|Best known for his portrayal of the
comic villain "Dr. Zachary Smith" on Lost In Space, Jonathan Harris
was a veteran of over 612 TV appearances. His unique speaking voice was
instantly recognizable for its cultured air, but his original voice was
"I spoke straight New
Yorkese," he said with a laugh. "I was much too poor to go to acting school,
so I learned to speak by going to the movies. I watched over 200 British
films. I found that the way to get rid of my accent was to superimpose
Born to Russian immigrant parents on 4th street in
Manhattan, New York, Harris and his two sisters changed their original
Russian names to Harris—a standard feature of the melting pot assimilation
of the time. "We all agreed that our original name was all but
His road to acting was roundabout. At Fordham
University he trained to be a pharmacist and after graduating he set up shop
in his own Manhattan neighborhood. But a life filling prescriptions was not
in the cards.
"I found it to be utterly boring, so I decided to
lie my way into show business. I tried out for stock theater at the Mill
Pond Playhouse in Roslyn, Long Island. At the tryout I made up a list of
shows I had appeared in, and when the director asked me what I had done I
rattled them off the tip of my tongue. I got the part, but when I showed up
for the first rehearsal I didn’t know upstage from downstage."
Quitting the pharmacy, Harris performed in over 100
summer and winter stock productions before setting his sights on Broadway.
He made the rounds of casting calls, showing up every day at the office of
Gilbert Miller in the Henry Miller Theatre.
"I got thrown out of that office every day. Finally
the secretary took pity on me and I got to meet Mr. Miller. He cast me as a
Polish flier in the show The Heart of a City. He asked me if I could
do a Polish accent, so of course I said yes, even though I hadn’t a clue. I
went to the Polish Consulate to find out how they spoke, but everyone there
had a different accent so I went home and tried to make one up. At the first
rehearsal I was shaking like a leaf, worrying that I’d get fired, when the
director pointed at me.
"‘You there, where did you get that accent’ he
"So I lied and told him my parents were Polish
immigrants and this is how they spoke. Convinced, the director leaned over
to the writer and said, ‘You owe me five bucks. I told you he was a real
"I’ve used that accent many times since, whenever
they need something foreign. I’ve even used it for Chinese!"
Building on his steady work on Broadway and in live
television in New York, Harris made his first trip to Hollywood in 1953 for
a part in the film Botany Bay, starring Alan Ladd. From there he
began a string of TV appearances, including The Twilight Zone,
Zorro, and Bewitched, before landing the "Dr. Smith" role in
Lost In Space.
In working out the character of "Dr. Smith," a part
that would make him famous, Harris credits Irwin Allen for letting him have
"I realized early on that the part as written was
too limited. If Dr. Smith was purely an evil character, he’d quickly be
written out of the show and I’d be back on the unemployment line. So I
started to play up what I call ‘comic villainy,’ and soon I was getting the
most fan mail of anyone on the show."
Harris stayed up nights drawing up lists of
alliterations for Dr. Smith to spout to the Robot and they soon became his
"Fans have shown me lots of lists over the years,
but none of them were complete," he says, with a Dr. Smith twinkle in his
eye. "I know, because I’ve still got the original one."
An avid opera buff, Harris was been married for
more than 60 years to his high school sweetheart, Gertrude. Up until his
death in 2002, Harris still received over 500 fan letters a month. Sincerely
grateful for the attention, he answered every one.