Irwin Allen, 75, the flamboyant film and TV producer-director whose name became synonymous with disaster movies in the 1970s, died Nov. 2 in Santa Monica, Calif., after suffering a heart attack at his home in Malibu.
He had suffered from heart problems and had been semi-retired for several years.
Allen’s career peaked with “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972) and “The Towering Inferno” (1974), two hugely successful disaster movies that prompted comparisons to the broadly entertaining spectacles of such showmen as P.T. Barnum and Cecil B. DeMille, as well as scholarly analyses that linked such pics to growing fears of social breakdown.
In addition to his feature films, Allen also produced the TV series “Lost in Space,” “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” “The Time Tunnel,” “Land of the Giants,” “Swiss Family Robinson” and “Code Red,” and numerous telepics. His last production was the 1985 TV two-parter “Alice in Wonderland.”
A New York native, Allen majored in journalism and advertising at Columbia University and went to Hollywood in the late 1930s as an editor of Key magazine. He produced a radio show for KLAC, wrote a syndicated newspaper column, produced the “Hollywood Merry-Go-Round” TV show and was a literary agent before turning to filmmaking.
His early pics include “Where Danger Lives” (1950) with Robert Mitchum, “Double Dynamite” (1951) with Jane Russell and Frank Sinatra and “A Girl in Every Port” (1951) with Groucho Marx.
He won an Oscar in 1953 as producer of the documentary feature “The Sea Around Us,” which he also directed. In 1954 he produced the 3-D adventure “Dangerous Mission” and two years later produced and directed a documentary, “The Animal World.”
Allen directed his first narrative feature, “The Story of Mankind,” in 1957. The (sometimes intentionally) humorous debate between Ronald Colman and Vincent Price over the human race’s worthiness to survive was illustrated with clips from old historical pics and skits with an eclectic cast that included Hedy Lamarr as Joan of Arc, Dennis Hopper as Napoleon and Harpo Marx as Isaac Newton.
In 1960, Allen scored a hit with the prehistoric saga “The Lost World,” which he directed as well as produced. It was the first film in his long association with 20th Century Fox.
The following year, he produced and directed the atomic submarine feature “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” which he turned into the successful series that ran on ABC from 1964 to 1968.
The sci-fi adventure saga “Lost in Space,” his 1965-68 CBS series starring Guy Williams and June Lockhart, is still popular in syndication.
Two other Allen sci-fi skeins, “The Time Tunnel” (1966-67) with James Darren and “Land of the Giants” (1968-70) with Gary Conway, ran on ABC, as did his 1975-76 adventure series “Swiss Family Robinson.”
“The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno” brought Allen into the big time of theatrical producing, with “Poseidon” doing domestic rentals of $42 million for Fox in 1972 and “Inferno” scoring $48.7 million in domestic rentals for Fox in 1974 (the latter was a joint venture with Warner Bros., which released it in foreign markets).
Allen also directed the action scenes of those two pics, which established his formula of extravagant spectacle (an upside-down ocean liner, a burning skyscraper) surrounding a cast headed by top stars (Gene Hackman in “Poseidon,” Paul Newman and Steve McQueen in “Inferno”), and supported by a host of familiar faces typified by Shelley Winters and Ernest Borgnine.
“Inferno” brought Allen a best-picture Oscar nomination in the year that “The Godfather, Part II” took the top prize.
His other pics included, as producer-director, “Five Weeks in a Balloon,” “The Swarm” and “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure,” and, as a producer, “The Big Circus” and “When Time Ran Out” (1980, his last feature). He also had writing credit on some pics.
With the theatrical market waning for disaster pics in the late 1970s, Allen began concentrating on TV again, producing such telepics (usually with disaster themes) as “The Flood,” “Fire,” the two-parter “Hanging by a Thread,” “Cave-In!” “The Night the Bridge Fell Down” and “The Memory of Eva Ryker,” as well as the “Alice in Wonderland” mini and the 1981-82 “Code Red” series.
Survived by his wife, singer-actress Sheila Mathews, who appeared in several of his films.