Never fear, Smith is here!
BY G. NOEL GROSS | February 20, 2004
Click for the first of this two-part tribute.
On the afternoon of April 28th, 2001, a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 crammed itself into a Sheraton conference room only meant to seat about 30 comfortably. Yours truly was among said sardines and wormed to the front of the room, with good reason, as one of my boyhood heroes was about to speak: Dr. Smith of "Lost In Space." Yes, the incomparable Jonathan Harris held court for about an hour, charming the day's largest and most appreciative assemblage of fans at New Jersey's Chiller Theatre Expo with, ahem, colorful stories from days of yore. What follows are extensive excerpts from that remarkable regalement:
This is a small enough room -- can you hear me in the back? I was brought up on the Broadway stage where we didn't have microphones. We TALKED and always had to reach the second balcony. When I went into films it was very difficult for me to change the technique. Because in film there IS a microphone and it catches every breath you make. So, if you PROJECT AS YOU HAVE TO DO IN THE THEATRE, it sounded awful. But I learned and proceeded to do 612 television films, which is a record that nobody's broken! [Applause.]
That TERRIBLE man!
I was wondering what I would talk to you about. I think I'll tell you a story. It is the story of how I got into "Lost In Space" and worked for that TERRIBLE man Irwin Allen! [Laughter.] It was very interesting. My then agent, whose name escapes me at the moment, called up and said, "Irwin Allen is doing a series at 20th Century Fox called 'Lost in Space.' " I said, "Oh?" I'd never heard of Irwin Allen. "And he wants to see film on you."
Let me explain what that means. Producers in Hollywood are loathe to hire you unless they're very, very sure that somebody else has hired you. [Laughter.] They want to make sure that you can stand in front of a camera and not trip over the camera cables or the other actors. [Laughter.] Therefore they want to see film on you. I was always very loathe to show film unless I knew exactly what the part was and that I had that part in stock. So, I said to the agent, "What's the part?"
"Oh, I don't know," said Mr. Ten Percent. [Laughter.] "I suggest you ask him yourself, because I don't show film unless I'm sure." "Well," he said. "He's not going to like that." I said, "Tough titty!" [Laughter.] Twenty minutes later he called back and said, Irwin Allen wants to know who the hell you think you are! He'll see you at 4 o'clock!" [Laughter.] So at four o'clock, I went to 20th Century Fox, which was my very best studio and I loved it because that's where I started my Hollywood television career.
I was directed to Irwin's office and there sat the secretary who ushered me into the presence. Damnedest thing I've ever seen. Sitting at a desk that was twice the size of this, sat the great man, and behind him, about 20 "Yes" men. The biggest, most famous and favorite "Yes" man was Frank La Tourette. A lovely man, actually.
I have to admit I was nervous. These things are always very, very terrifying, but I said, "Good afternoon." And he said, "WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? NO FILM!?!" I said, "Well, Mr. Allen, I hesitate to show you the wrong film. I prefer to show you the real thing. Me." And he turned to La Tourette and said, "What did he say, La Tourette!?!" And Frank said, "He doesn't want to show you the wrong film." On we go from there.
"I suppose you want to do this series?," Irwin said. I said, "Well, I don't know, Mr. Allen, I've not read a script." "What did he say, La Tourette?" "He hasn't read a script." I said to myself, "What the hell is this!?!" [Laughter.] I'd really never experienced anything like it. Irwin said, "Somebody get him a script!" Somebody gave me a script.
A 'Special Guest Star' is born
Then he said, "I suppose you want billing!" I said, "Mr. Allen, it is customary for an artist in my position to get billing." "What did he say La Tourette?" "He wants billing." That's the craziest thing I've ever experienced in this business. And Irwin said, "Let me tell you, I've signed everybody in the show. They're signed, sealed, delivered and you're going to have to be LAST on the crawl!" My mind said, "Go f@#% yourself!" [Laughter.] Last indeed! Not me! So, I said, "I'm afraid, Mr. Allen, that will make me very uncomfortable." And he said, "Well, let me tell ya, you take this script, you go home and you look at it. You call me back and you tell me about billing. I'm busy! GET OUT!!!" I backed out of the office and thought I'd break my neck because I was so afraid to turn around! [Laughter.] Amazing!
I went home and I read the script. I had developed rather good instincts about scripts. Having done so many. I read it and I said, "I think this is a goodie!" What to do about last position? Wasn't going to do it. What to do? What to do? I want the show! What to do? Ah! I called a friend of mine who was head of casting at NBC and I asked, "Have you ever given billing, in all of the series that you've done, to somebody for whom it will say, every week, Special Guest Star Jonathan Harris?" He said, "Don't be silly! I wouldn't give billing like that! That's ridiculous billing! It doesn't exist!" And at that time, it did not exist. I said, "THANK YOU! That's all I need to know!"
I called Allen and said, "I solved your billing problem." "Eh? What?," said Mr. Charm. I said, "I will accept last position: Special Guest Star Jonathan Harris." Well, the next 20 minutes you would not have believed! "YOU GODDAMN ACTORS YOU CAN'T ACT ANYWAY! NONE OF YOU ARE WORTH A NICKEL AND I'VE GOTTA PAY ALL YOU BASTARDS!!!" And on and on. [Laughter.] I didn't open my mouth! I just sat there and listened. "YOU CAN'T ACT ANY OF YOU. YOU'RE THE WORST OF ALL, YOU CAN'T ACT AT ALL!!!" On and on. I took a deep breath and said, "OK!" and hung up. Amazing! That was the first time that kind of outvie billing occurred. Now, of course, billing is total madness: "With the Special Appearance of ... With the Appearance of ... With a Cameo Appearance of ... " I started that whole crap! [Laughter.]
You bubble-headed booby!
Irwin wanted me to play a deep-dyed, snarling villain. "Grrrrrrr!" One of those. That worried me. I'd done many villains in my career. Mostly comedic villains, which I loved. They're fun! You can be very bad, but you can then redeem yourself, so that the people love you instead of hate you. Clever, clever! We did about three episodes with me sort of "Grrrrrrr!" and Irwin saying, "Brilliant! Brilliant! You've got a wonderful face!" He was so full of s@#%! [Laughter.] And I knew that. Then I began to think, "I'm justly famous for comedic villains. I really am." Because I developed it, I enjoyed it and I loved it. What to do? I said to myself, "I'm going to sneak in a few bits and see what happens." So I did. Nothing happened! So I snuck in some more bits. My bits. My facial expressions. Nothing happened. I said, "Well, I may be able to swing this!"
One day, I was in my dressing room which I had on the set. I liked it that way, so I could escape when Irwin came down to kill the director. Oh, he was a wicked man! In barges Irwin Allen. He had a habit, when he talked to me, of sticking his finger right under my nose. I couldn't stand it. I knew one day I would bite off that finger! He said, "YOU!," with that finger under my nose. "AND?," I said. "DO MORE!," he said. Well, what then ensued was, for the first time in my vast career, I was allowed to do anything I wanted! To write, rewrite, to develop the relationship with The Robot. I did that! The wonderful alliterations that I dreamed up by the thousand! "YOU BUBBLE-HEADED BOOBY!" [Applause.] "YOU NEANDERTHAL NINNY!!!" [Laughter.] All of that I wrote. Thousands of them. I kept a pad next to me bed and in the middle of the night I'd say, "OH! That's a good one!" [Laughter.] Then use it the next day.
I developed a marvelous relationship with The Robot. The best thing to happen to the both of us! I must say, it did not amuse the other members of the cast. How sad! [Laughter.] But it worked! And it kept the show on the air, which I say with a great deal of pride, because the audience picked up on it. They loved it and loved me, which was a miracle! Because when I was wicked, I was very wicked! Then I turned nice and did cute, nice things. But it worked beautifully. I had a marvelous time, a marvelous time, which is important for an actor.
Oh, that's such a difficult question! We shot back-to-back. If we finished one at 2 o'clock, we started the next one at 3 o'clock. It was a question of, "What the hell are the words to this one!?!" So it's very difficult to remember. However, there was ONE, that I do remember, called "The Cave of the Wizards" (Season 2, Episode 22) because it gave me a chance to go into DRAG! [Laughter.] I was silver. I had a silver cap and a long, gorgeous silver gown. I said to myself, "I have to find a voice for this creature." [Growling:] AND... I... DID...! That was good, that was fine and I liked that! It gave me a chance to do something different.
"West of Mars" was another. That was nice. I enjoyed that. I played Zeno and I played Smith (Season 2, Episode 11). That was good to do, because it gave me a chance to spread a little more. When you're doing a series, you're doing it every week and, more or less, you're doing the same thing every week. So it's wonderful to have a chance to change.
I did NOT enjoy "The Great Vegetable Rebellion" (Season 3, Episode 23). [Laughter.] STUFFED CARROTS! Peter Packer, who was one of our best writers, came to my dressing room with his hands behind his back. I said, "Whatcha got there?" He said, "You're not going to like it. I'm so ashamed." I said, "What is it!?!" And out came The Great Vegetable Rebellion. He said, "It's dreadful. I'm thoughtless. I don't have another thought in my head!" That happens to writers. So, he said, "There it is! Do what you can." [Laughter.] But when TV Guide did a story on the best television shows in the last 50 years, they included The Great Vegetable Rebellion! [Laughter.] Unbelievable! Much they know!
Send in the Stunt Smith
I refused to do any tricks. I am not a stunt man! They, of course, had to pay my stand-in, Hansom Harry by name, for each time he did something for me. A fall or rolling down a hill. He was very good at that and I was very bad. I wouldn't do it. Irwin came to me and said, "IT'S A SIMPLE LITTLE SLIDE!!!" And I said, "You do it!" [Laughter.] I'm an actor, not a stunt man. My darling Hansom Harry, who was my good friend, made $23,000 the first year on what I wouldn't do! [Laughter.] Plus his salary, so that wasn't too bad.
Hoof-mark of Zorro
In 1958, Disney was doing Zorro with Guy Williams and they called my agent and asked, "Does Harris RIDE?" So, the agent called me and said, "Do you RIDE?" I said, "NOT ON YOUR NELLY! I'm afraid of horses." [Laughter.] "I'll tell them," he said. I came to the first day's shooting. Charlie Barton was the director and he said, "First shot. You're up on that hill and you RIDE in." [Laughter.] I said, "I ride HOME!" [Laughter.] He said, "What the hell does that mean?" I said, "I'm terrified of horses! I won't ride!" He said, "Please! Please! Please!" I said, "No! No! No!" He said, "Alright, your stand-in will ride and we'll never know the difference. Except I have to have a shot of you ON the horse after you've ridden in." I said, "Oh god! But I want to cooperate. If you will put a wrangler at the horse's head and a wrangler at the horse's tail, and focus your camera right in the middle on me in the saddle, I'll do my best to try." So they got me into the saddle. I was terrified. I really was. But as I tried to settle myself -- the horse immediately PEED! [Laughter.]
The Hollywood remake
An abomination! [Applause.] They wanted me to appear in it, so they sent a script. I read it and was appalled at the violation of a really charming series about a family, a crazy Dr. Smith and a robot. But what they had done to it, I could not believe. So I said to my agent, "Tell them 'No and to get lost.' " Now, in Hollywood, when an actor turns down a role, THEY, the studios, think it's always money. They called back, "Double the money!" I said, "NO!" It was a six-line part. How dare they!?! Then Steven Hopkins, the director, called me from where they were shooting in London. He said, "What can I say or do to convince you to be in my movie?" I said, "You're wasting your time." He said, "Why? I'll take care of you." I said, "YES, you will!" [Laughter.] I said, "It's a six-line part." How dare they? He said, "I'll extend it! I will rewrite it! It will be a full 20-page scene." I said, "You will? Have you ever heard of scissors?" [Laughter.] I said, "I've been around longer than you. Snip! Snip! Snip! Back to the stupid, f@#&ing six lines! I won't do it." [Laughter.]
He said, "Will you at least come to the premiere?" I said, "If you pay me, I will!" [Laughter.] As a matter of fact, I was the official host for New Line Cinema. I did QVC and a thousand things for them. First-class hotel. First-class air. It was lovely. Then Steven called me up again, I was very fond of him, he was a nice man, and he asked again, "Would you consider coming to the New York premiere?" I said, "No. I would try to be objective and it would never happen." He said, "We'll pay you the usual fee." I said, "What time do you want me to go!?!" [Laughter.] It was a lot of money, so I went! I tell you in all honesty, I did try to be objective, to say, "Come on, this is a movie, these are actors. Watch it and try to enjoy it."
I walked into the theater and "IT" started. I was appalled! First of all, it was LOUD! The huge volume shattered the eardrums. It was all terrible, it was awful and Gary Oldman, who's a VERY good actor, was playing my part! It was MY part! He was so betrayed by the script that he didn't know what to do. He was doing some of this, some of that and some of ME! I felt sorry for him. I could see an actor's head say, "What the hell am I doing!?!" The script betrayed him. But he happens to be a fan of mine and I am a fan of his.
Then I had to walk out and face the press. It was very difficult. "What to do? What to say?" I didn't want to betray those that'd paid me so much money. You just don't DO that. So, out I walked. "WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THE MOVIE!?!," they asked. I said, "Interesting. Interesting." Such a terrible word -- interesting. It means NOTHING and they know that. "Come on, Jonathan! What did you really think of the movie?" I said, "Well, let me tell you, if it had not been for the contributions of myself and my colleagues in the series, New Line would never have been able to make this movie. Thank you! Goodnight everybody!" [Laughter.]
When bedouins attack
My loyalties are to the classic series which has become a world-wide cult classic! Can you believe it? It's WONDERFUL! I've done so many series and so much work and they're all fine and they're all over -- NEXT! But this is the only one that really took, because the public turned on to it. It's wonderful and it saved my life! My wife and I went to Israel once on a holiday. We heard where there was a tribe of lovely people called the Druz. In those days, I carried a camera, but never since and you'll understand why. When we arrived, there was a tribe of bedouins in the distance, and they were mostly women. Oh! I raised the camera and as soon as I did they ATTACKED! It appears that when you photograph them, you steal their souls, as I was told later by the Druz people. Well, we took off for the village like a bat out of hell. We were TERRIFIED! With the women screaming after us. [Laughter.] Oh, yes, they would've killed us! We came to a market and a lovely Druz man looked at us, looked at the crazy women running after us and said, "Go inside. Don't come out." So we did, the crazy women came and he talked to them in arabic and apparently said terrible things like, "You stupid broads. Go home!" And they went. Lost in Space saved my life! Because it was sent in from Lebanon to this village and they watched it every single week!
The Harris mind meld
It's very hard to be an actor. Networks are not very easy to deal with. Producers are even less easy to deal with. You know why? Only their names are on the screen. Not their faces. Nobody knows who they are. They don't like us too much. They really don't and I learned that. I've had a few goodies -- about two -- and I also had Irwin Allen who was beyond belief. But, you see, I outsmarted him! You have to use your head. He was a very talented man. Who else had four series running on the air at one time!?! Only he, really. I played a little game with him. I sent it. I never talked -- I sent -- and I was very good at it: "You are my boss and I respect you." In little subtle, subliminal ways. He got it. He also got: "I am your STAR!" [Laughter.] I never said it, but he got it. Never had any trouble with him. Everybody else did. Not me! Not me!
I've done 612 television films. I will never do another. I found I could not stand working with 22-year-old GENIUSES! [Laughter.] Not only could they not act, they couldn't talk and they were stoned out of their heads. I found that was not my showbiz. I adored being an actor and I adored MY show business. So I quit. "Never again. That's it!" Now what? I become King of the Voiceovers! One of them at least. I enjoy that tremendously! Going into a studio and working with voice wizards who can do 12 different sounds. Unbelievable! Amazing! I was filled with awe. I must say they were rather filled with awe about me as well! I enjoy it. First of all, I don't have to learn any lines. All my life I've been learning lines. I was awfully good at it, but what a bore!
I got a call one day from my then agent, I can never remember their names, to go to Disney animation at Buena Vista Studios and meet about a movie -- A Bug's Life. There, I was led to a studio where I met director John Lambert, a wonderful man who loves actors. They'd sent me the script for Manny the Praying Mantis. I loved him. He was very much ME! [In character:] "A broken-down actor!" That's what he was. So I'd played with it. I'd worked on it a great deal. I was so comfortable during the audition. So at ease. Then John said, "Can you do it again like that?" And I said, "Sure." I did it again like that. I knew I had the part, but they didn't say so, they're very careful. Two weeks later the agent called and said, "You've GOT IT!" I said, "For how much?" And we talked a little turkey! I won.
Oh, that wonderful John. To be so lucky to work with this man. A genius. Absolutely! We did the movie and after awhile they began to show me bits of the animation. I couldn't believe what I was seeing! Then came the premiere. We were shown to our seats and were presented with buckets of popcorn. Disney! What's wrong with a bottle of gin? [Laughter.] And the movie came on the screen. I cannot tell you what I felt! The PRIDE of being in this movie. It was so beautiful and so wonderful. Kevin Spacey was so good. And I was rather marvelous.
After that, I did Toy Story 2 and now they're doing another. So I wrote a letter, I'm not shy, I said, "Dear John: I hear you're doing Monsters Incorporated, are you aware of my famous 'Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!'? " I'd do another Pixar film in a heartbeat. Such wonderful, important, influential people.
Are we out of time? [Moderator agrees.] I leave when I'm finished! [Applause.] Thank you all very much for your attention. That was lovely! [Lengthy applause.]
Columnist's note: Sadly, he never made that next Pixar picture. A year-and-a-half later, Jonathan passed away just three days shy of his 88th birthday. It's among my greatest of geek'd-out joys to have actually had the privilege to MEET Mr. Harris. Especially given, as clearly evident above, he was precisely as any fan would hope he'd be -- utterly charming and still so full of delightful venom. But I can't help but share one parting anecdote. The following day, as I sat waiting for my return flight at Newark International Airport, there strode Dr. Smith before me again. He took a seat and sat quietly. Fiddling with his cane now and then. You could hear whispers: "That's Dr. Smith!" Though, like myself, no one bothered him. I just smiled. So did he. Easily. My deepest thanks to mega-fan Ray Dutczak for making such memories possible by coordinating countless appearances of "Lost in Space" luminaries over the years. Visit Ray online at Lost In Space Memories.com.
G. Noel Gross is a Dallas graphic designer and avowed Drive-In Mutant who specializes in scribbling B-movie reviews. Noel is inspired by Joe Bob Briggs and his gospel of blood, breasts and beasts.