Jonathan Harris (born Jonathan Charasuchin – November 6, 1914 – November 3, 2002) was an American character actor. He earns his stripes as a Hero of Cult due to two of his best-known roles – timid accountant Bradford Webster in the TV version of The Third Man and the calculating villain Dr. Zachary Smith of the 1960s science fiction 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, and then “The Cleaner” in the animated sequel Toy Story 2.
Harris was the second of three children, born to a poor family in The Bronx, New York City. His parents were Sam and Jennie Charasuchin, were Russian Jewish immigrants who scraped 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, Broadway plays were also an interest. Before graduating in 1931, at the age of 16, from James Monroe High School, he had also developed interests in archaeology, Latin, romantic poetry and Shakespeare. He had difficulty fitting in with his peers, who included classmate Estelle Reiner(mother of future actor/director Rob Reiner); with the exception of his girlfriend, Gertrude Bregman, whom he subsequently married. In 1932, he legally changed his name from “Charasuchin” to “Harris,” it has been suggested he did not inform his parents of the name change. That same year, Harris’ work at the pharmacy led him to attend nearby Fordham University where he majored in pharmacology. He graduated from Fordham in 1936 and, for a time, worked in various drugstores.
At the age of 24 years old, Harris prepared a fake acting résumé and tried out for a repertory acting 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.
In 1949, Harris made a 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, Bewitched, 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.
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. 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. He also starred as the character Fagan in the first episode of the science fiction show Ark II.
Then came the role that would bring Harris to worldwide fame -Dr. Zachary Smith on Lost in Space where he was cast over two other actors. 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 starring/co-starring billing had already been contractually assigned. So Harris successfully negotiated to receive “Special Guest Star” billing on every episode.
A strong bond developed between Harris and co-star Billy Mumy, and some of the rest of the cast during the show’s three-year tenure. From its debut, it was successful, until midway through the first season it had stiff competition from another newcomer, Batman, which dominated TV ratings. Harris’ popularity on the show gave him chances to rewrite the dialogue. Creator Irwin Allen approved his changes and gave him carte blanche as a writer.
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. When the show 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.
One of Harris’ co-stars, Mark Goddard, said of the show’s eventual shift toward Harris’ 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 soufflés, or whatever else.”
After a reunion of the entire surviving cast in December 1990, 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.” Mumy also said of Harris’ 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 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!” 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.
Following Lost in Space, Harris was cast by Irwin Allen 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 fearing typecasting.
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.” 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 TV show.
A more favourable 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, one of which, being “The Silence,” and in a very interesting and remarkable character reversal, as a hero, in which he ended up defending a young man challenged to be silent for a whole year at a prestigious gentleman’s club. In 1971 episode of Night Gallery, entitled “Since Aunt Ada Came To Stay”, Harris played Professor Nicholas Porteus. Porteus’ knowledge of witches and how to destroy them, led to his death; but helped resolve the episode’s conflict.
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, Freakazoid!, A Bug’s Life, Buzz Lightyear of Star Command and Toy Story 2. Harris also provided the voiceover of the Cylon character Lucifer on the original Battlestar Galactica series. He also did voice-over work in an episode of the animated Superman series.
Another little known fact about Harris is that he taught drama and gave voice lessons to Chuck Norris and was credited for this by Norris in Good Guys Wear Black.
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 death as a small tribute with the film dedicated in his memory.
Categories: Heroes of Cult