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Common Tread

How Honda's money paid for the original screen rights to Blade Runner

Oct 18, 2017

Hampton Fancher was a successful TV actor in the 1960s. Even by the standards of the “Swinging Sixties,” he was quite a ladies’ man — but he was nothing compared to his regular wingman, Brian Kelly, a handsome former Marine who starred in the hit TV show "Flipper."

Period accounts of Fancher’s exploits (many told in the first person in the documentary "Escapes") describe a guy who was pretty much the epitome of a Hollywood douchebag. The one time he came down to earth was in 1970. The story, as Fancher tells it in "Escapes," is that he loaned Kelly his motorcycle and his friend wrecked.

That was Thanksgiving Day, 1970.

Brian Kelly
Brian Kelly starred in the TV show "Flipper" alongside a rotating cast of bottlenose dolphins. Creative Commons license.
Kelly, 39, was the star in a new movie, "The Love Machine," which had just begun filming. His passenger was 21-year-old Terrie Tannberg. Los Angeles had experienced an unseasonably wet fall, and Benedict Canyon Road, off Mulholland Drive in Beverly Hills, was wet.

Police reports said that Kelly hit an embankment on a part of Benedict Canyon characterized by fast, sweeping bends. The actor was in a coma for several days; luckily, Tannberg escaped with road rash.

Kelly endured a long and at best incomplete recovery. He suffered permanent brain damage that left his right side paralyzed. His coma notwithstanding, he claimed to remember the crash, saying that the Honda had “locked in gear,” causing him to lose control on the wet road.

Los Angeles Times article
Los Angeles Times report on Brian Kelly's motorcycle crash.

Fancher was wracked with guilt. Meanwhile, Kelly filed a $25 million lawsuit against American Honda and the dealer who sold the bike, Menlo Cyclery. That was one of American Honda’s first dealers, up in Redwood City. Period newspaper reports describe the bike as Kelly’s, although Fancher has long maintained that it was his bike, and that he loaned it to Kelly.

At that time, Fancher wanted to transition into screenwriting. He had tried to convince science fiction author Philip K. Dick to option the novella, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ but Dick refused. Fancher came away from those meetings convinced the sci-fi author was more than just eccentric. “I think he was clinically paranoid,” he told WBGO’s Jon Kalish.

Kelly’s "locked in gear" story doesn’t ring particularly true, but American Honda settled his suit for $250,000. That wasn’t chump change in 1971; it would be the equivalent of about $1.5 million today. Honda’s lawyers likely warned the company that settling would be easier than fighting a case against a litigant who was both popular and politically connected. Kelly’s father had been the governor of Michigan and was then a justice on the Michigan Supreme Court!

Kelly used Honda’s nest egg to to transition into roles as a real estate developer and movie producer. When he asked Fancher for leads on potential film projects. Fancher gave him Dick’s phone number.

“I didn’t think anything would come of it,” Fancher told Kalish, “but a week later he came back and said, ‘I got it’.” Maybe something about Kelly’s gimped arm and leg convinced Dick that he was not just another Hollywood cigar-chomper. Dick's option fee was $2,000.

Blade Runner poster
If not for the motorcycle accident, Kelly — who was a real rising star in Hollywood — might never have become a producer and Fancher would never have put Kelly in touch with Dick (who until that point had rebuffed many producers’ enquiries about “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”).

Fancher wrote the initial drafts of "Blade Runner" for Kelly, who then brought in Ridley Scott as director. Scott is said to have read an early draft of the screenplay and asked, "What's outside the window?"

"I don't know," replied Fancher.

"Give it some thought," said Scott.

As a result of that conversation, Fancher sketched out the famously dystopian Los Angeles landscape that made "Blade Runner" so ineffably cool. But, Scott and Fancher clashed. Scott brought in another screenwriter, David Peoples, and for a while Fancher had his name taken off as screenwriter (although both Fancher and Brian Kelly had producer credits).

Kelly died in 2005 at the age of 73. Scott and Fancher finally patched up their relationship and worked together again on “Blade Runner 2049”. When the sequel opened, Scott and Fancher were both 79.

I doubt anyone at the Torrance headquarters realizes it, but if Kelly hadn’t crashed that Honda — and without American Honda Motor Co.’s money — "Blade Runner" and its long-awaited sequel would never have been made.