IRWIN ALLEN PROFILE
The work of the creator, Irwin Allen, has been greatly underrated over the years. You only have to page through the science fiction books and magazines over the years to notice the absence of features on his classic sixties shows 'Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea', 'Lost in Space' and 'Land of the Giants'. Now, over a quarter of a century on people are rediscovering his work, and are finding tremendous enjoyment from it.
His tragic 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, over the past twenty years Irwin Allen has been known rather for his block-buster disaster movies in the seventies, films such as 'The Towering Inferno' and 'The Poseidon Adventure'.
Irwin Allen was born in New York on 12th June 1916 (note the date, because he used it regularly, eg. which spacecraft took off on 12th June 1983, and what was the flight number?). Irwin studied journalism and advertising at Columbia University. In 1938, aged 22, 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 for the station KLAC. He wrote, produced and narrated for a programme which ran for eleven years. His success in journalism brought him an offer to write a regular Hollywood column 'Hollywood Merry-Go-Round' for the Atlas Feature Syndicate.
In the early days of television, Irwin Allen pioneered the celebrity panel show in the States, by creating 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'. 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).
With exposure to all aspects of the film industry, Irwin Allen was soon drawn into production in the early fifties. 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. He also made the thriller 'Where Danger Lives' with Robert Michum and Claude Rains, and another comedy with Groucho Marx called 'A Girl in Every Port'.
His successful documentary production of Rachel Carson's 'The Sea Around Us' won him the 1952 Oscar for the Best Documentary Feature. '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 Allen was by now concentrating on film production, and he formed Windsor Productions. He produced and directed another documentary called 'The Animal World' (1956) which featured prehistoric special effects by Ray Harryhausen. He also went on to produce 'The Story of Mankind' for Warner Brothers, which he co-wrote with Charles Bennett, who later wrote for 'Land of the Giants'. The film 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!).
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, 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.
In 1960, Irwin Allen moved to Twentieth Century Fox Studios to produce the successful 'The Lost World' with Claude Raines, Michael Rennie, and David Hedison ('Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea'). Scenes from 'The Lost World' were to feature greatly in Irwin's subsequent work.
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. The following year he again co-wrote, produced and directed the adventure/comedy 'Five Weeks in a Balloon' with another all-star cast including Red Buttons, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Peter Lorre and Herbert Marshall.
In 1964, Irwin brought 'Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea' to television with Richard Basehart and David Hedison at the helm. 'Voyage' 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 has a strong following to this day. It will air on the new U.S. science fiction cable channel as well as in other countries around the world.
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 pilot, 'No Place to Hide', was different to the aired series. It was decided that a villain was required to provide more potential storylines. A robot was also added, and together with 'villain' Dr. Zachary Smith, they soon became the stars of the show. As with Voyage, the serious emphasis of the early black and white episodes, changed as the series progressed into its second and third years. The programme was a strong favourite with children.
'The Time Tunnel' was an ambitious project about time travel. Starring James Darren, Robert Colbert, Lee Meriwhether and Whit Bissell, it relied heavily on old film footage, and this may have been a factor leading to the show's downfall. It only lasted for 30 episodes. 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 who was not only costume designer on the series, but also Irwin Allen's assistant working on just about every aspect of the show, 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, as discussed in an earlier chapter. 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 has 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 immitation of Jonathan Harris."
Some find it hard to understand why Irwin Allen didn't go out of his way to promote his 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."
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 prescence 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 todate 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."
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."
Less lucritive ventures such as 'The Swarm' and 'Beyond the Poseidon Adventure' came hot on the heels of the two block busters, along with several television movies and two unsuccessful series 'Swiss Family Robinson' and 'Code Red'. 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.
Irwin Allen transfered his disaster theories to the smaller screen with three lengthy television movies 'Hanging by a Thread', 'Cave-In' and 'The Night the Bridge Fell Down'. The first '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. Irwin Allen's last two works were 'Alice in Wonderland' (an all-star extraveganza 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).
Failing health caused Irwin's semi-retirement in 1986, but there was much rumour and speculation that he was planning a come back 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.