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Mike Gray, filmmaker, screenwriter for ‘China Syndrome’

Just weeks after “The China Syndrome” was released in 1979, the nuclear plant at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania had a partial meltdown. To many Americans, the film, starring Jack Lemmon and Jane Fonda, then seemed prescient.

Columbia Pictures

Just weeks after “The China Syndrome” was released in 1979, the nuclear plant at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania had a partial meltdown. To many Americans, the film, starring Jack Lemmon and Jane Fonda, then seemed prescient.

NEW YORK — Mike Gray, a writer and filmmaker who tackled thorny contemporary issues in his work, including race relations in Chicago, US drug policy and, most notably, the safety of nuclear power plants — the subject of the 1979 film ‘‘The China Syndrome,’’ for which he wrote the original screenplay — died Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 77.

The cause was heart failure, said his wife, Carol.

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Mr. Gray brought an activist’s passion to projects in a variety of formats. He produced a pair of documentaries — ‘‘The Murder of Fred Hampton’’ and, with Chuck Olin, ‘‘American Revolution 2’’ — that examined race, politics, and civil turbulence in Chicago in the 1960s. His magazine journalism included articles for Rolling Stone about a heroin overdose epidemic in Plano, Texas, and for GQ about voter fraud.

He wrote several books, including ‘‘Angle of Attack,’’ which detailed the failings of NASA during the Apollo space program; ‘‘Drug Crazy,’’ about the history of US drug policy, which he characterized as folly from beginning to end; and ‘‘The Death Game,’’ about capital punishment.

Mr. Gray brought an activist’s passion to his film and book projects.

Mr. Gray brought an activist’s passion to his film and book projects.

‘’The China Syndrome,’’ which starred Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda, and Michael Douglas, who was also the producer, was a fictional story about a near disaster at a nuclear power plant and the power company’s attempt to cover it up.

It was well researched — Mr. Gray did his homework on the potential dangers of nuclear power — but it was also denounced as alarmist by supporters of nuclear power.

Then, just weeks after the film was released, the nuclear plant at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania had a partial meltdown, allowing a small amount of radioactivity to escape into the atmosphere. To many Americans, the film then seemed prescient.

Mr. Gray’s screenplay was changed somewhat — Fonda’s character, a television news reporter, had been in his version a male documentary filmmaker — and two co-writers are credited, T.S. Cook and the director, James Bridges.

Mr. Gray said he had written the script with the idea that in the rush to embrace nuclear power, the potential consequences had not been thought through. He acknowledged, however (to his family, at least), that he was a novice at screenwriting.

‘‘Before he started, he typed out the whole screenplay of ‘The African Queen’ to teach himself the format,’’ his wife said. ‘‘And he wrote the whole thing standing up, because he read somewhere that that’s how Hemingway wrote.’’

Harold Michael Gray was born in Racine, Wis., on Oct. 26, 1935. His father was a traveling salesman, and the family moved to Darlington, Ind., where young Mike grew up. He graduated from Purdue, where he studied aeronautical engineering, and afterward worked in New York as an editor for Aviation Age.

By the mid-1960s he had moved to Chicago and formed a film company with a partner, making television commercials and documentaries. It was filming the violence during the Democratic National Convention in 1968 that changed the course of his life. Before that, he said, he had defined himself as a Goldwater Republican; afterward he was angry at the status quo.

‘‘He was a small-town Indiana boy,’’ said his wife, the former Carol Hirsch. ‘‘He was really transformed. He was motivated by injustice. That’s how he described himself.’’

Mr. Gray wrote a science fiction film, ‘‘Wavelength,’’ which was released in 1983, and produced and wrote episodes of ‘‘Starman,’’ a short-lived science fiction series, in the mid-1980s. He later produced episodes of ‘‘Star Trek: The Next Generation.’’

In 1982, in the wake of the Three Mile Island accident, Mr. Gray and Ira Rosen recapitulated the event in a book, ‘‘The Warning.’’ After his book ‘‘Drug Crazy’’ was published in 1998, Mr. Gray became an activist on behalf of drug-policy reform, appearing at conferences and serving as the chairman of Common Sense for Drug Policy, an advocacy group.

Mr. Gray’s first marriage ended in divorce. So did his second, to Carol Gray, whom he married in 1968, divorced in 1986, and married again in 1996. He also leaves a son, Lucas, and a brother, Dudley.

“He used to say, ‘We got a divorce but it didn’t work out,’ ’’ his wife said.

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