On the occasion of his 94th birthday, we revisit this SF-oriented profile written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.
“Among those who have kneed science fiction in the groin Irwin Allen must rank high,” wrote John Baxter in Future Tense. Before the blockbusters The Poseidon Adventure (1973) and The Towering Inferno (1974) made him the “Master of Disaster,” Allen’s contributions to the SF genre, on the large and small screens, were undeniably profitable, if at times decidedly juvenile.
After working in the magazine, radio, and advertising industries, Allen began producing films in the early 1950s. Among his earliest successes was The Sea Around Us (1952), an Oscar-winning documentary based on Rachel L. Carson’s book, and as a follow-up he decided to make a film about various animal species, The Animal World (1956), which he also wrote and directed.
For its dinosaur sequence, Allen hired the up-and-coming king of stop-motion animation, Ray Harryhausen, and his mentor, Willis O’Brien, who had created the pioneering effects of The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933). After numerous career reversals, O’Brien was elated when Allen then recruited him as the effects technician for his 1960 remake of The Lost World.
Unfortunately, Twentieth Century-Fox wanted to rush the film into theaters to capitalize on the success of its Jules Verne adaptation Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959). This did not allow enough time for the painstaking stop-motion process, so at Allen’s insistence, O’Brien was forced to use Journey’s more economical method of photographically enlarging live lizards.
As Harryhausen told this writer in an interview for Filmfax, “He was flabbergasted that they would go that way, but it was a cheaper way, and unfortunately I don’t think it was as good. The Lost World depended so much on the dinosaur that looks like a dinosaur, and not a lizard with some fins glued on his back. They did that with the first One Million B.C. …” O’Brien died just two years later.
The film depicts an expedition to a remote Amazonian plateau that Professor Challenger (Claude Rains) claims contains extinct Jurassic dinosaurs. He is joined by big-game hunter Lord Roxton (Michael Rennie) and Jennifer Holmes (Jill St. John), whose father, a newspaper mogul, finances the expedition on the condition that a reporter, Ed Malone (David Hedison), is included.
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) was basically an updated version of Verne’s own 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which, like The Lost World, was written by Charles Bennett and Allen, who also directed. Bennett is best known for working with Alfred Hitchcock on six of his best British films, plus Foreign Correspondent (1940), for which he shared an Oscar nomination.
After the Van Allen Belt catches fire, presumably ignited by a meteor, Admiral Harriman Nelson (Walter Pidgeon), the inventor of the nuclear submarine Seaview, and Captain Lee Crane (Robert Sterling) concoct a desperate plan. By firing a missile on a precise date and trajectory, they propose to blow the burning belt outward, which they do after many trials and tribulations.
Bennett and Allen at last tackled Verne directly with a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of his Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962), with Voyage veterans Barbara Eden and Peter Lorre joined by Red Buttons and Fabian. Cedric Hardwicke plays Professor Samuel Fergusson, whose balloon, the Jupiter, is pressed into service to scuttle Portuguese slave traders in Western Africa in 1863.
Allen assaulted the airwaves with four fondly remembered SF series, all produced by Fox and often running concurrently: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-8), Lost in Space (1965-8), The Time Tunnel (1966-7), and Land of the Giants (1968-70). All but Lost in Space aired on ABC, with Bennett contributing several scripts to the new Voyage and one to Land of the Giants.
Like Lost in Space, which ran on CBS, Voyage began in black-and-white, with a serious tone, but degenerated in later, color seasons into increasingly outlandish episodes and a repetitive monster-of-the-week format. Richard Basehart, who reportedly displayed a growing disdain for his well-paid work, and The Lost World’s David Hedison were recast as TV’s Nelson and Crane.
As its proposed title, The Space Family Robinson, suggests, Lost in Space was a futuristic version of Johann Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson, with Guy Williams and June Lockhart as the eponymous Robinson parents. Comic villain Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris) threatened to steal the show, and was played more seriously by Gary Oldman in the 1998 feature-film version.
The Time Tunnel thrust its protagonists, Drs. Tony Newman (James Darren) and Doug Phillips (Robert Colbert), into various eras past and present, many of which were created using Fox’s stock footage and standing sets. As with the other Allen series, the episodes became more and more far-fetched as the series progressed, and aliens abounded in a desperate bid for ratings.
Land of the Giants, in which seven Earthlings crash on a planet whose inhabitants dwarf them, rehashed not only Richard Matheson’s classic film The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), but also the recent series World of Giants (1959-60). Once the novelty wore off, it fell into a formula, with one member of the cast (led by Gary Conway) getting captured and requiring rescue by the rest.
Allen’s subsequent small-screen SF efforts included the failed pilots City Beneath the Sea (1971), which began life as a test film with another cast, and The Time Travelers (1976), clearly modeled on The Time Tunnel. He also went back to the Jules Verne well one last time with The Return of Captain Nemo (1978), a miniseries pitting Nemo (José Ferrer) against a mad scientist.
As the cycle of disaster movies petered out, Allen returned to both the big screen and the director’s chair with one of his most notorious flops, The Swarm (1978). Based on the novel by Arthur Herzog, it combined an SF premise of killer bees threatening humankind with the usual mix of stars (e.g., Michael Caine, Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda) and scenes of destruction.
Allen’s waning years as a producer included a superfluous sequel, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), and a disastrous disaster movie, When Time Ran Out… (1980). But his record of successes both commercial and critical (The Towering Inferno was nominated for an Oscar as Best Picture) and the popularity of his TV cast members at fan conventions speak for themselves.