Friday, June 14, 2013

A Lost in Space “Bonanza” Part One: Special Guest Star Jonathan Harris – and his “Special Writer”.

Special Guest Star Jonathan Harris”, as anyone familiar with the classic TV series LOST IN SPACE surely knows, was the way in which the wonderfully hammy actor who played the role of Doctor Zachary Smith was billed in the opening credit sequence of each episode of the Irwin Allen mid-sixties telefantasy series – beginning in September, 1965.

 But, was this the FIRST TIME Jonathan Harris was ever billed as a “Special Guest Star” on a TV series?

Um... Perhaps not!
Two years prior, the second episode of the Fifth Season of BONANZA, “A Passion for Justice”, featured Harris as the great author Charles Dickens (believe it or not) visiting Virginia City, NV, and as a special treat to future fans of LOST IN SPACE, he was billed thusly:

Well... Isn't that... "Special"!
And, if that wasn’t coincidence enough, “A Passion for Justice” (Air date September 29, 1963) was written by the most prolific writer for LOST IN SPACE, Peter Packer – who may very well have written more lines of dialogue for Jonathan Harris than anyone. You could almost SEE “Future-Smith” showing through Harris’ “Dickensian bluster”.
"Future Smith?  Indeed!"

Over a century removed from being Ben Cartwright’s houseguest, Packer tended to get Harris (as Smith) into fixes like this (below)… But can you ever fully “Take the West Out of the Writer”?

"Condemned of Space" (1967), written by Peter Packer.
Before becoming a mainstay on LOST IN SPACE, it seems that Peter Packer was well-steeped in Westerns, and he brought some of that with him to LIS in such stories as “Welcome Stranger” (with Warren Oates) and the great “Blast-Off Into Space” (with Strother Martin) that featured incongruously western character types found scattered among the stars.

"Blast Off into Space" (1966), written by Peter Packer -- with incongruously Western-type guest star Strother Martin.
Oddly, when LOST IN SPACE did its full-out Western parody episode, “West of Mars”, Packer did not write the script.
"West of Mars" (1966), in which SPACE actually does become "the final FRONTIER".

A Passion for Justice” can be found on the DVD set BONANZA The Fifth Season Volume One. 
Come back in about four days for “A Lost in Space “Bonanza” Part Two”, when another LOST IN SPACE star visits the Ponderosa – later in that same season!

Hmmm... I wonder which one of you brave and stalwart gentlemen it will be?


Anonymous said...

Rumor has it that Harris was originally supposed to be killed off during the initial story arc of Lost in Space, and his billing as a "special guest star" seems to lend credibility to that idea. But, iirc, Harris denied it in an interview in Starlog. I do remember his appearance as Charles Dickens on Bonanza. (BTW, the real Dickens did tour Nevada in the 1860's, so the episode had some basis in fact.) And could that other LIS star be Guy Williams? It seems that everyone remembers Zorro and Professor John Robinson (and some even remember Captain Sindbad), but I was starting to think that I was the only one who ever heard of Will Cartwright. -TC

Joe Torcivia said...

Anon / TC:

Either I didn’t see “A Passion for Justice” until a syndicated rerun in the ‘80s or, if I DID see it back in 1964, Jonathan Harris wouldn’t have meant much toward remembering. I’d figure I’d only seen it that once (in the ‘80s), and not again until now.

Three things stand out for me:

1: Seeing the “Special Guest Star” billing for Jonathan Harris, pre-LOST IN SPACE. (…Though that WAS a typical billing for a BONANZA guest actor – but seeing Harris billed that way, from a Post-Lost In Space perspective, still stood out from the pack.)

2: That it just happened to be written by Peter Packer.

3: That, unbeknownst to everyone watching the original run, there were huge chunks of the beloved character of Doctor Smith in Harris’ portrayal of Dickens. You didn’t see Smith in his TWILIGHT ZONE appearances, for instance. But, he was on near-full display here.

I should add that an IMDB poster notes that the “Real Charles Dickens” was displeased over the lack of copyright protection in America, so the basis of the episode was historically accurate!

I can also recall reading somewhere that, after Doctor Smith, Charles Dickens may have been Harris’ favorite role.

Yes, as you recall, Jonathan Harris has told the story that his character was slated to be killed-off, and he literally saved Doctor Smith (and forever changed the trajectory of the series) by refashioning him as a comedic villain.

Funny, that draws yet another parallel between LOST and LOST IN SPACE, in that the character of Jack Sheppard of LOST was ALSO supposed to be killed off early on – but he hung around to become the series star… that is until Michael Emerson (as Ben Linus) stole the show – not unlike the way Harris’ Doctor Smith “stole” LOST IN SPACE! The parallels between the two series continue to amaze… even if they only “amaze” me.

And, finally… As much as I try to avoid spoilers, you’ve got it! Guy Williams as “Will Cartwright” will be the subject of our next post!

Unusual things about this:

Guy Williams pretty much ENDED the Fifth Season of BONANZA – the same season that Jonathan Harris virtually STARTED. Lost In Space “bookends”, if you will.

The “Will Cartwright Story” was not merely a guest part in an episode, but was an entire ARC of several shows. That was a form of storytelling that was rarely (if ever) employed at the time. But, more on this in the next post.

Anonymous said...

I first saw "A Passion for Justice" when it was rerun in syndication in the 1970's, so I recognized "Dr. Smith" as Dickens. The same with that Twilight Zone episode (I think it was called "The Silence"). If I ever saw him in anything before 1965, I don't remember it, but I would have been too young at the time to really know one actor from another. BTW, the Cartwrights met several real historical figures besides Charles Dickens: Mark Twain, Philip Diedesheimer, Albert Michelson. All of whom were either from Nevada, or visited there, in the 1860's.

Joe Torcivia said...

Jonathan Harris also appeared in TWILIGHT ZONE “Twenty-Two” (1961). For a long time, those two were the only two Pre-Lost In Space appearances I was aware of. Little did I know, he guested on ZORRO with Guy Williams!

A favorite of mine, among historical figures to appear on BONANZA, was Henry T.P. Comstock (Episode: “Mr. Henry Comstock”, 1959) – who “moved-in on” (but apparently did not discover) the legendary “Comstock Lode”. Comstock (or should I say “CON-stock”) was delightfully played by Jack Carson, who was one of the very few actors who managed to upstage the great James Cagney! It happened in “The Strawberry Blonde” (1941) – a review of which I’ve had stored (awaiting formatting and illustrations) for a long time.

And, in one of those wonderful coincidences that tie things together, in “Blast-Off Into Space” (written by Peter Packer), Doctor Smith brags to Strother Martin’s “Nerim” (“Miner” as an anagram) that his ubiquitous “Uncle Thaddeus” discovered the Comstock Lode!