The Prehistory of ”Dino” Don Lessem
30 years after the opening of the blockbuster movie Jurassic Park, we met up with one of the film’s advisors, Media’s own “Dino” Don Lessem, to discuss all things dinosaur.
When Don was 5, his aunt brought him to the Museum of Natural History in New York, where he was introduced to the prehistoric mammals. “T-Rex was love at first sight; at least for me,” he reminisced. But his passion for the giant creatures only lasted for a few years. “By eight, I had moved onto baseball and girls…I still like baseball and girls,” he quipped.
Decades passed and Lessem became a journalist for The Boston Globe. One day, he got sent on an assignment for a story about dinosaurs. “I hadn’t thought about dinosaurs in 25 years. The trip was so fascinating and so exotic,” remembered Don. He came back home with a renewed passion. Lessen explained, “I had a mid-career fellowship at MIT; I could pretty much do what I wanted and still get paid. It was a great luxury. So I decided I was going to go to every dinosaur dig in the world. And the rest is pre-history!”
Lesson’s first book on the subject was aimed at a mature audience. “I wrote a book for grownups on dinosaurs that nobody really read,” joked Don. Then he moved to a different demographic. He added, “I really felt that all the current science that was really exciting wasn’t getting through to kids. There should be more [science] books for children… [That’s when] I realized I should be doing this for kids!”
He has since written 52 books on the subject and hosted Discovery Channel and NOVA documentaries on dinosaurs. Don is also a frequent television and radio commentator on the subject of paleontology and he philanthropically supports expansion in the field.
Years after subsidizing his first excavation, Don interviewed Michael Crighton, who had written a bestselling book called Jurassic Park. Don picked Crighton’s brain about ways to raise money for dinosaur excavation projects. Crighton thought it best to introduce him to Steven Spielberg, who was in the process of making a screen adaptation of the novel.
Besides becoming an advisor to Spielberg for the film, Spielberg ended up assisting Don’s charity. In a win-win situation, Don was given props and other paraphernalia from the movie for an exhibition in exchange for royalties that went back to Universal Studios. They, in turn, donated the proceeds to Lesseen's charity for a tax write-off. His charity went on to raise 3 million dollars and sponsor excavation projects all over the world.
30 years later, things are looking up for prehistory: “This is the golden age of dinosaurs. Right now, there’s one found every week,” Lessem explained with a smile.
“When I was 65, I went to see this dinosaur quarry in China; it’s in Szechuan [and it’s] the best in the world,” he answered. While there, Don went to tour a local factory that created animatronic dinosaurs, and quickly saw its potential for exhibitions.
“That’s how I got into robots. I went to the Bronx Zoo and told them I was going to make better robots. I just lucked out because they were looking for a new source. And then I invited all the different zoos to come to the Bronx Zoo to see them,” described Lessem.
Building a Dinosaur
“It’s almost like building a living thing. You have a skeleton— In this case, it’s an armature, welded together on a platform. Over that, you put motors and hinges so that you can make it move and they have bellows so that they can breathe in and out. [Then, you] carve foam in the shape of dinosaurs [and] cover it over with a stretchy latex material and paint it with silicone paint,” explained Don.
These days, Lessem is working on his latest project with the help of an old acquaintance, who recruited him as an advisor on his latest film. Don is excited to be able to be a part of this story from the beginning. Although Don worked on the set of Jurassic Park, he didn’t have much opportunity to change factually inaccurate content about prehistoric animals, as the storyline had already been put together. Don shared that this latest project will reflect what dinosaurs really looked like, “They had feathers, they were colorful.” And, without revealing too much, he shared that it is written in the style of The Jungle Book. “I love the story,” he beamed.
For now, you can catch Dino Don’s exhibit at the Philadelphia Zoo from now until October 29th.
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Don interviewed Michael Crighton, who had written a bestselling book called Jurassic Park. Don picked Crighton’s brain about ways to raise money for dinosaur excavation projects. Crighton thought it best to introduce him to Steven Spielberg, who was in the process of making a screen adaptation of the novel. Besides becoming an advisor to Spielberg for the film, Spielberg ended up assisting Don’s charity through connecting him with Universal Studios.