"Dino" Don Lessem: Media's Own Dinosaur Expert
"Dino" Don Lessem has written 50 books and served as an advisor on "Jurassic Park."
On the phone with a Patch reporter headed to his Media home to do a story on his fascination with all things prehistoric, "Dino" Don Lessem gave exacting and, in the age of Google Maps, largely unnecessary directions.
The reporter was to make a right off the main drag, navigate a series of turns leading to Lessem's street, then keep his eyes peeled for a long driveway with poorly advertised house numbers.
"It's a house with red shutters," Lessem explained. "And there's a big dinosaur out front."
Lessem is a dinosaur guy. To risk cataloguing, he's written 50 books on the subject, served as an advisor on the film "Jurassic Park," raised millions of dollars for paleontological digs, reconstructed the largest animal and the two largest carnivores that have ever lived, organized more museum exhibits than you could see in a lifetime of third-grade field trips, befriended Michael Crichton, had a dinosaur named after him, and will, this fall, open a dino exhibit at the Granite Run Mall.
He's also a leading expert on Genghis Khan and the Great Wall of China, a humor writer, and an acquaintance of President Obama's.
We have time to cover some of this. We'll take it from the top.
Lessem—who at 60 has boyish eyes, a mop of dark brown hair, and the sort of mustache that gets soup in it—was, by his own reckoning, a normal kid with a normal interest in dinosaurs that followed a normal trajectory: it waxed and then waned and petered out. But in the late 1980s, when he was in his mid-30s and a reporter for the Boston Globe, he was assigned a story on the science of dinosaurs and it waxed again. The corresponding wane never came.
"It's the whole detective process of this incomplete jigsaw puzzle you're trying to put together with clues that are really hard to read," Lessem said, explaining why he gave up life as he knew it to think about dinosaurs full-time. "And then the dinosaurs themselves are just really fascinating animals."
He threw himself into their world head first, and found a surprisingly soft landing. The study of dinosaurs was, at that point, a relatively nascent field and there were only about 30 researchers actively digging, so Lessem met with each of them and soon became an expert himself. He learned everything he could, then shared it with everyone who would listen.
Despite the not-unreasonable objections of his wife, Lessem—who, thanks to a journalism fellowship with MIT, had ample free time—began writing books on dinosaurs for both adults and children and produced a series of Nova documentaries. He also continued writing for the Globe (now almost exclusively about dinosaurs) and published in The New York Times, Life Magazine, Smithsonian, The Chicago Tribune, and various museum publications.
"Originally my goal in life was to be a translator between scientists and people," Lessem said. "And this was a subject that people were inherently hugely interested in."
It was a definite growth industry, and Lessem's career skyrocketed when he met another of its beneficiaries. In 1990, when Michael Crichton released "Jurassic Park," Lessem arranged to interview the author for the Globe.
Lessem dutifully asked him about the book, but then got down to brass tacks: he had been running a charity that raised money for underfunded dino-digs, and wanted Crichton to help out.
"We're making the money," Lessem said to the uber-wealthy author, he said, "and it's their research that we're using."
Crichton was in. He not only explained to Lessem how to run the charity more effectively—"He was right," Lessem admitted—but made a donation. He also did Lessem another favor: when his book was optioned into a film, he got him a job as its dinosaur advisor.
For Lessem, it seemed this dinosaur thing was working out pretty well. Then he got to the set of the film.
"The first day you're out there it's fascinating, but after that it's totally boring," he said of his time working on one of the highest-grossing movies of all-time.
His advice wasn't always deeply considered, either.
"Pretty much everything I said, they said, 'That's nice, it's nice to know what the facts are, but we're going to do what we're doing anyway,'" Lessem said.
Some of the consequences of these ignored facts: Velociraptors, portrayed in the film as hyper-intelligent and physically imposing, were actually the size of poodles and considerably dumber; Tyrannosaurus Rexes, while unable to see you if you don't move, could still smell and thus, eat you—though on the other hand, they wouldn't have been able to run down cars; and in reality, the little spitting dinosaur that ate Wayne Knight couldn't spit, didn't have a mane, and was about 20-feet long.
"If you made a movie about what dinosaurs were really like," said Lessem, "most of the time they'd just be standing around and farting."
But understanding that this wouldn't make for much of a movie, Lessem forgave the inaccuracies and struck a deal with director Steven Spielberg.
"After the movie was over, I asked for all the sets and props so I could make an exhibit about everything that was wrong [with the the movie]," Lessem said. "Spielberg was very nice about it and said sure, so I took all the stuff and toured it to museums around the world and raised about $3 million for research."
That research includes the discovery of the largest carnivore that ever roamed the planet, an animal a full 10 to 20 percent larger than the Tyrannosaurus Rex: the aptly named Giganotosaurus.
The way Lessem tells it, he was at an annual North American paleontology convention when he saw a young Argentinian scientist wielding a huge leg bone that he knew from its shape had belonged to a predator. Lessem approached the scientist and told him that he'd never seen a carnivore's leg bone that was that big.
"That's because there never has been one this big," said the young paleo.
Dino Don polled the field to get a gauge on what it would cost to put together an expedition to locate, excavate, and reconstruct the rest of what would soon become, at the time, the largest meat-eater ever discovered.
"They said it would cost a lot of money," said Lessem. "Like $6,000."
Needless to say, this was not an unmanageable figure for a man with Lessem's connections. So they put together a team, headed to Patagonia, found a Gigantosaurus, pieced it together, and shipped it to Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences. Piece of cake.
These days, when Lessem isn't putting the finishing touches on one of his exhibits, he's working on a novel about his second-favorite dinosaur, the Troodon. He choose to build his "Watership Down"-style adventure story around the Troodon because of its superlative intelligence: in an age of predators, it got by not with its brawn, but its brain.
"It's kind of cool that the smartest thing alive was a dinosaur," Lessem said. Not just the biggest or nastiest—but the smartest."