''Who do you think you are?'' The tense story of how Jonathan Harris got cast on Lost in Space
Jonathan Harris on meeting Irwin Allen: "I was already terrified."
"Who do you think you are?" is a very appropriate question for the stowaway Dr. Smith, who gets the Robinson family stranded in the 1960s series Lost in Space. But before the actor who would take on the role of Dr. Smith could even accept the part, that question was already coming at Jonathan Harris from the series creator himself, Irwin Allen.
Harris told the story of this tense exchange between the director and star to the Archive of American Television. He said his agent called him up in 1962 and this is how he remembered the conversation going:
Harris' agent: "Irwin Allen is doing a television series at 20th Century Fox."
Jonathan Harris: "Who is Irwin Allen?"
Agent: "You don't know?"
Harris: "No, I don't."
Agent: "Lost in Space is the name. And he wants to see film on you."
Harris: "Well, tell Mr. Allen that I hesitate to show film unless I know what the part is."
Agent: "Oh, well. He's not going to like that."
Harris' agent was right. Allen did not like that. Harris said his phone rang 10 minutes later with this message from the famous director, "Irwin Allen wants to know who you think you are. And he'll see you at 4 o'clock."
"Isn't that interesting?" Harris muses, remembering this moment. But he wasn't laughing back then. No, Harris described the moment he met Allen for the first time as genuinely terrifying. "I got myself gussied up and I went to 20th Century Fox, which is my favorite movie studio because that was my first series, at Fox. And they directed me to his office and there was a secretary. Her name was Margaret and she said, ‘In there.’ So 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. I hadn’t opened my mouth, except I did say, ‘Good afternoon.’"
Instantly, Harris said, Allen raised his finger and repeated his question in person, "Who do you think you are? No film?" Harris responded and even decades later in the interview, you can almost see the actor squirm like Dr. Smith, "Well, Mr. Allen, why would you want to see possibly the wrong film when you can see the real thing? Me?"
That's when Allen turned to his assistant and said, "What did he say?" And his assistant repeated Harris' answer. Allen then directed a new question at Harris, "Do you want to be in this series?" Harris could only answer honestly: "I don’t know? I haven’t read a script." The director roared at the men gathered around him, "Somebody give him a script!"
But there was something else the director and his soon-to-be star needed to discuss, apart from exactly what the role was, and that was exactly what billing Harris could expect on the show. Allen told him firmly, the pilot had been shot, the contracts had been signed and the billing was already assigned. That meant Harris would by default be listed last. Already intimidated but refusing to back down at this stage in his career, Harris said he mustered the gumption to tell the director, "I’m afraid I would not be comfortable."
That's when Harris remembered Allen got frustrated and said he was too busy to be working on this sort of problem. Harris remembered Allen left with this final order, "Somebody make him comfortable!" and then he told Harris to go home, read the scripts, and if he wanted to solve the billing problem, the actor should do it himself. Harris said in the interview, "In my whole career, I never experienced anything like that! I went home. I read the scripts. Two, they had given me. … And I thought, this is good. This is going to work. And it’s a marvelous part, this villain."
Motivated to figure out how to make himself comfortable with the billing of the show, Harris next called a good friend who he said thankfully was one of the top casting directors around at the time. The casting director gave Harris the inside scoop he needed. Harris asked if anyone had ever been given the billing of "special guest star" for a recurring role on a TV show. The casting director told Harris, "I've never seen anything like that." This gave Harris enough assurance to go back to Allen to propose his compromise, so he called the director up right away. This is how that call went down:
Harris: "I’ve solved your billing problem."
Allen: "I’m busy, I’m busy."
Harris: "I will accept last billing, Special Guest Star Jonathan Harris, every week."
On the other side of the line, Harris remembered a lot of protesting. He said Allen went "on and on and on" and then suddenly, the director said, "Okay!" and hung up. At this moment in the interview, Harris let out a great big laugh and said of this victory over the very particular TV and movie director, "I laughed for about a week."
In the interview, Harris goes on to explain that although he found Allen to be quite "humorless," he also had great respect for the director, saying, "The day that I was hired [for Lost in Space] was by a very talented man named Irwin Allen." And in the end, you could also say that Allen had the same respect for Harris, conceding to give the actor the unusual billing he requested and allowing Harris the opportunity to sneak in a new way to stand out on this famous TV cast.