Not unlike John Grisham, Chicago-born author-turned-director/screenwriter Michael Crichton took current events - often with a wealth of "authenticating" detail - and melded them with meticulously-constructed, gripping narratives that made him a white-hot commodity and a veritable one-man industry in Hollywood; Crichton's topical forte, however, lay not in the legal arena but in that of cutting-edge science. The son of an Advertising Age executive editor, Crichton grew up as the oldest in a family with four children, and reportedly (as one who reached 6' 7" at age 13 and grew to a towering height of 6', 9" as an adult) felt socially awkward and a bit out of place. Recreationally, he immersed himself in pop-culture and fell in love with Hitchcock. He entered Harvard as an undergraduate, and then Harvard Medical School, where he began turning out sensationalistic novels under various pseudonyms and used those efforts to pay his tuition (despite criticism from at least one literary professor that his work was shallow and commercial). He graduated from med school in 1969, but by that time began to realize that a traditional medical career would be an ill fit, given his imaginative and creative leanings.
No matter - for that same year, Crichton published a bestselling novel which ensured that he would never have to work again. The Andromeda Strain, a suspense-heavy science fiction thriller about an outer-space virus run amok on Earth, shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list and turned the heads of execs at Universal Studios in Hollywood, who promptly optioned the rights to the film and turned it into a hit feature directed by Robert Wise (The Sound of Music), released in 1971. Numerous cinematic efforts followed, and witnessed Crichton making the gradual segue over time from novelist to scriptwriter to director. These included The Carey Treatment (1972), Westworld (1973) and Coma (1978). Unfortunately, Crichton's directorial work divided the critics and public sharply and waxed mercurially uneven; he was as praised for his exemplary workmanlike skills on Coma , for example, as he was vilified for his helming and scripting work on the grotesque Looker (1981), an Albert Finney-headlined thriller about a psychotic corporation that begins using television ads to coerce viewers into submission (and bumps off a few dozen actress-models in the process). Similarly, the 1989 Physical Evidence, a Martin Ransohoff-produced thriller helmed by Crichton and originally slated as a sequel to Jagged Edge (1985), failed to make waves given its sledgehammer pacing and mediocre direction, despite a witty and inventive script by Bill Phillips (Christine) and a fine lead performance by Burt Reynolds.
Crichton's career, however, received a dramatic boost around 1990, following the publication of his novel Jurassic Park - a sci-fi fantasy-thriller about a theme park that uses ancient, amber-encased DNA to clone dinosaurs for the entertainment of tourists. Steven Spielberg immediately optioned the property and turned out one of the biggest moneymakers in Hollywood history (in 1993, with Crichton scripting); as a result, Crichton suddenly found himself in massive demand; his career peaked once again with a lengthy stint as creator and executive producer of the long (long) running NBC medical drama ER (1994-2009), and Hollywood began adapting his novels right and left, into features including the Japan-set thriller Rising Sun (1993), the reverse sexual harassment melodrama Disclosure (1994), the jungle adventure Congo (1995), and the mega-budgeted, all-star science fiction saga Sphere (1998), about the discovery and exploration of a spacecraft on the floor of the South Pacific. In 2003, scenarists George Nolfi and Jeff McGuire adapted Crichton's time travel-themed adventure novel Timeline into a script that Richard Donner directed; unfortunately, it flopped at the box office and received mostly harsh reviews from critics.
Crichton died of cancer at age 66 in early November 2008, about five months after the premiere of a cable television remake of his Andromeda Strain. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi