In quick succession in the early 1990s, Michael Crichton's novel Disclosure was No 1 on the US bestseller charts; the film Jurassic Park, based on another of his novels and on whose screenplay he worked uncredited, was America's top-grossing film; and the television series ER, which he created, was the best-rated programme on US television. This remarkable hat-trick emphasises the ability that Crichton, who has died aged 66 of cancer, possessed to catch the interests of the mass-market audience with fiction that otherwise might be consigned to genre ghettos.
And catch it he did, selling more than 150m books worldwide, and seeing many of his works made into hit films. This was all the more surprising because his speciality, the "techno-thriller" strand of science fiction, was remarkably dystopian, generally dealing with the unexpected consequences of technology or misunderstood science gone out of control, and could usually be read as warnings about putting too much faith in progress. "He was the greatest at blending science with big technical concepts," said the Jurassic Park director Steven Spielberg, a long-time friend.
Crichton was unusual too in the way in which he moved from writing novels to directing films at a very early stage in his career. His utilitarian writing style, primarily plot-driven, made his books naturals for screen adaptation, but many authors' writing makes the transition, without the authors themselves succeeding in screenwriting, much less directing, feature films.
He also achieved notoriety with his 2004 novel State of Fear, which argued that attribution of global warming to human activity was speculation, not fact. In his novel, a group of scientists are creating natural disasters themselves, and blaming them on global warming. Crichton's book was hailed by President George W Bush, not the best endorsement of its science, and he came under fire for accepting the American Petroleum Geologists journalism award.
Crichton launched his own assault on journalists, pointing out that although readers inevitably find newspaper errors in subjects with which they are familiar, they paradoxically nevertheless believe newspaper accounts of all other subjects.
Tall, handsome and successful, he had his own dystopian side. His notorious social detachment stemmed, he said, from self-consciousness about his height. At his peak, he was earning tens of millions of dollars per year, but he rarely slowed down his pace of work, once claiming to have as many as 30 ideas for books "buzzing around in my brain" at any time. His private life suffered; four of his five marriages ended in divorce; the settlement in his fourth divorce, from the actress Anne Marie Martin, cost him an estimated $100m. "It's like living with a body and Michael is somewhere else," she claimed.
He may have inherited his ferocious drive from his father, a journalist and editor of Advertising Age magazine. Crichton was born in Chicago, but grew up in the Long Island town of Roslyn, a New York suburb. His father was demanding, and in his 1988 memoir Travels he called him "a first-rate son of a bitch".
Crichton began his writing career producing school assignments for his classmates; at Harvard he switched his major from English to anthropology after he fooled a professor he believed was grading him unfairly, by submitting under his own name an essay by George Orwell, to which the professor awarded a low B. He graduated with highest honours in 1964 and, after teaching for a year on a fellowship at Cambridge University, studied at Harvard medical school, Massachusetts, gaining his MD in 1969. He supported himself by writing novels; between 1966 and 1970, he published seven thrillers under the pen-name John Lange, chosen because he stood six foot nine, and Lange means "long" in German. While studying, he could still turn out 10,000 words a day. He was so busy that he needed a different pseudonym - Jeffrey Hudson (a famous English dwarf in the 17th century) - for A Case of Need, a medical thriller which won the Edgar award as best novel from the Mystery Writers of America.
In 1969, under his own name, he published The Andromeda Strain, about a mutating virus from space, which influenced a generation of sf novels and films. Robert Wise directed the hugely successful film adaptation in 1971. It was produced by Universal studios; when Crichton arrived to visit the set, he was given a tour by Spielberg, himself on his first day of work as a young contract director.
More books, and films, followed quickly. Five Patients (1970) was a non-fiction work account of cases at Massachusetts General hospital. Dealing (1970), written with his younger brother Douglas, under the name Michael Douglas, was filmed in 1972, the same year Crichton published Terminal Man, filmed by Mike Hodges in 1974, and his final novel as John Lange, Binary.
By now Crichton was a hot property, and Binary's very commercial combination of technology feeding the zeitgeist of violent protest (a businessman attempts to steal nerve gas and assassinate the president led to his chance to direct the book's TV-movie adaptation. In 1973, he wrote the screenplay for Extreme Close-Up, and directed Westworld, about a robot-populated theme park which goes out of control. It was the first film to make use of computer generated graphics (CGI); Crichton would go on to write manuals for computer programming, and an early computer game, Amazon (1984), which was produced by John Wells, with whom he would work on ER.
He returned to books with two historical novels, The Great Train Robbery (1975), based on the 1855 theft of gold from a London to Folkestone train, and, the following year, Eaters of the Dead, one of his best and most overlooked books. Presented as a lost manuscript written by an Islamic envoy kidnapped by Vikings in 932, it was a retelling of the Beowulf story, which he originally wrote on a bet that he could make that myth relevant to a modern audience. He also published a 1977 monograph on the artist Jasper Johns.
For the next decade he bounced between decreasingly successful films and rather routine novels. He directed a 1978 adaptation of Coma, based on a very Crichtonesque medical thriller by Robin Cook, and the following year adapted his own Great Train Robbery, starring Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland, which won his second Edgar, for best screenplay. But his directorial style was, if anything, more utilitarian than his writing.
His next novel, Congo (1980), was an updating of the classic "lost world" novels by the likes of Conan Doyle, whom he often cited as a major influence, and H Rider Haggard. He directed two more science-fiction films, Looker (1981), and Runaway (1984), neither of which made an impact. His novel Sphere (1987) revisited The Andromeda Strain's theme of an unstoppable alien force visited on earth, and two years later he directed his last film, the Burt Reynolds thriller Physical Evidence (1989).
But it was a repeat of Westworld's concept of a theme-park whose science has gone out of control - the 1990 novel Jurassic Park - that became his hugest success. Crichton had written a screenplay based on life in an emergency ward, which Spielberg had been set to direct, but put it aside when Crichton told him his story of "dinosaurs and DNA". The film became a blockbuster, costing $95m and grossing nearly $1bn. The movie's success also resulted in a newly discovered dinosaur fossil being named Crichtonsaurus Bohlini after him. In 1995, he was also awarded an Oscar, for developing a programme to track schedules and budgets for computerised film-making.
Meanwhile, the discarded script became the TV series ER, which debuted in 1994 and is currently in its 15th, and final, season. It won Crichton an Emmy, and launched George Clooney to stardom.
Crichton's novels seemed to become way-stations between sophisticated "issues" and their blockbuster films. Rising Sun (1992), concerned with the Japanese threat to American business, was filmed by Phil Kaufman, again with Connery. Disclosure (1994) dealt with sexual harrassment; Barry Levinson directed the film, with Michael Douglas and Demi Moore, the same year, and went on to adapt Sphere, with Dustin Hoffman and Sharon Stone, in 1998. In 1995 he updated Conan Doyle's Lost World as a sequel to Jurassic Park, and Spielberg directed the film in 1997. Airframe (1996) was a slick air-crash thriller, whose resolution was more unusual, and complex, than most of his books; as a consequence, it has not been filmed. He and Martin, to whom he was still married, co-wrote the screenplay for the 1996 film Twister, and directed, uncredited, reshoots for The 13th Warrior, John McTiernan's 1999 film of Eaters of the Dead.
Crichton's last four novels were all science fiction. Timeline (1999) was filmed by Richard Donner. Prey (2002) drew heavily on concepts from earlier sf writers, particularly Stanislaw Lem. After New Republic critic Michael Croley panned State of Fear, Crichton's last novel, Next (2006), which deals with genetic research and controlling DNA, featured a child-rapist journalist named Mick Crowley. His harder attitude may have been the result of his narrow avoidance of being hijacked on 9/11, and then being attacked by burglars in his Los Angeles home.
He died in Los Angeles after suffering from cancer for a long time, but very privately. A new novel, originally scheduled for next month, has been postponed. He is survived by his fifth wife, the actor Sherri Alexander, and his daughter by his fourth marriage.