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Interview with Jonathan Harris

Conducted by David Simpson and Jenny Lovering on behalf of Giants Log

In August 1992 Jonathon Harris kindly granted Giants Log an interview concerning his distinguished career. On behalf of everyone involved with Giants Log we would like to thank Jonathon for his time and for sharing his thoughts with us.

G.L.

What made you decide to follow acting as a career instead of your trained profession of pharmacy?

J.H.

I have always wanted to be an actor. Becoming a pharmacist was undoubtedly due to may parents' concern that show business was too erratic and precarious a profession for me. They preferred that I engage in what they felt was steady employment. I honoured their wishes. Happily my pharmacy career was short lived. I soon became an actor, started to work, and never stopped. This year, 1992, I celebrate my 50th year in show business. May I say that I am proud of this accomplishment?

G.L.

When you toured with the Millpond Playhouse Theatre I understand the venues played were quite unusual. Can you explain what they were like?

J.H.

The Millpond Playhouse was my first engagement as a "real" actor. It was a summer stock theatre in Roslyn, Long Island, New York. We did a season of 16 plays and I appeared in all of them. In retrospect, I marvel that I was able to carry it off - since I really knew nothing about acting. I was lucky to be cast in a full range of character parts. Considering that I was faking my way through, due to my lack of experience, I did reasonably well and learned a great deal. I was too poor to attend a proper drama school or class so I had to pick it up on the fly so to speak - watching, listening. In later years I had occasional bouts of regret that I had never had formal theatrical training -lasted about a count of ten.

G.L.

What was Marlon Brando like to work with in 'A Flag is Born'? Was he temperamental as some suggest?

J.H.

Marlon Brando was a young and beginning actor in 'A Flag is Born', as was I. It was obvious to all of us that he was a superb talent, albeit, erratic, strange, even difficult, but it didn't matter. He was then a wonderful actor and got better and better through the years.

G.L.

I've read that when you were in the play 'The Madwoman of Chaillot' you lost thirty pounds for the part of the eccentric prospector. Did you often adopt this type of 'method' acting for your character roles?

J.H.

Yes, I did lose 30 pounds for my role in 'Madwoman of Chaillot'. I saw, HIM, the prospector, as thin, gaunt, fanatical, unhealthy in his mad zeal to blow up Paris to get at the oil beneath the city, I felt that I was too plump and sanguine at the time to realistically portray this man. After the loss of weight I felt that at least physically, I looked like HIM. Call it The Method or what you will. My 'method' of acting has always consisted of understanding what the play, movie was about - who I was - what purpose did I serve in this piece - what was my relationship to everyone else in the play - and portraying all of this honestly, forthrightly, and in a crystal clear manner to the audience. Is this 'THE METHOD'? It's my method.

G.L.

I believe that there's an interesting story concerning the research you did for the accent of the Polish R.A.F. Officer whom you played in 'The Heart of the City'. Can you explain how you go about developing an accent?

J.H.

"Heart of a City" was my first Broadway play. I was hired to play the Polish RAF pilot because I lied to the producer about my ability to talk with a Polish accent. Of course, I hadn't a clue what this accent sounded like - but I cleverly made a visit to the Polish Embassy in New York City, where I felt that all the diplomats would speak English with a Polish accent. Indeed they did - but each accent was completely different from the others. Apparently, much depended on education, travel, near which border they were born etc., Happily, I have a quick ear and put all the accents together into a central context and emerged with an "authentic Polish accent". Nobody questioned the authenticity of my accent. In retrospect, this is laughable, since I have used this very same accent for Arabic, Hindustani, Chinese, Irish et al. It's called "accent" and it works like a charm.

G.L.

Can you tell me what it was like working on your very first movie 'Botany Bay'? I've read that the man who hired the cast, John Farrow, was quite strict to work for. What were rehearsals like? Did you enjoy working with James Mason and Alan Ladd?

J.H.

Filming 'Botany Bay' was terrifying. It was my first feature film. I was a stage and live T.V. actor and was totally unfamiliar with the technique of film acting. Also, I told the director, John Farrow that I was English (he insisted on an all English cast) in order to get the job. The atmosphere on the set (which, incidentally was staggering - a full size vessel in 10 feet of water on a sound stage at Paramount!!) was very tense it seemed to me. Mr. Farrow was a very difficult man to work for: and, as I recall, was not very well liked. Because of my inexperience in feature films I spent 16 most uncomfortable weeks worrying about my performance. I was familiar with analysing my work on the stage, and in live T.V., but the medium of feature films was still alien to me. There were no rehearsals per se. Another worry for me. I was used to, and needed rehearsals. Alan Ladd was very pleasant to me. I was amazed to discover that he did many of his own stunts. I thought stars "didn't". I had very little contact with James Mason, although I respected his work.

G.L.

I understand you worked on three episodes of the Disney 'Zorro' series. Do you remember which character you played?

J.H.

I have very little memory of the Zorros I did - obviously left very little impression on me. I do remember that I had made it abundantly clear to the Disney people, via my agent, that I did NOT ride horses. Naturally, my first shot was a "ride-in" on a very spirited horse. I refused to do it, much to the chagrin of the director. He had a double do it for me but insisted that I do a close up on the horse after I had ostensibly "ridden in". I was no sooner put into the saddle but the horse peed - much to the glee of the cast and crew. Most embarrassing for me. I still don't ride.

G.L.

You were good friends with the late Michael Rennie who co-starred with you in 'The Third Man' and the two part 'Keeper' episode of 'Lost in Space'. Did you enjoy working on projects as diverse as these with him? On the subject of the 'Third Man' when you were in London recording episodes with Michael Rennie, did you get much time or opportunity to explore the city or surrounding areas?

J.H.

Michael Rennie was my dear friend. I was so saddened by his premature death. We had a wonderful time together filming 90 episodes of 'The Third Man'. We did half in Hollywood and the other half in London. Our reunion as actors was a grand experience for both of us. We enjoyed it so much. During the filming of 45 episodes in London I spent every weekend walking about this fabulous city. I covered miles and miles on foot. I went to the theatres, Covent Garden Opera and Ballet, the museums. What a wonderful experience it was. One could walk through Hyde Park at night without fear in those days. This same situation exists in the parks of major cities in the U.S. as well. How sad. I made side trips to Amsterdam, Paris, Lisbon, as time permitted.

G.L.

Do you remember the film 'The Big Fisherman? Can you tell us about your film roles?

J.H.

Yes, I remember 'The Big Fisherman'. It was filmed at Universal and I liked none of it - not the part, not the costume, not the wig, nor the beard. I've already told you about Botany Bay. My feature film career has been sparse as it turns out. My career in Hollywood has been mainly T.V. 612 films in this medium. Oh yes, I went to Havana to do a film called 'Catch Me If You Can' with Dina Merrill and Gilbert Roland - of no consequence whatever - it was just prior to Castro, who commandeered this totally innocuous film and it was never released. No great loss.

G.L.

You appeared in two 'Twilight Zone' episodes called 'The Silence' and 'Twenty-Two'. Did you enjoy working with Rod Serling?

J.H.

I did enjoy working with Rod Serling. Such a talented writer. His death was a great loss to the industry. We liked each other and enjoyed working together. I also had the pleasure of appearing with Rod on a game show called 'Liars Club' - of which he was the host and I was a regular performer - we had many giggles.

G.L.

What memories do you have of working on the 'Bill Dana Show'?

J.H.

The Bill Dana Show was a delight to work in. We shot it "Live with 3 Cameras" at the Desilu Cahuenga Studios. We would rehearse 4 days and shoot it the fifth day - with a studio audience in attendance. I loved my part - Mr. Phillips, the irascible hotel manager. I thought that Bill and I developed splendid chemistry together - aided and abetted by Don Adams as the house detective. What great fun we had.

G.L.

In the U.K. we have been fortunate to see the two 'Bewitched' episodes you appeared in. Do you remember playing the parts of Sir Leslie Bankcroft and Mr. Monroe?

J.H.

I remember the piano teacher in Bewitched. Was my name Mr. Monroe? I barely remember Sir Leslie - I think Bert Convy was in that one. Elizabeth Montgomery was a darling lady, and of course, my old friend Agnes Moorehead was a delight as always. Oh dear, that was all so long ago.

G.L.

When you were working at 20th Century Fox during the 60's did you regularly meet other actors from any of Irwin Allen's shows?

J.H.

I rarely saw or spent time with the actors on Irwin Allen's other shows. I was working extremely hard on 'Lost In Space' and there was not much time to fraternize or socialize. I did visit Dick Basehart, an old friend, on the set of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea from time to time - his stage was very close to mine. Splendid actor he was.

G.L.

What do you recall about working on 'Land of the Giants'? Were there are particularly memorable moments?

J.H.

I enjoyed my part in 'Land of the Giants'. Interesting character, the Piper. I remember one day I had a particularly difficult scene to play - pages and pages of dialogue - monologue actually - pages and pages - there was a group of Russian film people visiting Fox that day. They watched me do the scene - which I did in one take! - and applauded - not too shabby.

G.L.

How were you cast for the role of the intergalactic Piper. Did Irwin call you personally for the part?

J.H.

I believe Allen's casting person called my agent and made the deal. Of course it originated from Irwin himself - he was very involved with casting.

G.L.

Did you like to costume that Paul Zastupnevich designed?

J.H.

I was the "right" costume for the part - Paul Zastupnevich is a very talented designer.

G.L.

Did Irwin give you carte blanche on how to develop the character of the Piper?

J.H.

Irwin did not interfere with my interpretation of The Piper - nor did the director. I suppose one could call it carte blanche.

G.L.

Various stories have been told of what Irwin Allen was like to work for. What was he really like as a producer?

J.H.

Irwin Allen was many things. Above all, he was a first rate producer. In the genre in which he chose to work he was extremely talented. I had a good working relationship with him. I was his 'Lost In Space' star and we both knew it. My professionalism precluded any behaviour other than total dedication and devotion to the work - and he knew that too.

G.L.

Can you tell me about the television programme you hosted called 'Witches, Warlocks and Wizards', and how you got involved in its production?

J.H.

The producer of "Witches" was a fan of mine - and the director as well. I was approached to do the piece - I thought it was a most interesting show and agreed to do it. We shot it at Universal Tours venue. I loved working with the gorilla!

G.L.

How did you become involved with the Flint Symphony Orchestra on projects 'Free At Last' and 'Peter and the Wolf'? Are there future collaborations planned? Are there any recordings of these performances? Can you tell us a little about this side of your career?

J.H.

I enjoy my appearances with the Flint Symphony. Classical music is very close to my heart. The orchestra and its' conductor are first rate. I work very hard on these concert performances - so many music cues to deal with - but we do have ample rehearsal time. The performances are given in the beautiful Whiting Hall -one of the loveliest theatres I have ever appeared in. We are in the process now of discussing possible recordings of my work with the orchestra, and the orchestra itself. I hope this will come to pass.

G.L.

In the Filmation production of 'The New Adventures of Pinocchio' you played the part of Lt. Grumblebee. Was his character like his name suggests?

J.H.

Oh yes, Lt. Grumblebee is indeed a first class grumble. Most amusing chap. We did a 65 segment animated series at Filmation using the character in a pivotal role. Very Colonel Blimpish - I had a grand time doing him. Also, it gave me the opportunity of working with the top voice artists in the industry. I learned a lot.

G.L.

Star Trek - The Next Generation is currently being broadcast in the U.K. and it's initial first season received mixed response from viewers. What are your thoughts on the overall content of science fiction T.V. today, compared to its 60's counterparts?

J.H.

Of course I'm prejudiced about 'Lost in Space'. I think it was a totally unique concept in science fiction T.V. - and for its time our sci-fi special effects were wonderful. I believe it appealed to the entire family - on various levels of course. The kids reacted in one way and the adults in quite another way. I was never a regular viewer of the original Star Trek, nor do I watch Star Trek - The Next Generation so I have no views about them.

G.L.

Do you prefer 'voice-over' work to conventional acting? What is your favourite 'voice-over' project?

J.H.

Acting is Acting - the mediums differ but one's training as an actor does not. The technique of voice over work is different from conventional acting of course - one does it all vocally and is not seen, so the proper adjustment must be made - one must now make love to the microphone rather than to the camera. But the basics are the same. Since I now do voice work exclusively (I have 'spoken for' 216 products to date) of course I prefer it. I'm happy to say that I've become quite adept at it - I'm rarely in the recording studio for more than 30-40 minutes per session. One applies the same 'method' to voice work as to any other form of acting - the technique differs.

G.L.

Was there ever a time during your acting career you considered changing direction completely and doing something else?

J.H.

Until I made a commitment to cease film and stage work I was a very busy and productive actor in those areas. I am forever grateful for my good luck in obtaining employment; which was constant from the very beginning. It appears that there was at least a modicum of talent tucked in there somewhere. Now, I am totally involved in the voice work. I am still an actor, which is all I ever wanted to be, and happily, it all worked out. I should add here, that I make many appearances at Conventions, another form of acting - I enjoy these tremendously - it brings me into contact with the many people who have supported me throughout the years with their kind letters and comments.

G.L. Putting aside the possibility of total miscasting what would have been the ultimate role you'd like to have played?

J.H.

I must be that rare avis amongst actors. I enjoyed all the lovely roles I played and never spent time dreaming of playing this or that great role. I was completely involved in what I was doing 'now' - exploring and playing each role to the fullest. In spite of my great respect for the Oliviers, Richardsons, Brandos, De Niros, I was determined to be Jonathan Harris, as good as he can be, and I was, and am.

G.L.

Who or what has given you the greatest inspiration?

J.H.

First and foremost, the support of my dear family. Secondly, my joy and pride in being in the same business as the wonderful actors I so admired. I'm not suggesting that I was either worse or better than these magical creatures. We are all actors and that's fine.

G.L.

If it is possible could you single out one of each particular favourite or yours:- an author, a novel, an artists, a painting, an actor or actress, a film, a composer, a piece of music.

J.H.

Very difficult - suffice it is to say that I am an avid Opera Nut - my interest in this art form far exceeds Opera Buff. I attend it all over the world. I have it on cassettes for my car - I listen to it constantly. I subscribe to the Los Angeles Opera here at home. I know Verdi and Puccini note for note - I sing along - much to the consternation of those around me. It's my great frustration - that I cannot sing. Not that this lack has kept me off the musical stage. When in doubt, do it loud and with authority. Works fine.

G.L.

What else is there you'd still like to do or achieve in life?

J.H.

Can't think of a thing.

G.L.

I believe you headlined the Galacticon 1 Convention earlier this year in Indianapolis. Are there are forthcoming conventions planned? Do you intend returning to the U.K. soon?

J.H.

Since Galacticon Convention in Indianapolis I have headlined Dixie Trek in Atlanta and I am booked to appear at Megacon in Atlantic City, New Jersey, as well as a Convention in Chicago. A convention in the Connecticut area is also in discussion. I am not currently planning another visit to the U.K. - unless of course I'm invited to appear at a Convention or other promotional event. I would love it.

Addendum, February 1997:

I am currently voicing "The Praying Mantis" in the new Disney Animated Feature Film "Bugs", for release in 1998. At the risk of seeming immodest, I am now in great demand for voice work. Most enjoyable to work with the wonderful vocal artists - Still have not figured out how they are able to do 10 - 12 "different" voices with great aplomb. I continue to make "appearances" all over the U.S. Next, is Houston, Texas in mid March. Then, Hollywood, Atlanta, and wherever else I decide.

With regard to the Lost in Space Movie, it starts shooting March 3 in Shepperton Studios, London (I shot my Third Man Series there). Gary Oldman is to do Dr. Smith, William Hurt is John Robinson, Mimi Rogers is Maureen Robinson - I have declined 3 offers from New Line Cinema to do a Cameo Part - I have no interest in doing anything in a L.I.S. project other than the part I created, Dr. Smith, but I wish them well.

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