Tuesday, September 2, 2014

R.I.P. Don Matheson

I hate it when I learn things like this after the fact, from random browsing of the Internet, but actor Don Matheson passed away on June 29, 2014, at the age of 84.

Don Matheson starred in Irwin Allen's LAND OF THE GIANTS (1968-1970), and was pretty much seen in "all things Allen" during that wondrous time of 1960s fantastic television.  

Mark Wilson meets IDAK Alpha-12
Matheson's character on GIANTS, Mark Wilson, served the same basic function as "The Professor" on GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, the all-purpose scientific whiz, but often did so with more of an attitude.  Wilson often openly clashed with "Good Ship Spindrift's" captain Steve Burton (Gary Conway) making for an interesting dynamic that differed from that of Professor Robinson and Major West on Allen's LOST IN SPACE.  

They weren't always "pals".

A prime example of this was one of Matheson's finest moments of the series, an episode titled "The Golden Cage" (Air Date: December 29, 1968).  This was the sort-of-famous "Girl in a Bottle" episode, with guest star Celeste Yarnall, the ending of which owed as much to Rod Serling as it did to Irwin Allen. 
Mark Wilson rescues "The Girl in a Bottle".
"The Golden Cage" is a must-see for those with any interest in Don Matheson, LAND OF THE GIANTS, or Irwin Allen's work in general.  I rate it as one of the "Top Five" episodes of the series -- and, depending on my mood, perhaps even THE best. 

 Click to Enlarge all Images.

To digress, a funny thing about my choice for the "Top Five" episodes of LAND OF THE GIANTS...  They would be the FIRST TWO ("The Crash" and "Ghost Town"), the LAST TWO ("Wild Journey" and "Graveyard of Fools" -- the latter of which revealed a large portion of the Giants' planet to be a vast, uninhabitable wasteland - somewhat of a shocker from "our" limited perspective of the little people) -- and, of course, "The Golden Cage".

First Episode:  "The Crash" 
Last Episode: "Graveyard of Fools"
Elsewhere in the Irwin Allen-verse, Don Matheson gave a wonderfully understated, wordless performance as the silent "Alien Father" in the early LOST IN SPACE episode "The Sky is Falling" (November 17, 1965).  A prime example of just how different LOST IN SPACE might have been if BATMAN (1966) hadn't pushed it in the direction of camp.

But, for those who like our "SPACE" extra-campy, there was "Revolt of the Androids" (March 08, 1967), with Matheson as the android-hunting "Instant Destroyer And Killer" IDAK Alpha-12, in which he uttered the immortal and oft-repeated phrase: "Crush! Kill! Destroy!"   

And that was also Don Matheson in costume as the leader of the "Deadly Amphibians" (December 17, 1967), on VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA. 

Those looking for More-Matheson should look toward the LAND OF THE GIANTS Complete Series DVD set.  Included is a "Presentation Reel" (to pitch the series concept -- with, believe it or not, much stock footage from LOST IN SPACE), narrated by Dick Tufeld and hosted by Don Matheson, the first actor hired for LAND OF THE GIANTS.  

Also contained therein are seven-plus minutes of interview material with Don Matheson, on LAND OF THE GIANTS, filmed in the nineties.  

For a time, Matheson was married to his LAND OF THE GIANTS co-star Deanna Lund. 

Don Matheson's credits, per IMDB, can be found HERE.  

Thank you, Don Matheson, for all the great moments of fantasy, adventure and fun. 


TC said...

"The Golden Cage" was the only episode with anything close to actual romance. It seems kind of odd that Matheson would be the one to have a love scene, though. As I recall, his character was usually the pragmatist, not the romantic. Wilson often advised that the castaways look out for their own interests, while Captain Burton was more willing to get involved helping others (e.g., "Manhunt"). Of course, there were exceptions, including the "girl in the bottle" and the episode with the deaf kid.

The character dynamic on "Giants" was considerably different from the earlier Irwin Allen shows. Maybe it was that, by 1968, the trend on TV was toward more realistic, character-driven drama, including internal conflict and dissension.

Also, the characters on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, and The Time Tunnel were all members of quasi-military organizations with a definite chain of command. Major West or Commander Crane could offer opinions or advice, but they were ultimately under the authority of their superiors (Professor Robinson and Admiral Nelson).

With LOTG, four of the seven characters were civilian passengers, so the captain's authority was not as clear. Mark could not only disagree with Steve, he could openly defy him.

I also wonder if the show was influenced by Star Trek, with Wilson, the pragmatist, filling a role similar to Spock. Most of the time, anyway.

It seems to me that LOTG was usually played straight, with some comic relief. By the time it premiered, the camp fad had pretty much passed.

But maybe I was too young to know the difference at the time. When I was eight, Batman and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. seemed just as dramatic as Gunsmoke and The Rat Patrol.

Joe Torcivia said...


Yes, it is true that Steve was more willing to help giant strangers in need. Even I’d be saying, forget it and get outa there! But, maybe a pretty girl is what it took to sway Mark. And, he certainly was swayed. Me? I was still saying “get outa there!

“The character dynamic on "Giants" was considerably different from the earlier Irwin Allen shows. Maybe it was that, by 1968, the trend on TV was toward more realistic, character-driven drama, including internal conflict and dissension.”

I agree with you here. Despite the many (perhaps too many?) similarities between LOST IN SPACE and LAND OF THE GIANTS, this was one major difference. It would have been fascinating, if LOST IN SPACE had gone into its (announced and then rescinded by CBS) 4th Season, to see the two shows side-by-side… how they would be similar, and how they would be different.

And, you make an excellent point that I’d never considered about the characters on LOTG. Steve was really “only the pilot”. He had no authority over the passengers once the ship was no longer a functioning or traveling air/space craft. Just as an ordinary airline pilot would have no authority over his passengers, once they had deplaned. He probably had little more than “ceremonial” ranking over Dan and Betty, too, in that context.

Dan and Betty may have maintained the structure out of loyalty to and professional respect for Steve. But there wasn’t really any other reason. Valerie openly defies Steve in “The Crash”, Mark often conflicts with him, and Fitzhugh does as he pleases just as Doctor Smith would.

Yet, Steve tended (though most often with fairness and respect) to act as if he were in actual command, regardless of the status, or lack thereof, of the flight. And, that’s would seem why Mark and he had their share of conflicts – though, more often than not, they were on the same page too.

Finally, I have to disagree on the Mark Wilson / Spock analogy. A pragmatist Mark may be, but he’s far too emotional (coming to blows, in “The Golden Cage” and “The Deadly Dart”, to name two) for that to stick. Mark may be more the “Doctor McCoy” of LOTG, unafraid to call-out Steve when he feels the justification.

“When I was eight, Batman and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. seemed just as dramatic as Gunsmoke and The Rat Patrol.”

And, if you’re anything like me, you might appreciate them all the more now, because they weren’t!

TC said...

Well, I guess SOMEBODY had to take charge, and the pilot was the closest thing to a commanding officer they had.

And, yes, Mark was more like McCoy than Spock, in that he could be emotional. That is, he was not like Spock in personality, but he sometimes seemed to fill the role of saying, "The logical course of action is X," while the captain would say, "I have a gut instinct that says to do Y."

If anything, McCoy was more likely than Spock to call out Kirk, maybe because the doctor was somewhat outside the chain of command, and may have even had the authority to overrule the captain on medical matters. Similarly, Wilson, a civilian, could openly defy Burton without having to worry about getting court martialed. Although, as you say, they were on the same page more often than they clashed.

And I do appreciate those campy shows more, now. Watching them in reruns, I can understand the jokes that went over my head when I was a child.

Joe Torcivia said...


I think that, in a real-life situation (one that does not involve crash landing on a world of giants) most folks would tend to look toward the “pilot” to take charge of the situation, whether or not he held any actual authority, simply by virtue of his or her position. I also recall, for the very brief time he was alive on LOST, that show’s castaways looked toward the pilot for answers and direction, as well. (He ended-up having a much longer life on HEROES, but I digress.)

Though I’d doubt there’d be any sort of punishment for defying an airline pilot in such a situation. Even for Dan and Betty, it would only be a “workplace dispute” and they would probably just end up in HR, once everything was over.

Some time ago, at this Blog, I made the comparison between LAND OF THE GIANTS and THE WALKING DEAD (…and I wonder why more folks don’t see the parallels of an isolated band being constantly threatened by giants or zombies).

In THE WALKING DEAD, Rick Grimes, as a police officer, tends to take charge and others tend to look toward him for answers and direction. But, as a lawman in a now-lawless land (which entitles Rick to no “official” authority), conflicts arise there as well just as in LOTG.

And “getting things” (or, as you say “understanding the jokes”) is one of the great joys of growing up as any sort of fan! Whether it’s Batman ’66, Lost in Space, or U.N.C.L.E., Looney Tunes, The Flintstones, or Rocky and Bullwinkle, Carl Barks’ Duck comics, (or for another generation) The Simpsons and Family Guy, Animaniacs and Freakazoid!, or anything that strives to work on multiple levels.

May there always be stuff out there that continues to provide its followers with greater rewards, over time!