Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Happy Birthday and RIP Jonathan Harris

Jonathan Harris was one of the stars (if not THE star) of the TV classic LOST IN SPACE. He portrayed the break-out character Dr. Zachary Smith, who is probably the most recognized character from that show. It is ironic, then, that the character of Dr. Smith was not in the original LiS pilot! He was added after the pilot was filmed because the network (CBS) and the producer (Irwin Allen) thought that the Space Family Robinsons needed a weekly "villain" to play against. Because all of the billing contracts were signed, Harris asked and received "special guest-star" billing in the opening credits. And the rest is history!

Jonathan Harris was born on November 6, 1914. He died on November 3, 2002, just days before his 88th birthday.

Mr. Harris was one of those character actors who appeared in all sorts of television programs in the 50s and 60s before LOST IN SPACE. I happen to know without even looking that he was on THE TWILIGHT ZONE, BEWITCHED, ZORRO, and LAND OF THE GIANTS to name just a few. A few years after LiS he also starred on SPACE ACADEMY, a Saturday-morning live-action show I remember fondly. In this series he was the captain/principal mentor to the young cast; he was the good guy!

Dr. Smith was nobody's favorite character. (Mine was Will, of course.) However, because Harris was concerned about getting written out of the series, he tried to make himself the center of attention. Working with directors and writers who agreed or humored him, Harris' Dr. Smith *did* become the focus of the series; so badly, in fact, that to this day I can't bear to watch some of the worst offenders. With an excellent  cast of seven talented actors (and a guy in a robot suit) it's a shame that too many episodes were based on Will-Smith-Robot.

One of his last major voice roles was in A BUGS LIFE.
That being said, my favorite Dr. Smith episode hands-down is "The Time Merchant." In this episode Dr. Smith actually gets his wish: he is returned to Earth. He is returned *before* the Jupiter 2 blasts off, and can now choose to not be stuck on the ship when it leaves. The catch: he finds out that it was his added weight that helped the Jupiter 2 miss the brunt of the terrible meteor shower that got them lost in the first place. He realizes that if he does not *choose* to get on the ship, he will cause the Robinsons to die. Knowing he can not be responsible for the deaths of his friends, he stoically stows-away again. So that show did have its dramatic moments, buried within all the silliness.  

I was so happy to hear his voice in TOY STORY 2

I have a very special Jonathan Harris encounter to talk about. Due to the 1998 big-budget Hollywood release of the film "Lost in Space," the original series was released on videotape all over the world. I was in Japan at the time and was able to find all sorts of Japanese-language material about the original series (which was titled "Space Family Robinson" there, by the way). At the same time I was in a yahoo chat club about LOST IN SPACE. I found out that Jonathan Harris loved hearing from his fans all over the world. I asked another member for his contact information. Then I bought extra copies of some of the Japanese magazines I had about the series and sent them to him with a note and a translation. I remember saying something like, "Thank you for countless hours of television pleasure." Well, a few weeks later I got a letter from California and it was Mr. Jonathan Harris himself writing back to thank me for the kind words and magazine cut-outs. I treasure that letter to this day.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Jonathan Harris!
"Lost in Space Forever (1998)
The closest we ever got to a "real" LiS reunion show
(I think that "prop" is the same time-belt from the episode 
I mentioned above, "The Time Merchant")

1 comment:

  1. I remember reading that it was partially because of the Batman TV show that helped them change Smith's character on LiS. They were competing with Batman, which was a much lighter show than LiS in the first season, too.

    Also, Guy Williams was partially responsible for them returning to the semi-seriousness of the show in the third season. He was threatening to quit the show unless they returned the focus to HIS character, John Robinson. Also, they FINALLY realized they Robinsons were stuck on the same planet for the entire second season! Some Lost In Space, eh? LOL :)

    Now, I'm gonna have to watch MY copies of that third season again! I remembered Smith getting kidnapped by Will and the Robot and getting trapped on the ship by THEM. Heh. I'm probably gettin' REALLY forgetful in my old age! ;)

    Great blog, Russell! :)