Jonathan Harris, the TV-legit-screen actor who played prissy, nefarious Dr. Zachary Smith on Irwin Allen’s hybrid TV sci-fi/action-adventure series “Lost in Space,” died Sunday Nov. 3, three days before his 88th birthday, in Encino, Calif., while being treated for a chronic back problem. Cause of death was attributed to a blood clot.
Bronx native, nee Jonathan Charasuchin, the son of Russian immigrants, worked as a stock boy in a neighborhood pharmacy and went on to study pharmacology at Fordham U., but his heart lay in the arts. A family friend regularly took Harris to see opera and performances at the local Yiddish theater. At 18, he legally changed his name to Jonathan Harris.
In 1938 he married his high school sweetheart, Gertrude Bregmen. Armed with a false resume and no acting experience, he auditioned and was accepted into the Millpond Playhouse in Roslyn, Long Island, where he performed in 16 company productions. During WWII, he performed in plays in the South Pacific for troops.
He made his Broadway debut in 1942, starring in Gilbert Miller’s “Heart of a City.” Four years later he performed opposite Marlon Brando and Paul Muni in “A Flag Is Born.”
His career on the legit stage continued throughout the ’50s with roles in the original U.S. productions of “The Madwoman of Chaillot,” “The Grass Harp,” “Hazel Flagg” and “The Teahouse of the August Moon.”
He also began carving out memorable roles in television, appearing in “Lights Out,” “Studio One,” “Kraft Television Theater” and “Zorro.” In “The Third Man” he played the dour, humorless assistant Bradford Webster.
It was after a two-year stint as Mr. Phillips on laffer “The Bill Dana Show” that Harris was cast in the first ongoing space adventure, “Lost in Space,” a takeoff on the “Swiss Family Robinson” tale. A late addition to the crew, Harris was the first actor to receive the “Special Guest Star” credit.
Harris played the evil intergalactic doctor of environmental psychology Dr. Smith, archnemesis of the Robinson family; thesp often thought up his own alliterative lines to insult straitlaced Robot: “You sanctimonious scatterbrain!” and was known for his over-the-top melodramatic line delivery on the show.
The series was cancelled after three years, but Harris continued working in television, guest starring over the next couple of decades in shows such as “The Twilight Zone,” “Bewitched,” “Land of the Giants,” “Battlestar Galactica” and so on.
He also appeared in the films “Botany Bay,” “Catch Me If You Can” and “The Big Fisherman.” Additionally, he lent his colorful voice to many programs, including the children’s series “Problem Child” “Rainbow Brite” and “Freakazoid!” as well as Disney pics “A Bug’s Life” and “Toy Story 2.”
Most recently, Harris reprised his role as Dr. Smith for the upcoming NBC TV movie, “Los in Space: The Journey Home.”
Harris is survived by his wife, a son and daughter-in-law, two sisters and two granddaughters.
Services will be held 10 a.m. Wednesday at Westwood Memorial Park.