Dr. Smith and Beyond

On a clear, warm Atlanta day, I’m talking to veteran actor and sci-fi legend Jonathan Harris. Harris, on the other end of the phone from his California home, isn’t as lucky.

“Great sheets of rain!” Harris exclaims when asked about the weather. “We’re not used to it. Southern California, you know. At least I thought it was. May I say it’s just dreadful!”

Harris delivers the lines dramatically with the power of a classic thespian. With over 50 years on stage and screen, it obviously comes naturally to the actor.

Although he’s best known for creating the landmark role of Dr. Smith on the classic ’60s, sci-fi TV show Lost In Space, Harris has chalked up many a mile on the road of show business. “ I did film, television, the stage, and I’ve done the whole number,” he says. “And now I’m doing voice work. So I’ve really done the entire gamut. And that makes me very proud, I must say. It’s been a lovely career, and I’m still enjoying it.”

Harris, who has appeared in 612 television films, says he doesn’t miss acting in front of the camera. “After 612,” he says, “I have nothing left to prove.” As an actor, however, he continues to prove his talent from within the sound booths of recording studios. Harris has voiced characters on animated programs including Freakazoid and Channel Umptee 3. This year’s Christmas film season will feature Harris as the voice of The Praying Mantis in the Pixar/Disney film A Bug’s Life.

Having had what he describes as an incredibly pleasurable experience, the production of A Bug’s Life found Harris working with Toy Story director Jonathan Lasseter and co-stars including Madeline Kahn, Julia Louis Dreyfus, Kevin Spacey and Denis Leary. He says the finished product is something to behold. “I suddenly forgot within a matter of seconds that they were all bugs and beetles,” he says, “and I began to listen to the dialogue. It was a very interesting reaction. John [Lasseter] was delighted when I told him that was the way I reacted.”

Although A Bug’s Life is a monumental project, the conversation inevitably turns to Lost In Space. “It was a wonderful experience for me, because I developed and created a fully-rounded man of many facets,” he says of Dr. Smith. “He was despicable, dreadful, awful, charming, delightful, deceitful, selfish, sly and lovable. All of that I introduced to him. And I used them all, and it all worked. And I’m very proud of him.”

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