Fifth in a series of six previously unpublished profiles.
William F. Nolan was a core member—along with Charles Beaumont, Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson—of the Southern California School of Writers that revolutionized the SF, fantasy, and horror genre on page and screen. Dubbed the Matheson Mafia by Bloch in his autobiography, it is also known as the Green Hand, the California Sorcerers, or simply “the Group.”
The stars in this literary constellation included Harlan Ellison, George Clayton Johnson, Ray Russell, Jerry Sohl, and Theodore Sturgeon, all screenwriters as well as authors. Nolan has written often and lovingly of their lives and careers, and in 1999, he and William Schafer edited California Sorcery: A Group Celebration, which contains stories by a dozen writers of this informal “school.”
Born in March of 1928 in Kansas City, Missouri, Nolan began his career as a commercial artist, designing greeting cards for Hallmark and attending the Kansas City Art Institute before he moved to Southern California in 1947. While living in San Diego, he entered science fiction fandom in 1950, giving up art to concentrate on his writing after an initial sort story sale in 1954.
Two years later, Nolan sold a story to Playboy, quit his job with the State Department of Employment, and became a fulltime professional writer. His output includes scores of books, hundreds of articles and 165 oft-anthologized short stories (one of which, “The Partnership,” was adapted on the series Darkroom in 1981), in genres from SF and mystery-suspense to Westerns.
Nolan and Johnson co-wrote Logan’s Run, the classic 1967 novel about a computer-dominated futuristic society that controls its population with compulsory death at twenty-one. It has generated Nolan’s bestselling sequels Logan’s World (1977) and Logan’s Search (1980), as well as the e-book novella “Logan’s Return” (2001); a 1976 film, with a remake now in the works; a TV series; an audiocassette, read by Nolan; national fan clubs; and two separate comic book series.
Of his screen work, Nolan said that according to a Hollywood rule of thumb, “A writer must develop ten projects for every one that sells. Fortunately, my percentage is much higher. I’ve sold one of every two projects I’ve developed. Many of these never reached the screen… but the money is always great, which helps ease some of the frustration,” he related to this writer in an interview for Filmfax.
Nolan worked with Beaumont and Group member John Tomerlin on scripts sold to such shows as Wanted: Dead or Alive and One Step Beyond in the late 1950s. “I’d do the first draft and they’d take over for the revision and polish, with the screen credit always going to them. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that I began submitting scripts under my own name,” as he recounted.
In a different kind of collaboration, Nolan and Johnson acted in Beaumont’s adaptation of his novel The Intruder, directed by Roger Corman in 1961. “That was great fun,” he said of his role as the town bully. “We shot the picture in two and a half weeks in the sizzling heat of a Missouri summer. In the film, I got to beat up a newspaper editor and blow up a church. Fun!”
Like several Group members, Nolan made a sale to The Twilight Zone, but “Dreamfight,” his half-hour script, “was never produced due to the fact that the series was heading into an hour format the following season. It was just a case of bad timing. Rod [Serling] certainly liked my work and even supplied a cover blurb for my first collection of short stories, Impact 20, in 1963.”
None of Nolan’s material for the screen was produced in the ‘60s; when he and Johnson sold the rights to Logan’s Run to MGM, their script was discarded. “I sold screen treatments to Columbia and American International Pictures [AIP], along with an original shock-horror screenplay, DePompa, to director William Friedkin (in his pre-Exorcist  days),” he noted.
It was not until 1971 that Nolan received his first official onscreen credit, adapting his story “The Joy of Living” for the Canadian-produced series Norman Corwin Presents. The story had also marked his entry into the world of professional SF when Bradbury, then scripting Moby Dick (1956) for John Huston, suggested a new ending and Nolan soon sold it to If: Worlds of SF.
At Matheson’s suggestion, Nolan contacted producer-director Dan Curtis, creator of Dark Shadows. “We hit it off right away and he asked me to write [the 1973 TV-movie] The Norliss Tapes, about a psychic detective on the trail of a zombie killer….[NBC] wanted a series—which was killed by an extended writers’ strike. The sequel I wrote was never produced,” he lamented.
Nolan and Curtis collaborated on the TV-movies Melvin Purvis, G-Man (1974)—originally written by John Milius as a follow-up to his feature film Dillinger (1973)—and its sequel, The Kansas City Massacre (1975). Dissatisfied with the Purvis script, Curtis hired Nolan to rewrite it, and, to his delight, gave him another acting job as a member of Machine-Gun Kelly’s gang.
“I was shot down on the roof of the gang’s hideout by Purvis himself [Dale Robertson], dying with a smoking Thompson machine gun in my hand….I was frustrated by the fact that no one in the States ever saw my bloody death scene; it was cut from the ABC version and was used only in Europe, where the film was released as The Legend of Machine-Gun Kelly,” he recalled.
Curtis’s The Turn of the Screw (1974) was “a real challenge, since I had to expand the original story [by Henry James] into a two-night ABC miniseries. I wanted to maintain the subtle quality and intent of the original in this longer format, and I managed to pull it off—or so the critics have told me. Lynn Redgrave played the lead and was superb in the role,” said Nolan.
After writing The Night Stalker (1972) and its sequel for Curtis, Matheson worked with Nolan on a third Carl Kolchak film, The Night Killers. “The network people at ABC all loved it. It was green-lighted for production and just a week away from the shoot, in Hawaii, the project collapsed due to the sale of a weekly Kolchak series which did not involve Curtis,” Nolan stated.
Other abortive collaborations between Matheson and Nolan include the treatments Under the Bounding Main and Ali Baba and the Seven Marvels of the World (which Matheson adapted into the children’s book Abu and the 7 Marvels) and a screenplay, Double, Double. But Trilogy of Terror (1975), which they wrote for Curtis, was a career-defining film for everyone involved.
In a tour de force, Karen Black starred in all three segments, each of which was based on a Matheson short story. Nolan adapted “Julie” and “Millicent and Therese” from “The Likeness of Julie” and “Therese” (aka “Needle in the Heart”), respectively, while Matheson turned “Prey,” with its lethal Zuni fetish doll known as “He Who Kills,” into the unforgettable final segment, “Amelia.”
“Dick and I have often chuckled about this, since everyone vividly recalls the devil doll segment he scripted, yet no one remembers the two that I wrote! [He] quite naturally picked the strongest of the trio. I really don’t think the quality of our scripts differed, but Dick knew he had the gem of the lot. That sharp-fanged little devil doll made a deep psychic imprint on everyone.”
Curtis and Nolan based their only feature-film collaboration, Burnt Offerings (1976), on a bestselling book by Robert Marasco. Recalled Nolan, “Again, this was another case of my being called in after a project was underway. Dan showed me a screenplay Marasco had been paid to write, based on his own novel, and it was hopeless. We decided to throw it out and start fresh.”
Denied the chance to adapt Logan’s Run (which was scripted by David Zelag Goodman), Nolan wrote a treatment for Logan’s World, which he turned into a novel when MGM scuttled the proposed sequel in favor of an immediate CBS series. He and Saul David, who had produced Logan’s Run, then developed a pilot script together, which was an equally frustrating experience.
“Our version was heavily rewritten prior to production. And I mean heavily! But at least my idea of Rem, the android robot, was used throughout the series as one of the three main characters.” His involvement with the show began and ended there: “I didn’t agree with the basic approach being taken by the producers…so I rejected their offer to become a team player.”
Nolan scripted the TV-movie Bridge Across Time (aka Arizona Ripper, Terror at London Bridge, 1985), and brought back the Zuni doll in the made-for-cable Trilogy of Terror II (1996). He and Curtis wrote “He Who Kills,” and adapted Henry Kuttner’s “The Graveyard Rats”; the other segment, “Bobby,” was merely a remake of a Matheson script from Curtis’s Dead of Night (1977).
Nolan has earned a 1993 “Distinguished Career Commendation” from the Mayor of Los Angeles, and two Edgar Allan Poe Special Award Scrolls from the Mystery Writers of America. He received a unique double honor in 1977 when Logan’s Run and Burnt Offerings were named, respectively, Best SF and Horror Films of 1976 by the Academy of Fantasy and Science Fiction.