The Hall of Hams #3: Jonathan Harris
The Hall of Hams is my series on some of my favorite actors who have brought the art of melodramatic acting into the modern era.
Those who exclusively associate Jonathan Harris (1914-2002) with his greatest creation, the cowardly, conniving, alliterative villain Dr. Smith on Lost in Space, will be surprised to know that in his day he was well known and loved for two similar regular roles on tv series that preceded it: The Third Man (1959-1965) in which he played Michael Rennie’s cowardly assistant, and The Bill Dana Show (1963-1965), in which he played a pompous hotel manager, employer of bellboy Jose Jiminez.
The most delightful thing about him, however is that his greatest theatrical creation was himself. For Harris’ real last name was Charasuchin — he was a Jew from the Bronx. He worked damned hard to become that florid, affected, seemingly Anglo thespian. If you think about it, it’s one of the best examples on record of a white-face act. For such a Shakespearean blowhard, he did suprisingly little live stage work, and that was mostly at the beginning of his career in the 1940s (he was once in a play with Marlon Brando — oh, to have been in the audience for that!) The great bulk of his career was spent in television, not only the three series we have mentioned, but guest spots in all the major tv series of the day. (See here for my little write-up I did on a version of The House of the Seven Gables he was in).
For more about show business history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc