Allen was born in New York City. His film credits include the 3-D film Dangerous Mission (1954), The Animal World (1956), The Story of Mankind (1957), The Big Circus (1959), The Lost World (1960), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) (later the basis of his TV series of the same name), and Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962). In the 1970s, he produced popular disaster films including The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). In the 1960s, Allen moved into television as “the most successful science-fiction producer of the decade”, and was responsible for series such as:
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964–68)
Lost in Space (1965–68)
The Time Tunnel (1966–67)
Land of the Giants (1968–70)
The Swiss Family Robinson (1975–76)
Code Red (1981–82).
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. Allen’s science-fiction series had earned a reputation for using nonsensical science and for catering to juvenile audiences. 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. In his book Irwin Allen Television Productions, 1964–1970 (McFarland & Co., 2006), 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 the 1970s, Allen returned to cinema screens and was the most popular producer associated with the decade’s fad for the disaster film genre. Allen produced the successful The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974), which he also co-directed. He produced several made-for-TV disaster movies: Flood! (1976), Fire! (1977), Hanging by a Thread (1979), The Night the Bridge Fell Down (1979), and Cave-In! (1979). For theatrical release, he produced and directed The Swarm (1978) as well as Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) and produced When Time Ran Out (1980). Despite this success, the rise of new filmmakers like George Lucas took him off guard; the success of Star Wars reportedly bewildered him at how a film with apparently no stars or love story could enrapture audiences so fervently.
In the late 1970s and mid-1980s, Allen sporadically returned to TV with miniseries efforts such as The Return of Captain Nemo/The Amazing Captain Nemo (1978) and a star-studded version of Alice in Wonderland (1985). He was planning on making a star-studded musical of Pinocchio, but a decline in health caused retirement in 1986. Allen died from a heart attack on November 2, 1991. In 1952, he won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for The Sea Around Us, which was based on Rachel Carson’s best-selling book of the same name. Carson was so disappointed with Allen’s final version of the script that she never again sold film rights to her work. Three decades later Allen won the third Worst Career Achievement Golden Raspberry Award (1985).
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 movie 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 didn’t 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.
- June, 12, 1916
- New York, New York
- November, 02, 1991
- Santa Monica, California
- Mount Sinai Memorial Park
- Los Angeles, California