When you think of sci-fi stars on American television in the 1960s your thoughts naturally beam up to the Enterprise and the famous crew of “Star Trek,” but the cast of “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” actually logged more time aboard its ship — the ABC maritime adventure that ran from 1964 to 1968 ended up as the decade’s longest-running non-anthology sci-fi show.
The most famous faces of the “Voyage” cast were the late Richard Basehart , in the role of Admiral Harriman Nelson, and David Hedison as Commander Lee Crane. Hedison, now 83, was a reluctant star at first — he had very little interest in getting on board with the show’s creator and producer, Irwin Allen, when Allen was putting together the 1961 submarine feature film that would spawn the television series of the same title.
The reason? Hedison had worked with Allen on the 1960 sci-fi feature film “The Lost World” — and it was not a memorable experience for actor. “I made some excuse that there was something else I wanted to do, so I got out of that without being put on suspension at Fox,” Hedison said. “When the series came about, he asked me to do it. He just kept hounding me, but then he said that he had Richard Basehart as the admiral, I thought, ‘My God, maybe between the two of us, we can really make something out of this.’ So I signed on immediately.”
Basehart, a film noir veteran and one of the stars of Federico Fellini’s 1954 masterpiece “La Strada,” did play Nelson, the designer and builder of the state-of-the-art Seaview sub. (The role had belonged to Walter Pidgeon in the feature film, which also starred Joan Fontaine, Barbara Eden, Peter Lorre and Frankie Avalon.) Although the Seaview was “officially” a vessel used for marine research, in truth its crew patroled the seven seas with an eye to defending the world from Cold War enemies and alien beasties.
The second volume of episodes from the fourth and final season has just hit DVD, and the Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment collection also includes the show’s pilot episode (and also an unaired pilot). The show clearly changed its course as its voyage contined; the pilot, which also stars Eddie Albert, had a strong Cold War theme; by the fourth season the adventures tended to be devoted to alien creatures such as “Lobster Man.”
“It started very well the first couple of years,” Hedison said. “Then it went downhill, I think, in the third or fourth year. They made it more for kids. I think the saving grace was that some of the acting was so good and my relationship with Basehart was terrific. We had a great rapport.”
And they also had a great rapport off-screen. “He was wonderful,” Hedison says of the actor who died in 1984. “He was very much of an introvert. He sort of kept to himself between takes. He would go back to his trailer and read. I was much more of an extrovert. I think one of the reasons we got along was because I would kid him a lot and he would take it. We would get together many, many times.”
Even before the series began, Hedison met with Basehart at the actor’s house to make improvements in the series. Hedison said they discussed “how could we bring in some comedy, make the characters very believable and let them have a history.”
But he says Allen wasn’t interested. “He was a great salesman,” Hedison said. “He liked things done the way he wanted them done; everything was black and white, explosions, the Seaview getting swallowed by the whale.”
But his opinion of the series has softened. “For the time, I think it was OK. Looking back on it, I was always arguing about the scripts, but I saw one or two of them the other day and I thought, ‘This is the show I hated so much, but it seems to have worked.’”
The Rhode Island native began his career in New York in the acclaimed 1956 Broadway production of “A Month in the Country,” for which he won the Theatre World Award, using his first name Al. He was signed under contract to Fox in 1957 as Al Hedison and made his debut in the 1957 World War II thriller “The Enemy Below,”which starred Robert Mitchum and told the tale of an American destroyer’s captain in a deadly battle of wits with a wily German counterpart commanding a U-boat.
Then came a major career moment — the classic 1958 horror film, “The Fly.”
“That was a good film,” he says of “The Fly.” “It was a good screenplay, and the minute I read it, I thought this was going to make a lot of money. I believed the situation and I believed the people. I really worked very hard on him.”
After making “The Son of Robin Hood” — “Avoid it at all costs,” the actor warned — NBC wanted Hedison for the 1959 spy series “Five Fingers.”
“They said they wanted me with the stipulation that Fox change my name,” says Hedison. “They hated Al. They said, ‘We can’t make him a star with the name of Al.’ It was absolutely ridiculous. So they said, ‘How about John Hedison?’ I said, ‘If we are going to change it, use my middle name, which is David.’ So I became David Hedison. Some of my oldest friends still call me Al now.”
Hedison has no problem speaking his mind about the past — that makes him a bit of firebrand on the sci-fi and retro-TV convention circuit – and he is candid about the present as well. “I was supposed to do a film with Bill Shatner called ‘Free Enterprise 2,”’ he says. “They were calling me into wardrobe and they said they are holding off for a while. Then the next thing I knew … either the money dropped out or the producer ran off with the money. I think it’s the second story that’s true.”
– Susan King
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