The name Mark Goddard might not ring a bell, but his face ought to be familiar. This is the actor who played the original Major Don West in television’s ever-so fabulous sci-fi series Lost In Space. The original version, that is.
Being the main adversary of Dr. Zachary Smith (then played by Jonathan Harris), Don West’s role was a pivotal one in helping keep the Robinson family together whilst lost out in them strange galaxies.
At one stage, Lost In Space was reported the most repeated program in Australian television history. Now that the series is enjoying a reboot, even new fans are turning to the original series for that extra sci-fi kick.
Cream chats with the original man who made Judy Robinson blush, and finds him with both feet planted firmly on the ground.
Interview by Antonino Tati
Not a lot of people are aware of your screen work outside of ‘Lost In Space’, but in fact, you’ve starred in over 500 TV series and movies.
I have, but that includes a lot of soap operas and guest spots on hundreds of shows. The Rebel, Perry Mason, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Mod Squad… You name it.
Tell us about your premier acting role in the tele-series ‘Johnny Ringo’.
It was 1959 and it was my first show. I played a cowboy character, and I came in to this little town on a wagon, pulling all kinds of gun tricks: shooting cigarettes out of people’s mouths, shooting plates in the air. I was the biggest carny guy of them all. So, I came to this town with Johnny Ringo as the sheriff, who I thought had killed my father. By the end of the show we have this gunfight and he says he’s too good a shot to shoot a man in the back. Instead, he pats me and makes me deputy, changes my name to Cully, which sounds like carny because of my carny lingo.
Carny lingo? It sounds like a derivative of cunnilingus!
I know, I’ve got to be careful how I say that. But carny lingo is short for carnival lingo. Or carnival talk. Anyway, Johnny Ringo was my first show, and it was an Aaron Spelling production.
What do you think of the state of television serials and sitcoms today?
You know, I don’t watch a lot of shows but I’ll say this… When I did Lost In Space, it was on CBS, which was just getting started and they were already getting very good ratings. There wasn’t any cable back then. Now cable has cut into television so much, it’s watered it down. With cable, and also with electronic media like the internet, there seems to be this maximum overload of entertainment. It’s almost too much to handle. It was much simpler in the old days. Now, shows are going on and on and on, and who’s who is doing’s what’s what, I mean, how do you concentrate on one?
So, what do you think the state of mind of the next generation will be with all this multimedia?
That’s a good question but I don’t think I’m qualified to answer it fully. But just off the top of my head I have to think that people are going to get to a point where it’s all too much and where they’re going to turn off. Television is going to be like one of those great shining stars that implodes into itself and leaves a big black hole. I’ve just been reading about black holes to my kids, actually…
Funnily enough, I’m looking at my computer’s screen saver and Daffy Duck has just fallen down a black hole as you said that.
That’s wild. You know my six-year-old watches television while we’re eating now.
Is there something wrong with that? As a kid, I used to watch ‘Lost In Space’ while I ate dinner.
Yeah, but his whole mind is just focused on the screen. And everything on it is just so random. I think that everything has come to a kind of a climax, you know? There’s also a sexual implosion happening…
On the subject of sex, and just getting back to ‘Lost In Space’ for a moment, why didn’t we ever see Major Don and Judy Robinson kiss?
Well it was in the 1960s, and I think we felt that it was a children’s show and that there might have been a problem with showing young adults feeling that good about each other. So, we let them use their imagination.
The thing is, if it’s kept behind closed doors and not seen by a child in his or her latent period, isn’t that worse than simply showing affection?
Yeah, I think it’s important to explore it, look at it, and be open about it.
Would you say there once were a lot of closed doors on American television?
There are two ways of looking at it. Some people say television is now too sexual with too much going on. On the other hand, people say that closing doors creates a repression. In the ’50s and ’60s a lot of that repression was happening: you weren’t allowed to talk about sex. But now the pendulum has swung way over to the other side and it’s, like, “show them everything, let them do it in any kind of language”. It’s a future shock that’s happening and it doesn’t answer the question any better than the closed doors did or didn’t.
So, you’re saying that the current state of television which presents a variety of sexualities and cultures hasn’t improved society?
I think it has when it’s been well done. I think television has the opportunity to explain things instead of putting them somewhere in a closet. But, like on a lot of talk shows, it tends to open things up and then says, “Oh, that’s too bad”. There’s no follow-through on television because that’s not the place for it. It’s entertainment. So how do you handle opening something up? Ellen De Generes comes out, and that’s great; [she] gets the highest ratings of the year and gets all kinds of people watching. It was very well handled, but there was no follow through, really. [De Generes has since started her own daytime talk show, of course]. There still [exists] a repressed society in which a lot of bad things are happening. There’s a lot of abuse that’s going on now. I’ve worked with kids and I’ve seen how they’ve been abused by parents, uncles, cousins, priests, boy scout leaders, heterosexual pedophiles, the whole thing. I’m a Catholic but I’m unforgiving to the Church when they knew they had pedophiles in their ranks and they moved them from parish to parish and thought that was the end of it without following it through. Somebody should do a big investigation on that!
Mark Goddard was most famous for his portrayal of Major Don West, nemesis to Dr Zachary Smith on TV’s ‘Lost In Space’ between 1965 and 1968. The character of Major West was later played by Matt LeBlanc in the 1998 film ‘Lost In Space’, and is currently portrayed by Ignacio Serricchio (below) in the reboot television series, available to stream on Netflix.