IRWIN ALLEN PROFILE
12th June 2016 marks the 100th birthday of Irwin Allen. It is worth taking a moment to savour what this gentleman of the entertainment world achieved in his lifetime, and his ongoing legacy thereafter. His body of work speaks for itself, illustrating his skill as a master craftsman in story telling and bringing it to our screens.
The work of producer Irwin Allen has been greatly underrated over the years. You only have to page through the science fiction books and magazines during the 1970s and 1980s, to notice the relative absence of features on his classic sixties shows Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants. Now, with new DVD and Blu-ray releases half a century later, people are rediscovering his work, and are finding tremendous enjoyment from it.
Allen's death on 2nd November 1991, just a few days after Star Trek producer Gene Roddenberry passed away, meant that science fiction had lost two of its greatest geniuses. Whilst Star Trek has rarely been off the air and has had a number of highly successful film features, during the 1970s and 1980s Irwin Allen was better known for his block-buster disaster movies including the award winning films The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. The re-airing of the science fiction television quartet in the 1990s on the UK Channel 4 and ITV television stations and the US Sci-Fi Channel led to a massive revival for all of the shows with new clubs, newsletters, and websites.
Irwin Allen was born in New York on 12th June 1916 (note the date, because he used it regularly, e.g. which spacecraft took off on 12th June 1983, and what was the flight number?). Irwin grew up during the rouring twenties and the Great Depression and through a magical time for cinema as it went from silent to speaking voices. Irwin spent a year at the City College of New York before going on to study journalism and advertising at Columbia University until it was no longer financially viable due to the Depression. In 1938, aged 22, he spread his wings and went to Hollywood where he joined the staff of Key Magazine as editor. Within a year he had ventured into other areas of the media, producing a one-hour radio show, The Irwin Allen Show, for the station KMTR (later became KLAC). He wrote, produced and narrated the programme which ran for eleven years and the show gave him the opportunity to conduct thousands of interviews with Hollywood stars and attend many movie premieres. His success in journalism brought him an offer to write a regular Hollywood gossip column, Hollywood Merry-Go-Round, for the Atlas Feature Syndicate.
In 1944, Irwin expanded further into agency work by establishing a literary agency to represent writers in the radio and film industries. Famous names included P.G. Woodhouse, romantic novelist Fanny Hurst (Humouresque, Imitation of Life) and writer/critic Ben Hecht (who often used to write in collaboration with Charles MacArthur). This work brought him in close proximity to the movie industry as he acted as an agent helping movie makers secure literary works suitable for transferring to the big screen.
It should never be forgotten that Irwin Allen's television career began in the 1940's during the early days of scheduled broadcast television (nearly two decades before his science fiction successes). In the late forties, Irwin Allen pioneered the celebrity panel show in the States by creating and presenting the first show to bring hundreds of film celebrities into homes around the country, and which, like his newspaper column, was also called Hollywood Merry-Go-Round (also known as The Irwin Allen Show and broadcast on the KLAC-TV network).
With exposure to all aspects of the film industry, Irwin Allen was drawn into movie production in the late forties. He first produced the RKO comedy Double Dynamite (originally titled It's Only Money) starring Frank Sinatra and the man who was to be a very good friend of his for many years, Groucho Marx. Irwin Allen was co-producer alongside Irving Cummings Jr. and did not receive an on-screen credit for this first movie. The movie is notable for the fact that it was produced in 1948 and yet only released three years later in 1951 as a vehicle for rising star Jane Russell.
The thriller Where Danger Lives with Robert Mitchum, Faith Domergue and Claude Rains introduced associate producer Irwin Allen to the film noir genre. Irwin joined forces with Irving Cummings Jr. to establish a new company called Westwood Productions Inc. and Where Danger Lives was its first production. Directed by John Farrow, it also starred Farrow's wife Maureen O'Sullivan (John and Maureen were actress Mia Farrow's parents) in the role of Julie Dorn. This was the first of several projects with writer Charles Bennett. Sherry Jackson (Effra in the Lost in Space episode "The Space Croppers") makes an early appearance in this movie. Watch Where Danger Lives and see if you can spot an obscure connection to Land of the Giants.
Irwin's next venture was another comedy with close friend Groucho Marx called A Girl in Every Port. The 1952 movie also featured many stars who would appear in later productions including Marie Wilson, William Bendix and Dee Hartford.
The successful documentary production of Rachel Carson's The Sea Around Us won Irwin Allen the 1952 Academy Award (Oscar) for the Best Documentary Feature which he collected in person at the award ceremony on 19 March 1953. The Sea Around Us follows undersea expeditions to show the advances in oceanography, and shows underwater phenomena with the aid of terrific photographic effects. Irwin engaged the efforts of scientists around the world and had over a million feet of 16mm footage to select scenes from for the final edited movie. George E. Swink first worked with Irwin during the The Sea Around Us, and this was the beginning of his long association with the Irwin Allen productions.
Over half a century prior to the advanced filming techniques of James Cameron's Avatar, producer Irwin Allen was himself delving into 3D cinema with his 1954 thriller Dangerous Mission. Starring Victor Mature, Piper Laurie and Vincent Price, the story was set (and filmed partly on location) in the Glacier National Park in Montana and the spectacular scenery of the snow covered mountains lent itself to early three dimensional visuals. This was the first of several Irwin Allen movies in the 1950's and 1970's to feature the work of cinematographer Harold E. Wellman.
Irwin Allen was by now concentrating on film production, and he formed his own production company Windsor Productions. He produced and directed another documentary called The Animal World (1956) which featured prehistoric special effects by animation genius Ray Harryhausen and supervising animator Willis O'Brien. The movie also enjoyed music composed by Paul Sawtell whose work would later be heard in many of Irwin Allen's science fiction television episodes. Having worked with his friend Groucho Marx in earlier movies, he joked at the time "This is a far cry from Groucho... Some nights I dream of being chased by dinosaurs, but Groucho protects me!"
Having documented sea life and the animal world, Irwin Allen moved on to the subject of mankind with The Story of Mankind for Warner Brothers in 1957, which he co-wrote with Charles Bennett. The film, produced under Cambridge Productions, had an all-star cast including Ronald Colman and Vincent Price as 'The Spirit of Man' and 'The Devil' respectively. The Story of Mankind was also notable for being the last film in which the Marx brothers all appeared in the same feature (Groucho, Harpo and Chico played Peter Minuit, Sir Isaac Newton and a monk respectively!). The impressive cast also featured Hollywood greats such as Hedy Lamarr, Virginia Mayo, Charles Coburn, Peter Lorre, and a young Dennis Hopper.
Irwin Allen wrote again with Charles Bennett (and Irving Wallace) in 1959. The Big Circus was a major feature production for Irwin Allen, and was one of the biggest takers at the box-office. It starred many well known faces such as Victor Mature, Kathryn Grant (Bing Crosby's wife), Peter Lorre, and good friend Red Buttons. The cast also included the lovely Rhonda Fleming who was instrumental in bringing Paul Zastupnevich in to Irwin Allen's productions. Paul noted in 1994, "I was to stay three weeks. I stayed thirty years! I'm like the man who came to dinner...".
In 1960, Irwin Allen moved to Twentieth Century Fox Studios to produce the successful The Lost World with Claude Rains, Michael Rennie, and David Hedison (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea). Groucho Marx was one of the investors for the movie and similarly supported his friend Irwin Allen on other productions. Keep an eye open for costume designer Paul Zastupnevich early in the movie. Scenes from The Lost World were to feature greatly in Irwin's subsequent work particularly segments featuring David Hedison and Vitina Marcus in the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea episode Turn Back the Clock. The Lost World also introduced Irwin Allen to his new researcher Elizabeth Emanuel, who went on to conduct research for the full quartet of science fiction shows and his most prominent disaster movies.
In 1961, Allen co-wrote, produced and directed the film version of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea at Twentieth Century Fox. It starred Walter Pidgeon, Joan Fontaine and Peter Lorre. Some may say though that the real star of the movie was the futuristic and advanced nuclear-powered submarine, the Seaview. With The Lost World doing well at the box office, Allen very much wanted David Hedison for the role of Captain Crane, but Hedison turned down the role which eventually went to Robert Sterling.
The following year he again co-wrote, produced and directed the adventure/comedy Five Weeks in a Balloon (based upon Jules Verne's story by the same name) with another all-star cast including Red Buttons, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Peter Lorre, Barbara Eden, and Herbert Marshall. Paul Zastupnevich also appears in this movie.
In 1964, Irwin Allen brought Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea to the small screen with Richard Basehart and David Hedison at the helm. Working with Richard Basehart was too good an opportunity for Hedison to turn down on this occasion and it is also due to him that Robert Dowdell gained the role of Chip Morton. The pairing of Basehart and Hedison brought great character to the roles of Nelson and Crane. With a superb supporting cast and the powerful combination of the Seaview, the Flying Sub and cutting-edge special effects, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea had a very successful run for four years. The early black and white episodes were somewhat more serious than the later Fossil Men, Shadowman, Wax Men and Lobster Man -type episodes, but the show continues to have a strong following to this day. Worthy of note was the transfer to colour in the second season and Irwin Allen's creative team made the most of this new technology emblazoning the screen with rich, vibrant colours. Paul Zastupnevich was not only costume designer on Irwin Allen's productions, but also his assistant working on just about every aspect of the his shows, and was a frequent guest star on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, acting under the name Paul Kremin.
Irwin Allen introduced Lost in Space to television in 1965, and it readily became a favourite with families around the world. Lost in Space centres around the Robinson family, who with their friend Major Don West are sent out in to space on the Jupiter 2 spacecraft to find new planets for human habitation, leaving behind them an overpopulated Earth. The original unaired pilot, No Place to Hide, was different to the aired series. It was decided that additional characters were required to provide more potential storylines. A robot (simply named Robot) was added, and together with "villain" Dr. Zachary Smith, they soon became the stars of the show. As with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, the serious emphasis of the early black and white episodes, changed as the series progressed into its colourful second and third years. The antics of Dr. Smith, Will Robinson and Robot were hugely popular with children, but this meant that less was seen of some other characters and lead to more humorous storylines. Composer and conductor John Williams provided memorable theme tunes for the series; long before his Academy Award winning scores for movies such as Jaws and Star Wars.
The Time Tunnel was an ambitious project about time travel. In an early press release, Irwin Allen stated, "We will go far into the past and far into the future as drama will excitingly unfold. Tony Newman and Doug Phillips will not change history but will help create it." Starring James Darren, Robert Colbert, Lee Meriwether and Whit Bissell, it relied heavily on old film footage, and this may have been a factor leading to the show's downfall. The series only lasted for 30 episodes, but has been very popular as a DVD release around the globe. We asked Paul Zastupnevich which had been Irwin Allen's favourite of the the four science fiction shows at the time. "I think he was always partial to The Time Tunnel. He was a bit disappointed that they didn't last a bit longer than they had. Lost in Space was his baby and I think he always felt that it should have out-stripped Star Trek, but Star Trek lasted longer than we did."
In 1967, Irwin Allen started work on producing Land of the Giants. He established Kent Productions, under which Land of the Giants was produced. He had a strong team of people working for him including Paul Zastupnevich, Elizabeth Emmanuel his researcher, William Welch, L.B. Abbott, Jerry Briskin, and many others who supported his productions for many years and whose loyalty he relied upon. Paul Zastupnevich recollects how production began. "We had a staff that time of probably four sketch artists. Irwin always liked to go by storyboard. At the time we had Irma Rosine, George Jenson, Tom Cranham and Lois Cohen. What would happen was, we were discussing the fact of giants in certain situations and what would you do for each script. Irwin was trying to sell the story, and so I had the artists working with me and they would say "What do we have to do today?". I said, "We don't have a script", so I'd say "Why don't we have a big foot coming down into a stream and a little figure hiding". So they would do a big illustration of that particular scene and so each day we would just vamp certain ideas, a cat chasing a little figure... Through the months, Irwin would say "Maybe we should use a dog" or "Maybe we should have a pair of large eye glasses" or "Something's broken here and the piece of glass, the broken chair..." or "They get lost in the forest...". So each day we would try to come up with some visual art representation sketch."
To enable these ideas to be put in place, they needed backers and a network who would air the series pilot. An 8 minute presentation reel was made in early 1967 and featured Don Matheson who would later become business tycoon Mark Wilson. We asked Paul how this was made and used. "What would happen, I would go with him as we went to the various networks and studio heads and sold the idea. I would turn the boards as he would do his pitch. And we had approximately eighteen sketches and then he made a little film by filming the sketches and filling in between. He did a little film presentation almost like a teaching aid, more like a visual aid. He was great on visual aids himself - I always said he could have sold ice boxes in Alaska!"
When asked if ABC was the first network they approached, Paul described how they took the promotion reel to a number of different networks. "We went to Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios at one time and we made a pitch there. We made pitches to several networks. ABC finally accepted the idea. I don't know how many pitches he made before that. In order to get anything on the floors, you'd have to go to the network to see they if they'd want it, if they were akin to making it, if they felt it had any bearing. As I say, he was such a great salesman, he was able to convince ABC there was merit in it and of course it did have some merits in it. It was very good. Unfortunately, it didn't last that long and I always thought it had great potential."
Aware that some early scripts were written, we asked about the script by William Welch, called In the Beginning. "Bill was there. After the idea was sold of Land of the Giants, then the scripts began to evolve, and go back and forth and storyboards were created. Stories had to be revamped because of cost. And in those days they didn't have laser disks like they have today. They could have done a lot of those things, but it is amazing the effects that were achieved in those days and the cost factor was important in keeping the cost down. It was very difficult. It was a very expensive show to shoot. Our ratings were very good. In fact, we expected to be picked up for a third season. We were picked up, and then all of a sudden a week later, we were no longer picked up. We had already started to work on a set of scripts for the following season and formulate new plans and new ideas."
Having worked very closely with Irwin Allen, Paul had considerable background knowledge of the how the show was made and cast. We were curious as to how the cast were signed up for the series. "A couple were under contract to Fox. Heather was in the school at Fox and Deanna Lund had just done a picture with Frank Sinatra, and of course Gary had done a series. Names were submitted to the network and names would be approved, or they'd be dropped." A number of actors such as Sam Elliott and Don Matheson (who was under option after making the promotional reel) were considered for the lead role. "Gary had a pretty good position because he had done the detective show Burkes Law and he was a good looking young man. He got the role and Irwin liked him, and that was important, and he had good teeth! Kurt, he (Irwin) had known through the years from previous things, pictures and around town. Kurt was proven. They were looking for someone like Jonathan Harris in Lost in Space, and Kurt was a kind of roly-poly imitation of Jonathan Harris."
Irwin Allen wasn't one to divulge the secrets behind making these television shows. Paul explains "It was the fact, if he had allowed a remake or a rerun or something - Irwin, he never let anyone infringe and he never gave out too many interviews. He never liked to reveal any of the secrets. He always said that if they (the audience) know how it's being done, then the magic is gone. He always felt that the illusion was more important than the overall effect." Irwin did however host many celebrities visiting the sets of his television shows including astronaut Gordon Cooper.
The cast have recalled many tales from their days working on Land of the Giants, and it was obvious that Irwin Allen had a strong presence on the set, and knew exactly what he was looking for. Don Matheson recalls how Irwin Allen wanted his cast to attend the dailies (where scenes shot to date were shown, to iron out any problems). "He wanted us to see what he was doing so we'd trust him - He wanted us to trust him." Even when he wasn't directing himself, Irwin would come along and advise. Paul jokes "He was always breathing down the director's neck! He had his finger on everything." For a real insight into what the atmosphere may have been like on the set of the show, it is worth listening to the wonderful and very unique commentary with the cast recorded in 2011 for the UK DVD release.
In the late sixties, Irwin Allen pitched a number of ideas for future projects including The Man from the 25th Century and City Beneath the Sea, creating mini-promotional reels for each. In 1971, City Beneath the Sea became a reality with a pilot movie by the same name and starring Stuart Whitman, Robert Colbert, Richard Basehart and James Darren. It centered around the underwater city of Pacifica which is threatened by an asteroid as well as local saboteurs. Whilst it never became a fully fledged series, City Beneath the Sea is affectionately remembered by Irwin Allen fans as it featured many hallmarks of Irwin Allen's science fiction quartet including Gary Conway's red Steve Burton costume, The Time Tunnel computers, the Seaview and Flying Sub and even the Jupiter 2 if you look closely.
In the seventies, Irwin Allen gained his reputation as "The Master of Disaster" with several prominent action movies including The Poseidon Adventure in 1972 and The Towering Inferno in 1974. Both of these featured big name casts and had moralistic undertones which, along with special effects of an impressive believability, earned them high box office ratings. The danger of using elevators during a fire were brought to light because of The Towering Inferno, and Irwin Allen was made an honorary Fire Chief in seventy-three cities. Changes in maritime safety too were made following The Poseidon Adventure, and he assumed the title of honorary Sea Captain in twenty countries.
Well aware of the tendency of human nature to thrive on tragedy, Irwin Allen knew he had an audience for his epic disaster topics. In an interview with Photoplay, Irwin remarked "As long as there are human beings on this planet there's going to be tragedy in real life. People call them disaster films, but they're really high adventure with elements of crisis and tragedy in them." The first disaster movie The Poseidon Adventure brought the realisation that there was a huge market for such adventure epics. "I got lucky. I took a gamble with the original Poseidon at a time when no one was pushing big money around - and it paid off. I couldn't sell the idea at first. It was too big, too much. Finally we went ahead and did it - and the rest is history." Comparing the risk between producing large and small features for the big screen, he also said "I love making pictures. I'd enjoy making any kind of picture as long as it's not a small picture. I'm desperately afraid of a small picture because, believe it or not, that's the biggest gamble of them all. The competition from TV is so keen that you've got to do something special to bring the audiences in. It makes the small picture a very nervous venture."
The Towering Inferno brought together two of the most popular actors of the time, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. It also lead to another powerful partnership, the Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Brothers studios. There were two novels The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson with skyscraper fire storylines. Irwin Allen and Twentieth Century Fox held the rights to one novel and Warner Brothers had the other, and Irwin used his negotiation skills to bring the two studios together to create one blockbuster movie rather than each ploughing money into competing movies with similar themes. The result was the star-studded extravaganza that broke all kinds of box office records and also won at the Academy Awards. Irwin took charge of directing the action sequences and the home movies in the DVD/Blu-Ray extras sections feature some insightful scenes showing Irwin and his film crew at work.
Whilst filming The Towering Inferno, Irwin Allen also had other productions on the go, namely Adventures of the Queen and the series Swiss Family Robinson. Adventures of the Queen took Irwin Allen and his team back to the Queen Mary at Long Beach and centered on the hijacking of a luxury liner and the efforts of its crew to regain control of the ship. Irwin Allen was luckily able to employ the talents of David Hedison for this production with an equally impressive cast that included Bradford Dillman, Burr De Benning, and Ralph Bellamy (all of whom would work for Irwin Allen again). The Swiss Family Robinson was based on the novel of the same name. Martin Milner and Pat Delaney played the parents, and upcoming stars Willie Aames, Helen Hunt and Eric Olson appeared as the children on the desolate island. The concept worked well, but the scheduling of the show didn't perform so well for the series and it ended after just one season.
In the mid-seventies, Irwin returned back to science fiction with The Time Travelers and The Return of Captain Nemo. The Time Travelers (1976) starred Sam Groom and Tom Hallick whose characters travel back in time to find a vaccine for a deadly epidemic at the time of the Great Chicago Fire. The Chicago scenes were filmed on the Hello Dolly set on the Twentieth Century Fox backlot, and Irwin had 282 extras at hand for the 19th Century segments. Tom Hallick also returned for the three part mini-series The Return of Captain Nemo in 1978 with Jose Ferrer in the title role of Captain Nemo. Whilst filming the mini-series, a shortened version was also produced under the title of The Amazing Captain Nemo for theatrical release in foreign markets including several countries in Europe. There are some distinct differences which highlight the fact that alternate scenes were filmed at the same time for both versions of the story.
Disaster was still on Irwin Allen's mind when he brought The Swarm to the big screen. It was another all-star feature buzzing with major names such as Olivia de Havilland, Fred McMurray, Richard Widmark, Michael Caine to name just a few. Less lucrative than his earlier disaster movies, it is worth watching in some detail as there are many hallmarks of the Irwin Allen productions, and actors such as Bradford Dillman bring some great humour to the story.
Following on from the his success with The Poseidon Adventure, Irwin Allen had long planned to return to the Poseidon, and did indeed do so with Beyond the Poseidon Adventure. The movie had a much smaller cast but still full of big names including Shirley Jones (taking over Sheila Allen's role of nurse Gina), Michael Caine, and Telly Savalas. In a press book for the movie, Irwin is quoted as saying "I'll do whatever's necessary to move audiences the way I think they should be moved."
Much effort was expended on making the less successful The Day the World Ended (also known as When Time Ran Out) about a volcanic eruption which leads to a massive tidal wave. An all-star cast including Paul Newman, Jacqueline Bisset and William Holden was, sadly, not necessarily a recipe for success at the box office. Filmed on location in the stunning landscapes of Hawaii, this movie really marked the end of the disaster movie era of the 1970's.
Irwin Allen transferred his disaster theories to the smaller screen during the seventies with a number of television movies and two-part mini-series, namely Flood, Fire, Hanging by a Thread, Cave-In! and The Night the Bridge Fell Down. The first, Flood, was set in Oregon and was about a town threatened by a collapsing dam. It starred Richard Basehart and Swiss Family Robinson's Martin Milner, Cameron Mitchell and Eric Olson. Fire was also located in Oregon and had The Poseidon Adventure star Ernest Borgnine at the helm. Irwin took advantage of the annual forest burning season in Oregon and obtained permission to film the fires, and purchased some old buildings and set them on fire. Hanging by a Thread dealt with a broken cable car over a deep gorge; in Cave-In! a team of people are trapped in an underground cavern; whilst The Night the Bridge Fell Down featured a collapsing bridge. All three of these latter television movies made significant use of flashbacks to augment their storylines. There were delayed releases for a couple of these TV movies in the US until 1983.In 1980, Irwin Allen moved away from the disaster feature and took Donald A. Stanwood's novel The Memory of Eva Ryker and turned it into a stylish and dramatic television movie starring Natalie Wood and Robert Foxworth. The story again offered Irwin Allen an opportunity to use the Queen Mary as a film set. Sadly this movie has yet to be released on DVD, and is worthy of being broadcast or released for students and fans of Irwin Allen's work.
Code Red brought a return to episodic television and centered around the Rourchek family, headed by Lorne Greene. Julie Adams played his wife and Andrew Stevens and Sam J. Jones his sons in the fire service. As with The Towering Inferno, Code Red had strong fire safety messages, with cast members delivering advice at the end of episodes. The series was firmly aimed at the family market and after the pilot episode, Irwin introduced the character of Danny Blake played by 13 year old Adam Rich to provide opportunities for family oriented storylines.
Irwin Allen's last two works were Alice in Wonderland (an all-star musical extravaganza with its cast in many enchanting and unexpected disguises) and the television movie Outrage (a courtroom drama which was a very different venture for Irwin). Alice in Wonderland starred ten year old actress Natalie Gregory who caught Irwin Allen's attention in the 1984 episode of Cagney and Lacey called "Child Witness." Outrage which starred Robert Preston had a much more serious tone and featured a welcome appearance by Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea star Robert Dowdell.
Failing health caused Irwin's semi-retirement in 1986, but there was much rumour and speculation that he was planning a comeback with a Lost in Space movie, when he died of a heart attack on 2nd November 1991. Whilst some of his colleagues and stars quotedly found Allen both difficult to work with and for, the respect and admiration for his work was demonstrated by many of their attendances at his funeral. Irwin Allen left a wife, Sheila, who appeared in almost all his productions from the sixties onwards, usually under the name Sheila Mathews.
Four years after his death, family, friends, stars and crew from his television shows and movies paid tribute to Irwin Allen in The Fantasy Worlds of Irwin Allen, produced by Kevin Burns in 1995. It serves as a fitting and lasting tribute to the man to whom this website is dedicated... Irwin Allen.