LOS ANGELES — After three decades of pitching his screenplays, Allan Folsom had a handful of credits: two episodes of the 1980s series “Hart to Hart,” a nature documentary and a syndicated TV movie.
Then came the kind of blockbuster break that struggling writers dream about. But it was not for a TV show or a movie.
In 1993 Folsom sold a thriller novel, “The Day After Tomorrow,” to a publisher for $2 million — the most ever, at that point, for a first-time novelist.
“I still think $2 million is too much,” he told the Los Angeles Times a few weeks after the deal went through. “But on the other hand, if you amortize it over the 30 years I’ve been working, it isn’t that much.”
Folsom, 72, died Friday in a Santa Barbara hospital. The cause was complications from melanoma, the skin cancer he had been battling for 20 years, said his wife, Karen.
Although Folsom completed four more novels, none made as much of a stir as “The Day After Tomorrow” (no relation to the 2004 disaster movie of the same name). The $2 million winning bid for the book, which involved murder, revenge and a neo-Nazi cult, was just for the North American rights.
Folsom received additional payments from publishers around the world, and the option to make the film went for $750,000, though it was never made. In fact, none of his novels was ever filmed.
“He was very disappointed about that,” Karen Folsom said. “He had such success as a novelist, but he still always harbored this dream of having a movie made. It’s why he got in the car and drove out to L.A., right after he graduated college.”
Allan Folsom was born Dec. 9, 1941, in Orlando, Florida. When he was still a toddler, his parents moved the family to suburban Boston.
Folsom went to Boston University, where he won a screenwriting award in 1963 from the academic Society of Cinematologists. After earning a bachelor’s degree in communications, he found work in L.A. as a delivery driver for producer David Wolper. He also worked as a film editor and cameraman, all while writing and trying to sell his screenplays.
One in particular, based on the tragic life of poet Anne Sexton, looked promising because Natalie Wood was interested in playing the lead role. But in 1981 Wood drowned at age 43 off Catalina Island.
In the late 1980s, Folsom got short stories he had written to literary agent Aaron Priest, who told him there was little commercial interest in that form. “But I told him, ‘If you can write a book that’s as good as these stories, we will be off and running,’” Priest said.
Folsom started writing the novel in 1990 “as a sort of hedge against the crazy film industry,” he told the Times.
Almost three years later the manuscript arrived at the agent’s office. It ran to more than 900 pages, but had a tightly woven plot with a lot of action. “I remember thinking, ‘This is great, but maybe it should be cut somewhere,’” said Priest, who gave the manuscript to an editor on his staff. “She read it and said, ‘There is no place to cut this.’”
A little more than a week after Time Warner, which owned Little Brown and other publishers, received the manuscript, it made the record-shattering bid to cut off competition from other book companies.
When “The Day After Tomorrow” was published in 1994, Los Angeles Times reviewer Robert Ward said he was wary of the book because of the hype over the sale. But he gave the thriller a rave, saying “The suspense is almost always unbearable, the story hugely entertaining.”
Although Folsom was disappointed his subsequent novels didn’t do as well, he kept it in perspective, his wife said. “He thought of what happened with the first novel as manna from heaven,” Karen Folsom said. “I think he was mature enough to realize that it was such a gift.”
Besides his wife, Folsom is survived by a daughter, Riley, a student at New York University; and a sister, Cathy, of Palmdale, Calif.