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Marc Haefele: Leigh Brackett, screenwriter and sci-fi royalty

Leigh Brackett could have lived off screenwriting, but she loved writing science fiction stories and earned the nickname
Leigh Brackett could have lived off screenwriting, but she loved writing science fiction stories and earned the nickname "The Queen of the Martian Catacombs."
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How's this for a Hollywood resume? Leigh Brackett had her name on the screenplays of "The Big Sleep" in 1946 and "The Empire Strikes Back" in 1978. But that’s not all. Off-Ramp's literary commentator Marc Haefele has the background on the multi-talented and influential writer. COME INSIDE for Marc's script and a lurid cover illustration...


Leigh Brackett also won the nickname "The Queen of the Martian Catacombs" for her many sci-fi sagas … stories with titles like the "Thralls of the Endless Night." As a woman, she was a pioneer in both her fields.

With her screenwriting credits, Brackett could have abandoned nickel-a-word sci fi. But she once said, "If I sit down to write a novel, I am God at my own typewriter...But a screenplay...has to be a compromise.... [Sometimes] I sort of went off into corners and wept." The heroes of her space operas were principled, tough, lost souls, close kin to the characters she helped create for Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne; in space or on the range, she personally believed in old-fashioned heroism of one tough man -- or one hard-bitten dame -- against the town, the mob, the odds or the entire universe.

Raised in Santa Monica, Brackett started selling pulp fiction in her early 20s. She'd also peddled a couple of b-movie scripts before she was tapped by director Howard Hawks to work with William Faulkner (yes, that William Faulkner) on "The Big Sleep." … And Humphrey Bogart, whom she called "the greatest actor that ever happened."

For Hawks, she wrote three versions of the same classic movie: 1959's ``Rio Bravo," remade in 1967 as "El Dorado" and "Rio Lobo" in 1970. A friend recalled, "It got better every time." All versions starred John Wayne, a lifetime pal whose rugged politics she shared.

In 1946, she married fellow Sci-Fi writer Edmond Hamilton. Her young writing protégé, Ray Bradbury, was best man at the wedding. The couple spent half their lives together in the Antelope Valley and the other half on an Ohio farm. There she drove her tractor around the property and her Porsche into town, and wrote the sci-fi classic novels "Star Man" and "The Long Tomorrow." In 1972, she wrote Robert Altman's version of Raymond Chandler's final great novel, "The Long Goodbye." It plunged Chandler's 1940s idealist detective into the sexy, cynical seventies, and the results infuriated many critics. But Brackett said, "It felt right at the time."

Brackett's famous last script, for the second Star Wars movie, "The Empire Strikes Back," finally united her long-divided selves of sci-fi-scribe and screen writer. It remains uncertain how much that screenplay resembles the final cut. Yet, as her friend, sci-fi wizard Mike Moorcock points out, George Lucas’s entire Star Wars series was deeply influenced by Brackett's interplanetary sagas. As were dozens of modern sci-fi writers, from Bradbury to John Brunner to Harlan Ellison.

Brackett never saw "Empire." She died of cancer at 62 in 1978, a few months after her beloved husband.

For Off-Ramp, this is Marc Haefele.