Movie man witch-hunt a fantasy

By Bevan Hurley

Claims by one of Hollywood director James Cameron's closest collaborators that he was hounded out of New Zealand by an academic witch-hunt in the 1980s are pure fantasy, say those he has accused.

Charles Pellegrino, scientific adviser on Oscar favourite Avatar, calls himself doctor, but never completed his PhD at Victoria University in Wellington.

On his website, the best-selling author says he left New Zealand in 1982 after his laboratories were destroyed, supervisors ordered him to withdraw his best-selling books, and he was accused of being a "literary slut".

He quotes a wide cast of Kiwis including academics, astronomers and even the Christchurch Wizard, to explain why his PhD was revoked by an "ad-hoc tribunal".

However, none of the people quoted on his website remember saying the words attributed to them.

The Wizard has never even heard of Pellegrino.

"I wouldn't say those things, I'm not the paranoid type. Perhaps he quoted me because he thought we were both being persecuted because we're different."

Retired Victoria University professor Bob Wear, who was Pellegrino's PhD lead supervisor, has a similar opinion.

"I guess Pellegrino is very good at bullshit and he has managed to convince people of his authenticity throughout his life," Wear said.

"He was in my opinion a very intelligent guy who basically didn't get his facts right.

"He played by his own set of rules. I couldn't keep him on track, he used to go off on all these weird tangents. He talked a lot, about anything and everything, and I don't think he was willing to abide by the rules governing the research of a PhD."

A spokesman for Victoria University confirmed it never awarded Pellegrino a PhD.

Vice Chancellor Pat Walsh explained: "He submitted a thesis which, in the unanimous opinion of the examiners, was not of a sufficient standard for a PhD to be awarded.

"Following complaints from Pellegrino, an investigation was carried out by the university.

"In 1986, Pellegrino appealed to Her Majesty the Queen. The case was then considered by the Governor-General who disallowed the appeal."

Pellegrino also refers to lectures he gave at the Carter Observatory in Wellington, but marketing manager Dawn Muir said no record exists of him speaking there. "We would like him to get in touch because we don't have any record of that."

His credentials came under the microscope this week when it emerged his latest non-fiction book, The Last Train to Hiroshima, had been pulled from shops because two of his characters were made up.

A third character, Joseph Fuoco, was said to be a last-minute replacement on an observation plane which accompanied the Enola Gay, the aircraft that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August, 1945.

But surviving members of the crew said Fuoco, who died in 2008, was not on the plane and historians also doubted Pellegrino's account.

Cameron bought the rights to the book and had hoped to make it into another epic blockbuster.

Pellegrino, a twice-divorced New Yorker, has since gone to ground and both his publicist and the book's publisher did not return calls.

The self-styled "forensic archaeologist" acted as a consultant to award-winning director Cameron on the two highest-grossing films of all time, Titanic and Avatar.

Cameron also wrote introductions for Pellegrino's book Ghosts of the Titanic, and The Jesus Family Tomb, which controversially claimed that a tomb discovered in Jerusalem contained the remains of Jesus.

Pellegrino has claimed to have invented the theory that insects' DNA could be used to regenerate dinosaurs, later made famous in Jurassic Park.

Describing his time in New Zealand, Pellegrino compares himself to American civil rights icon Rosa Parkes in the way he was treated.

- Herald on Sunday

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