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The Many Hats of Roald Dahl

Getty Images / Hulton Archive / Tony Evans

The Many Hats of Roald Dahl

 Author, ace fighter pilot, and inventor Roald Dahl died 20 years ago today. Here are 20 facts about his life and work.

1. Roald Dahl was born in Norway and named for explorer Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian national hero and the first person to reach both the North and South poles.

2. Dahl was not considered an exceptionally bright or disciplined student. He was caned by headmasters for playing pranks, and one of his English teachers wrote on his report card, “I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended.”

3. He did excel at sports however, and played both squash and soccer.

4. As a child, his favorite authors included Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Frederick Marryat and William Thackeray.

5. After he finished school, Dahl worked for Shell Petroleum and was stationed in Tanzania for five years.

6. During World War II, Roald Dahl served as a pilot in the Royal Air Force, and survived enough combat missions to earn the status of flying ace. In 1940, he was forced to crash land in a Libyan desert, where he broke his nose, fractured his skull and was left temporarily blind. The incident would form the basis for his first published work, a short story originally titled “A Piece of Cake” and published in the Saturday Evening Post.

7. Owing to severe headaches that afflicted him after the crash, in 1942 Dahl was removed from flying duties and transferred to Washington D.C. There, Dahl acted as an espionage agent, supplying information to the MI6. During the course of his work, he came into contact with fellow agents Ian Fleming (author of the James Bond novels) and advertising giant David Ogilvy. He also gained a reputation as a womanizer.

8. He began writing children’s fiction at around this same time. His first children’s book, The Gremlins (1943), was based on his wartime experience – whenever inexplicable mechanical problems occurred on the fighter planes, pilots would blame “the gremlins.” Walt Disney developed the project for a feature film with Dahl scripting, but the project never made it to the screen. The book sold a respectable 30,000 copies but saw no second print run until 1950 due to the wartime shortage of paper.

9. Today, a first edition copy of The Gremlins can fetch up to $10,000.

10. His next fictional work, Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying (1946), was written for adults, but featured few of the characteristics for which his later adult stories would be renowned.

11. His non-fiction debut came the next year with The Mildenhall Treasure, a story about the discovery of a 4th-century Roman silver hoard by a plowman in a field outside Suffolk, England.

12. Many of Dahl’s short stories were adapted for television. Alfred Hitchcock Presents aired six episodes based on his works between 1958 and 1961, among them the memorable “Lambs to the Slaughter “ and “Man From the South,” the latter starring Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre. It was done again in the 1985 reboot of Alfred Hitchcock, this time starring Melanie Griffith and John Huston, and once more by Quentin Tarantino for his segment of the film anthology Four Rooms (1995).

13. In 1961, Roald Dahl was host of TV's Way Out, a Twilight Zone-esque anthology series that ran one season on CBS as an emergency replacement for the short-lived Jackie Gleason Show. Though Dahl, like Rod Serling, introduced each episode, only three were written by him.

14. Dahl later hosted another anthology show called Tales of the Unexpected that aired in England from 1979-1988. The show first featured only Dahl stories, but ran out after a time and featured work from other writers.

15. In 1960, Dahl’s 4-month-old son Theo was struck by a taxicab in New York and his injuries resulted in hydrocephalus. Dahl teamed up with a hydraulic engineer and a neurosurgeon to invent the Wade-Dahl-Till valve, a shunt used to drain fluid and alleviate pressure on the brain. Thousands of children benefitted from the device, but its inventors agreed never to market it commercially or otherwise profit from it.

16. Two years later, his daughter Olivia died of measles at the age of 7. Dahl subsequently became an advocate of immunization and dedicated his 1982 book The BFG to her memory.

17. Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal, Roald Dahl’s first wife, suffered a debilitating stroke while pregnant with their fifth child. She was left partially blinded, with a speech impediment and unable to walk. Dahl aided in designing her rehabilitation program and she was eventually able to return to acting. The type of rehabilitation regime she underwent is now a common therapy among stroke victims. Dahl and Neal divorced in 1983 after Dahl admitted to having an affair with one of her good friends.

18. During the 1960s, Dahl briefly worked as a screenwriter, penning adaptations of Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Though both films were made, Dahl’s scripts were rewritten by others. He also was hired to adapt his own Charlie and The Chocolate Factory (1964), but was again rewritten. He disliked the resulting movie, feeling that it placed too much emphasis on Willy Wonka at the expense of Charlie.

19. The latest Roald Dahl adaptation to hit the big screen was 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. Many of the sets in the film were inspired by Roald Dahl’s Gipsy House and the surrounding environment of Great Missenden, England. Director Wes Anderson began work on the script while staying at Gipsy House and considers Roald Dahl one of his heroes.

20. Roald Dahl died of leukemia on November 23, 1990. He was 74 years old.