Behind the scenes of the popular 1960's hit "Lost in Space" all was not well. Sure, it was hardly mentioned, let alone publicised but the discord on set was becoming awkward and unpleasant. The Irwin Allen series saw the Family Robinson marooned, then not Marooned in space. It had them stranded, then not stranded on various planets that all looked the same (grey, with grey mountains and rocks). And viewers loved it. The series developed a massive following around the globe, but it wasn't long before it all started to go wrong for the majority of the actors involved. The reason for this was the programme's shift towards one particular member of the cast, and as a result its two stars, Guy Williams and June Lockhart, were left in the lurch.
Lockhart and Williams together in a commercial for "Space Gums" toothpaste.
When both Williams and Lockhart were first approached about their respective roles, they were assured by Allen himself that they were the stars and the stories would centre around the family. It was sold to them as a science fiction drama that would engage all ages, but that all changed with the introduction of Jonathan Harris as Dr Zachary Smith.
Smith was introduced at the last moment as a device to explain how the family become lost, and Allen quickly felt there was more mileage in the Doctor so offered Harris a contract. Harris accepted but thought that Smith wouldn't last long on the show as he hated the panto villain approach of the character, and so he started to mold the treacherous, self serving Dr Smith into a slightly more lovable rogue.
As a result there was the small, trifling problem of billing. Allen couldn't introduce another star into the mix for fear of offending Williams and Lockhart, so Harris suggested he be given the title 'Guest Star', which was later agreed upon.
Harris took to the part with playful enthusiasm and began to cement his interpretation of the character in his mind. On set he would offer a variation on what was written in the script, just to test the water and to see what he could do within the show - or as Harris might put it " Get away with "
Allen was clearly delighted with what he'd seen and allowed the actor artistic licence to benefit the series, and it was clear half way into season one that Harris had caught the public imagination too. By season two Lost In Space did a complete 360 degree turn to accommodate this gifted and unique character actor, and alongside the youthful Billy Mumy (Will Robinson) they established a partnership on which the show hinged.
"Stick with Me my boy and you'll have a mansion in no time. You pint sized, prepubescent peanut!"
Now Harris had carte blanche to fiddle with the script, rearrange lines, write his own dialogue and increase his screen time, all with Allen's blessing. Harris used what was called his "free hand clause" to engineer a series of classic comic encounters between himself and the Robot. Smith would verbally insult or try to undermine his mechanical sparing partner, but he was not always the victor of the verbal bouts, sometimes the robot got the ultimate put down. Anyone who watched couldn't help smiling as Smith unleashed a tirade of scathing remarks, like "you deplorable dunderhead", "cowardly clump", "hopeless heap of tainted tin", "lily livered lump", "meandering metal midget", "nattering ninny" and "blithering booby."
Mumy fondly recalls that he would spend hours with Harris learning lines and improvising scenes until it was time to shoot. And that's when everyone else would finally learn of the fruits of their labour.
"Well, yeah. I never really had too many uncomfortable moments working with any actor. I was comfortable working with most everybody. It's just the more that Jonathan and I did together, the more he changed the character. He really changed the character of Dr. Smith himself. He really turned him from a snarling saboteur villain to this bumbling insulting kook. The more he played it for comedy, the more Irwin Allen liked it. The show really went the way that Jonathan led it. But we had great chemistry together, and we never had a bad day. We were always prepared, as was Bobby May who was inside the robot. When we had our work to do - and I think this is a very big reason the way it went - they'd get us done in a couple of takes. Nobody screwed up. It was easier for the crew and it was easier for us."It worked like a dream and Allen could see that this collaboration had the potential to become the driving force behind the show, creating the comedy and pathos that could carry it from season to season.
But the rest of the cast were unimpressed, feeling surplus to requirements and of little or no use. Harris was thought to have become increasingly smug with the amount of control he had, as a 1966 TV Guide set visit reported:
"[Harris] oozes triumph, mugging about the set, humming exuberantly and beaming all the while. 'Happy as a clam, I am,' he purrs, to an excellent approximation of Clifton Webb doing the Cheshire Cat."And it was claimed that the majority of the cast felt the same, apart from Goddard and Mumy, but they would all just have to solider on, as breaking a contract with a major studio was out of the question as it would have been professional suicide for anyone wishing to remain in the industry. It wouldn't matter what your track record was, who you were, how much talent you were blessed with, or what status you had previously achieved, if you bite the hand that feeds you they will withdraw any future food!
Nowadays much has changed, it's often a case that the stars have the control more than the studios - otherwise Val Kilmer, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale would likely be serving ribs to overweight truckers or handing out leaflets for poodle perms at the subway!
Two seasons in and Williams became tired of the role. He disliked the scripts and reportedly became more difficult to work with as the show followed the new formula of Smith/Robot/Will or Will/Robot/Smith with additional Smith. He became disillusioned and thought that production values had become something of a joke, even managing to get turfed off set, along with June Lockhart, for laughing uncontrollably during the filming of 'The Great Vegetable Rebellion'. The pair were written out of the next two shows to remind them who was in charge. But when they returned the friction was even more intense and cracks continued to appear on set.
Former Zorro star Guy Williams grew to resent being trapped in the show as his part eroded at the expense of Harris' meteoric rise to fame. After all, Williams had been a reasonably big name and heart throb for many years, yet here he was reduced to little more than nothing, playing second fiddle to the cowardly Dr Smith. It would seem it stuck firmly in his craw. Williams felt so cheated that he resorted to pilfering lines from other cast members, hastily committing them to film whilst the actors who originally had them were still mulling them over in their Winnebago. Mark Goodard (Don West) stated as much, and claimed that he often turned up for the camera only to find out his services were no longer required.
"Even this things got better billing than I have!" - Williams rages on set at a metal object that resembles a space age vacuum cleaner.
The series was on the verge of change, and a change that Williams would have approved of as it would have seen the show return to its original brief by focusing on the Robinsons. Yet none of that matters much as Allen contested the budget for the show, and the infuriated heads of the studio pulled the plug on the series after three seasons.
In truth it had probably run its course, I say that grudgingly because future shows popped up with improved budgets and resources that would have benefited Lost In Space no end. But ultimately it's sad that it ended without a conclusion, it just left the audience bemused, hanging on for some resolution which never arrived.
For all we know the Robinson's could still be rattling around space arguing the toss with Dr Smith.
Oh the pain!!!
Script Writer, Poet, Blogger and junk television specialist. Half English, half Irish and half Alsatian, Tom is well known for insisting on being called Demetri for reasons best known to himself. A former film abuser and telly addict who shamefully skulks around his home town of Canterbury after dark dressed as Julie Andrews. Follow Tom on Twitter