb of Roslyn. He remembers his late father, John, an executive editor of Advertising Age, and his mother, Zula, taking him at 13 to see Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. “Grace Kelly was a bit bony for my tastes,” Michael says, “but here was this magic movie. It was funny and. exciting and I loved it.” Yet the world of science appealed too. One of his three younger siblings, Douglas, now 32, recalls: “Michael was always out in the backyard with a telescope he had built, looking at the sky.” When not stargazing at home or at the movies, Michael wrote short stories in the mode of Edgar Allan Poe. “I had a long Hemingway period too,” he says. “I mimicked writing styles.”
Later, at Harvard, he studied English despite a teaching assistant’s continual refrain that Crichton couldn’t write. One day he slightly modified an essay George Orwell had written on Gulliver’s Travels and handed it in as his own. “Orwell got a B minus,” he reports. Disillusioned, Crichton switched to pre-med with a major in physical anthropology.
After graduation Crichton married his high school girlfriend, Joan Radam, a child psychologist, and entered Harvard Medical School. “I hated it,” he says. “Professors would come in unprepared and babble, and it offended me.” He contemplated becoming a surgeon or a psychiatrist before rejecting both for a writing career. “When I saw a patient with a particular symptom, I wanted to make up a new disease,” Crichton remembers. “I didn’t like being locked into someone’s reality.”
For diversion and to cover expenses in med school, he dashed off paperback thrillers with titles like Zero Cool, Easy Go and Drug of Choice. Crichton wrote under the pseudonyms John Lange and Jeffery Hudson (the name of a dwarf in the court of Charles I). Why the noms de plume? “Medical school puts a Nixonian value on loyalty,” pronounces Crichton. “My teachers wouldn’t like to know I was writing.”
Once he had decided to give up medicine, he wrote The Andromeda Strain under his own name. It was published to glowing reviews in 1969, the same year Crichton graduated. A celebrated author at 27, he settled in California to write and take a postdoctoral fellowship at the Salk Institute in La Jolla. By the next year he and his wife had called it off. “It was a student marriage,” he recalls. “We woke up one morning and said: ‘Oops. Who are you?’ ”
He quickly grew enamored of filmmaking and fast living. His first movie was adapted from Binary, a novel he sold to ABC-TV on the condition that he direct. “I approached directing like doing a lumbar puncture,” he remembers of that effort. “You watch, then you do it.”
Meanwhile, Crichton’s social life went into high gear. “You haven’t lived until you’ve driven by a parked police car at 130 mph,” he cracks. In late 1978 he seemed to settle down in a second marriage, to Kathy St. Johns, a law student. “It was stormy and tempestuous,” he says of their courtship. “I thought marriage would resolve the conflicts and it didn’t. I’m a very difficult person to live with.” They were divorced last summer.
These days Crichton describes himself as “serially monogamous,” though there is no one special at present. He keeps a Hollywood Hills home, a Malibu beach house and a Beverly Hills office. Friends include Sean Connery, his star in The Great Train Robbery, and husband-and-wife writers John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion. “Michael is the best,” says Didion. “If I were ever in trouble, I’d call him.”
In Hollywood, Michael is in increasing demand, even though he has yet to direct any but his own screenplays. “I’d love to direct a musical,” he confesses. “I’d do A Chorus Line for nothing.” Next, though, he hopes to film Congo in Africa. Connery will likely star, and Crichton jokes that Albert Finney wants the role of the female ape: “He’s already practicing his simian faces.” Crichton is also toying with the idea of writing a biography. Captain Cook, Leonardo da Vinci and Sir Isaac Newton are among the candidates.
For all his success, doesn’t Crichton have some regrets about giving up the humane values of medicine? “You wouldn’t question Rod Stewart on the social utility of what he is doing,” Crichton retorts. “Helping people is a very tenuous concept. I think what I’m doing is socially useful. People need the mirrors of experience they find in books and movies. They want to feel they’re not alone. People undervalue movie directors and overvalue doctors. One is as good as another.”