Jonathan Daniel Harris
Best known as the pompous, scheming, fussy Dr. Zachary Smith from Irwin Allen's 1960s CBS sci-fi TV series "Lost In Space," Jonathan Harris was known for making high camp into high art with his fun, indulgently hammy portrayals of foppish villains. Born Jonathan Charasuchin in the Bronx to poor Russian- Jewish immigrants, Harris changed his surname to one more easily pronounced by Americans and earned a pharmacy degree at Fordham University. But while working as a pharmacist he was bitten by the acting bug and learned elocution-that elevated, vaguely British way of speaking which became his trademark-in an attempt to rid himself of a "dese and dose" Bronx accent. Working in repertory theater he appeared in 125 plays in stock companies across the country before making his Broadway debut in a 1942 production of "Heart of a City."
During World War II Harris entertained troops in the South Pacific, then returned to Broadway and live television before moving to Hollywood in 1953, where he was cast in his first feature film, "Botany Bay" starring Alan Ladd and James Mason. A few films followed, but Harris made more of a name for himself specializing in haughty or intellectual character parts on television series such as "The Bill Dana Show," "The Twilight Zone," "General Electric Theater" and "Zorro," in which he had a recurring role opposite his future "Lost In Space" co-star Guy Williams. He first garnered mainstream fame as Bradford Webster, assistant to Michael Rennie's Harry Lime in the television version of "The Third Man," which ran in syndication from 1959 to 1962, a role Harris considered his very favorite.
Nevertheless, it was the part of Dr. Smith that would make him a pop icon for decades to come. "Lost in Space," producer Irwin Allen's futuristic take on "The Swiss Family Robinson" set in the year 1997, began production in 1965 but Dr. Smith did not appear in the original, unaired pilot. The character was later added to the series when the networks decided that the Robinson family needed a regular bad guy to bump heads with. Harris beat out actors such as Carroll O'Connor and Eddie Albert and the actor was re-teamed with "Zorro" star Williams. Dr. Smith, who ultimately sabotages the Robinson's mission and unwittingly becomes marooned with them, was initially conceived as much more villainous, but Harris suspected audiences would grow bored with such an irredeemably evil fellow and he would soon be out of a job. He quickly began sneaking in bits of comedic villainy and campy proclamations and routinely stole the show away from the other actors and even the Robot. Harris' improvisations were so successful-and popular with viewers-that producer Allen soon found himself skewing the show to suit Dr. Smith's tirades.
Pompous and verbose, Harris' Smith became well-known for catch-phrases, calling the Robot "you bumbling bag of bolts" or "you bubble-headed booby." In addition to his insults and his deadpan there was his famous exclamation "Oh, the pain, the pain," and the oft-quoted "Never fear, Smith is here." Not as sophisticated or beloved as "Star Trek," "Lost In Space" nevertheless appealed to younger viewers and ran until 1968, became an international cult favorite in syndication, cable broadcast and home video.
Harris worked steadily in television guest appearances and the occasional film after the series ended, usually playing off his well-etched character. While he appeared in science fiction-themed projects such as the live-action Saturday morning TV series "Space Academy" and the ABC primetime series "Battlestar Galactica" (supplying the honey-dripping voice of the Cylon cyborg leader Lucifer), Harris became best known as a voice-over actions, lending his famous elocution to dozens of animated characters in films, series and commercials. Despite any typecasting he may have experienced, Harris remained fond of the Dr. Smith character he helped create and, unlike the rest of the series' surviving cast, rejected a cameo in the 1998 motion picture version of "Lost in Space," which cast Gary Oldman as Smith. The actor decided that if he could not play Smith he did not want to be a part of the film, which was only a moderate success. Later in 1998 Harris got his wish and reprised the smarmy role in a one-hour television tribute special, "Lost in Space Forever" before developing a long-standing relationship with Disney and Pixar and providing voices for the computer-animated films "A Bug's Life" and "Toy Story 2" and the animated spin-off "Buzz Lightyear of Star Command."
At the time of his death in 2002 three days shy of his 88th birthday, Harris was reported to be working on a new television movie for NBC -- "Lost in Space: The Journey Home"--that finally might bring the Robinsons back to Earth. Creating the character that made him an international caricature, Harris told CBS' "The Early Show" that year, was "the most fun in the whole world. I loved creating ... that dreadful, wonderful man."