Mike Gray, an author, activist and documentarian who co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for “The China Syndrome,” the provocative 1979 film about a cover-up at a nuclear power plant, died Tuesday of heart failure at his Hollywood Hills home, his family said. He was 77.
Gray developed the “China Syndrome” story after reading books and interviewing scientists about the dangers of nuclear power. No one knew how timely the subject would prove. A nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania went into partial meltdown barely three weeks after the opening of the movie, which starred Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas and became a box-office and critical success.
A Newsweek reviewer described the film as “a rare phenomenon — a piece of popular entertainment that immediately foreshadows a major news event and then helps explain it.”
“I meant ‘China Syndrome’ to educate people about what I’d found … that our heavy reliance on nuclear plants hadn’t been clearly thought through,” Gray, who co-wrote the script with T.S. Cook and James Bridges, told the Chicago Tribune in 1998.
Born Oct. 26, 1935, Gray was a native of Darlington, Ind., who earned an engineering degree from Purdue University before moving to Chicago in the early 1960s. He was making TV commercials for major brands like Kentucky Fried Chicken when the Democratic National Convention came to Chicago in 1968. When police began beating protesters in the streets outside the convention hall, Gray took a film crew to record the events.
“When we came back to our studio at 3 a.m.,” Gray, who had been a Goldwater Republican, told the Tribune, “we were different people. We had been changed, transformed.”
He gave up TV commercials and turned to projects that reflected his new political sensibilities. With Howard Alk, a founder of Chicago’s Second City comedy group, he collaborated on documentary films, including “American Revolution II” (1969), about the social and political turmoil of the 1960s, and “The Murder of Fred Hampton” (1971), about the FBI raid in which Chicago Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton was killed.
After moving to Los Angeles in 1973, Gray wrote screenplays and several books, including “Angle of Attack,” about America’s race to the moon, and “Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess and How We Can Get Out,” about the failures of the U.S. war on drugs.
At his death he was working on a documentary about former Black Panther and Houston community organizer Robert E. Lee III.
Gray is survived by his wife, Carol, and a son, Lucas.