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The Death of a Life That Mattered

Michael Blake died last week.

You probably don’t know the name.

You probably don’t know about his life.

You probably don’t know most of what he wrote. That’s probably because he didn’t write diet and exercise books. Or cookbooks. Or “feel good” books. Or books about celebrities. Or books that advanced junk science or conspiracy theories.

Michael Blake fused history and social issues, writing about social justice. Writing books that mattered. Writing screenplays that were never produced and then discarded.

He was born in Fort Bragg, N.C.; his father was in the Army, and later became a telephone executive. But it was his mother, Sally, who dominated his life. It was her last name, “Blake,” that he adopted as his own, pushing aside his father’s name, “Webb.”

Michael Blake studied journalism at the University of New Mexico, dropping out in his senior year; he would later study film at the Berkeley Film Institute.

His semi-autobiographical novel, Airman Mortensen, talked about life in the Air Force. His autobiography, Like a Running Dog, revealed his life in the 1970s, sometimes homeless and hungry, living in cars, living on friends’ and acquaintances’ sofas, hanging out with musicians, writers, actors, and others in the creative arts, working at odd jobs, sometimes selling features and investigative stories to the alternative press, which were publishing stories of importance in the 1960s, stories the mainstream media would never touch. Eventually, he would be hired full-time at the L.A. Free Press, one of the most important alternative newspapers of the era. Even with a steady paycheck, albeit it not a large one, he usually ate only one meal a day, often a sandwich from a Jewish deli near the newspaper’s office.

His screenplay, Stacy’s Knights, written while he was in his late ’30s, starred his friend, a little-known actor, Kevin Costner. It gave both of them temporary financial security.

Blake would continue to write about social issues, many of the stories and books not bringing in significant income. But he wrote and spoke out about issues that mattered—the slaughter of wild horses and burros, the problems that developed from racial conflict, the lack of social justice. He was honored with the Environmental Media award, the Animal Protection Institute’s humanitarian of the year honor, the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for work with minorities and the ministry.

On the day he died, two men shared $300 million by appearing at a Las Vegas casino and tried to beat the life out of each other. Michael Blake, in his lifetime, never earned what the loser earned in that fight. The royalties from all of his writings never even equaled the salary for one year for a major league pitcher or a celebrity with a paid entourage.

With one exception, his writing brought him a modest lifestyle.

That one exception began as a screenplay, but Kevin Costner wanted him to rewrite it as a novel, believing that a book would have more danceswolvesimpact. About three dozen publishers rejected it, most of them concerned more about marketability and profits than editorial quality and social issues, before Fawcett published it but gave it little promotion. The novel, published only in paperback, sold a few thousand copies.

An so, Blake took the basis of the novel, and rewrote the original screenplay—but studios didn’t want to take a chance on the project. Costner, fresh from a starring roles in Bull Durham and Field of Dreams, along with his friends producer Jim Wilson and Blake, produced the film themselves, staying true to the writer’s intent, something rare in the film industry.

Dances With Wolves, starring Kevin Costner, is the story of race hatred and the attempts to destroy a culture that had existed thousands of years before the pilgrims came to the place that became known as the United States of America. The film earned seven Oscars, including Best Film; one of those Oscars went to Michael Blake for best screen adaptation.

It was only after the film became a mega-hit, eventually earning more than $400 million, more than 20 times the production costs, did the book become popular. That book, now published in two dozen languages and in hardcover, has sold about 3.5 million copies since 1988. It helped give Michael Blake financial stability; it helped assure that he could write what he wanted, now from Tucson where he bought a ranch and devoted much of the last quarter-century of his life to the environment, to protecting animals, to fighting for social justice.

It was in Tucson where he and his wife, Marianne Mortensen, an artist who, like her husband, became an advocate for the preservation of wild horses and burros, settled. It was in Tucson where they raised three children—each with a Native American first name and a middle name in honor of Marianne’s Danish heritage.

In those last decades of his life, his health deteriorated. He had multiple sclerosis. He needed a heart bypass. Cancer spread through his body. Once robust, he was now gaunt. But, he would summon what strength he had left to write and to travel the country, speaking out about issues that mattered. He died as he had lived much of his life—without much money and with a conscience to bring truth and justice to the people and animals whose own voices weren’t heard by those who should have been there to help them.

Michael Blake and I were born in the same year and shared some of the same experiences in the ’60s and ’70s in southern California. He was my friend and an inspiration of what it means to be a writer, to use words and imagery to try to help people better understand their lives and their cultures.

You may know only his one now-famous work. You need to read the rest.

Walter Brasch’s latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania.

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Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an analysis of the history, economics, and politics of fracking, as well as its environmental and health effects.

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