The unusual way Jonathan Harris was cast in Lost in Space

The term “special guest star” wasn’t common for a recurring character in a series, but Harris used that as an opportunity.

Jonathan Harris was best known for his role as Dr. Smith in Lost in Space, giving us the classic line “Oh, the pain, the pain” along with countless quick-witted insults. 

Usually, there’s some sort of back and forth negotiating between an actor looking to land a part, and the producer that is willing to give it. For Harris, the encounter prior to becoming a regular on the show was an experience he wouldn’t have again the rest of his career.

In a 2001 interview with the Television Academy Foundation, Harris explained it was a wild stretch when weighing his options for Lost in Space.

“I was hired, by a very talented man named Irwin Allen, a strange talented man who was humorless. Totally without humor.”

“My then agent… calls me up one day in 1962 and said Irwin Allen is doing a television series at 20th Century Fox. I said, ‘who is Irwin Allen’” Harris chuckled.

Harris was no stranger to doing research on various producers and big names at the time, giving him an “even keel” approach to various opportunities throughout his career. When Allen came calling for Lost In Space, Harris wanted to inquire more about the show and his potential role, but Allen wouldn’t say what the part on the show would be. This caused hesitation and a little game of cat and mouse until the deal was eventually done.

In the interview, Harris recalls telling his agent, “you tell Mr. Allen that I hesitate to show film unless I know what the part is.”

The story goes that after Harris had rejected submitting film to Mr. Allen for the part in Lost in Space, Allen called back and requested to see Harris in person later the same day.

Harris recounts seeing Allen for the first time, saying “I walked in there and there was this strange looking man sitting at a huge table surrounded by about 20 yes men. I was already terrified.”

“Who do you think you are, no film?” Harris says Allen exclaimed to him.

In a rather brave and possibly risky response, Harris said “Why would you want to see possibly the wrong film, when you could see the real thing…. me?”

What eventually came out of this strange encounter was Allen blatantly asking Harris if he wanted to be in the show, to which Harris responded, “I don’t know, I haven’t read a script.”

Even after he had a script, Harris’ hardball tactics didn’t stop, as he brought up billing. He wanted to know where his name would fall in the opening credits of the show.

Allen informed him that his name would be last, citing the eventual unaired pilot had already been shot and all other actors were billed.

Harris wasn’t necessarily comfortable with being last on the credit list, but still wasn’t sure he would take the part. Upon reading the script, Harris realized he had a fantastic opportunity in front of him.

“This is good,” Harris recalled. “This is going to work, and it’s a marvelous part this villain, terrible villain.”

But the question of billing remained. After contacting a friend, who was the head of casting at NBC, Harris had a proposition for Mr. Allen.

The term “special guest star” wasn’t common for a recurring character in a series, but Harris used that as an opportunity. Harris told Allen he would accept last place in billing if his name followed the phrase “special guest star,” undoubtedly bolstering his presence on the show.

That request made to Allen went over as you might expect.

“You should have heard him” Harris said. “I never heard such cursing and screaming.”

Obviously, a calmer version of Allen prevailed and all aspects fell into place for Harris, including the billing he wanted.

During season one episodes, the final name in the opening credits reads “special guest star Jonathan Harris.”

Harris went on to be one of the solidified stars of the show, appearing in all but the unaired pilot episode across the series’ three seasons. Appearing in other sci-fi shows such as Space Academy and a recurring voice role as “Lucifer” in Battlestar Galactica, some typecasting issues he faced were swept away with many more voiceover roles such as A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2 and animated TV series Problem Child, just to name a few.

Harris, who passed away in 2002, had plenty of opportunities in his career, but none will compare to the success of Lost in Space, or the story behind his casting.

“In my whole career I never experienced anybody like that,” Harris said of Irwin Allen.

Allen, though strange to Harris, was no stranger to success in the industry. Following much success in the sci-fi world with Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Land of the Giants, he was nicknamed the “master of disaster” for multiple works in the disaster film segment.

While it may have been an unorthodox process with a “strange” man, Harris and Dr. Smith remain household names when it comes to the realm of sci-fi television.

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BorisK 13 months ago
Harris was good on Lost In Space ... probably one of the first most obvious closeted gays on the tube next to Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly.
BenSobeleone 15 months ago
The first guest star on Lost in Space was Warren Oates as US astronaut Jimmy Hapgood.
MichaelFields 21 months ago
I REALLY liked him in the beginning as he was evil and kind of brave and smart, then after that he started just being like a joke and scared all the time, I mean he was a Air Force Captain, and to act like that, come on, he was a spy, not a spy where you say, hey this giant carrot will get you if you do not tell us what you want, and he does
NickBush 21 months ago
If I was on that ship, The good Doctor Smith would of been shown how the Air Lock works!
JustGeri 21 months ago
On the one hand, JH likely helped LiS become a hit, but he was also ultimately responsible for its demise. As “Fonzie” took over Happy Days, though over a stretch of time, “Dr. Smith” took over LiS from the get go. I’ve just been able to watch the 1st season in black and white and I like much more than what I remember of the colorized episodes.

But one my biggest frustration is never getting to see Maj. Don West really get together with Judy. Seems like the first season, that was coming, but it never did. And yes, I fully admit to crushing on Mark Goddard/“Don West!” And he still looks great.
JERRY6 21 months ago
he was one of a kind , no one can ever play Dr Smith
F5Twitster 21 months ago
"Even after he had a script, Harris’ hardball antics didn’t stop, as he brought up billing. He wanted to know where his name would fall in the opening credits of the show."

You surely mean hardball TACTICS, not antics.
TlorDagama 21 months ago
Oh my gosh that guy was a total pill! We wanted to see more of Guy Williams, who had played the part of Zorro on the Disney shows, not that scrawny creature. He just got the family into all sorts of troubles. AS his part grew the family was background to his schemes, wished the family had finally fixed their ship and left him on the last planet!
ruswilinc TlorDagama 21 months ago
Yes. Harris, in my opinion, is what ruined the series. It went from hopeful science fiction adventure to a show for little children. The longer it ran, the stupider it got.
lynngdance 21 months ago
Random thought, Jonathon Harris plays Manny The Mantis in Disney-Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life”. On Disney+ there’s some cool behind the scenes stuff from A Bug’s Life with/about Jonathon Harris. If I find it on YouTube I’ll post it here. 🙂
lynngdance lynngdance 21 months ago
This isn’t the exact video I saw, but it seems pretty similar. Enjoy! 😁

Also, here’s a picture of Jonathan Harris’s Manny The Mantis character, in case your curious. 🙂
JDnHuntsvilleAL 21 months ago
Could someone please explain what it means for an actor to "show film"? I tried Ducking it but only come up with results about showing film in general.
LoveMETV22 JDnHuntsvilleAL 21 months ago
I believe the interview they are quoting is from " The Archive of American Television."

Pretty much what JH was saying was that IA wanted film footage of him, ( as IA was considering a few actors for the Dr. Smith role.)
BorisK JDnHuntsvilleAL 13 months ago
It's when an actor shares a reel of past performances so producers can see what they've been in, how well or porrly they acted, etc.
sputnik_57 21 months ago
I remember watching LiS as a boy about 8 years old. I had missed the first few episodes, so I was unaware that Smith was a foreign agent who had programmed the Robot to sabotage the Jupiter 2. It wasn't until a few seasons later...perhaps a couple of the episode where he is put on trial; that I actually knew his story. I was shocked! (uh, maybe, not really)
ncadams27 21 months ago
Wasn’t Martin Landau billed that way on Mission:Impossible?
Mirramanee ncadams27 21 months ago
Yes! I believe he was...I always found that unusual way of billing rather odd.
Dwight Mirramanee 21 months ago
Just for the first season. He was the last actor hired for the principal cast. Right after he was hired, the network informed the producer that there wasn’t any money left in the budget for the regular cast. Luckily, they found out that the network was unopposed to having him appear, and be paid, as a “guest star” on a recurring basis.

Hollywood accounting in action.
Barry22 21 months ago
I believe reading somewhere Carroll O'Connor also auditioned for the part. "Stifle yourself metalhead"
Snickers Barry22 21 months ago
Can't stand the thought of anyone other than Harris calling the robot a bubble headed booby.
Pacificsun Snickers 21 months ago
He would've played it as the villain. And got himself written out after 6 episodes, just JH said. would happen! I've watched him be a villain in other adventure/fantasy shows, and he's humorless.
LoveMETV22 Barry22 21 months ago
It says on Wikipedia there were 3 and Harris got the part.
LoveMETV22 Barry22 21 months ago
The other actor was Jack Elam that auditioned for the part of Dr. Smith.
Michael 21 months ago
I thought this would be about him sneakig onto the set and appearing on camera, so they had to keep him.
Pacificsun Michael 21 months ago
Well wasn't there something in the original pilot (or writing) about the character, who JH adapted for himself, stowed away in the Jupitar before taking off from earth. And that character's weight counter-balanced the prescribed amount the journey was calculated for. Which put them off course. But that character was replaced by JH, who was included for the reason of being a necessary doctor.
Michael Pacificsun 21 months ago
He was a s towaway. In the movie, he was a sabateur
tomtriox Pacificsun 21 months ago
He was an enemy agent who programmed the Robot to destroy the Jupiter 2 several hours into the voyage. Dr. Smith failed to get off the ship in time. The episode is called "The Reluctant Stowaway". In a later episode they find that his extra weight caused the ship to veer off course, but if it hadn't it would have been destroyed by a meteor. By the way the show was on CBS, not NBC.
TlorDagama Pacificsun 21 months ago
yes he was a stowaway
LoveMETV22 21 months ago
🚀🚀 Some interesting " 𝘽𝙚𝙝𝙞𝙣𝙙 𝙏𝙝𝙚 𝙎𝙘𝙚𝙣𝙚𝙨 𝙋𝙞𝙘𝙨" from Lost in Space The original series. 🚀🚀
Pacificsun LoveMETV22 21 months ago
Part of that JH interview said (essentially) that the monsters were so cheesy because IA was so cheap, and shared them around all his series. The cast/crew agreed that the Great Vegetable Rebellion was the most ridiculous script of the Series. And that if you watch the Leads closely they couldn't help themselves from laughing.

The clip below is fun too. About Grandpa Munster teaching Dr. Smith how to improvise a scene to extend the running time, so as not to have to shoot it over.

Harris said it was the most fun role he's ever played, and took credit for developing that character from the ground up. But strangely he was never nominated for an Emmy. Nor was ST:TOS for that matter, in terms of acting.
bagandwallyfan52 21 months ago
Jonathan Harris was the Perfect
Choice to play Dr. Zachary Smith
On Lost In Space .
Dr, Zachary Smith was a wonderful
Villian and troublemaker on
Lost In Space.
LoveMETV22 21 months ago
What a fun show for its time. Credit to Jonathan Harris for making his request clear to Irwin Allen. Articles on the series have said JH had written some of his own material for the show with IA's blessing, due to his popularity on the show.
Pacificsun 21 months ago
I watched those interviews too, and have listened to JH recount them in other situations. The man has a crystal clear memory, because the stories have been related to others in exactly the same way. He's the kind of personality who elicits respect from others by maintaining his composure and being conservative with his demands. If you notice carefully, he made that "Special Guest Star" request, making sure that no one had the billing, so he couldn't be compared to anyone in kind, in opposition to himself. And the brilliant move he made, was to give ego-driven IA, what he imagined to be, a simple solution. One of my favorite actor stories!
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