By John Stark Giovanna Breu
July 11, 1988 12:00 PM

If Rambo didn’t fictionally exist, somebody would have had to invent him. But certainly not David Morrell, a mild-mannered former American literature professor from the University of Iowa who wrote the 1972 action novel First Blood, which introduced the avenging warrior to the world. Morrell even named him—are you ready, Sly?—after the 19th-century French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. “There is a great contrast between me as a human being,” says Morrell, 45, sitting on his screened porch watching squirrels invade his backyard strawberry patch, “and the kind of things I write about.”

No argument. Still, one of the most widely known literary creations of recent decades has its roots in Morrell’s psyche—specifically, he feels, in the combat death of his father, an RAF bombardier, in World War II. Recently, Morrell has been unable to write adventures because of another personal loss: the death of his 15-year-old son, Matt, from bone cancer a year ago. “It’s been a big problem making up something out of nothing when you feel hollow,” says Morrell. “I’ve been a long time getting over Matt’s death.”

While he is afraid that his grief may have burned out his “emotional receptors” for further writing, Morrell also frets that his superhero is misunderstood. “Rambo is not a he-man who goes looking for trouble,” Morrell insists. “Rambo is a person who wants desperately to be left alone. Eventually he is forced to fight back, but he would never do so unless he is in a corner. He is not a warmonger.”

Morrell is not blaming Sly Stallone for Rambo’s image problems. “Sylvester is a very smart man,” he says. “He has an eye for getting to the emotional core of a story.” But the author does have one problem. “There is the popular misconception that Stallone created Rambo,” he notes. “This is my character. I call myself Rambo’s father. I feel protective about him.”

Morrell was an assistant professor at the University of Iowa, supporting his wife and family on $1,000 a month, when he wrote First Blood. A moderate seller, the action thriller was bought for $90,000 by Columbia Pictures, which held on to it for a year before passing it on to several other studios. Finally, in 1979, Orion offered the property to Stallone. The time was right, says Morrell. “Like Rambo, Americans felt backed into a corner by hijackers and terrorists, and they were ready to strike back, if only in fiction.”

The first two Rambo films have already grossed a combined $390 million dollars. For each sequel, Morrell receives screen credit and 2½ percent of the profits. He has written the novelizations of the two sequels, earning him nearly $1 million. Though Morrell controls only the print rights to the Rambo name, he also has 1½ percent of the film’s tie-ins, such as Rambo dolls.

Despite his wealth, Morrell lives an unpretentious life, alloting himself only $3,000 a month. “If I didn’t write anything for the rest of my life, I would be comfortable,” says Morrell, who shares his house with Donna, 44, a former history teacher and his wife of 23 years. Morrell is proud of his collection of Rambo knives. “It’s a job for Rambo,” he tells Donna, as he uses his Rambo III blade to chop a squash. Possessions, otherwise, hold no allure: “Many people would go crazy and buy a house 10 times this size or fly around the world. That isn’t my style.”

Morrell feels his cautiousness stems from his impoverished childhood. Born in Kitchener, Ont., David was less than a year old when his father, George, was shot down. His mother, Beatrice, a seamstress, was forced to put David into a Catholic orphanage. “I hated it there,” says Morrell.” I escaped several times.” Once, when 4 years old, he was found wandering down a gravel road looking for his mother’s home. After stays with several foster families, David finally returned home at age 5, when his mother married a cabinetmaker. “The trauma of having my father die has been all through my fiction,” he says. “In Rambo III the character only springs into action after someone has posed a threat to his foster father, the Green Beret colonel [played by Richard Crenna] who trained him.”

During his early teenage years, David got involved with street gangs. “It’s a miracle that I wasn’t put in jail,” he says. But then, at age 16, something happened. He became fixated with the TV series Route 66. Morrell (who now has every show on tape) wrote to Stirling Silliphant, the show’s creator, who wrote back encouragingly to the teenage would-be author. “He changed my life,” says Morrell, who keeps Silliphant’s 1961 letter framed over his word processor.

While a literature grad student at Penn State, Morrell took his stories to English professor Philip Klass, who writes science fiction under the pseudonym of William Tenn. “My stories were very literary and not very good,” recalls Morrell. Finally he wrote an action story. Says Klass: “That son of a bitch went home and brought me a story that really banged! I was astonished at his talent.”

Having found his milieu in action, Morrell eventually decided he needed some real background for his Rambo character. He enrolled in the Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, Wyo., which teaches survival techniques. As part of the course, Morrell took a 35-day trek across the Continental Divide, spending the last three days without food. “I lost 20 lbs., and looked like a refugee,” he says. In 1986, he spent $2,700 and traveled to New York to take G. Gordon Liddy’s three-week course in espionage, combat shooting and surveillance.

Though nearly all of Morrell’s 12 books are action thrillers, his new book, Fireflies, due out in October, deals with the emotionally wrenching death of his son. (Morrell’s other child, daughter Sarie, 22, is a senior at the University of Iowa.) Morrell says he decided to write the book after a physician told his son he might not survive. The youngster blurted out, “No one will remember me.” Morrell recalls, “It was all I could do not to collapse. Matt suddenly communicated that terrible sense of loneliness.” Now, says Morrell, “At least Matt is there on the pages of Fireflies, even if only a handful of people read it.” The book draws its title from a strange phenomenon Morrell feels driven to explain. Shortly after Matt’s death, a swarm of fireflies suddenly appeared in Morrell’s dark bedroom, filling it with light. He took it as a comforting sign from his dead boy. Though he’s finding it difficult to get back to writing for now, Morrell believes he will eventually return to work full-time. “Fiction is a wonderful alternative to reality,” he says, adding that for the moment, “I am content to go out and pick strawberries and tend to my tomato plants.”

—By John Stark, with Giovanna Breu in Iowa City