Saturday, October 3, 2009

Mr. dinosaur. (paleontologist Don Lessem works on robots for 'Jurassic Park').

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Lessem helped develop the dinosaur models used in the film 'Jurassic Park.' He founded the Dinosaur Society to help educate people about dinosaurs and raise funds for dinosaur research. Director Stephen Spielberg hired Lessem as a consultant.

Full Text :COPYRIGHT 1993 Time, Inc.
DON LESSEM REMEMBERS WALKING into cinematic-model maker Stan Winston's Van Nuys, Calif., studio for the first time last fall. A nearly six-foot-long leatherlike skin for a Velociraptor, one of the nasty, nimble villains of Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park, was hanging on the door. "When I saw it," says Lessem, 41, "I jumped back. It looked like a living creature, with a frightening stare to the eyes."

Jurassic Park, Spielberg's box office smash about saurian anarchy in a dinosaur theme park, is scary. It is also authentic, thanks in part to Don Lessem. The founder of the nonprofit 4,000-member Dinosaur Society, which raises money for research, Lessem is the author of a half dozen books on the prehistoric creatures, including the newly released Dinosaurs Rediscovered. He is also the publisher of Dino Times, a newsletter for children. It was as a dinosaur expert with a child's sense of fun that Lessem -- who pads about his Newton, Mass., house in big green dinosaur slippers -- was asked by Spielberg, also a kid at heart, to join the movie as a consultant.

"Spielberg wanted every fact to be accurate," says Lessem, "things only a scientist or a 5-year-old would care about." Like how long T. rex really was (40 feet), how many teeth it had (up to 50, some the size of bananas) and how it carried its tail (hoisted in the air, not dragging on the ground as some toys suggest).

One scene shot in the Mojave Desert depended on recreating a dig. Lessem told Spielberg how a freshly unearthed dinosaur skeleton would curve into the earth, due to rigor mortis, and what kind of clothes real diggers wear. But that wasn't enough. The moviemaker wanted the shirt off his consultant's back -- literally. "The actors wore Dinosaur Society shirts," says Lessem. "But they also wanted my grunge clothes. Like my Fellman's Ace Hardware T-shirt from Jordan, Montana."

Reared in Scarsdale, N.Y., Lessem fell under the saurian spell at age 5 while visiting Manhattan's American Museum of Natural History with his aunt. He remembers wriggling free of her hand and giving fellow museum-goers an unasked-for earful. "I'd tell them all I knew about T. rex -- and probably invent half of it," he says. "I was intensely interested in dinosaurs until I was 6 or 7. Then I got into [baseball's] Henry Aaron. I didn't think about them again for 30 years."

In 1973, Lessem earned a bachelor's degree in Oriental Art History from Brandeis University. But, he says, "there wasn't much of a future for a color-blind art historian." All was not lost, however: He met his future wife, Paula Hartstein, on a blind date. Admits Paula, 40, a reading specialist: "I wasn't attracted to him at first. I thought he was strange."

After graduation, Lessem worked as a security guard, an office file clerk and a volunteer Chinese-language teacher at a high school for troubled youth. "I was a terrible teacher," he says, "even for free." Returning to school, he got a master's in biobehavioral studies from the University of Massachusetts and in 1978 published his first children's book, Life Is No Yuk for the Yak. He also summoned the courage to ask Paula to marry him. They now have two daughters, Rebecca, 12, and Erica, 9.

In subsequent years, Lessem was responsible for such immortal titles as How to Flatten Your Nose and Death by Roller Disco (for which he coaxed Andy Warhol to pose for photos) and Aerophobics: The Scientific Way to Stop Exercising. In 1988 he was awarded a science writer's fellowship to study paleontology at Harvard. That same year he visited one of paleontologist Jack Horner's digs near Cut Bank, Mont., and rediscovered a childhood passion he had assumed was, well, extinct.

"You're sitting in a teepee in the middle of the Badlands," he says, "and there's no sign of civilization. Everything you're dealing with is from 65 million years ago, preserved intact. And here's this guy, Jack Horner, telling me how he can picture this world that used to be. It was like entering another dimension."

In the past several years, Lessem has created his own dinosaur cottage industry. In addition to the books and Dino Times, he has concocted 16 educational vignettes for Microsoft Dinosaurs, a software program due out this month. The stories feature his alter ego, Dino Don, who sports a big moustache, bushy brows and a decidedly '70s hairstyle.

Lessem, as might be imagined, closely identifies with the Mesozoic monsters -- especially, it seems, with Tyrannosaurus rex. "We have things in common," he admits. "We're both big, we both have huge noses -- and we're both misunderstood."

CAPTION: "We talk about dinosaurs as if they were dim-witted," says Lessem (at New York City's Natural History Museum). "It's not true."

CAPTION: "Spielberg's robots move in such a supple way it's like a choreographed dinosaur ballet," says Lessem of Jurassic Park (in which Joseph Mazello hides from a pair of Velociraptors).

CAPTION: Ensconced in his attic office, the dino man gets a visit from his wife, Paula, and daughters Rebecca, 12, and Erica, 9 (inspecting Lessem's floppy T. rex slippers).

Named Works: Jurassic Park (Motion picture)

Source Citation:Plummer, William. "Mr. dinosaur." People Weekly 40.n1 (July 5, 1993): 69(2). Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 3 Oct. 2009

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