Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Jonathan Harris [1914-2002]: Dr. Zachary Smith

I have completely immersed myself within the world of Lost In Space. Like anything else, I take on the task with clear abandon [or until I get bored and give up for a brief time]. I have been absorbing all things Lost In Space. So, I bring you all things Dr. Zachary Smith and the man who played him, the late, great Jonathan Harris [1914-2002].

I stumbled across Starlog #248 [March 1998] from my collection. This got me thinking about how much I miss Starlog Magazine. Starlog was a wonderful science fiction publication and one of the rare breeds that genuinely embraced though science fiction investigations on any subject it touched. I do miss it so. There isn't a magazine on the market today that comes close. Starlog, like a number of publications stumbled in sales at the turn of the century and hung on as long as they could before closing their doors. Given it's prestigious history and vast library of publications, it makes it all the more disappointing when considering it is gone. It was a genuine loss to folks like myself. In fact, getting back issues is not exactly easy today since its folding. Not only did they close their doors, but shortly before the finality of that day the company suffered a terrible break when their warehouse suffered a fire and burned thousands of their classic back issues in December 2007.

Starlog #248 featured a piece relevant to one of our topics of late here at Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic called simply Dr. Smith, I Presume. Other articles included segments on Wayne Alexander who played Jack The Ripper/ Sebastian and Lorien and a host of other make-up riddled parts on Babylon 5.

First, I was most intrigued by this article/ interview with Jonathan Harris who played the villainous Dr. Zachary Smith. I have captured a number of the key quotes from the piece that shed light on his beloved character from Lost In Space as well as who he was as an actor. Harris had a pretty fascinating life. So, Dr. Smith, I Presume is officially excerpted from Starlog #248 and the article was written by Ian Spelling. I thought fans of the original show would enjoy the highlights from the piece. Second, I purchased the Biography Channel's bio on Jonathan Harris. I was interested in seeing the documentary entitled Never Fear Smith Is Here. It was delivered to my mailbox in a plain DVD box case. There's no special artwork. It's like a homemade DVD, but his story offered a wonderful journey and I grabbed a few clips capturing Harris' voyage on Lost In Space during Season One, Season Two and Season Three. Here's the scoop on Lost In Space Season One from Harris himself along with Bill Mumy. Enjoy.

On the remake of the series via the 1998 Stephen Hopkins-directed film Lost In Space: "They did offer me an innocuous six-line bit that they laughingly referred to as a cameo, and I told them exactly where to shove it." He adds, "The director, Stephen Hopkins, was a very nice man. He called me from London and we had a very nice chat. He asked me what he could do or say to convince me to be in the movie. I said, 'There is nothing you can do and there is less you can say.' I felt, and I still feel, rather proprietary about Smith. I created him and at the risk of sounding immodest, I feel I own him." He went on to conclude after being offered an extended part, "Yes, yes, yes. You'll extend the part and then it will end up on the floor and I'll end end up with the six-line innocuous bit. Thank you very much and goodbye. The only thing that would have appealed to me, as far as the Lost In Space film was concerned, was playing Dr. Smith." Here is more from Harris and Mumy on Smith, Season One and the transition to Season Two on Lost in Space.

On meeting again with the creator of Lost In Space, the late Irwin Allen, in 1990: "I had lunch with Irwin. He told me he was preparing to do a Lost In Space movie. He thought it was time to do one, and I said I thought it was a bit late myself. He was furious about that. He didn't look well and that worried me. It was the last time I saw him and he died very soon after." Irwin Allen died in 1991. If he had done the film, "He would have...maintained some sort of honesty and accuracy to the original, classic series." Harris makes it fairly clear that the film did not do the series justice. I thought it was pretty evident as well. There really isn't much good to say about Hopkins' film. Harris is loyal to the character of Dr. Smith and the original series. He was indeed a character. I admire Harris for his unflagging, unflinching, unrelenting loyalty to Dr. Smith through the years. Loyalty is one of those qualities I admire.

On his perfect description of the Smith character: "Smith was despicable, desperate, selfish, cowardly, delightful, charming, awful, dreadful and marvelous. All of that I gave him. I was a lovable, comic villain." Yes, he was lovable and loathable. I think that is exactly one of the reasons why we loved Dr. Smith so much. He had all of these great traits rolled up into one like so many of us. It was a bit like looking in the mirror at times. But, despite the comedic nature of Season Two and Season Three's Dr. Smith, detracting from the series for some, many were willing to look passed it and enjoy the character and what Harris had to offer. Here is more on the antics of Lost in Space Season Two and especially Season Three.

On getting the part of Dr. Smith: Harris told his agent, whom he refers to in the article as Mr. Ten Percent, he would not send a snippet of his work to Irwin Allen and that he would be happy to meet him if he was interested. Mr Ten Percent said, "Irwin wants to know who the hell you think you are and he'll see you at 4:00 p.m.." The man, Harris, was indeed a character.

On the fate of Dr. Smith: Harris felt Smith was destined to be written out of the show despite being hired for every episode. The character was just too nasty in his eyes. "I knew that playing Smith as that awful man, that dreadful spy, that they would have to get rid of me. It just wasn't working. It just wasn't palatable. And that's when I started my little tricks." He continued, "My Smith was not on the page. The original Smith was a deep, dark, scowling villain and I hated him. Quite honestly, I thought they might have to kill me off in five episodes because he was just so damn rotten. I didn't like the idea of being unemployed again, which is a dreadful state of affairs." Harris was one of a kind. "I decided to take a chance...the main thing I snuck in was comedic villainy, which I adore." Irwin visited Harris regarding these changes and appearing steamed he told Harris, "I know what you're doing- do more." And there you have it. Harris maintains "Irwin had no loyalty to anything else but the ratings and the crazier I got, the higher the ratings went up. It worked."

Much has been said about the second and third seasons of Lost In Space and the crazy antics of Dr. Smith. Arguments have been made ad nauseum for and against the change in Harris' character. In the end, I would have to place myself in the camp in favor of the more colorful Smith. As much as I enjoyed the darker Smith of the first season, especially now, I'm not sure that character could have endured without change. Harris' version of Dr. Smith spoke to me as a child and to be robbed of Harris' performance back then would have been criminal. My childhood might have been a far emptier place for it. The direction Harris took that character was natural given their surroundings and he hams it up to perfection. I can't imagine not experiencing Lost In Space without having access to the character created by Harris for my child-like wonderment. It just wouldn't have been the same. He hit just the right notes for me then and bounced off the other characters with campy abandon. It was clearly one of the series' highlights. Here is more regarding Harris and his move into Season Three and the end of Lost In Space.

On Irwin Allen, Guy Williams, Mark Goddard and his own popularity: Irwin Allen was not exactly loved by many of the directors who filmed for Lost In Space. Harris recalls directors being at the mercy of Irwin Allen and that he was a "tough cookie." As it turns out, Harris was not exactly beloved at times by cast or crew and it seemed to correlate with Smith's growing popularity. Harris re-wrote much of the dialogue for his character. No one knew his character better than he. "On every series I've done, there was always a degree of tension. You have to understand that Guy Williams, who was charming and lovely and a bright man, was hired to be the father image and star of the piece. And, as you know, he ended up with an occasional line every other week. That's very difficult for an actor to put up with- really, really bad." Harris makes some great television observations as well. "It seems to me that in every series, the audience will pick up on something or somebody they love and must watch every week. So there was tension. Every once in a while, it got a little out of hand, but that was not unusual. Did I partake in that? No sir! I did not have any time for that. Nothing interferes with my work." Mark Goddard claims Lost In Space was an "angry" show. Harris calls that "Bullshit." Mark Goddard's memoir, To Space And Back: A Memoir [2008], will have to be for another day.

On the cancellation of Lost In Space after three seasons 1965-1968: "The real story of why we were cancelled is interesting. We had a fourth year ahead of us at CBS. The ratings were high enough and the fan mail was still coming in from all over the world. But CBS and Fox had a meeting with Irwin and said, 'You're spending too much money for the fourth year. We're going to cut the budget.' He said, 'Over my dead body. No cutting the budget.' Irwin was that way. He loved the set and all the gadgetry and he wanted it in every episode." That makes two of us. I always enjoyed the colorful, vivid sets of Season Two and Three of Lost In Space. So, Irwin refused to cave in to budgetary restraints and according to Harris that is why the show was cancelled.

Harris went on to provide voice work to an animated version of Lost In Space.

So there you go, the fascinating character of Jonathan Harris, a.k.a. Dr. Zachary Smith. He has done a breadth of voiceover work. Did you know he did the voice of Lucifer in the original Battlestar Galactica?

You may have known about that one. How about Jonathan Harris as Manny the Mantis in Pixar's A Bug's Life.

Harris as Manny again.

Harris loved acting. It was his first love and he appeared in series far and wide over his lifetime [The Third Man, The Twilight Zone, Get Smart, Land Of The Giants]. He was best known for his role as Dr. Zachary Smith on Lost In Space. Harris passed away at 88 years of age survived, at the time, by his wife Gertrude, whom he married in 1938, and his son. This is a belated tribute to the special "character man."


crowmagnumman said...

Wow. Seriously awesome blog post. Some of this I knew, but so much of it I'd never even heard before. Jonathan Harris was amazing. I wish I'd gotten to meet him while he was still alive.

SFF said...

Me too. I would have adored meeting the man!

Anyway, I enjoyed the documentary film and the Starlog article and felt it had to be shared especially with the documentary getting harder and harder to find.

Also, for a guy with a very feminine personality, it's funny he was clearly a straight married man.

Thank you again.

crowmagnumman said...

Yes, very true. I think plenty of fans think that Smith was gay, but they're looking at it from a modern perspective. Smith was hilariously feminine, but oddly enough, I don't think he intended the character to be gay. I wonder if anyone ever asked him about that?

SFF said...

I would be curious as well.

Anyway, he was a classic.

SpaceLove65 said...

Thank you so much for this wonderful tribute to Jonathan Harris. It brought back great memories and I will never forget that dastardly, but funny character. Harris did indeed created the character of Dr. Smith. It is sad that the show was cancelled when it could continue for several more years. Wonderful job (as usual). Thank you.

SFF said...

Thank you SpaceLove65. My pleasure. I had a lot of fun putting this one together.

SpaceLove65 said...

Well, thanks for the great videos you posted about Jonathan Harris. I enjoyed them. Where ever Dr. Smith or Jonathan Harris may be...I hope he has plenty of caviar and crepe suzette!

Anonymous said...

Love the blog post.

Dr. Smith is by far my favorite single character from a TV series.

The show itself is dated and I could not easily rewatch. However, the Smith/Robot/Will trio was classic great.

Neal Ekengren

SFF said...

Hi Neal. I know what you mean.
A classic that requires a little patience in this hyperkinetic world of TV and film.