The unusual way Jonathan Harris was cast in Lost in Space
The term “special guest star” wasn’t common for a recurring character in a series, but Harris used that as an opportunity.
Jonathan Harris was best known for his role as Dr. Smith in Lost in Space, giving us the classic line “Oh, the pain, the pain” along with countless quick-witted insults.
Usually, there’s some sort of back and forth negotiating between an actor looking to land a part, and the producer that is willing to give it. For Harris, the encounter prior to becoming a regular on the show was an experience he wouldn’t have again the rest of his career.
In a 2001 interview with the Television Academy Foundation, Harris explained it was a wild stretch when weighing his options for Lost in Space.
“I was hired, by a very talented man named Irwin Allen, a strange talented man who was humorless. Totally without humor.”
“My then agent… calls me up one day in 1962 and said Irwin Allen is doing a television series at 20th Century Fox. I said, ‘who is Irwin Allen’” Harris chuckled.
Harris was no stranger to doing research on various producers and big names at the time, giving him an “even keel” approach to various opportunities throughout his career. When Allen came calling for Lost In Space, Harris wanted to inquire more about the show and his potential role, but Allen wouldn’t say what the part on the show would be. This caused hesitation and a little game of cat and mouse until the deal was eventually done.
In the interview, Harris recalls telling his agent, “you tell Mr. Allen that I hesitate to show film unless I know what the part is.”
The story goes that after Harris had rejected submitting film to Mr. Allen for the part in Lost in Space, Allen called back and requested to see Harris in person later the same day.
Harris recounts seeing Allen for the first time, saying “I walked in there and there was this strange looking man sitting at a huge table surrounded by about 20 yes men. I was already terrified.”
“Who do you think you are, no film?” Harris says Allen exclaimed to him.
In a rather brave and possibly risky response, Harris said “Why would you want to see possibly the wrong film, when you could see the real thing…. me?”
What eventually came out of this strange encounter was Allen blatantly asking Harris if he wanted to be in the show, to which Harris responded, “I don’t know, I haven’t read a script.”
Even after he had a script, Harris’ hardball tactics didn’t stop, as he brought up billing. He wanted to know where his name would fall in the opening credits of the show.
Allen informed him that his name would be last, citing the eventual unaired pilot had already been shot and all other actors were billed.
Harris wasn’t necessarily comfortable with being last on the credit list, but still wasn’t sure he would take the part. Upon reading the script, Harris realized he had a fantastic opportunity in front of him.
“This is good,” Harris recalled. “This is going to work, and it’s a marvelous part this villain, terrible villain.”
But the question of billing remained. After contacting a friend, who was the head of casting at NBC, Harris had a proposition for Mr. Allen.
The term “special guest star” wasn’t common for a recurring character in a series, but Harris used that as an opportunity. Harris told Allen he would accept last place in billing if his name followed the phrase “special guest star,” undoubtedly bolstering his presence on the show.
That request made to Allen went over as you might expect.
“You should have heard him” Harris said. “I never heard such cursing and screaming.”
Obviously, a calmer version of Allen prevailed and all aspects fell into place for Harris, including the billing he wanted.
During season one episodes, the final name in the opening credits reads “special guest star Jonathan Harris.”
Harris went on to be one of the solidified stars of the show, appearing in all but the unaired pilot episode across the series’ three seasons. Appearing in other sci-fi shows such as Space Academy and a recurring voice role as “Lucifer” in Battlestar Galactica, some typecasting issues he faced were swept away with many more voiceover roles such as A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2 and animated TV series Problem Child, just to name a few.
Harris, who passed away in 2002, had plenty of opportunities in his career, but none will compare to the success of Lost in Space, or the story behind his casting.
“In my whole career I never experienced anybody like that,” Harris said of Irwin Allen.
Allen, though strange to Harris, was no stranger to success in the industry. Following much success in the sci-fi world with Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Land of the Giants, he was nicknamed the “master of disaster” for multiple works in the disaster film segment.
While it may have been an unorthodox process with a “strange” man, Harris and Dr. Smith remain household names when it comes to the realm of sci-fi television.