Behind the roguish facade of Alexander Fitzhugh, was a delightful and highly respected actor by the name of Kurt Kasznar. Kurt added a marvellous mischievousness to his role in 'Land of the Giants'. Whilst Irwin Allen may have hoped to repeat the success of 'Lost in Space' by reproducing a 'Dr. Smith' type character, in fact, the success of the character Alexander Fitzhugh owed much to the depth of character of the actor himself. Kurt had a phenominal background in theatre, film and television as you are about to witness.
Born Kurt Servischer, on August 12, 1913 in Vienna, Austria, life was to change very quickly for Kurt. His father disappeared when he was just two years old. His mother was married again to a leading innkeeper in Vienna, a Hungarian by the name of Ferdinand Kasznar who ran a number of restaurants in the city. As Hitler made inroads into Austria, Ferdinand decided to move the family to Salzburg, where he opened the Mirabelle restaurant (later he fled from Austria, and moved to England to open the Mirabelle in London).
Kurt was attracted to the theatre and acting from a very early age. When Kurt was just seven years old, a French comedian, Max Linder, cast Kurt in 'Max, King of the Circus' in which Kurt played a young boy being chased by a lion. Whilst still in his youth, Jacques Feyder directed Kurt in the silent picture 'L' Image' ('The Image'). Although his parents would have prefered him to have pursued a different career, Kurt went on to appear in 1932 as Prologue in 'Jederman' (also known as 'Everyman') and 'Faust' in the Salzburg Drama festival. The Mirabelle in Salzburg attracted many well known customers, and Kurt was able to meet many prominent producers and actors. Very instrumental to his career was his meeting with the actor Max Reinhardt. Kurt was enrolled in Reinhardt's Viennese School of Drama.
Kurt moved on to Switzerland where he received an invitation from Reinhardt to appear in the New York production 'The Eternal Road' in 1936. Kurt found himself playing a number of roles including that of a shepherd. He decided to return to Salzburg for short period to appear in the Salzburg Festival of Drama, but later in 1938 made his way back to the New York stage. Shortly after his return to New York, Kurt met and married Cornelia Wooley, a wealthy heiress, and subsequently became an American citizen. He moved into production by staging the play 'Crazy with the Heat' with Willie Howard and Luella Gear, opening during the 1939 40 season. Unfortunately, the play wasn't very successful.
Kurt was drafted into the U.S. Army in the Autumn of 1941 and served in the Pacific as a Signal Corps cameraman. He was assigned to an army photographic unit and was part of the team who filmed the signing of the Japanese surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri. He commented in a TV Guide interview that whilst covering the landings on New Guinea, "It was quite a shock. It never occurred to me that I had to get off the boat first!"
Whilst in service, Kurt found many opportunities for writing, directing and producing a variety of film projects for the U.S. troops. He wrote a one act play called 'First Cousins' (as one of four plays under the blanket title 'The Army Play by Play') for the 'Soldiers and Sailors Club', and it was selected for a command performance before the late President Roosevelt at Hyde Park.
After the war, Kurt concentrated on Broadway and major feature films. Sadly, his marriage to Cornelia didn't work out and she died soon after the war ended. Kurt went on to star in a major role in 'The Happy Time' in 1950 on Broadway, and it was here that he met his second wife, actress Leora Dana. He also recreated the role in the film version in 1952, and this began his time at Metro Goldwyn Mayer.
Kurt appeared in many other plays including 'Six Characters in Search of an Author', 'Waiting for Godot', 'The Sound of Music' (in which he originated the role of Uncle Max), 'Barefoot in the Park' (also originated the role of Victor Velasco, the mysterious gentleman who lives in the loft above the young couple's flat), and 'The Play's the Thing'. Kurt and Leora were divorced in 1958 and Kurt didn't marry again.
Kurt specialised as a character actor in many celebrated films. These included 'Lili', 'My Sister Eileen' (with some fine songs), 'A Farewell to Arms' (with Rock Hudson), Casino Royale (putting his Austrian accent to good use), '55 days at Peking' and a substantial role in 'The Ambushers' (the third of Dean Martin's Matt Helm films).
In 1967, Kurt created the role of Alexander Fitzhugh in Irwin Allen's 'Land of the Giants'. Fitzhugh was brought in to match the success of Jonathan Harris's Dr. Smith in 'Lost in Space'. However, as time progressed the character softened and Fitzhugh became a very lovable rogue, with a teasing glint in his eye. When the chips were down, so to speak, Fitzhugh pulled his weight and it was obvious that he cared very much about the other passengers and crew of the ill fated Spindrift.
How did Kurt feel about his role in 'Giants'. At the time, Kurt
is reported to have said "I know it is hard for Gary and Don.
They are stuck with being the leaders. I am trying to play Fitzhugh
legitimately. I respect the show. I am reaching a public I never reached
before. I agree with Emlyn Williams. Never get billed on top of the
title. Then you're not the one responsible! I like the letter I got
from a 12 year old. "Dear Kurt: Don't worry about being such
a dumbbell in the show because if you weren't getting in trouble all
the time they wouldn't have to rescue you"."
Don Matheson recounted a story when he and Kurt had to stay late one evening. "We had a scene late one night, and just the two of us were left, and they had built a fairly small replica of the top of a stool, it was maybe 3 or 4 feet off the floor. We saw the camera on the floor, and we're supposed to be on this giant stool, looking over the edge of it, standing up. They got us in for the rehearsal for the camera and for the lights and everything. We broke and went outside. We never drank, none of us drank during the show, but Kurt had a bottle in case he had guests. So, he said "Well, there's no dialogue, all we have to do is show up, stand on this thing, look down so let's have a drink!". So, we had one, it's taking forever so we talk, and we have another one we had at least 2, maybe 3, no dinner! The reason it took so long is, they said "Well, we can't use this"; we go back in; there's this thing almost to the ceiling. They take us up in this breeches buoy, the thing they use on ships, sitting in this little seat and the grip is up there and pulls the thing over and we get off. Then, they give us lines we didn't have lines before and the thing is moving, and the grip is nervous, and he leaves, and we notice how nervous he is. So, they're yelling at us from the floor "We can't see you, we can't see you up there. Get a little closer to the edge." So, we go like this (Don demonstrates), almost holding hands, they go "What are you guys doing, we can't see you." So, we go down on our hands and knees, and we're peeking over the edge. They said "No, that doesn't look good, you've got to stand up, we have to see you standing" It was awful. We both swore we were never, ever, under any conditions..."
Stefan and Kurt became close friends whilst making 'Land of the Giants' and Stefan recently recalled, "Kurt was very funny, and I personally learnt a lot from him because I worked with him probably the closest. I learnt a lot about technique, and being professional. He yelled at me once and it really upset me We were doing a scene together; we were in the second season, and I was thinking of myself and I was placing myself in the shot. I guess I was trying to look good and I wasn't thinking about the scene and I wasn't thinking about him. I was just thinking about me, and I struck a pose and I had my back to him. We were supposed to be speaking and I was doing some kind of looking off in the distance, talking away from the camera while he was talking to me and we rehearsed it like that and then we broke before we were to shoot it. I was walking outside and he came up behind me and screamed at me. "Don't you ever to that again. You look at me when you talk!". I cried, I did! But, he was right, he was absolutely right and I never forgot that. He explained that my responsibility was not to myself, but to make the scene look good. He named that ship of ours, the SPINDRIFT. It is a funny thing, I don't think it was a big deal for me, or the rest of us, but for someone like him who really was a world class actor who had made tonnes of movies, who had worked with everybody over the course of a few weeks on a television series more people would see you than had seen you in years, and it's very strange."
After 'Land of the Giants', Kurt had infrequent film and television roles, but he also appeared with theatrical touring companies. Notably, Kurt appeared in the pilot film for the series 'McMillan and Wife' called 'Once Upon a Dead Man' in 1971, which also co starred the aforementioned Jonathan Harris. Kurt also fun appearing, now bearded, with Lucille Ball in a hilarious episode of her successful series.
Many of the cast including Stefan Arngrim remained in contact with
Kurt. Stefan recalls that he saw Kurt for a number of years after
the show, but later "He went to Europe for a while and we didn't
see each other after that. We spoke, but we didn't get to see each
other. I was back in New York for a while and we kind of missed each
other. But yes, we were very good friends and aside from anything,
we lived very close during and after the show. He just lived down
the street from me. He was a very funny man, there's no doubt about
that, very funny. Kurt had a very remarkable life and remarkable experiences
and he'd done some wonderful work and had been to some marvellous
places in marvellous times. So, he was a fascinating person to talk
to. He told some great stories, wonderful stories." Stefan also
told us that Kurt was a terrific cook, and was very well read. Stefan
often borrowed books from Kurt's library which housed books such as
'Gauguin', 'French Cooking', 'The Garden Book' and 'Opera Guide',
and which gives many clues to Kurt's interests.
On Monday, August 6th 1979, Kurt passed away in St. John's Hospital, Santa Monica. He had been ill with cancer for many months. Both his colleagues and fans were devastated by the news, and to this day he is remembered with warmth and fondness by all who knew him and his work.
The cast of 'Land of the Giants' all Kurt remember Kurt with tremendous
affection. Deanna notes "He lent such class to the show. He enjoyed
it, he sometimes would spook a little, he would do a lot of 'tongue
in cheek' and he was the master of upstaging, but he did it with such
fun and finesse, that you just giggled and let him do whatever