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Jonathan Harris

Harris in The Twilight Zone television episode "Twenty-Two"
Born Jonathan Daniel Charasuchin
November 6, 1914(1914-11-06)
The Bronx, New York
Died November 3, 2002 (aged 87)
Encino, California
Years active 1940s-2002
Spouse(s) Gertrude Bregman (1938-2002)

Jonathan Harris (November 6, 1914 – November 3, 2002), was an American stage and film character actor. Two of his best-known roles were as the timid accountant Bradford Webster in the tv version of The Third Man, and the comic villain Dr. Zachary Smith, in the 1960s sci-fi television series, Lost in Space. Near the end of his career, he provided the voice of "Manny", a praying mantis in the animated feature A Bug's Life.[1]

Contents

Early life

The second of three children, Harris was born Jonathan Daniel Charasuchin to a poor family in the Bronx, New York. His parents, who eked out a living in Manhattan's garment district, were Sam and Jennie Charasuchin. Jonathan's ancestry was Russian-Jewish and Polish. 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 in the dining room. 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, Broadway plays were also an interest. Before graduation from James Monroe High School in 1931 (at age 16), he had also become interested in archeology, Latin, romantic poetry and, inevitably, Shakespeare. He didn't fit amongst his peers (especially Estelle Reiner --- mother of future actor/director, Rob Reiner, who was one of his classmates) with the exception of his girlfriend, Gertrude Bregman, whom he subsequently married.

In 1932, aged 17, he legally changed his named from "Charasuchin" to "Harris", apparently without informing his parents. That same year, Harris' work at the pharmacy led him to attending Fordham University in New York, where he majored in pharmacology. He graduated in 1936, and worked in several drugstores.

Career

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Stage

Acting was Harris's first love. At 24, he doctored a fake resume and tried out 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 Red Company. In 1942, Jonathan won the leading role of a R.F.D. 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.

Television

Harris became 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 part led to other roles in such shows as: The Web, Lights Out, Goodyear Television Playhouse, 2 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, among many others. He also guest-starred on Get Smart and The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, and his last series guest-starring role was on an episode of Fantasy Island.

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' 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.

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 Mexican bellhop, "José Jiménez" (Bill Dana). This formula presaged the popular John Cleese hotel comedy, Fawlty Towers.

Don Adams rounded out the cast as an inept house detective — his character, dialog, and other comedy bits would soon carry over into his "Maxwell Smart" role on Get Smart. In similar fashion, several of Harris' one-liners from the show (such as "Oh, the pain!"), along with many character mannerisms, 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 is named "Zachary".

Lost in Space

Harris beat out two other actors for the role of conniving, cowardly agent Dr. Zachary Smith on Lost In Space for CBS. The character did not appear in the original 1965 pilot episode (nor did The Robot). The series was already in production when he joined the cast and the starring/co-starring billings had already been contractually assigned, so Harris received a "Special Guest Star" credit on every episode. The show starred Guy Williams as Professor John Robinson; June Lockhart as his wife, Dr. Maureen Robinson; Mark Goddard in the role of Dr. Smith's constant adversary, Major Don West; Marta Kristen as elder daughter Judy Robinson; popular child actress Angela Cartwright as younger daughter Penny Robinson; and child character actor Bill Mumy in the role of Will Robinson, the youngest of the Robinson children – child prodigy and Dr. Smith's friend, defender, and confidant.

A strong bond developed between Harris, Mumy, and some of the rest of the cast during the show's three-year tenure. From its debut, it was an immediate hit, even though midway through the first season, it had competition from another newcomer, Batman, which dominated the ratings. The show continued the tradition of such successful 1960s sci-fi series such as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Midway through the first season, due to Harris' popularity on the show, he began to rewrite the dialogue. Allen approved his changes and gave him carte blanche to become a writer. Harris stole the show, mainly via a list of alliterative insults that soon worked their way into popular speech. When the show was renewed for its third and final season, it remained focused on Harris' character, Dr. Smith. While the series was still a big hit, the writers appeared to run out of fresh ideas, and the show was unexpectedly canceled in 1968, after 83 episodes.

Mumy said about Harris' guest role that 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, who was trying to murder women and children." Mumy also said of Harris's work on Space, "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.'" Bill also said of Harris' portrayal, "He truly, truly singlehandledly 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!" About the show's cancellation, Mumy said, "I don't know what happened. All I know is that we were all told we're coming back. Then, you know we got a call that we weren't." The death of Harris' father in 1977 drew Harris and Mumy closer. The two kept in touch for almost 35 years until Harris' death. In 1996, Mumy was reunited with Harris alongside Leonard Nimoy (of Star Trek fame), at a Disney World convention. It was also reported in 1997 that Mumy, Harris and the rest of the surviving cast appeared on the inside cover of TV Guide to promote the new movie, while the Sci-Fi Channel would feature a Lost in Space marathon. In the actual 1965 television premiere of "Lost in Space", the blast off of the Jupiter 2 is set in the future on October 16, 1997. The Sci-Fi Channel began the "Lost in Space" marathon in real-time 32 years later on October 16, 1997.

Typecasting

Although he is considered something of a cult icon for this role, Harris became typecast as the effete villain. Allen cast him as a villainous "Pied Piper" in an episode of Land of the Giants. Approached by Irwin Allen, a second time, to star in a children series, Jumbalina and the Teeners, Harris turned it down. In 1970, Harris played the role of another not-so-likeable villain, when he guest starred as the Bulmanian Ambassador in the Get Smart episode, "How Green Was My Valet." A more favorable guest role of Harris' was his portrayal of Charles Dickens in a 1963 episode of Bonanza. He also appeared in two 1961 episodes of The Twilight Zone.

Premier voice-over actor and guest starring roles

Harris spent most of the remainder of his career as a voice actor, appearing 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, Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light (giving a masterclass in sycophancy as lackey to the main villain), Freakazoid! (reprising the Smith character and dialogue under the name "Professor Jones,") A Bug's Life, Buzz Lightyear of Star Command and Toy Story 2. He also had several cameo and guest appearances, including Zorro, Bewitched, Fantasy Island, Sanford and Son and Uncle Croc's Block. Harris also provided the voiceover of the Cylon character "Lucifer" on the original Battlestar Galactica series. He starred in the Saturday morning children's series Space Academy in the mid-seventies, and was a well-known TV spokesman for the International House of Pancakes. In 2009 his final performance was finally released. He had done a recording session in 2001 for a short animated film titled The Bolt Who Screwed Christmas in which he plays the Narrator and "The Bolt". He passed away about a year after his recording session, long before the independent film was completed.

Later career

In 1990, Harris reunited with the cast of Lost In Space to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the show's debut, an event attended by more than 30,000 fans. Harris (alongside June Lockhart, Mark Goddard, Marta Kristen, Bill Mumy and Angela Cartwright) also appeared in a 1995 television tribute to Irwin Allen, who had died four years prior.

Harris reprised his role as Dr. Smith in the one-hour TV special Lost in Space Forever in 1998, and again in The Fantasy Worlds of Irwin Allen. However, unlike his costars in the original show (June Lockhart, Mark Goddard, Marta Kristen and Angela Cartwright) he refused to make a cameo appearance in the motion picture version of Lost in Space later that year. He announced, "I've never played a bit part in my life and I'm not going to start now!" (Bill Mumy also did not appear in the feature film.) Gary Oldman played the part of Dr. Smith in the film, but as a more genuinely menacing and less likeable character than Harris' on TV. An episode of The Simpsons has a cameo of "Dr. Smith" along with The Robot; multiple episodes of Freakazoid had a character of a cowardly "Dr Smith"; in both "Smith" utters his catchphrase "Oh, the pain!"

During the months leading up to the film's release, the Sci-Fi Channel aired Lost In Space marathons in many markets, in which each of the actors were interviewed. On April 9, 1998, Harris appeared as a guest on the talk show Late Night with Conan O'Brien, where Harris fondly reminisced about his Lost In Space days, admitting he would stay up nights thinking of new insults for The Robot ("bellicose bumpkin", "bubble-headed booby") because he enjoyed the interaction so much. Host 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.

Hobbies

Throughout his long life, Jonathan had several hobbies: cooking, watching movies, reading, traveling, painting, magic, playing piano, listening to opera, spending time with children, gardening and knitting. He also did some dancing in his spare time, as well. According to the A&E Biography, on one episode of Lost In Space, Jonathan's character, Dr. Smith, did a groovy 1960s dance with Penny and Will Robinson (Angela Cartwright and Bill Mumy).

Personal life

Jonathan was married to his high school sweetheart, Gertrude Bregman, from 1938 until his death. They have a son, Richard (born 1942).

His father, Sam Charasuchin, was struck and killed in a car accident in 1977.

In late 2002, Harris and the rest of the surviving cast of the TV series were preparing for a two-hour movie entitled Lost In Space: The Journey Back Home.[2] However, just before the movie was about to film, he was taken to the hospital where he had a back problem, which led to his suffering heart failure.

Death

Jonathan Harris died on November 3, 2002, in Encino, California of a blood clot to the heart, just three days before his 88th birthday. He was survived by his wife Gertrude and his son Richard, along with two sisters and two grandchildren.[3] Among his eulogists was castmate and decades-long friend Bill Mumy. He was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Quotes

  • Jonathan on his characteristic accent: "I'm not British, just affected." (Source: Biography.com)
  • On receiving a guest-starring role for every episode of Lost In Space: "That was the first time ever in history that anybody got Special Guest Star. I started that whole nonsense." (Source: brainyquote.com)
  • On the cancellation of Lost in Space: "When the curtain comes down, you're disappointed. Always, the curtain comes down. I've done so much work, and then the curtain comes down and you go on to something else." (Source: Biography.com)
  • When his father finally arrived at the theatre to see his son: "He came to the dressing room, gave me a hug and a kiss; and said, 'You belong here.' I never forget it." (Source: Biography.com)
  • Jonathan on trying his hand on being a leading man of the 1940s: "I thought I was Cary Grant. Oh, I looked into the mirror, and said, 'Yes, Yes. It's Cary Grant.' And then, I pulled myself together and said, 'Are you kidding?' You're a character man." (Source: Biography.com)

References

External links


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