Review by C.J. Bunce
It takes a unique brand of personality to pull together the required components to make a hit television series. It took a bit of a showman to convince Hollywood in 1965 to produce a science fiction series aimed at kids, and before Star Trek, someone had to lay the groundwork for a series taking place in another world. That someone was the P.T. Barnum of his day, Irwin Allen. Classic television researcher Marc Cushman has delved into his favorite show from his youth to deliver a full picture of Allen and the first season of the hit series Lost in Space in his latest work, volume one of Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space: The Authorized Biography of a Classic Sci-Fi Series.
What do all these TV series have in common? Lassie, Bonanza, Zorro, The Danny Thomas Show, The Twilight Zone, Leave it to Beaver, The Sound of Music, Psycho, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents/Hour? An assemblage of hundreds of TV people in front and behind the camera came together to make an unlikely idea into a success. At nearly 700 pages, Cushman’s book leaves no rock left unturned, interconnecting a Who’s Who of Hollywood. He investigates oddball directors like Irwin Allen, who built up his office desk so visitors would be left to look up to him and had his own “yes man” who would repeat conversations to him as he discussed business with people, and Sobey Martin, viewed by the cast as a bad director who would fall asleep during filming, yet he was the only one who seemed to be able to get an episode filmed on time. The production never seemed to get an episode filmed with the allotted budget.
Just as Cushman revealed in his similarly-formatted, award-winning three volume chronicle of Star Trek (These are the Voyages, reviewed previously here at borg.com) that Lucille Ball was the mastermind producer behind Star Trek, here we see the influence of movie and TV stars Groucho Marx and Red Buttons on Irwin Allen as he pushed forward to create the first season of Lost in Space. Where the coming new sci-fi series Star Trek would be a “Wagon Train to the stars,” Allen was orchestrating a “Swiss Family Robinson in space” an idea that would encounter its own breed of intellectual property legal issues along the way.
Cushman pulls archival interviews from the late series star Guy Williams (one of the top TV stars in the 1960s as he came off his successful run as Zorro and would portray astronaut John Robinson), everyone’s favorite TV mom June Lockhart (as pioneer female astronaut Maureen Robinson), Western and true crime TV star Mark Goddard (as scientist Don West), new starlet Marta Kristen (as John and Maureen’s eldest daughter Judy Robinson), Angela Cartwright fresh off her breakout role with Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (as Penny Robinson), young Billy Mumy, the versatile child guest star of The Twilight Zone, The Munsters, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, The Fugitive, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (as Will Robinson), Bob May (as the guy in the Robot), and the last-minute addition, character actor Jonathan Harris (as the quirky villain Mr. Smith).
So many professionals from science fiction’s past and future would pass through the CBS stages to make Lost in Space, like The Day the Earth Stood Still’s Klaatu, Michael Rennie, Total Recall, RoboCop, and Star Trek’s Wally Cox, Star Trek’s BarBara Luna, Sherry Jackson, Liam Sullivan, and Michael J. Pollard, and Forbidden Planet’s Robby the Robot. Without a young John Williams providing the theme and score for Lost in Space, how could a young George Lucas and Steven Spielberg been inspired to track down Williams years later to create their own sci-fi shows using his unique vision of music? TV icons would be featured on episodes of the series, too, with stars like Warren Oates and Werner Klemperer.
In addition to archival interview content, Cushman included his own interviews with Michael Allan, Roger C. Carmel, Joe D’Agosta, Barbara Eden, Harlan Ellison, Krista Martin, BarBara Luna, Lee Meriwether, Bill Mumy, Malachi Throne, and Guy Williams, Jr., among others.
Cushman is an expert storyteller, weaving the fabric of Hollywood together in his unique style, tackling the series episode by episode, from pre-production through the final ratings and fan reaction. He includes anything and everything you might want to know about making a classic TV series, from salaries of the actors, to roles of production staff, from monster creations and primate co-stars to future tech props and sets, from personalities of the stars and deal negotiators, to what costumes the crew liked and which they didn’t like, from what scenes they enjoyed filming and those they didn’t, to the garden variety directors vs. the standouts, which star had claustrophobia and how that affected production, how the kids felt about child labor laws of the day, and why John and Maureen Robinson and Don and Judy never could kiss on-screen.
The first volume of Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space: The Authorized Biography of a Classic Sci-Fi Series, covering the first, black and white season of Lost in Space, is a must-read for fans of the series, fans of classic TV, and students of television. It’s available here at Amazon.com and at the publisher Jacobs Brown’s website here. Cushman’s Volume 2, covering seasons 2 and 3, cast reunions and everything leading up to the new Netflix reboot series, is coming soon.