Irwin Allen (June 12, 1916 – November 2, 1991) was an American film and television producer and director, known for his work in science fiction, then later as the "Master of Disaster" for his work in the disaster film genre. His most successful productions were The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). He also created and produced the popular 1960s science fiction television series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants.
|Born||June 12, 1916|
New York City, U.S.
|Died||November 2, 1991 75) (aged|
Santa Monica, California, U.S.
|Resting place||Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery|
|Occupation||Film producer, film director, television producer, screenwriter|
Sheila Matthews (m. 1974)
Irwin Allen was born in New York City, the son of poor Jewish immigrants from Russia. He majored in journalism and advertising at Columbia University after attending City College of New York for a year. He left college because of financial difficulties caused by the Great Depression.
Radio and Journalism
He moved to Hollywood in 1938, where he edited Key Magazine followed by an 11-year stint producing his own program at radio station KLAC. The success of the radio show led to him being offered his own gossip column, Hollywood Merry-Go-Round, which was syndicated to 73 newspapers.
Allen produced his first TV program, a celebrity panel show also called Hollywood Merry-Go-Round with announcer Steve Allen (no relation), before moving into film production.
Film Producer at RKO
Allen became involved in film production at a time when power was beginning to shift from studios to talent agencies. He put together packages consisting of directors, actors and script, and sold them to film studios.
Allen made his directorial debut with the documentary, The Sea Around Us (1953), at RKO. This was based on Rachel Carson's best-selling book of the same name. It was made with largely stock footage and won the 1952 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.:87 Carson was so disappointed with Allen's final version of the script that she never again sold film rights to her work. The film includes gory images of whales being killed that are more shocking to modern audiences than they were at the time. It was a success, making a profit of over $2 million.
Allen directed a semi-documentary about the evolution of life, The Animal World (1956). Again he made heavy use of stock footage, but he also included a nine-minute stop-motion dinosaur sequence by Ray Harryhausen. Before release, he toned down the gore from both the live action and the animation.
The film was released by Warner Bros. So was Allen's next film, The Story of Mankind (1957), a very loose adaptation of the Hendrik Willem van Loon book of the same name. It featured many well-known actors including the Marx Brothers, Ronald Colman, Hedy Lamarr, Vincent Price, and a young Dennis Hopper. The actors were each paid $2,500 for a single day's work with Allen relying on stock footage for the rest of the film.
Allen co-wrote (with Bennett) and produced The Big Circus (1959) for Allied Artists Pictures with Mature, Red Buttons, Peter Lorre and Price. Allen was interested in making "an exciting colourful show - something the public can't see on television."
20th Century Fox
Films as director
Allen went to 20th Century Fox where he co-wrote (with Bennett) produced and directed three films: The Lost World (1960), from the novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), and Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962).
Willis O'Brien, who had worked on the pioneering special effects of the original Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933) films, was disappointed when Allen opted to save time by using live alligators and lizards instead of stop-motion animation for the film's dinosaurs. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was a scientifically dubious, Jules Verne-style adventure to save the world from a burning Van Allen belt. It was the basis for his later television series of the same name. The family film, Five Weeks in a Balloon was a loose adaptation of the Verne novel. Lost World was a moderate hit and Voyage was very successful. Five Weeks was a box office disappointment.
With 20th Century Fox scaling back their film productions due to the massive expenditure on films like Cleopatra (1963), in the mid 1960s Allen concentrated on television, producing several overlapping science fiction series for 20th Century Fox Television. They featured special effects by L. B. Abbott who won three Emmys for his work.:204 Allen used many of the same craftsmen on his TV shows as he did on his films, including composer John Williams as well as costume designer and general assistant Paul Zastupnevich.:6
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964–68, ABC TV) established both Allen's and 20th Century Fox's reputation as television producers. The financial viability of the series was enormously helped by the re-use of many of the sets from the film; the cost of the Seaview submarine sets alone exceeded the budget of a typical pilot show of the era.:11 The series also benefited from Allen's by now notorious use of stock film footage, particularly from Hell and High Water (1954), The Enemy Below (1957) and Allen's The Lost World.:16
Allen had originally intended Lost in Space (1965–68, CBS TV) to be a family show, a science fiction version of The Swiss Family Robinson.:116 It quickly developed into a children's show with episodes concentrating on the young Will Robinson, the robot, and, especially, the comic villain, Dr. Smith.:36–7 The show popularized several science fiction elements that have since become widespread, such as the comic robot (e.g. Silent Running, Star Wars) or android (Logan's Run, Star Trek: The Next Generation), the heroic child (Voyagers!, Wesley Crusher), and the wacky lovable alien (Albert in Alien Nation, Vir in Babylon 5).:124
The Time Tunnel (1966–67, ABC TV), with each episode set in a different historical time period, was an ideal vehicle for Allen's talent for smoothly mixing live action with stock footage from films set in the same period. A change in network management led to the show being cancelled after just one season.:204
Land of the Giants (1968–70, ABC TV) was the most expensive show of its day at roughly $250,000 per episode. As another castaway themed show, Allen incorporated some of the successful elements from Lost in Space, although this time he did not allow the treacherous character to dominate the series.:273
Allen also produced several TV movies, such as City Beneath the Sea, which recycled many props and models from Voyage, Lost in Space, and Man From The 25th Century. Both were intended as pilots for new TV series projects, but his small-screen success from the 1960s largely eluded him in the 1970s.
Lost in Space's Bill Mumy said of Allen that, while he was very good at writing television pilots that sold, his unwillingness to spend money hurt his shows' quality once on the air. A monster costume that appeared on one of his shows, for example, would appear on another a few weeks later with new paint. Writer Jon Abbott described Allen as paradoxical. "Here was a man who, when told the cost of a spaceship for a Lost in Space alien, snapped, 'Let him walk!' ... and then let the show be canceled rather than take a cut in the budget".
In 1969 Allen signed a three-picture deal with Avco Embassy to make The Poseidon Adventure, Mo Man's World and Almost Midnight. However the deal did not lead to any films.
The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno
In the 1970s, Allen produced the most successful films of his career: The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974), directing the action scenes for both. Their showmanship was compared to that of P. T. Barnum and Cecil B. DeMille, and they prompted scholarly analysis of the subsequent popularity of the disaster genre.
The Poseidon Adventure was based on the Paul Gallico novel of the same name and directed by Ronald Neame. Unable to find a studio to fully back the venture, Allen raised half the $5 million budget, with 20th Century-Fox putting up the rest; the film eventually grossed over $100 million. L. B. Abbott and A. D. Flowers won a Special Achievement Academy Award for the film's optical and physical effects.:38
Allen hoped to follow up on the success of The Poseidon Adventure with a film based on the novel The Tower, but the film rights had already been taken by Warner Bros. He looked for an alternative and found a similar story in The Glass Inferno. Rather than produce competing movies, 20th Century-Fox and Warner Bros. agreed to coproduce The Towering Inferno with a script based on both novels and a $14 million budget. It was the first time two major studios made a film together, splitting the cost. Despite its nearly three-hour running length, the film, directed by John Guillermin, was a hit and won three Academy Awards.:39
Final TV Movies for Fox
The success of the films led to Allen receiving an offer to make three TV movies. "I missed television," said Allen. "There's a hysteria and an excitement in television that exists nowhere else in business."
Each was made for Fox television at a budget of $1 million with a view to possibly going to series. They screened on different networks: Adventures of the Queen (1975), The Swiss Family Robinson (1975) and Time Travelers (1976). Only Swiss Family was picked up for a series, running for 20 episodes.
Allen left 20th Century Fox when a change in management cancelled the remaining three planned disaster films. He was offered a deal at Warner Bros. by Jon Calley, who built an office building for Allen. Allen continued to work there for the remainder of his career.
The rise of new filmmakers like George Lucas reportedly caught him off guard. According to one book, the success of Star Wars bewildered him; he could not understand how a film with apparently no stars or love story could enrapture audiences so fervently.
Allen produced three made-for-TV disaster movies: Flood! (1976), Fire! (1977), and Hanging by a Thread (1979). He also made Viva Knievel! (1977), The Amazing Captain Nemo (1978), and The Memory of Eva Ryker (1980).
"No, I'm not going to run out of disasters," he said in a 1977 interview. "Pick up the daily newspaper, which is my best source for crisis stories, and you'll find 10 or 15 every day... People chase fire engines, flock to car crashes. People thrive on tragedy. It's unfortunate, but in my case, it's fortunate. The bigger the tragedy, the bigger the audience."
Allen later went to Columbia to make a short lived TV series, Code Red (1981–82). His last films for Warners were The Night the Bridge Fell Down (1982), and Cave-In! (1979, though not released until 1983). Shortly before Cave-In! made its TV debut, Allen was awarded a Worst Career Achievement Golden Raspberry Award.
While at Columbia, Allen made a $14 million TV version of Alice in Wonderland (1985). His last credit was the TV movie Outrage! (1986).
The "Irwin Allen rock-and-roll" is when the camera is rocked as the on-screen cast rushes from side to side on the set, simulating a ship being tossed around. It is employed in many episodes of Lost in Space and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. This camera technique was employed in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode "First Spaceship on Venus". Here the camera tilts to simulate the spacecraft being hit. During this scene, Joel shouts out "Irwin Allen presents...".
Allen's career in film and TV was the subject of a 1995 documentary, The Fantasy Worlds of Irwin Allen, produced and directed by Kevin Burns, co-founder of Foxstar Productions, originally set up as the production unit responsible for creating a series of Alien Nation movies for television. Numerous cast members and associates from various Irwin Allen projects appeared in the film, lending recollections of their time working with him.
In 1994, while Senior VP of Foxstar, Burns founded Van Ness Films, a non-fiction and documentary production unit. That same year, he met Jon Jashni, a Fox film executive who shared Burns' interest in Allen's works.
In 1998, the two collaborated on a TV retrospective special, Lost in Space Forever. Hosted by John Laroquette, it chronicled the series' creation and run on TV in the 1960s and beyond, and featured appearances by Bill Mumy, Jonathan Harris, June Lockhart, Angela Cartwright, Mark Goddard and Marta Kristen, as well as film footage of vintage interviews with Guy Williams. Also appearing were Bob May, who donned the Robot suit, and Dick Tufeld, who supplied the character's voice. The flight deck set of the Jupiter 2 spacecraft from the series was recreated as the backdrop for parts of the special.
It also was used as a vehicle to promote the 1998 Lost in Space film version of the original television series, starring William Hurt, Matt LeBlanc, Gary Oldman, Lacey Chabert, Mimi Rogers and Heather Graham.
Burns and Jashni later formed Synthesis Entertainment and began developing and producing remakes of, and sequels to, several Allen properties, including a 2002 Fox Television pilot for an updated version of The Time Tunnel, which did not sell, and remakes of films including Poseidon (2006) and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. The 2002 TV pilot was included as a bonus feature on Volume 2 of Fox's 2006 DVD release of the 30-episode Time Tunnel (1966–67) TV series.
|1953||The Sea Around Us||Yes||Yes||Yes||Documentary|
Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature
|1956||The Animal World||Yes||Yes||Yes||Documentary|
|1957||The Story of Mankind||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|1960||The Big Circus||Yes||Yes|
|The Lost World||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|1961||Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|1962||Five Weeks in a Balloon||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|1972||The Poseidon Adventure||Yes||Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama|
|1974||The Towering Inferno||Yes||Directed action sequences|
Nominated—Academy Award for Best Picture
|1979||Beyond the Poseidon Adventure||Yes||Yes|
|1980||When Time Ran Out||Yes|
In popular culture
On January 3, 2008, BBC Four showed a night of Allen's work which included the 1995 documentary The Fantasy Worlds of Irwin Allen along with episodes of Lost in Space, Land of the Giants and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
Episode 57 of the Disney TV series Duck Tales screened December 8, 1987, titled "The Uncrashable Hindentanic" features a character called "Irwin Mallard" who films the destruction of Scrooge McDuck's airship called the Hindentanic in the disaster movie style of Irwin Allen.
"The Irwin Allen Show" was a skit on SCTV. The Irwin Allen Show was a Johnny Carson-style talk show with Allen as the host. The guests were stars in Allen's movies, and they were each individually victims of an Irwin Allen-style disaster while a guest on the talk show (e.g. Red Buttons was attacked by a swarm of bees).
In the film Ocean's Thirteen (2007) Linus Caldwell (played by Matt Damon) announces aloud to a catatonic Reuben Tishkoff that Rusty Ryan is doing an 'Irwin Allen' which is a reference to the fake earthquake they stage later in the story.
- Law, John William (April 2, 2008). Master of Disaster: Irwin Allen – The Disaster Years (1st. ed.). San Francisco: aplomb publishing. Preface. ISBN 978-0-9665676-6-3.
Much like Alfred Hitchcock earned the title Master of Suspense, Irwin Allen earned the title Master of Disaster.
- Cushman, Marc; Alfred, Mark. "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea". Jacobs Brown Press.
Still, it all began with Allen, the son of poor Russian-Jewish immigrants, and his series called Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
- Irwin Allen; 'Towering Inferno' Producer Los Angeles Times 3 Nov 1991: VCA29.
- Dennis Fischer (June 17, 2011). Science Fiction Film Directors, 1895–1998. McFarland. pp. 31–41. ISBN 978-0-7864-8505-5.
- Roy P. Webber (2004). The Dinosaur Films of Ray Harryhausen: Features, Early 16mm Experiments and Unrealized Projects. McFarland. pp. 96–. ISBN 978-0-7864-1666-0.
- Lear, 239–240
- Two-Hour Nature Picture To Cover Two Billion Years: Hollywood Letter By Richard Dyer MacCann. The Christian Science Monitor 30 Sep 1955: 5
- "'Story of Mankind' Put on Full-Scale Footing". Los Angeles Times. March 21, 1956. p. 27.
- Pryor, Thomas M. (January 11, 1959). "'Big Circus' Troupe Works to Equal Big Top's Authenticity and Color". New York Times. p. X7.
- Jon Abbott (October 3, 2006). Irwin Allen Television Productions, 1964-1970: A Critical History of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants. McFarland. pp. 6–. ISBN 978-0-7864-8662-5.
- Tom Lisanti (2001). Fantasy Femmes of Sixties Cinema: Interviews with 20 Actresses from Biker, Beach, and Elvis Movies. McFarland. pp. 239–. ISBN 978-0-7864-0868-9.
- "Science Fiction". Pioneers of Television, January 18, 2011.
- "Avco, Irwin Allen Make 3-Film Deal". Los Angeles Times. June 23, 1969. p. C20.
- "Irwin Allen". Variety. November 10, 1991. Retrieved April 21, 2015.
- Kilday, Gregg (December 25, 1972). "'Poseidon's' Unsinkable Irwin Allen". Los Angeles Times. p. C1.
- Smith, Cecil (February 14, 1975). "Disaster Master Launches Grand Slam". Los Angeles Times. p. G1.
- "Irwin Allen, Warners Sign Production Deal". Los Angeles Times. July 21, 1975. p. E13.
- Jenkins, Gerry, Empire Building, Simon & Schuster Ltd., 1997, p. 180–1.
- Irwin Allen, Producer Of Disaster Films, Dies The Washington Post 4 Nov 1991: b06.
- "Irwin Allen Filming 'Alice' for TV". New York Times. April 8, 1985. p. C26.
- "Irwin Allen". nndb.com.
- Martin, Hugo (November 3, 1991). "Irwin Allen; 'Towering Inferno' Producer". Los Angeles Times.
- Taraldsvik, Morten Schive (January 5, 2010). A Sci-Fi Movie Lexicon II. Lulu Publishers. p. 22. ISBN 9781445262871.
- The Fantasy Worlds of Irwin Allen on IMDb
- The Irwin Allen Show (A skit on SCTV) on YouTube
- Lear, Linda. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. New York: Henry Holt, 1997. ISBN 0-8050-3428-5