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(Eugene Luther Gore Vidal 1925-2012). American writer and actor.

Wrote: 'The Turn of the Screw' (story by Henry James) (1955), episode of Omnibus; 'Visit to a Small Planet' (1955), episode of Goodyear Playhouse; 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' (story by Robert Louis Stevenson), episode of Climax!; Ben-Hur (uncredited, with Karl Tunberg) (William Wyler 1959); The Best Man (based on his play, uncredited) (and acted in, uncredited) (Franklin J. SCHAFFNER 1964); Besuch auf Einem Kleinen Planeten [play Visit to a Small Planet translated by Eric Burger] (tv movie) (Wolfgang Liebeneiner 1971).

Acted in: Ritual in Transfigured Time (short) (Maya Deren 1946); Gattaca (Andrew NICCOL 1997).

Films based on his works: Visit to a Small Planet (Norman Taurog 1960).

From one perspective, it is surprising that Gore Vidal lived to the age of eighty-six. Sure in the knowledge that America could solve all of its problems simply by following his sage advice, and constantly frustrated by its failure to do so, one might think that he would have long ago died from sheer indignation while reading about yet another catastrophe that could have been so easily avoided by applying his wisdom. Yet Vidal, with his deep knowledge of American history, could also take the long view, knowing that his home country had always been governed by fools and scoundrels but somehow had prospered nevertheless, suggesting that the republic would improbably endure in spite of its recurring missteps.

Vidal had little interest in science fiction; it was merely one of many tools that he might pick up if it seemed suitable to his needs at the moment. His most significant contributions to the genre took the form of several novels that were either too strange (Duluth [1983], The Smithsonian Institution [1998]) or too controversial (Messiah [1954], Kalki [1978], Live from Golgotha [1998]) to inspire any film adaptations. But his energetic work for television, film, and the stage during the 1950s and 1960s did include a few items that are relevant to this encyclopedia.

While his adaptations of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were doubtless more than competent, his most significant television script was an original story, 'Visit to a Small Planet,' later the basis for a Broadway play and film. Though very much a product, and a reflection, of the concerns of the 1950s, it is an amusing enough satire about an alien visitor to Earth who almost provokes a nuclear war, concluding with the familiar conceit that this amazingly advanced being is, according to his fellow aliens, merely an overgrown child. Unfortunately, it was decided to turn this property into a vehicle for farcical comedian Jerry LEWIS, resulting in a silly film that did not do justice to his vision (the fate, Vidal found, of almost all film adaptations of his works). Having signed up to work as a screenwriter for MGM, and not enjoying the experience at all, he agreed to make some uncredited contributions to the screenplay of the Biblical epic Ben-Hur if the company would prematurely end his contract; striving to make this chore enjoyable, he notoriously endeavored to work a gay subtext into the story without the knowledge of its conservative star, Charlton HESTON. He then wrote a play about presidential politics, The Best Man, which can be regarded as science fiction because its fictional presidents and officeholders are presumably residents of a near-future, or alternate, America, and this led to the 1964 film which is by far the finest adaptation of any of his works, featuring a stellar cast handled well by director Franklin SCHAFFNER. Thankfully, my focus on science fiction films does not require me to address any of its considerably less admirable successors, such as the execrable Myra Breckinridge (1970) and Caligula (1979).

By the time he reached the age of retirement, he had lost interest in striving one more time to write a screenplay that might actually engender a decent film, but he launched a new career as an actor, specializing in roles as cold, arrogant authority figures that required Vidal to do little more than play himself. He did this well enough to win a competition with none other than Sir Alec GUINNESS to play a haughty professor in With Honors (1994), and he was equally impressive in a smaller part as an executive in Andrew NICCOL's futuristic Gattaca. But unlike another elderly neophyte who once excelled as a haughty professor, John Houseman, Vidal garnered no awards for his performances, and his acting jobs remained few and far between. Considering the string of disasters that had earlier constituted his career in film, Gore Vidal surely did not find this surprising.

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