Sunday, March 6, 2011

To Space And Back

Biographies are endlessly fascinating to me.

"I took a deep breath, took a second look at the image of a wrapped aluminum baked potato, and said to myself, "How the hell did this happen?" -Mark Goddard [looking at himself in the mirror and coming to terms with landing the role of Major Don West for the Lost In Space Pilot]-

Reading autobiographies on the stars we grew up with is always intriguing to me. They never fail to entertain, enlighten and provide us with another side to the people we loved to watch.

So many of these memoirs or biographies rarely focus on the events that made a given star's career. The things that made them famous are often a footnote. At the very least the things for which they are remembered are little more than a chapter in a much larger book painting a much bigger, more comprehensive, more colorful, more three-dimensional and human portrait of the person in question.

Many fans find the lack of coverage on that portion of a star's career, the stuff that made them a star to begin with, a real annoyance. Many would prefer a strict focus on those said events and what happened behind the scenes. I don't disagree that those things aren't equally important or interesting from a fan's perspective, but I enjoy the nooks and crannies of an actor's life and discovering what shaped them. Often it shines the light on human frailties, insecurities, the real life pains and joys of a human being that often ultimately resembles our own lives. It does put things very much in perspective. Perhaps, it pulls them off that pedestal for some and that's the last thing we want.

Either way, a good read is a good read. My grandmother always said, "It doesn't matter what you read, just read something, read anything, at least you're reading."

Well, it's science fiction reference books and biographies that often illuminate and stimulate the old brain waves for this particular fan. A simple book like To Space And Back: A Memoir By Mark Goddard normally engages me and pulls me into the actor's world. In this case, Mark Goddard, formerly Major Don West of Lost In Space, recounts his life in a fleeting, if not entirely thorough and sometimes disappointing examination of his life. At just 106 pages the book is shorter than Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince and of course a literary classic or treatise it's not. Still, it's surely as entertaining.

Reading To Space And Back gives you pause regarding the people you grew up idolizing, because Goddard was clearly a regular kid, a regular young man, a regular college guy growing up complete with all of the hang-ups and confidence issues from which we all suffer. I could surely relate to some of the things that transpired in his life. The writing does have it moments, but can sometimes seem jarring. He moves so quickly his thoughts aren't always fully formed or articulated and thus sometimes I found myself still wondering what happened to him on a particular trial or tribulation. Still, this is a memoir and much less a real, true, researched, fully documented autobiography. There is a distinction.

Goddard spends roughly six pages on recollections of Lost In Space. Fans won't be pleased. Little new or even interesting information is discussed. At the close of his look back at the Lost In Space years Goddard writes, "Maybe Lost In Space wasn't all that I expected for my acting career, but still those years were filled with incredible highs as well as lows. From 1965 to 1968 an awful lot happened in my life. Those three years were crammed with elegant parties, friendships, golf, tennis, motorcycle riding, horse racing and best of all, Melissa's birth." That about sums it up. Unfortunately, after such few pages, we are given very little in the way of examples to bear this out. It feels like a missed opportunity. Outside of the Lost In Space memories, the book takes a more interesting if incomplete turn elsewhere. We're still left with biographical information like the fact his second son was his boy "except biologically," but never indicates anything beyond that point. There a tendency for loose ends as he writes his memoir, but again it's good to see he's released something special about his life.

Ultimately, if you were ever a fan of the series Lost In Space or Mark Goddard, this book is worth a check. It offers some good insights into the man and the events throughout his life [in brief]. It's clearly Goddard's style. He's not looking to be precious or pretentious in any way. In a way the book offers the published snapshot and equivalent of the kind of regular fellow Goddard was and still is and it doesn't pretend to be anything more. It fails to offer the detail of a book like From Sawdust To Stardust, a biography of Star Trek's DeForest Kelley, and sometimes To Space And Back suffers for its brevity, but Goddard isn't interested in getting into the same level of intense coverage for his memoir that a fan or biographer might be willing to take a subject. Ironically, both Kelley and Goddard spent a bit of time in Western roles. That's certainly not too surprising given the popularity of the genre in the 1950s and 1960s. But honestly, Goddard comes off pretty down to Earth actually and he's giving his take on it all straight up.

For a small book it does a fitting job of painting a real picture of a seemingly decent man making his way in the world from the humble streets of Massachusetts. For some Goddard's approach may be a bit too cursory and succinct amidst all of the name-dropping, but these are his memories. Did you know he was good friends with the late Aaron Spelling? Peter Fonda? The almost rapid fire succession of his life can seem just a little too quick and dirty. Placing events of his life in their proper context to maintain the affecting emotional trials of his opening words can seem a little rushed, because the memoir really has its moments.

Take this touching excerpt that really moved me with Goddard's honesty and sincerity.

"I was born Charles Harvey Goddard at St. John's Hospital in Lowell, Massachusetts on my parents tenth wedding anniversary. I was raised in Scituate, a picturesque harbor town in Massachusetts. The traditional gift for celebrating the tenth anniversary year is tin. My dad used to say I was a 'diamond in the rough.' But I turned out to be closer to the tin man from the Wizard Of Oz. Like him, I wasn't complete. This has bothered me for most of my life. My imperfections kept cropping up at crucial times. Everything was almost. I was almost a good student. I was almost a good athlete. I was almost a good husband. I was almost a good father. I was almost a good actor. I was almost a good Catholic. Almost led to quitting. Quitting led to goodbyes."

Goddard added self-critically, "I quit on myself. Where did almost come from? Where did quitting come from? I'm not sure, but they were with me for most of my life."

Offering one example of his frustration Goddard recalls his desire to compete and be the best when he entered his teens. Like any of us all of the good memories are often overshadowed by those painful, significant, singular moments that we never shake. Goddard had them too. He recalls the pressure he placed on himself at one swim meet when he went up against a fellow swimmer that gave him the feeling he was going to lose that given day based on the look in his competitor's face and build. It got the best of him. It speaks to the almosts of his entire life.

"I knew I was going to be beaten. I wanted to quit right there, but the pistol wouldn't wait for me to quit, and the shot rang out." All of the pressure of that day got into Goddard's head and he flailed about in the pool "slapping" the water rather than swimming. The whole thing fell apart and all he could remember was his father pulling him up out of the pool. "What the hell happened?" Goddard recalls, "I was in shock. I didn't have an answer. I felt terrible. I had left my former-self drowing in that pool."

The next few weeks Goddard prayed for rain each Sunday until he remembers the prayers of Boston Red Sox fans getting their sunny Sunday. Running away worked for only so long, but then faced with another event Goddard ran away again. "I crossed the street and kept walking. I arrived at an overgrown field and shuffled through it. I layed down and stared at the cloudless sky. Time passed when finally, I heard a shot. I counted all the shots until I heard the shot that started my race. I felt relieved at first, and then shame blotted the clear sky above me. I was a coward, and cowards quit. I had swum my last race." The heart just breaks for the young Mark Goddard, because damn if we haven't all been there with failure riding our backs like a monkey you just can't shake, while it seemingly grows heavier and heavier with each passing step. You are not alone out there.

You certainly get the idea where Goddard was emotionally and he infuses his book with a balance of joys and just as many disappointments as he traverses the points of his life's timeline with great speed. To Space And Back certainly doesn't rank among the best bios, not even close, but it does offer insight into the regular guy we grew to love as Major Don West. Futility is certainly a fuel that informs this book throughout his personal journey. He's an actor and a family man with an interesting life worth supporting.

Again, the book is a mere 106 pages and 15 of those pages are photos. Is there any reason I shouldn't have read this book in bed before falling to sleep? Well, speaking of almosts - have you ever read a book from cover to cover in one sitting? Damn if I have. I love reading, but I simply don't have it in me nor the time to plough through a read that quickly no matter how great the material is. I know so many people who can read from beginning to end in a shot, but unfortunately I'm not among them. Are you capable of pulling it off? With To Space And Back I almost did, but sleep happens. I'll keep trying. Tomorrow's another day.


le0pard13 said...

Fine look at this, and autobiographies in general, SFF. I'd forgotten about the DeForest Kelley one! Thanks.

John Kenneth Muir said...


Thanks for a good, solid look at this book. It sounds a bit disappointing. I know we'd all like to read what it was like, from someone who was there, to make Lost in Space. How did he feel about the stories? About the introduction of Smith and the robot? About the shift in stortyelling approach (along to color) in the second season?

It seems like that's the kind of stuff most fans would want to read about. Or rather, that's why I would want to read this book.

That said, his observations about his own life sound fascinating, humble and abundantly honest. Very interesting...

Thanks for a great review,

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Thanks Leopard13!

John. I agree. You hit it on the end with your potential interview question samples.

I think it would be nice to see a biography from someone like Angela Cartwright or Goddard or Mumy. Someone, on those precious years together.

Document it, while people are stil healthy and it can still be documented. It would see a good idea.

I fully appreciate that Goddard has moved on. I respect that and he seems really happy with his life and where he is at based on the memoir.

I'm thrilled for him as a person.

But yes, it was a little mixed for me. Short but offers some nice insights.

Thanks so much to you both as always.