Irwin Allen was one of the most creative forces in television back in the 1960's with a body of work that was as entertaining as it was surprising. He was a graduate of New York's Colombia School of Journalism, an editor of a magazine and the owner of an advertising agency before turning his hand to film and television production.
Born in 1916 in New York, Irwin Allen, whose award winning work spanned five decades, quickly established himself as "The Master of Disaster", and sometimes referred to as "The Hitchcock of Holocausts", thanks to classic films of the genre such as the The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). He preyed on our dormant fears and played with them like a conjuror making us dread high rise buildings, sea fairing vessels or natural phenomenons to such a degree that you could be forgiven for embracing agoraphobia as a life saving alternative.
Irwin Allen on the set of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
But it was on television that his particular brand of inventiveness and magic influenced a generation. It's a dizzying list of hit after hit that has since become cult viewing in the way that early episodes of Doctor Who have been embraced . Lost in Space (1965-1968), Land of the Giants (1968-1970), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968) and Time Tunnel (1966-1967) are the cream of the crop from this extraordinary visionary.
Allen gave the public a mix of fantasy on a scale never before imagined. He took ideas and rejigged the format, making his mark by stamping a new and exciting spin on each which made the viewing public clamor for more . You could be forgiven for referring to him as "The Berry Gordy (Motown founder ) of Television", he certainly had a production line that served the public's insatiable hunger. Gordy providing the soul music whilst Allen supplied all things science fiction. He introduced cliffhangers into a number of shows that guaranteed you'd be glued to the armchair for the next episode, illustrating that he understood that once you embraced the franchise of a particular show it wasn't going to be easy to get away from it in a hurry.
Lost in Space was, on paper at least, a very ordinary concept and not desperately original, but Allen took the castaway concept of The Swiss Family Robinson and jettisoned them into space with a self serving saboteur in the form of Doctor Zachary Smith, played beautifully by the wonderful and charismatic Jonathan Harris). Harris was referred to as a 'Special Guest' but later was undoubtedly the star of this space yarn by way of his devious, manipulative methods and conniving actions. Initially Harris was bored by the character but Allen encouraged him to ad-lib and change dialogue to suit the portrayal, this was much to the frustration of the writers and other actors but he saw the potential of the lovable rogue.
Allen really hit the big time with The Towering Inferno, which had a top drawer cast including Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and Faye Dunaway. It became the highest grossing film of 1974 and was nominated for 8 Oscars including Best Picture. The disaster genre dominated cinemas for a spell but disappeared as quickly as it had arrived, the astute public tired quickly of the same rehashed concept, but if you want to look back and check one out then 'Inferno' is probably still the best of the bunch.
It's difficult to understand some of the contradictions that are mentioned when researching Irwin Allen. It is said he stormed out of a meeting concerning Lost in Space when it was suggested that it's budget was being cut by 15%, thus reducing the shows quality, yet Allen seems to have been used to cost cutting prior to this. Once when he was told how much it would cost to build a new spaceship for the latest alien creation, Allen barked "Let him walk", and Billy Mummy (who played young Will Robinson) recalled that alien costumes would often be repainted and used again in the show weeks later to trim the costs.
Irwin Allen was said to have the mind of an inventor for his brilliant use of effects, coupled with the attitude of a farmer for using everything twice! He was a truly gifted writer, producer and director and gave us much to be grateful for. Incidentally I still avoid lifts in skyscrapers and have for sometime. If its not on the ground floor, I tend to go elsewhere.
Follow Tom Pheby on Twitter