The Television Legacy of Irwin Allen – Part I: An Introduction

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January 11, 2011 marks a historic occasion for fans of television science fiction that grew up in the 60’s and 70’s. With the DVD release of the second volume of the fourth season of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, every episode of Irwin Allen’s four best loved shows are finally available on home video in the United States. As a major fan of these series and a video collector who has spent years trying to acquire them for my personal collection, I can vouch for the relief that must be felt by thousands of fans worldwide.

Irwin Allen started his career in Hollywood as a magazine editor and radio announcer but it was not long before he was offered a producer job at RKO motion pictures. It was here that he produced the first of two award winning documentaries, The Sea Around Us, in 1953. Three year’s latter and over at Warner Brothers studios, he would create his second documentary, The Animal Kingdom, which included stop motion animation sequences of dinosaurs courtesy of industry legends Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen. His follow up feature, The Story of Mankind, would introduce Allen to two concepts that would become trademarks of his throughout his career – all star casts and stock footage.

In 1960, the studio hopping Allen finally found a more permanent home at 20th Century Fox. His first feature for Fox, The Lost World, started him on a new path with science fiction and teamed him with actor David Hedison who would play a more important part for him a few years later. It was Irwin Allen’s next feature though that would seal his fate for the remainder of the decade, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Capitalizing on the nation’s growing fascination with emerging technology and continuing fear of the cold war, Voyage told the story of a top secret government submarine, dubbed The Seaview, and her highly skilled crew on a mission to prevent global destruction. The story was clearly inspired by the works of Jules Verne, which even the film’s trailer touted, but just in case anyone missed it, Peter Lorre, who had starred in the Walt Disney adaptation of Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, was strategically placed in the cast. Leading the acting ensemble were Walter Pidgeon, Robert Sterling, Frankie Avalon, and a pre-I Dream of Jeanie Barbara Eden. After one more feature, the lighter toned Five Weeks in a Balloon, Allen fired up the engines on The Seaview again and set sale for the waters of television.

From 1964 to 1970, Irwin Allen dominated the airwaves with an impressive line up of consistently entertaining programs. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel, and Land of the Giants do not represent the entirety of his contributions to television, but they are easily his best loved and remembered. Many fans consider them the quintessential quartet of sixties science fiction. After their successful network runs, each of these series spent many years in worldwide syndication where they entertained and endeared themselves to multiple generations of new fans.

As the 1960’s grew to a close, Allen tried to return to the realm of underwater adventure with the television film City Beneath the Sea. He intended this as a follow up series to Land of the Giants with the emphasis relying more on science and less on fantasy like his recent efforts. Unfortunately, the film was not picked up as a series and Irwin Allen decided to take a break from the grind of television production following the cancellation of Giants in 1970. It would only be a brief vacation before he found himself back on the big screen in a bigger way than ever before.

Irwin Allen spent his down time after leaving television securing the five million dollars in financing he needed for his next project, an all star extravaganza about the survivors of a capsized luxury liner trying desperately to climb their way to freedom. Fox had balked at the budget both because of its size and their recent string of unprofitable film releases that made them wary of such an unusual premise. Fortunately Allen was able to raise the funds himself and The Poseidon Adventure began breaking box office records as soon as it opened. The impressive cast included Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Stella Stevens, and Shelly Winters. By the time this boat ride had finished its run at the box office, Irwin Allen had earned a new nickname in Hollywood – the Master of Disaster!

The studio that refused to finance The Poseidon Adventure now insisted on a follow up hit from Allen and he was only too happy to try out his new formula for box office success. Substituting an out of control fire in a high rise apartment building for the overturned boat, The Towering Inferno delivered substantial excitement even if it did not live up to the originality of its predecessor. This time out, it was Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, and Richard Chamberlain among many other well known names that battled the disaster created by the master. While providing the monetary numbers that Fox was looking for, Inferno also managed to garner three Academy Awards.

For the next decade, Irwin Allen would continue to produce films for the big screen like The Swarm, When Time Ran Out, and even the sequel Beyond the Poseidon Adventure. These films all featured the same elements as his earlier films and even many of the same actors but they never managed to recapture the success of his first two disaster movies. After leaving 20th Century Fox to return to Warner Brothers in the mid-70’s, Allen also returned to television where he produced the popular Swiss Family Robinson series and many made for TV movies including several like Flood, Fire, and Cave-In that tried to adapt his disaster formula for home audiences. Following a spectacular, especially by television standards, musical adaptation of Alice in Wonderland with an all star cast in 1985, Allen took another well deserved break from producing. He had plans in the works for a similar television production of Pinocchio and a theatrical version of Lost in Space at the time of his death in 1991.

Over the next few installments of Retrorama, each of Allen’s four sixties science fiction series will be given the retrospectives they all deserve. Stay tuned for aquatic assaults, shifty stowaways, historic horrors, and miniature mayhem!