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Douglas Noël Adams, author, born March 11 1952; died May 11 2001.
Douglas Adams, who has died of a heart attack aged 49, always claimed he was quite unprepared for the global success of his most famous project, The Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy. "It was like being helicoptered to the top of Mount Everest," he said, "or having an orgasm without the foreplay."
Starting off in 1978 as a radio series, his picaresque account of mild-mannered suburbanite Arthur Dent's travels through space with his friend Ford Prefect - Virgil to Dent's Dante, according to one reading - became an industry, spawning hit television and stage shows, as well as four books that sold more than 14m copies worldwide.
The Guide itself was a repository of all knowledge about life, the universe and everything, and had the legend "Don't Panic" written in huge letters on its cover. The phrase "hitchhiker's guide to..." entered the language, and the only medium it has not been translated into is film.
Yet, after 20 agonising years in the Hollywood system - Adams likened the process to "trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it" - it is one of the many ironies of his early death that the project is now closer than ever to completion. Indeed, one reason that its author moved to California in 1999, after 22 years in Isl- ington, was to be closer to the negotiations.
It is something of a commonplace to say that Hitch Hiker's success became a burden for Adams - and he did struggle against writer's block for the rest of his career - but he nevertheless relished the time and money it provided him with to cultivate his hobbies and obsessions.
He had a huge collection of electric guitars, and would invite rock stars to play at parties in his house; he once performed at Earl's Court with his mates, Pink Floyd. His interest in ecology led him to work to protect endangered species. His love of technology saw him founding a dot.com company that took the idea of the Guide full circle by launching a service offering real information on life, the universe and everything - via your mobile phone. After the dot.com crash last year, the company was taken under the protective wing of the BBC, but Adams still retained his job title of chief fantasist.
Adams was born in Cambridge; he joked that he was DNA - his middle name was Noël - in the city nine months before Francis Crick and James Watson discovered its double-helix structure. Adams's father was a teacher and his mother a nurse. The family soon moved to the fringes of east London and, when Adams was five, his parents divorced.
As a "twitchy and somewhat strange child", his teachers initially thought him educationally subnormal. By the time he went to the direct-grant Brentwood prepara- tory school in Essex, however, he had been identified as extremely bright, and, when his mother remarried, Adams changed from being a day boy to a boarder, a move that suited him. "There is a piece of me that likes to fondly imagine my maverick and rebellious nature," he said. "But, more accurately, I like to have a nice and cosy institution that I can rub up against a little bit."
Adams cited the Beatles and Monty Python as key cultural influences, describing as "epiphanous" the moment when he discovered that being funny could be a way in which intelligent people expressed themselves. He thus went to read English at St John's College, Cambridge, with the intention of being a writer-performer like the Pythons. "I wanted to be John Cleese," he said. "It took me some time to realise that the job was taken."
After that, Adams concentrated on writing, and his career began with Python member Graham Chapman, working on a television series, although it never got beyond the pilot. Adams split with Chapman and took a series of bizarre jobs - such as a chicken-shed cleaner and bodyguard to the ruling family of Qatar - to make ends meet.
Then, one Christmas, he went to visit his mother and stayed for a year in a state of depression. Despite his subsequent success, this lack of confidence continued. "I just don't believe I can do it," he said. "I briefly did therapy, but realised it is like a farmer complaining about the weather."
Even when Hitch Hiker was aired, there was little indication that it would prove a life-changing event, and Adams took a job as a BBC producer to ensure he had a wage. Six months later, he resigned to write the second radio series, the novel, the television series - and some episodes of Dr Who. It was a workload all the more remarkable for someone with a legendary reputation for not writing.
For all his epic procrastination, work did emerge, and it fostered a remarkable sense of community among his readers. Within minutes of his death being announced, his website began to receive the first of thousands of messages from fans across the world.
His editor, Sue Freestone, has said how touched she was by the profound way Adams's work connected with people. For example, to be safe in Hitch Hiker, all one had to do was carry a towel. Freestone heard of a woman dying in a hospice, who felt that she too would be fine if she had her towel with her. It embarrassed Adams, but, for the woman, it was a symbol of safety when embarking on an unknown journey.
By the 1990s, Adams felt "like a mouse in a wheel," and entered a period of what he called "creative crop rotation". Out of this period came the TV programme, book and CD-Rom Last Chance To See, about a trip he made to Madagascar to find a rare type of lemur. "It is still the thing I am most proud of," he said.
In 1999, he moved to Santa Barbara, California. When in London last year to promote his website, he acknowledged being smitten by fatherhood. In a neat illustration of how far he had come, instead of producing a passport photograph of his six-year-old daughter, Polly, he would open up his laptop, and show her starring in a spoof pop video featuring a cameo appearance by his former hero, and now friend, John Cleese.
Adams is survived by his wife, the barrister Jane Belson, whom he married in 1991, and his daughter.
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