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SCI-FI GEEK: Former Child Stars in Space

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Mar 19, 2001 | 11:50am EST

Put Wally Cleaver, Bud Anderson and that kid from "Lost in Space" together in a movie and what do you get? Apparently not what you'd think.

Says Billy Mumy (aka that kid from "Lost in Space"): "When you look at this group of baby boomers' dream cast ... you think, 'Oh, it's going to be 'The Love Boat.' Or it's 'Lost in Space' or it's something kind of cute -- 'Love American Style'-ish. But it's very dark and it's pretty hard-hitting in its tone and non-compromising."

What it is is "Overload," an in-the-works indie sci-fi flick that aims to shoot several former child stars into the nether reaches of the galaxy, including Tony Dow (Wally Cleaver of "Leave It to Beaver" fame), Billy Gray (Bud Anderson of "Father Knows Best") and Billy Mumy, who, if we must be detailed about it, played astroboy Will Robinson on TV's "Lost in Space."

Also on board: Angela Cartwright (Linda Williams on "Make Room for Daddy" and Mumy's TV sibling Penny on "Lost in Space"), Johnny ("The Rifleman") Crawford, Don Grady (middle son Robbie on "My Three Sons"), who'll also handle scoring duties, and -- for good measure -- Melissa ("Little House on the Prairie") Gilbert. Er, make that the voice of Melissa ("Little House on the Prairie") Gilbert. (She's the computer.)

Add up all the names and you've got quite an assemblage of ex-TV kids from the 1950s and 1960s. But given the tabloid rep of said ex-TV kids, you (or some other wise acre) might ask is it lawfully safe for them all to work together on one project at the same time?

Don't worry about it.

Billy Mumy "None of these people have been living depressing, compromised lives," Mumy tells Hollywood.com. "They're all happy pursuing the lives they've pursued."

So, bosh the former child star "curse." "Overload" was not borne of a work-release program or a probation condition. It was borne of a ping-pong game.

The way Mumy, now 46, tells it, the saga began on the set of "Babylon 5," the 1994-98 sci-fi TV series. On "Babylon 5," Mumy, who grew up to be a musician ("Fish Heads"), writer ("Space Cases") and sometime actor, played a latex-covered alien while Dow, now 55, played the director. (Actually, Dow was the director -- one of them anyway. Other helmer credits include "Coach" and "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.")

Anyway, Mumy started bugging Dow (and the other powers that be on the show) to cast Billy Gray. Now, Mumy didn't know Gray. Had never worked with him. He just thought he was cool.

"When I was a teenager, I used to watch reruns of 'Father Knows Best,' and I used to think Bud Anderson was the coolest," Mumy says. "'Cause he was human, you know. He was just so great. The way he listened, his comedic timing, just the reality within him. ... And [then] he disappeared [from the screen]. No one's seen him for 20 years. I [thought] it'd be so cool. And, of course, they never listened to me and never tried to bring him in [for 'Babylon 5']."

But Mumy didn't give up on Billy Gray. So Dow, a friend of Gray, finally brought the two together. And they all played ping pong.

During the course of a tournament at Dow's house, Mumy asked Gray, whose once-promising film career ("The Day the Earth Stood Still," "On Moonlight Bay," etc.) was stunted by his TV success and whose TV success was stunted by his show's 1960 cancellation and a subsequent headline-making bust for pot possession ("a handful of seeds and stems") in 1962, if he wanted to act again.

Gray, now 62, has gone on to a comfortable existence racing motorcycles and inventing gadgets since bidding his screen career farewell after bits in the likes of "Porklips Now" and "The Vampire Wars." Did he still possess the desire to perform?

Sure.

Says Gray: "I've always wanted to act. It's just that I never figured out a way to [get] any work. ... If acting was the only thing I enjoyed doing, I suppose I could have, but I've done a little bit of theater and it's not all that fun."

But Mumy's idea sounded fun, and "Overload" -- about seven space explorers in the near future (circa 2069) trapped on a dying vessel (dare we say, lost in space?) -- was hatched.

Mumy and writing partner Peter David cranked out a script for what was then to be a 30-40 minute short, with Mumy as executive producer, Dow as director and Gray as a cast member in good standing.

Along the way, Crawford, Grady, Cartwright and Gilbert joined the project, with "Star Trek" Lt. Sulu George Takei and "Babylon 5"'s Claudia Christian lending added sci-fi cred. Also along the way, "Overload" morphed from a self-financed short to a feature for Galaxy Pictures (www.galaxyonline.com).

If you think "Overload" got attention (and money) because of the former child star angle, the "Overload" team would agree -- to a point.

"What we wanted to do was use it [the former child star thing] as a sort of hook and then turn it around and say, 'Well, wait a second, this is not exactly what we would expect,'" Dow says. "'Cause it isn't an exploitive kind of thing."

Gray agrees "Overload" will be no one-trick pony: "I think that notwithstanding a bunch of kid actors getting together, just that subject matter is something that hasn't been tackled very often."

By way of the Cliffs Notes summary, Mumy describes "Overload" as "'Steambath' [an Off-Broadway play turned 1972 TV movie about a godly towel attendant] meets 'Lifeboat' in 'The Twilight Zone.'" (Translation: Expect a lot of meaning of life stuff mixed in with your special effects.)

After shooting demo footage in the spring, Galaxy says cameras should roll on the entire flick in the fall. Dow, Gray, Mumy and the others will be ready. And this time, Mumy promises, the erst while Will Robinson will have more to do than "lurching left and right and watching out for explosions."

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