For other people of the same name, see Jonathan Harris (disambiguation).
Jonathan Harris (born Jonathan Charasuchin; 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.
The second of three children, Harris was born to a poor family in The Bronx, New York. His parents were Sam and Jennie Charasuchin, Russian 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 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's 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 (chemists).
Acting was Harris's first love. At 24, he prepared a fake résumé 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 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 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, Sanford and Son, 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.
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 Bolivian 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". He also guest-starred on The Ghost & Mrs. Muir. His last series guest-starring role was on an episode of Fantasy Island.
As Doctor Zachary Smith in 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. Also starring on the show were several popular actors including: Guy Williams as Prof. John Robinson, June Lockhart as John's wife, Maureen Robinson, Mark Goddard as Dr. Smith's long-suffering/handsome space adversary, Maj. Don West, and Angela Cartwright as middle child, Penny Robinson, including a couple unfamiliar stars such as: Marta Kristen as John's and Maureen's older child, Judy Robinson and Bill Mumy as John's and Maureen's younger child and friend of Dr. Smith, Will Robinson.
A strong bond developed between Harris, Mumy, and some of the rest of the cast during the show's three-year tenure, despite Guy Williams's jealousy off the set of Space, and all thanks to Harris's contribution. From its debut, it was successful, 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's 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 canceled in 1968, after 83 episodes.
One of Harris's co-stars, Mark Goddard, said of the show's eventual shift toward Harris's character, "I guess it was because they felt that the people wanted to see more of the Robot and Jonathan. Originally, when it was more science fiction, 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 souffles, or whatever else." Goddard was also asked if he had gotten along well with other castmates, other than Harris & Mumy, "No. 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," the last thing that he said, "I was friendly with everyone, pretty much. 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. But I also had my disagreements with Guy Williams. When they started taking shows away from Guy, giving more to Jonathan, then Guy would come in and demand whatever I had in the show: any confrontations with Smith, or to save the kid, or anything. He'd end up doing all of that and I was the one that got squeezed out; I was doing almost nothing. There was one time where I went in to do a bit and had learned my lines, and was all ready to do my scene, when Guy started reading my lines. I said 'What's going on?' and he said 'This is my scene now.' They had given the lines to him. And that's where I got angry and walked off." After a reunion of the entire surviving cast on June 14, 1995, Goddard continued to stay in touch with Harris until his friend's death, late in 2002.
Bill 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. On June 14, 1995, Mumy and the rest of the crew paid tribute to series' creator Irwin Allen, who died late in 1991. 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.
Although he is considered something of a cult icon for this role, Harris became typecast as the fey 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's 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, 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, 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.
Harris taught drama and gave voice lessons to Chuck Norris where Norris credited him in Good Guys Wear Black.
He starred in the Saturday morning children's series Space Academy and Uncle Croc's Block 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 died about a year after his recording session, long before the independent film was completed. The film also features voiceover work by Bill Mumy, Angela Cartwright and Marta Kristen, their parts added to the film after his passing as a small tribute with the film dedicated in his memory.
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 "Professor Jones"; in both "Professor Jones" utters his catchphrase "Oh, the pain!" In case there was any question about the parody, numerous characters would ask him, "Weren't you on a TV show with a robot?"
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.
Throughout his long life, Jonathan had a number of 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. 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).
Jonathan was married to his high school sweetheart, Gertrude Bregman, from 1938 until his death. They have a son, Richard (born 1942).
Harris' father, Sam Charasuchin, was struck and killed in a car accident in New York City in 1977. He was 93 years old at the time of his death.
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. 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.
Harris was a mentor, and a close personal friend to writer/producer/director William Winckler.
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. Among his eulogists was castmate and decades-long friend Bill Mumy. He was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. His widow, Gertrude (Bregman) Harris, died of natural causes, on August 28, 2007, at the age of 93.
- 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 forgot 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)