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Frederick S. Clarke; Creator of Magazines on Sci-Fi Movies

November 03, 2000|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He got hooked as a kid when he saw "When Worlds Collide."

He earned a bachelor's degree in physics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But he had already begun his lifework, and it was not in physical science.

Frederick S. Clarke, creator, editor, writer, graphic artist and driving force behind Cinefantastique, a magazine devoted to covering science fiction, fantasy and horror films, has died. He was 51.

Clarke, hero to readers and writers but nemesis to such Hollywood luminaries as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, took his own life Oct. 17 in Chicago. Steven Jay Rubin, a longtime friend, said in announcing the death that Clarke had been depressed.

The influential little magazine, called CFQ by readers, grew from a circulation of 1,000 in 1970 to its current 30,000. Small but mighty, it is something of a little David that, if it hasn't slain motion picture industry Goliaths, has certainly angered them.

"I have pretenses of covering the field better than anyone else," Clarke told The Times in 1986.

Joe Dante, director of such genre films as "Explorers" and "Gremlins," was among many entertainment industry executives who refused to be interviewed for the upstart magazine. But he nevertheless agreed with Clarke's self-appraisal, conceding: "I've probably bought every copy. . . . In terms of what it does, nobody does it better."

Clarke disdained the term "sci-fi" as "a vulgarism" and "fanzine" as too flip for his serious effort. He also eschewed the stuff of regular fan magazines--celebrity gossip--in favor of explaining the "hows" behind science fiction movies: how the special effects were accomplished, how the futuristic gadgets were designed, how the makeup artist created the fiendish face, how the set builder made the miniature, how the money was raised, how the director got along with the help.

"A lot of magazines in our field deal with horror and fantasy, but they do it on a juvenile level," Clarke once told the Chicago Tribune. "We treat the genre the way a serious magazine on the art of film would treat filmmaking. [They] will do something like interview Lou Ferrigno and ask him how it feels to play the Incredible Hulk."

Clarke's attention to science and the technical aspects of the genre caused the Tribune writer to conclude: "All that . . . information--mixed with sophisticated reviews, script analyses and gore--makes Cinefantastique appear to be an intriguing combination of E.C. Monster Comics, Cahiers du Cinema and Popular Mechanics."

It was Cinefantastique that grabbed headlines in 1983 when it announced the plot of "Return of the Jedi," the third Star Wars film, well before even diehard fans began lining up for tickets. That coup, and a few other incidents, prompted Spielberg and Lucas to issue policies forbidding cooperation--in the form of interviews, photos, news releases--with the magazine.

Clarke was similarly banned by Warner Bros. after he published photos of the helicopter accident that killed actor Vic Morrow and two children during filming of "The Twilight Zone" movie.

Known for its eye-catching layouts and glossy color photos, Clarke's magazine began quite humbly during its creator's college years as a newsletter mimeographed in the attic of his mother's home.

Clarke got his physics degree, but decided to work as a laboratory supply salesman so he would have time to devote to his newsletter. But the science education was not wasted, he told The Times, noting: "I took courses in quantum mechanics that were as fantastic as any science fiction I've ever read."

He published the first glossy version of CFQ in the fall of 1970 at a cost of $280. As circulation burgeoned in the mid-1970s, and pictures such as "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Alien" were drawing mainstream audiences, Clarke decided to quit the day job and devote his time to his growing magazine. By 1983, he was able to move the operation out of his home and into an office building in suburban Forest Park, Ill.

In 1992, he started a second film magazine, Femme Fatales.

Rubin said the future of Cinefantastique without Clarke is uncertain, but that at least six issues have already been prepared and will be published on schedule.

Clarke is survived by his wife, Celeste Casey Clarke, four children and two brothers. The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the building fund of Ascension Church, 815 S. East Ave., Oak Park, IL 60304.

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