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Obituaries

Jonathan Harris, 87; Bumbling Villain in TV's 'Lost in Space'

November 05, 2002|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Oh, the pain, the pain!

-- Dr. Zachary Smith

*

Jonathan Harris, the dastardly, villainous, yet endearing Dr. Zachary Smith, who sabotaged the spaceship Jupiter II in 1965, causing the hapless Robinson family and inadvertently himself to be forever "Lost in Space" on prime-time television, has died. He was 87.

Harris died Sunday at Encino Medical Center of a blood clot that reached his heart after he was hospitalized for an unrelated illness, said Kevin J. Burns, spokesman for Fox Television Studios.

Although "Lost in Space" -- producer Irwin Allen's futuristic take for CBS on "The Swiss Family Robinson" -- ran only from 1965 to 1968, it became an international cult favorite and is still replayed on cable channels and is available on video. Crammed with campy aliens and corny dialogue, the series predated "Star Trek" and remains a familiar delight to its fans.

Set in 1997, the series left the exploring family -- and Smith -- still trying to find their way back to Earth.

In 1998, Harris reprised the smarmy Smith in a one-hour television special, "Lost in Space Forever." At the time of his death, he was working on a new television movie for NBC -- "Lost in Space: The Journey Home" -- that finally might bring the Robinsons back.

Unlike others in the television cast, however, Harris rejected a cameo in the 1998 motion picture version of "Lost in Space" starring Gary Oldman as Smith. The actor reasoned that, if he could not play his character, he wanted nothing to do with the movie.

Harris' plummy villain did not appear in the series pilot, which was not telecast. But when CBS decided that the show needed a bad guy, Allen, who would go on to create disaster films like "The Towering Inferno," considered such actors as Carroll O'Connor and Eddie Albert before settling on Harris. Harris had worked with the star, Guy Williams, in Williams' earlier television series, "Zorro."

It didn't take Harris long to steal the show from the rest of the cast -- Williams, June Lockhart, Mark Goddard, three kids and Robot, patterned after Robby the Robot of the film "Forbidden Planet."

"I realized that the original concept of Smith was a deep-dyed, snarling villain, and he bored me to death," Harris said in 1998, explaining how he developed the character. "There's no longevity in a part like that. They'd have to kill me off in five episodes, and I'd be out of a job, unemployed again, right? So I began to sneak in the things for which I am -- at the risk of seeming immodest -- justly famous. Comedic villainy."

Grudgingly, Allen was forced to give Harris carte blanche to do what he wanted -- because the improvisations worked.

Pompous and verbose, Harris' Smith became well-known for certain catch-phrases. He had his own names for Robot, such as "you bumbling bag of bolts" or "you primitive pile of pistons." In addition to his insulting references to Robot and his deadpan "Oh, the pain, the pain," there were "you bubble-headed booby," "you Neanderthal ninnies" and the oft-quoted "Never fear, Smith is here."

Initially, the Smith character contracted with foreign enemies to sabotage the spaceship's control panel, ruining the Robinsons' planned five-year exploratory trip to a planet in the Alpha Centauri star system. But telegraphing his series-long perpetual bumbling, Smith trapped himself aboard as well. When the Jupiter II crash-landed, Smith had to make an uneasy truce with those he had sought to maroon.

The curmudgeon, whose doctorate supposedly was in "intergalactic environmental psychology," was always trying to make deals with extra-terrestrial life forms to return him -- but not the Robinsons or Robot or their pilot -- to Earth. He would sell parts of Robot or, when threatened, shove the littlest Robinson forward and say "Take the boy! Take the boy!" What made Smith as likable as he was inept, however, was that he would redeem himself by recovering the piece of metal or the boy.

Creating the character that made him an international caricature, Harris said on CBS' "The Early Show" earlier this year, was "the most fun in the whole world. I loved creating ... that dreadful, wonderful man."

Nevertheless, Harris always considered his favorite television role that of 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.

Born Jonathan Charasuchin in the Bronx to poor Russian- Jewish immigrants, Harris began working as a box boy in a pharmacy at age 12. Later, changing his surname to one more easily pronounced by Americans, he earned a pharmacy degree at Fordham University and worked as a pharmacist.

But he wanted to act and taught himself elocution to shake his Bronx accent. He began working in repertory at the Millpond Playhouse in Roslyn, Long Island, and within three years had been in 125 plays in stock companies across the country. With that background, he made his Broadway debut in 1942, starring in Gilbert Miller's production of "Heart of a City."

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