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1914 - 2002
Jonathan Harris, the delightfully flamboyant actor who portrayed the dastardly, cowardly antagonist Dr. Zachary Smith on Lost in Space died on Sunday, 3 November 2002. He was 87 and lived in the Encino section of Los Angeles.
Harris died Sunday from a blood clot in his heart while receiving therapy at an Encino-area hospital for a chronic back problem. This seemed an ironic and somehow fitting way to die for a man whose Dr. Smith character was perpetually crying: "Oh, my delicate back!"
Lost in Space, which ran on CBS from 1965 to 1968, was a science fiction adaptation of the Swiss Family Robinson story in which the castaway clan was trapped amid the uncharted fathoms of space instead of on a deserted island. Harris' character, Dr. Smith, was a saboteur who caused the Robinson family's ship, Jupiter II, to fly off course — but he also found himself trapped with them in the craft.
As the crew visited various alien worlds in their
quest to return to Earth, Smith developed a close relationship with the
family's son, Will Robinson (played by Bill
Mumy), and nurtured a long-standing feud with the arm-waggling, glass-domed robot.
Harris delighted in his character's alliterative insults for the mechanized co-star and often thought up his own lines to insult the Robot, such as "You sanctimonious scatterbrain!" "bubble-headed booby," "Neanderthal ninny," and "cantankerous clump." His over-the-top delivery and melodramatic cries of "We're doomed!" were a signature of the series.
He was born Jonathan Charasuchin on 14 November 1914, grew up in the Bronx, and changed his name to Harris when he was eighteen. He acquired a love of acting after a family friend exposed him to the opera and the theater. Harris adopted the stage persona of a classically trained British actor with his grandiloquent accent, crisp enunciation and professorial manner. When people would ask him if he was from England, Harris would confess: "'Oh no, my dear, just affected,'" said Kevin Burns, a longtime friend and director of the 1998 documentary "Lost in Space Forever."
Harris worked as a stock boy in a neighborhood pharmacy and went on to study pharmacology at Fordham University, but his heart lay in the arts. In 1938, he married his high school sweetheart, Gertrude Bregmen. A few years after receiving a degree in pharmacology from Fordham, he submitted a falsified résumé and auditioned in 1939 for the repertory company at the Millpond Playhouse in Roslyn, Long Island, where he performed in sixteen company productions. During WWII, he performed in plays in the South Pacific for troops.
He made his Broadway debut in 1942, starring in Gilbert Miller's Heart of a City. In 1946, he performed opposite Marlon Brando and Paul Muni in A Flag Is Born. His career on the legit stage continued throughout the 1950s with roles in the original U.S. productions of The Madwoman of Chaillot, The Grass Harp, Hazel Flagg, and The Teahouse of the August Moon.
He also began carving out memorable roles in television, appearing in Lights Out, Studio One, Kraft Television Theater, and Zorro. In The Third Man (1959-61) he played the dour, humorless assistant Bradford Webster.
Harris also appeared with Alan Ladd and James
Mason in the 1953 movie Botany Bay. Other film roles include Catch
Me If You Can (1959) and The Big
It was after a two-year stint as Mr. Phillips on The Bill Dana Show (1963-64) that Harris was cast in the first ongoing space adventure, Lost in Space. A late addition to the crew, Harris was the first actor to receive the "Special Guest Star" credit. He reportedly beat out Carroll O'Connor and Eddie Albert for the part of Dr. Smith.
After "Lost In Space," Harris returned to regional theater and guest starring over the next couple of decades in shows such as The Twilight Zone, Bewitched, Land of the Giants, Battlestar Galactica, and so on. Mr. Harris, whose flexible baritone could range from silliness to threatening condescension, performed voice-over work for many programs, including the children's series Problem Child (1993) as well as cartoons such as Rainbow Brite (1986), Darkwing Duck (1991), and Freakazoid! (1995). He also lend his colorful voice to the Disney movies A Bug's Life (1998) and Toy Story 2 (1999).
Burns said Harris was planning to reprise the role for a television movie based on the old series, in which a new group of space travelers encounter the old "Lost in Space" family.
However, Harris declined to do a walk-on role on the 1998 Lost in Space movie, in which Dr. Smith was played by actor Gary Oldman. "He would broadly say, 'I don't do cameos, baby."
Harris remained proud of the character he created, and often appeared at fan conventions to promote Lost in Space nostalgia merchandise.
Harris was survived by his wife of 64 years, Gertrude; a son, Richard; two granddaughters and two sisters. A memorial service was scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday, 6 November 2002, which would have been his 88th birthday, at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles.
Biographical note adapted with gratitude from
the following sources:
Dennis Martin. "Jonathan Harris: Actor." Variety. (6 November 2002).
Eric Pace. "Jonathan Harris, Played Dr. Smith in 'Lost in Space,' Dies at 87." New York Times. (5 November 2002).
Anthony Breznican." 'Lost in Space' Actor Harris Dies." Associated Press. (4 November 2002).