Updated: February 15, 2021
IN MEMORY OF ACTOR JONATHAN HARRIS
Jonathan Harris (born Jonathan Daniel Charasuchin; November 6, 1914 – November 3, 2002) was an American character actor. Two of his best-known roles were as the timid accountant Bradford Webster in the television version of The Third Man and the prissy villain Dr. Zachary Smith of the 1960s science fiction series Lost in Space. Near the end of his career, he provided voices for the animated features A Bug's Life and Toy Story 2.
The second of three children, Harris was born to a poor family on November 6, 1914, in the Bronx, New York City. His parents were Sam and Jennie Charasuchin, Russian Jewish immigrants who eked out a living in Manhattan's garment district. His family resided in a six-tenant apartment complex. To raise money, his mother took in boarders, some of whom were given Jonathan's bed, forcing Jonathan to sleep on dining room chairs. From the age of 12, he worked as a pharmacy clerk.
While there was little money for luxuries, Jonathan's father took efforts to expand his son's cultural horizons. This included trips to the Yiddish Theatre, where he was encouraged by his father to listen to opera. Young Jonathan was enthralled. He discarded his Bronx accent and began to cultivate more sophisticated English tones. Although he could seldom afford tickets to them, Broadway plays were also an early interest. As a teenager, he also developed interests in archaeology, Latin, romantic poetry and Shakespeare.
In 1931, at age 16, he graduated from James Monroe High School, where his classmates included Estelle Reiner. He had difficulty fitting in with peers, with the exception of his girlfriend and future wife, Gertrude Bregman.
He legally changed his name from "Charasuchin" to "Harris" while still a teenager in 1932, without informing his parents of the change. That same year, Harris's work at the pharmacy led him to attend nearby Fordham University. He graduated from Fordham in 1936 with a degree in pharmacology, and, for a time, worked in various drugstores. He married in 1938.
Acting was Harris's first love. At age 24, he prepared a fake résumé and tried out for a repertory company at the Millpond Playhouse in Long Island, New York and appeared in several of this troupe's plays, prior to landing a spot in the company. In 1942, Harris won the leading role of a Polish officer in the Broadway play The Heart of a City. Adopting a Polish accent, he advised the producers that his parents were originally from Poland. In 1946, he starred in A Flag Is Born, opposite Quentin Reynolds and Marlon Brando.
Harris was a popular character actor for 30 years on television, making his first guest appearance on an episode of The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre in 1949. The role led to other roles in such series as: The Web, Lights Out, Goodyear Television Playhouse, two episodes of Hallmark Hall of Fame, Armstrong Circle Theatre, 3 episodes of Studio One, Telephone Time, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, Climax!, The Outlaws, The Twilight Zone, Bonanza, The Rogues, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, and Zorro, among many others.
Harris returned to television, where he landed a co-starring role opposite Michael Rennie in The Third Man, from 1959-65. He played Bradford Webster, an eccentric, cowardly assistant. Half the episodes were shot in London, England; the rest were filmed in Hollywood. Harris's teenaged son would visit the set at this time, and Harris did whatever he could to bridge the gap between father and son and tried to make up for lost time.
Harris appeared in two 1961 episodes of The Twilight Zone, including a heroic role in "The Silence", in which he ended up defending a young man challenged to be silent for a whole year at a prestigious gentleman's club. Harris also portrayed Charles Dickens in a 1963 episode of Bonanza.
From 1963-65, Harris co-starred in the sitcom The Bill Dana Show. He played Mr. Phillips, the pompous manager of a posh hotel who is constantly at odds with his bumbling Bolivian bellhop, the Bill Dana character José Jiménez. A similar formula was later used in John Cleese's British hotel comedy Fawlty Towers.) Don Adams rounded out the cast as an inept house detective, a character whose distinctive mannerisms and catchphrases would soon carry over into his Maxwell Smart role on Get Smart. In similar fashion, several of Harris's tropes from the series, such as "Oh, the pain!", along with the character's mannerisms and delivery, became part of the Dr. Zachary Smith character on Lost in Space.
In an apparent homage to his earlier role, Harris played a similarly pompous diplomat on Get Smart in 1970. His female assistant was named Zachary. Harris also guest-starred on The Ghost & Mrs. Muir.
Harris was cast over two other actors for the role of Dr. Zachary Smith, the evil and conniving double agent on Lost in Space. The character did not appear in the original 1965 pilot episode for CBS, nor did The Robot. The series was already in production when Harris joined the cast, and starring/co-starring billing had already been contractually assigned. Harris successfully negotiated to receive "Special Guest Star" billing on every episode.
Bill Mumy said about Harris' role in his first episode, "It was actually implied that this villainous character that sabotaged the mission and ended up with us was going to be killed off after a while." Mumy added, "Jonathan played him as written, which was this really dark, straight-ahead villain."
The series was successful upon its debut, and midway through the first season, Harris began to rewrite his own dialogue. Due to Harris's popularity on the show, Irwin Allen approved his changes and gave him carte blanche as a writer. According to Bill Mumy, Harris quickly moved to develop the character: "And we'd start working on a scene together, and he'd have a line, and then in the script I'd have my reply, and he'd say, 'No, no, no, dear boy. No, no, no. Before you say that, The Robot will say this, this, this, this, this, this, and this, and then, you'll deliver your line.'" Mumy also said of Harris' portrayal, "He truly, truly singlehandedly created the character of Dr. Zachary Smith that we know — this man we love to hate, coward who would cower behind the little boy, 'Oh, the pain! Save me, William!' That's all him!"
Harris subsequently stole the show, mainly via a seemingly never-ended series of alliterative insults directed toward The Robot, which soon worked their way into popular culture. Dr. Smith's best-known tropes included spitefully calling The Robot epithets such as "bubble-headed booby" and "clamoring clod".
One of Harris' co-stars, Mark Goddard, said of the series' eventual shift toward Harris' character, "I guess it was because they felt that the people wanted to see more of The Robot and Jonathan." Goddard believed that the series' creator, Irwin Allen, distanced the show from its original "more science fiction"-based concept: "Irwin can really do those things so beautifully. So he really took those away from himself when he wanted to deal with The Robot and Jonathan playing games, cooking soufflés, or whatever else."
A strong bond developed between Harris, Mumy, and some of the rest of the cast during the series' three-year tenure. However, according to Mark Goddard:
There was a lot of tension on the set for the three years it was filmed. There was always a lot of tension, because the shows started going more toward The Robot and Smith. There were hard feelings from especially Guy and June, and also myself, but not as heavy as them, because they were originally sold as being the stars of the show when it began. It ended up that Harris became the star of the show.... I think there was a period for a couple of months when I was angry at Jonathan Harris, for the same reasons, feeling that he was getting too many shows thrown his way. But we talk today. I see him, and there's no animosity between us.
When the series was renewed for its third and final season, it remained focused on Harris' character, Dr. Smith. While the series was still solidly placed in the middle of the ratings pack, the writers appeared to run out of fresh ideas, and the show was unexpectedly cancelled in 1968 after 83 episodes, despite protests from its fans.
Harris was succeeded in the role of Dr. Smith by Gary Oldman in the 1998 film version, who played the role as a more genuinely menacing and less likeable character than Harris's on television. For the forthcoming 2018 reboot of Lost in Space as a Netflix original series, the character of Dr. Smith was rewritten as female (though still named Zachary), and Parker Posey was cast in the role.
In the mid-1970s, Harris starred in live-action roles in two Saturday morning children's series, Space Academy and Uncle Croc's Block, and was a well-known TV spokesman for the International House of Pancakes. He made several cameo and guest appearances during this period, including two episodes of Bewitched, and Sanford and Son.
In a 1971 episode of Night Gallery, entitled "Since Aunt Ada Came to Stay", Harris played Professor Nicholas Porteus. Porteus's knowledge of witches and how to destroy them, led to his death; but helped resolve the episode's conflict.
His last series guest-starring role was on an episode of Fantasy Island. He also starred as the character Fagan in the first episode of the science fiction series Ark II.
Harris taught drama and gave voice lessons to Chuck Norris, who acknowledged Harris with a credit in Good Guys Wear Black (1978).
Although he was considered something of a cult icon for the role of Dr. Smith, Harris became typecast as a fey and sometimes campy villain. For example, Irwin Allen cast Harris as a villainous "Pied Piper" in an episode of Land of the Giants. Approached by Allen a second time, to star in a children's series, Jumbalina and the Teeners, Harris turned it down.
In 1970, Harris played the role of another not-so-likeable villain, the Bulmanian Ambassador in the Get Smart episode "How Green Was My Valet." Harris was also a co-star, alongside Charles Nelson Reilly, in the series Uncle Croc's Block, in which Harris and Reilly portrayed malcontents producing a children's television show. Harris played the director and Reilly the titular host, Uncle Croc. In the cartoon Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light, he played lackey and sycophant to the main villain.
Harris also provided the voice of the Cylon character Lucifer, an antagonist on the original 1978 ABC version of Battlestar Galactica.
Harris spent much of his later career as a voice actor, heard in television commercials as well as cartoons such as Channel Umptee-3, The Banana Splits, My Favorite Martians, Rainbow Brite, Darkwing Duck, Happily Ever After, Problem Child, 1994 Spider-Man series, A Bug's Life, Buzz Lightyear of Star Command and Toy Story 2. He also did voiceover work in an episode of the animated Superman series.
In multiple episodes of the 1995–1997 cartoon series Freakazoid!, Harris reprised the cowardly Smith character and dialogue under the name "Professor Jones," uttering Smith's catchphrase "Oh, the pain!" Emphasizing the target of the parody, numerous characters would ask him, "Weren't you on a TV show with a robot?"
In 2001, a year prior to his death, he recorded voice work for the animated theatrical short The Bolt Who Screwed Christmas. The film, Harris's last work, was released posthumously in 2009.
In 1990, Harris reunited with the cast of Lost in Space in a filmed celebration of the 25th anniversary of the series' debut, at an event attended by more than 30,000 fans. Harris made a number of other convention appearances with other cast members of Lost in Space, including a 1996 appearance at Disney World.
On June 14, 1995, Harris and other cast members appeared in The Fantasy Worlds of Irwin Allen, a television tribute to Irwin Allen, the creator of Lost in Space, who had died in 1991.
Harris refused to make a cameo appearance in the 1998 motion picture version of Lost in Space, unlike many of his co-stars in the original series. He announced, "I've never played a bit part in my life and I'm not going to start now!" However, he did make promotional appearances for the film:
Harris reprised his role as Dr. Smith in the one-hour television special Lost in Space Forever, and Harris and the rest of the surviving television cast appeared on the inside cover of an issue of TV Guide.
In April 1998, Harris appeared as a guest on the talk show Biography, on which Harris fondly reminisced about his Lost in Space days, admitting he would stay up nights thinking of new alliterative insults for The Robot ("bellicose bumpkin," "bubble-headed booby") because he enjoyed the interaction so much.
For an appearance by Harris, talk show host Conan O'Brien brought one of his characters, Pimp-Bot 5000 (a "robot pimp"), onto the set, and Harris went into character as Dr. Smith and proceeded to insult Pimp-Bot. Shying away from his usual dry, sarcastic, and often self-deprecating style, Conan confessed to Harris that he brought him on the show just to have him insult Pimp-Bot, and that the moment made his day.
In late 2002, Harris and the rest of the surviving cast of the television series were preparing to film an NBC two-hour movie entitled Lost in Space: The Journey Home; however, the project was unable to proceed after Harris's death.
Two months before the reunion TV movie Lost in Space: The Journey Home was set to film, Harris was taken to the hospital with what he thought was a back problem. On November 3, 2002, Harris died of a blood clot to the heart. He was 87 years old, just three days shy of his 88th birthday.
Harris was interred in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, in Westwood Village, in Los Angeles. His funeral eulogists included long time friends: director Arthur Hiller; former Twentieth Century Fox television executive and producer Kevin Burns; and fellow Lost in Space castmate Bill Mumy.
As a tribute to Harris, writer/director John Wardlaw wrote an additional scene for the film The Bolt Who Screwed Christmas, which included Harris's final performance before his death. Wardlaw asked Lost in Space co-stars Bill Mumy, Angela Cartwright, and Marta Kristen to contribute their voices to the film. The three actors reunited in the recording studio on June 14, 2006. "This was the first time they had all been together in something unrelated to Lost in Space and it was a blast. They listened to what Harris had recorded and there were laughs and some tears," Wardlaw stated.
Harris was married to his childhood sweetheart, Gertrude Bregman, from 1938 until his death in 2002. She died of natural causes, at age 93, on August 28, 2007. They had one child, Richard, born 1942.
Throughout his life, Harris had a number of hobbies: gourmet cooking, watching movies, reading, traveling, painting, magic, playing piano (he played a piano teacher in a 1968 episode of Bewitched), listening to opera, spending time with children, gardening and knitting. He also did some dancing in his spare time.