“I believe we have the biggest, most colorful circus film ever made. Ours is no ordinary three-ring tent show. It is the circus of our childhood dreams, when everything was greater and grander than they could be in real life.”
Irwin Allen was talking about his new movie The Big Circus when he gave that quote to a reporter, but simply take out the word circus and put in the word “adventure” and he could have been talking about any one of his famed TV or movie projects.
Irwin Allen didn’t do anything half-way. If two stars were good; 8 stars was glorious. One explosion? Forget it; rig an entire high-rise to blow. More color. More noise. More gadgets. With Irwin, bigger was always so much better and that’s why it took author Marc Cushman two years and 2,000 pages to tell the man’s story.
Cushman has done what I’ve been threatening to do for ages; he complied everything there is to know about Irwin Allen in a series of highly detailed books. The first one: Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space Volume One begins with some rarely visited biographical information and chapters on each of his first movies. From there, we get 10 pages or more on each episode of Lost in Space. In future volumes, we’ll hear about Irwin’s other TV shows and travel ahead to his Master of Disaster period.
To create the books, Cushman spent hours researching, unearthing an incredible amount of documentation on every aspect of Irwin’s career. He scoured the files at the UCLA and Variety archives. He was given access to Irwin’s personal papers (curated by Worlds of Irwin Allen caretaker Kevin Burns) and he interviewed everyone he could find who was associated with the films or TV shows. He even found out formerly unheard bits about Irwin’s early life from the man’s nephew!
Now that the books are at the printers, Marc had time to sit down with me and talk about this massive undertaking. Like a true Irwin Allen production, these books are oversized epics loaded with fun and fascinating details.
Cyn: Before throwing yourself into this project, you spent years writing the same kind of detailed tomes about another cult favorite; Star Trek. How did that come about?
Marc: I met Gene Roddenberry back in the mid-80’s when I interviewed him for a TV documentary on Star Trek right before Wrath of Khan came out. When I was a kid, my favorite book was “The Making of Star Trek“. It showed you about the inner workings of the series, but it was mostly about the pilot. It didn’t get into any of the episodes specifically. So I asked Gene, do you have those kinds of records on the other episodes and he said yeah, we have over 40 boxes with memos and a couple of files on every episode. He invited me to do a book on Star Trek that would focus on all the episodes. It was going to be one book and it turned into 3, one for each season, with 700 pages or close to it in each book.
I wanted to give Irwin the same respect and treatment I did for Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek. Irwin Allen was the one that made it possible for us to have a Star Trek. If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be celebrating Star Trek’s 50th Anniversary with all the hoopla.
Cyn: You’re going to have to explain that.
Marc: Irwin Allen came on in fall of ‘64 with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. That year, none of the networks thought that type of show could be done on a TV budget. They didn’t think it would be delivered on time, and they didn’t think that it would draw a mass audience big enough to satisfy Madison Ave.
Irwin Allen came to them at a time when 20th Century Fox was hurting and he couldn’t get a movie off the ground because of Cleopatra and the Marilyn Monroe movie that was never released. The studio had poured so much money into those movies, it crippled them. The only money was in the TV division, so Irwin said, I’ll move into TV. Irwin was a workaholic and it just killed him not to be working. So he went to ABC and pitched Voyage. He said listen, I’ve saved all the 3 of the submarines, we’ve got the moat, we’ve got the costumes, we’ve got stock footage from the movie. We can absolutely do this on a TV budget and I always deliver on time. They gave him a budget of $124,000 an episode, which was very small but it was typical of what hour long TV shows got back then, and he came pretty close to keeping it on budget and on schedule.
Voyage goes on Monday nights. CBS had been winning for a decade with To Tell the Truth and I’ve Got a Secret until Voyage came on. It’s winning its time slot, it’s killing CBS, so CBS comes to Irwin Allen to see if he’ll do a show for them. He said, I want to do Space Family Robinson – Swiss Family Robinson in outer space (but not on Monday nights!)
The Voyage pilot, which Irwin Allen directed, which is epic as all his pilots were, was $450,000. That was the most that had ever been spent on a pilot at that time. Lost in Space was about $550,000. One year later, across town at Desilu, the Star Trek pilot came in at $650,000. It’s expensive to do Science Fiction; all the effects, props, costumes, alien planets, chariots, all that stuff. And so NBC didn’t want to go with Star Trek because they said, you’re not going to be able to do it on budget after what you spent on the pilot. Then Lost in Space comes on and it’s winning its night and that’s what got NBC to say, okay we gotta have one, too. So, in the fall of ‘66, they came on with Star Trek.
Cyn: So it was Irwin’s ability to deliver reasonably priced, successful SciFi on TV that opened the door for Roddenberry to do Star Trek. Interesting. Just from that, I can tell you did some mad research for this book. How did you go about pulling it all together?
Marc: Before I interview anyone, I go through the show files; all the memos, all the budgets and schedules and problems with the network. Once I had all that stuff to build the skeleton of the book, then I jump on the newspaper archives and Daily Variety archives. I go back in time because I love using the reviews that came out so we know what they thought of this show when it premiered and what they thought of each episode when it aired.
The more verbiage I can get from the time, the better, because we don’t need it to be interpreted. We want to hear what they’re saying in the memos, in the reviews, in the promotional materials so we can witness the show being produced and coming alive and being discovered by the fans for the first time.
Then I go and interview everybody I can find. When you interview people, they don’t remember. It was a long time ago, so you need to know more about it than they know. What you’re trying to get is their personal reflection, but you’ve got to come in with all the fact and information. For the people who are no longer with us, I go searching for archival interviews so I can get everybody’s voice into the project.
I did get a lot of great interviews from people no one had gotten to before, for example, Lou Hunter who was the ABC executive assigned to all the Irwin Allen shows and Herman Rush who was Irwin Allen’s TV agent and of course Billy Mumy who remembers everything so clearly like it was yesterday. And Kevin had interviewed a lot of these people like Jonathan Harris and Al Gail who have passed away and none of these had ever been published, so all that stuff is coming out for the first time in these books as well. So god bless Kevin, he did a lot of my work for me interviewing these people because I can’t do it now.
Cyn: Now that you’ve read and heard it all, I hope you can answer a question that’s been bugging me for years; why do all of Irwin Allen’s TV shows start out dark and serious but end up silly? (Not that I’m complaining. I love the silly episodes! “Deadly Dolls” on Voyage is one of my all-time faves.)
Marc: It was all because of the networks. Irwin started doing Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea as a serious show. He’d occasionally throw in a monster or a robot, but most of them were espionage. It was doing very well in the ratings, but every time he did a monster episode or an aliens from outer space episode, the ratings would jump even higher and ABC would say give us more of those. They start doing it, and it gets to the point where they’re doing monster of the week by the third season and it’s the highest rated season. So the network is saying, every week we need a monster and Irwin would say, if that’s what you want, that’s what you’ll get. It’s not the show I started out to make, but the audience likes it, you like it, everybody’s happy. I’m going to give it to you.
Same with Lost in Space. The show was very, very dark and Dr. Smith was very dark. The robot was very dark. He tried to kill them. CBS came and said, we’re getting too many letters, you’re scaring the kids. They want to watch, but the parents are getting upset. The kids are having nightmares. Dr. Smith is homicidal! So, they were going to get rid of Jonathan Harris. Kill him and dismantle the robot. So Jonathan Harris, with his survival instinct, thought I’m on a hit show. If I want to stick around, I have to find a way to work in humor.
Then Batman comes on and Lost in Space drops to third place or second depending on the week. It’s the opening show for CBS, it’s vital to have a hit at the beginning of the night because back then, you didn’t have remote controls and people didn’t want to get up and change channels. Can you be more like Batman? You’re going to be in color, can you be a little more fantastic? And Irwin said, I’ll fight fire with fire and he did. About 10 weeks into the second season, Lost in Space is number 1 from the beginning and Batman has dropped to #2. A year later it’s off the network entirely and Lost in Space is doing fine.
He’d sneak in some scary episodes and serious episodes like the “Anti-Matter Man” in the 3rd season. And he’s doing so well, the network lets him get away with it. We’ll deal with a letter once a month, but we don’t want to deal with them every week. That’s the compromise.
Cyn: If there’s one thing Irwin Allen is known for, it’s for his toys; the Seaview, the Chariot, the Jupiter II, the Spindrift and of course, The Robot. I have a model of everyone of those vehicles in my living room. Those designs are a huge part of Irwin’s legacy. (This image is one of Lars’ models. Check them all out on his website.)
Marc: Irwin was a kid at heart and he had all those props in his office, too. He loved them. In Irwin’s series proposal for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, he even says, the Seaview is one of our lead characters.
Gene Roddenberry never considered the Enterprise a character, even though it became one. He was from the school of writers that said a story is about a character with an urgent problem; a need to make something happen and that’s Captain Kirk.
Irwin Allen said, it’s man against element, it’s man against man and it’s fantastic effects. He saw the Seaview and the Jupiter II as important characters. He would not allow anybody to know that there was a man inside the robot. Poor Bob May never got a screen credit, they denied it anytime anybody asked until the third season. But for the first 2 years, he wanted people to be able to watch that and wonder, is that really a robot. A lot of people thought it was. A lot of people still do.
Let’s talk about Bob May. What a talented man. He had to squeeze inside that thing; there were sharp jagged things and electrical wires inside. He could get fried in an instant if something shorted out. He memorized all the dialogue, so he could feed lines to whoever he was talking to, even though they replaced his voice, which broke his heart – but it was the right thing to do. But look what he did, how he could spin around, how he could lift the bubble up as a reaction, how he learned to give the robot expressions, to use the hands. If you watch really closely, one of those hands is always jiggling a little bit because that’s where the key was that he had to press to make the light flick on and off to coincide with the words he was doing. And he’s doing all of these thing simultaneously. When he’s on tracks, he’s being pulled on cables. When you don’t see his feet, he’s walking and he’s carrying this thing that weighed over 100 pounds on his shoulders and went down to his knees. This guy worked himself to death doing that thing and loved every minute of it.
Cyn: You’ve spent years researching Irwin Allen. Sum him up for me.
Marc: Irwin wanted to be PT Barnum. When he cast Vincent Price to be the ringmaster in The Big Circus, that’s what Irwin wanted to be and what he was. And when he cast Victor Mature in The Big Circus, that’s how he wanted people to look at him; as the flamboyant guy that all the women wanted. He knew he couldn’t be [the man he saw himself to be] so he lived vicariously through these other characters, through John Robinson, through Admiral Nelson. Those were the people he wanted to be in his heart and so created all of that for us.
Marc Cushman’s book Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space: Volume One is available now at Amazon or from Jacobs Brown Press. It’s an enormous book, filled with details galore and hundreds of images, many of which have never been seen before. Believe me, we own a huge collection of Irwin Allen photographs and even we were surprised by what we found between these pages.
If you’ve ever wished you could be on the set of Lost in Space, this book will take you there.