Bruce Crawford was a preschooler in Nebraska City in 1961 when he saw “The Mysterious Island.”
“I loved the great special effects, and I loved the music. I told myself I’ve got to know these people — find out how they came up with this. I knew somehow, some way, there was a link between us.”
More than five decades later, Crawford has proved himself right. A nationally known film historian, he is a frequently cited expert on the careers of composer Bernard Herrmann and stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, whose work on “The Mysterious Island” so thrilled him back in 1961.
More than that, amazingly, Crawford and Harryhausen became good friends. Crawford was laid low by the news that Harryhausen, 92, had died earlier this month.
“We had so much fun together,” said Crawford, who three times was a houseguest at Harryhausen’s home in the Kensington section of London. “He would jokingly call me his illegitimate son.”
As a young man, Crawford was such a fan of Harryhausen’s groundbreaking stop-motion animation that he began calling him in the late 1970s just to talk about the great man’s work. At that time Harryhausen, a California native, lived in Pacific Palisades.
In September 1982, Crawford visited that home, “and we just hit it off.”
“I met his wife, Diana, and his daughter, Vanessa, and they became like family,” he said.
Harryhausen helped Crawford by providing commentary for a 1988 radio documentary about Herrmann’s film scores. Bruce wrote, produced and co-hosted the 2˝-hour piece with Bob Coate of KIOS-FM in Omaha.
“Once Harry came on board, I could get anybody to talk to me,” Crawford said.
The documentary went global in 1992, and Crawford has been in demand as a classic-film presenter and expert movie spokesman ever since.
Harryhausen was the special guest at Crawford’s first classic-film screening event in Omaha, in September 1992 at the Indian Hills. He flew in from London for screenings of “The Mysterious Island” and “Jason and the Argonauts.”
Crawford has done more than 30 such events since. He credits Harryhausen for giving credibility to the way he plans such events, making it easier for him to bring many movie celebrities to Omaha over the years.
When Crawford mounted a “King Kong” screening in 1998, Harryhausen brought legendary sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury with him to Omaha.
Crawford said he and Harryhausen could talk by the hour about Harryhausen’s work and career. Or they could just hang out and have fun, like when they went on a weeklong dinosaur dig in the mountains near Calgary, Canada, in 1995.
In London, Crawford remembers walking to the grocery with Harryhausen to buy a brook trout, which Diana then prepared, “and was it ever good!” He marveled at Harryhausen’s daily basket of mail, dozens of letters from around the world that arrived every day.
Guests would drop by the London house — luminaries like director Peter Jackson in 2005, shortly after his “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” dominated the Oscars. Bruce got to hobnob with some big names in the world of film, along with his pal Ray.
What made Harryhausen great? Crawford says it was his great sense of drama, a brilliant way of expressing great adventure that would connect not only with the child but the adult.
“He had a way of designing sequences that would stay with you for life, showing you fantastic in a way nobody had ever done before. He was acting through his fingers with stop-motion.”
Great Harryhausen moments on film: the skeleton sword battle in “Jason and the Argonauts,” five minutes of film that took Harryhausen four months to film; the giant crab on “The Mysterious Island” (there were no talented crabs, Ray said, so he had to invent one); the cyclops in “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad,” perhaps the most popular of all Harryhausen’s creatures; Pegasus and the Medusa in “Clash of the Titans.”
When Harryhausen got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in June 2003, Crawford was there. When he got a lifetime achievement award from legendary Pinewood Studios in England in 2005, Crawford was there. (“Diana was under the weather, so he took me to the dinner.”)
At Pinewood, as Harryhausen hobnobbed with several great cinematographers, he grabbed Crawford’s shoulder. “What year did I make ‘Valley of Gwangi,’ Bruce?” he asked. Crawford shot back the answer: 1969. He knew Harryhausen’s career almost better than the man himself.
Just five weeks ago, Ray and Bruce did a joint interview for Internet radio about a new documentary, “Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan,” in which legends like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and James Cameron sing the animator’s praises.
“His voice was strong. He was witty and funny,” Crawford remembered last week. “I am still dealing with the fact that I will never hear his booming baritone voice again.
“He was almost like another dad to me. I’m going to miss him terribly.”