'Rambo' Creator David Morrell Uses Life Events, Imagination to Craft Stories

SANTA FE -- Books crowd floor-to-ceiling shelves in David Morrell's studio, just west of his house near Old Pecos Trail. It is quite a contrast to his childhood home in Kitchener, Ontario.

"There were not any books in my house, so my early influences came from movies," Morrell said. "Sometimes, I'd sneak into the movies -- Hitchcock movies, Westerns, John Wayne movies."

Those influences did not go to waste. The most remarkable thing about the books that fill Morrell's studio is that he wrote them.

He is the author of about 35 books, mostly suspense-thrillers, and the massed volumes here represent the various editions -- American, foreign, English-language, other languages -- of his works. His first novel, 1972's "First Blood," has been translated into 30 languages.

If "First Blood" rings a bell, it should. It was in that novel that Morrell created Rambo, the character portrayed by Sylvester Stallone in the 1982 movie "First Blood" and in four subsequent films, the most recent of which, "Rambo: Last Blood," opens in theaters on Friday, Sept. 20.

Morrell gets screen credits for creating the characters featured in the films, but he has had no hand in making the movies. Even so, he has seen all the Rambo films and is eager to see "Last Blood." After all, he is Rambo's father.

"I see it like he is a child who has grown up and I have no control over him," Morrell said. "But I watch him with parental affection."

'Be a hero'

Morrell, 76, was a little over a year old when he lost his own father, a British navy pilot who was shot down during World War II. Morrell's mother was forced by circumstances to put him into a Canadian orphanage when he was about 3.

"I was only in the orphanage about a year," he said. "But that loneliness, that sense of abandonment stays with you."

Orphanages and the search for father figures would play roles in Morrell's fiction years later.

Morrell's mother took him home from the orphanage, and she got married. But his mom and stepfather fought a lot, so Morrell created his first stories as a sort of security blanket he could wrap around himself to muffle the shouting and quell his own anxiety.

"When I was about 6 to 8 years old, I would crawl under the bed and tell myself stories where I was a hero rescuing other people," Morrell said. "People can be a victim in their own life story, or they can be a hero."

However, it was not until 1960, when he was 17, that Morrell started thinking about being a writer. That's the year the CBS-TV series "Route 66" premiered.

'Keep looking ahead'

The series was about two young men traveling across America in a Chevrolet Corvette. Morrell was blown away by the smart writing and strong characterizations in the scripts churned out by the show's creator, Stirling Silliphant.

"'Route 66' became the pattern for my life," Morrell said. "It seemed to me real, that I was one of those guys in the Corvette. The series brought me the attitude to keep looking ahead, to see life as a journey, to be willing to move on."

Morrell wrote to Silliphant, expressing his admiration for the "Route 66" scripts. And Silliphant wrote back, a long letter that provided valuable encouragement to teenager Morrell.

In 1985, Morrell met Silliphant, and in 1989, Silliphant was executive producer of "Brotherhood of the Rose," an NBC miniseries adapted from Morrell's 1983 espionage thriller of the same name.

"He was not only my inspiration, but when we finally met we had such a rapport I thought of him as a kind of father figure," Morrell said. "I only knew him for four years, but we had many conversations in person as well as over the phone."

Right with Rambo

Morrell moved to the United States in 1966 to do graduate work in literature at Pennsylvania State University. He earned a master's and a doctorate in American literature at Penn State, but more important, he met Philip Klass, who taught writing at the university. Klass, who wrote successful and often-satirical science fiction under the pen name of William Tenn, worked one on one with Morrell, teaching him the basics of fiction writing. When Morrell needed an agent to pitch "First Blood" to publishers, Klass introduced him to his. After that, things were never the same.

Morrell got only a $3,500 advance for "First Blood," but the book has never been out of print and a movie studio bought the rights to the novel before it was published. Morrell will get some money out of the Rambo movie that opens on Friday.

"I've done all right with Rambo," Morrell said. "Believe me, I'm happy."

Thriller DNA

Like those characters in "Route 66," Morrell's Rambo wanders the roads of America. Rambo is a Vietnam veteran, former prisoner of war, former Green Beret and recipient of the Medal of Honor. But he has let his hair grow long and is unshaven, factors that figure into his confrontation with local police and the subsequent escalation into terrible violence.

"I knew ('First Blood') would be a thriller, because that is what is in my DNA," Morrell said. "Westerns, action stories were what I always gravitated toward. But Rambo was my attempt, without speechifying, to write about what was happening in America then. The Vietnam War had divided the country."

On TV, he watched reports of soldiers fighting in Vietnam followed by news footage of National Guardsmen patrolling riot-ravaged streets in American cities. He read a story about police in a Southwestern town taking hitchhiking hippies into custody, hosing them down, shaving their heads and beards and then turning them out on a desert road.

Morrell got to thinking about Audie Murphy, one of America's bravest and most decorated soldiers during World War II and a movie actor after the war.

"Let's assume Audie Murphy came back from Vietnam and got picked up by the police and shaved," he said. "My feeling was you would not want to be in Audie's path."

And then came Rambo.

Love and loss

Morrell started teaching English at the University of Iowa in 1970, two years before "First Blood" was published. In 1986, with about 10 books to his credit, he quit teaching to write full time.

The next year, his son Matthew, 15, died of a rare form of bone cancer.

"There is no cure for grief," Morrell said. "Losing a child is permanent. I had panic attacks, three or four times a day, for a year after Matt died."

He did the only thing he could. He wrote about it. The nonfiction "Fireflies: A Father's Tale of Love and Loss" was published in 1988.

And Morrell's 1994 suspense novel "Desperate Measures" is about a successful journalist whose grief for a son who has died wrecks his career and pushes him to the brink of suicide.

"'Desperate Measures' talks about all the grief," Morrell said. "I'm writing popular forms of fiction that are all linked, because I am expressing ideas and attitudes that are important to me at the time. My fiction is my emotional autobiography."

Morrell and his wife, Donna, moved from Iowa to Santa Fe in 1992 and became U.S. citizens in 1993. They have a daughter, Sarie, who lives in Southern California, and two grandchildren.

Among his most recent work is a historical mystery trilogy set in Victorian England and featuring real-life English essayist Thomas De Quincey. Now he is writing a Western.

Saddle up

Morrell thinks this country may be more divided now than it was during the Vietnam War.

"We now see the gravity of divisions mostly caused by the pervasion of social media," he said. "I thought racism had been stamped out, that democracy was safe from attack and that authoritarianism could not happen here."

Now, he thinks differently and found himself feeling unsure about the best way to grapple with the situation in fiction. His solution was to turn to a genre he has loved since childhood.

"It's a Western set in Kansas in 1887," he said. "Can I write a historical Western in a way that people would know I'm really writing about today?

"Yes, I can."

This article is written by Ollie Reed Jr from Albuquerque Journal and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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