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VTTBOTS Sourcebook
"Stand By For Mars!"
VTTBOTS Sourcebook

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: Of Characters and Characterizations

Linda A. Delaney

In September 1964, when Irwin Allen's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea premiered on ABC Television, none of the actors or production staff ever dreamed that the series would still be watched by fans, let alone discussed and even fought about (verbally, of course) passionately, forty-five years later. Please visit our other articles:
  • Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: An Introduction
  • Eleven Days to Zero Photobook
  • Not only is VTTBOTS still shown on TV and sold on DVDs, but discussion lists abound on Yahoo, and websites are dedicated to in on Facebook, MySpace and most internet servers in one or more forms. So much for a show once dismissed as a "kiddie show."

    VTTBOTS was the first science fiction show with a continuing cast to run for four years on regular Network television. The series, after its first year of edgy, spy-oriented tales shot in atmospheric black and white, moved to color.

    Initially it kept the spy/adventure orientation, but at the urging and then demand, of the network, the storylines were "lightened up," and the move to aliens, monsters and rather unbelievable situations had been complete by the end of the second season.

    By the third season, the show was a ‘monster-of-the-week’ affair. Nevertheless it had solid numbers against the competition, and kept its core viewership, but losing some who couldn't or wouldn't watch as the submarine became the temporary residence, for some 53/54 minutes each week, of pillaging extraterrestrial brains, mad hypnotists, werewolves, ghosts, plants, a variety of aliens, a mummy, mermaid, a fossil man, a pyre of fire, wax men, as well as bad guys with mind-control of various crew members.

    Through it all, the sub remained sound, if occasionally bruised and dented, and the crew, for the most part, intact, save the occasional death of a red-jump suited crewman, who miraculously would appear a week later, as if he never died at all.

    The fourth season tried to find a happy mix of the aliens and monsters that kept the show "alive" with the younger audiences, and the action/adventure stories that had captured the older viewers. The Nielson numbers remained relatively consistent for the show, and everyone working on it therefore renewal for another scene - which did not occur. (But that is a topic for another time.)

    Let us ask the question, "Why?"

    Why is this show still so popular with its fans, and why is it growing new ones forty-five years later? From all the people on all the discussion lists, at the autograph conventions, phone conversations and wherever opinions about the show have been found it comes down to two things... the characters and the relationships that they showed in the show. Needless to say, there is always the interest that many have in the i>Seaview and The Flying Sub, and that is also a draw. But in order to watch the boat, and the FS1, the actors, in their characters, had to tell a story that at least intrigued the fans enough to watch the show.

    First the characters from the movie (released in 1961):

    From the Script by Irwin Allen and Charles Bennett;

    ADMIRAL HARRIMAN NELSON – is 65, grey-haired and powerfully built. His “Bull-in-a-china-shop” methods have become legend…but he is not without charm. His appearance is one of total untidiness; his shock of hair never seems quite controllable; ashes from his cigars, which he chain smokes, continually rain down on his coat lapels. The only characteristic which belies his aura of self-possession is a nervous twist of the signet ring on his left hand. The greater the pressure, the swifter the twisting... [1]

    Walter Pidgeon was an actor from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Tall, dignified, and cool, with the arrogance of money and power is how he played Nelson. Always in charge, and always right. He had little or no relationship with the members of his staff or crew, other than to give orders and see that they were carried out. The cigar was omnipresent, but not the twisting of the ring. Ironically, that became a trait of the Captain of the boat, in the television series, thanks to actor David Hedison (Hedison wore a ring, that was his own, that he could be seen twisting on his finger in any one of a number of circumstances in the series). According to the novelization based on the script [2], and the script notes themselves, he was supposed to be good friend and mentor to Captain Crane, the man who ran his boat. As played by Pidgeon, there was little evidence of that relationship. He was more of an "This is what needs to be done, now do it" kind of a character

    Again, from the script;

    Alongside Nelson, also watching the TV screen is CAPTAIN LEE CRANE – the Seaview’s captain. He is in his thirties – tall, likeable, popular with the crew. His relationship with Nelson goes back to his student days at Annapolis, when Nelson was head of the Science Department. A close affection – almost a father-son relationship exists between the two men.

    Robert Sterling played that part in the film. He played Crane as well as he was able, but without the familiarity with either Nelson or the crew, as the script and book describe. He was concerned, but business-like about the boat, giving orders and seeing that the Admiral’s orders are carried out. He doesn't question, but does his job. Only when another character questions Nelson's sanity at a critical moment in the film, does Crane go "outside the box", and even then, without the reluctance a "son" or close friend would ordinarily display. Clearly, there was no chemistry between the two actors, and therefore, none between the fictional characters, so that one didn't really believe that there was that special mentor relationship between the two men.
    Rather, the scenes between Crane and Nelson always made it perfectly clear that Nelson was in charge, and made all the final decisions without any consultation with anyone. He was in control all of the time. Crane had no choice, but to follow orders.

    For the television show based on the movie, Irwin Allen wanted action, excitement, and lots of "bang". While he didn’t care for character or characterization, he knew he had to find actors that the audience would relate to, in order to make the series a success. While his concepts of the characters in his show(s) were summarily brief, they at least gave the writers and actors a hint of who he expected his series stars to be; he had no idea of who they would become, and how they would impact so many.

    ADMIRAL HARRIMAN NELSON, U.S.N. (Ret.) – the head of the Nelson Institute of Marine Research in Santa Barbara. A brilliant engineer-scientist of mature middle age, he resigned his position as Dean of the Department of Science at Annapolis to form the Research Institute which bears his name.

    His imaginative and creative mind conceived the design for Seaview and his driving, forceful personality made it possible to bring the dream to reality.

    Even to those who know him best, it came as a distinct surprise when this dedicated and gifted officer gave up his Naval career to devote the rest of this life to science. But only a handful of people know that Nelson’s retirement was in name only. Actually he and his Institute of Marine Research serve as a powerful and secret intelligence force, ranging the world under cover of scientific research on missions of vital importance to the security of their country. [3]

    To play Harriman Nelson, Irwin sought and was fortunate to hire Richard Basehart, a film-noir star, and what Hollywood, at that time, called “An Actor’s actor”. Basehart was younger than Pidgeon, and imbued ‘his’ Nelson with brilliance as well as fire and compassion. He spent a great deal of time preparing for the role, and no matter what the scripts gave him, he always made the episode so much more that what was written in the script.

    COMMANDER LEE CRANE – young, virile captain of the submarine. An outstanding athlete at Annapolis, he was graduated with honors and served with distinction in the submarine service before being detached from the Navy and assigned, as a civilian, to the command of Seaview.

    He has tremendous respect – amounting almost to awe – for Admiral Nelson. The two men act as perfect complements and hold each other in mutual high esteem.

    Crane is equally respected by his men. He has a rule, amounting almost to a fetish, of never ordering a man to tackle a dangerous assignment that he would not risk doing himself. And his skill as an athlete, together with his natural resourcefulness, make almost any job seem possible to him.

    Needless to say, Crane’s qualities make him enormously attractive to women. The attraction is mutual. The fact that he has not yet married presents an almost irresistible challenge to every unattached female who crosses his path...and there are many. [4]

    To play Lee Crane, Captain of the SSRN Seaview, Irwin wanted David Hedison. He had worked with David on the film, The Lost World, and felt that Hedison had the qualities he wanted in the leading man of the series, "Hedison looks like the type of modern, thinking, fighting man that we have come to recognize through the brilliance of the image created by the astronauts." [5]

    Hedison resisted Allen's desire for him to appear in the film; since he felt the film Crane was "too one-dimensional" and was also resisting his pull to the series, until he found that Basehart was doing the show. Richard's involvement sold Hedison on the project (with a bit of persuasion from David's good friend, Roger Moore) and he soon signed with Allen.

    LIEUTENANT (Commander) CHIP MORTON -- the efficient Executive Officer of the submarine. Several years younger than Crane, Chip had originally set his heart on going to West Point and becoming a general but when the only available appointment was for Annapolis, he snapped it up.

    During his four years at the Academy and later on in his service in the Navy he took much good-natured ribbing about his “Army” background but he lets nothing stand in the way of becoming the best Naval officer possible.

    It was Nelson – remembering him from his midshipman days – who persuaded Chip to resign this commission and accept a post at the Institute of Marine Research. Neither man has ever regretted the decision. [6]

    Several things need to be noted about the Chip Morton character. First of all, he did not appear in the film. The character that should have been Morton became Lt. Romano, played by Frankie Avalon (who sang the title song for the film, and whose appearance was an obvious attempt by FOX to bring in the teenage girls to a film that was considered a "guy's" flick. In the film, Romano is not the Executive Officer, and his rank is that of a lieutenant, which is what rank the character of Romano should have had, if only judging by his age in the film. In the series, the Exec’s rank is that of Lt. Commander, and is more appropriate for the age of the actor.

    The Morton character did appear in the book, and is described as, " 'Chip' Morton, Crane’s Executive Officer. Classmates, roommates at the Academy, they had entered the submarine service together, and come all the way. It was no one’s fault -- certainly not Lee Crane's – that they had proceeded single file, with Chip in the rear. Chip's tone just now was as glossy as his sharply trimmed black hair." [7]

    Cast in the role of Crane's best friend, Academy classmate and roommate was actor Robert "Bob" Dowdell, (who, incidentally was a blond, not dark haired as described in the book) late of the TV series Stoney Burke. Dowdell had an extensive list of appearances on-and-off Broadway, and had done a lot of guesting in television before Stoney Burke. The story is that David Hedison, Dowdell's across-the-street neighbor in the Hollywood Hills, brought Dowdell to Allen’s attention, and the rest, they say, is history.

    Anyone seeing the film and then the series, or the reverse is easily struck by several things. First and foremost are the differences in the interpretation of the characters, by the actors playing them. In the film, the actors go through the story, almost clinically, strictly by the script, playing parts, but not having any relationship between the characters, save, perhaps, the relationship between Cathy Connors and Lee Crane, that didn’t make it to the small screen. Again and again one goes back to the line, in the book and script that Nelson and Crane have "almost a father-son relationship" that you never really "see" in the film.

    The TV series, however, was very, very different. There is a chemistry between Basehart, Hedison, and Dowdell, and later, including Terry Becker, the CPO of the second thru fourth seasons, that is evident. If you watch the episodes carefully, the nuances and subtleties of long-term relationships become more and more evident, and the fact that these men are friends comes across again and again. The fact that Irwin Allen didn’t do much in characterization allowed the actors to imbue these characters with traits and characteristics as they saw fit, with little interference from Allen except to "Keep it grim" and "don’t interfere with the writers."

    What brings old fans back again and again to the series? What draws new fans?

    First of all, the honor and integrity of the characters. No matter what the writers threw at them, what weird and unusual situations they found themselves in , they managed, above all else, to "do the right thing". Not what is right by the current standards, sometimes not what is popular, and certainly not what would have some crying out, "That’s not fair!", but what is right.

    In the episode, "The Death Clock", which takes place in an altered universe, Crane shoots and kills Nelson, in cold blood.
    In a subsequent scene between the ship's regular doctor (Richard Bull), Chief Sharkey (Terry Becker) and Chip Morton (Robert Dowdell) they discuss events, and even a protesting Sharkey cannot sway the Executive Officer of the boat when he says he has to arrest Crane for murder. When the Chief and Doctor question him, a very emotional Morton’s response is, simply, “What else can I do?”
    In a much earlier episode, "The Saboteur", Crane is brainwashed, and operates as an enemy agent, albeit simultaneously fighting an internal battle against his "programming". Nelson is presented with information by the Government representative on board the boat, and they set up a situation, giving Crane the opportunity to reveal himself by trying to shoot Nelson. We see the struggle that Crane has against the programming and at the same time, we see that Nelson has allowed Forrester (Warren Stevens) to shoot Crane, if need be. He does, and while Nelson may regret it, it is the "right thing" to do, under the circumstances.

    As you watch the series progress, you can see the relationships between the men evolve on screen, and see what continued to draw the fans through all the silliness and strangeness of the latter part of the four years.

    In "Brand of the Beast," a sequel to "Werewolf", the infection that Nelson had gotten in the first episode comes back, after his exposure to radiation. While the story itself is far-fetched, there are things in the characterizations, and the way the actors play their roles, that point to reasons for the show's continued popularity these many decades later.

    Nelson, transforming again, shows his absolute disgust and fear at the return of the "infection". Sharkey, ever protective of the Admiral, follows his orders to the point where he is in trouble with his Captain and Exec, for disobeying them. When the realization occurs to Crane and the others that Nelson is again a werewolf, he first orders that the "creature" be subdued by tranquilizer darts. When that doesn’t work, for the good of the crew, and anyone one else, he orders that Nelson be shot on sight.

    Nelson gets himself into the diving bell, and then releases it, so that he may die in the bell, and not infect anyone, or harm anyone. Crane, driven by loyalty, and that father-son relationship often shown in the show, releases the bell’s ballast remotely and sends it to the surface. When it is retrieved, they are ready for a creature or a dead Nelson, and they find that the rapid decompression has "cured" the Admiral. In many ways a silly story, but the actions and reactions of the characters show so much more.

    There are many, many more examples of the chemistry of the relationship between the men, on screen, from the pilot, to the final episode.

    In "Jonah and the Whale," for example, when the diving party goes out to rescue the Admiral and the female scientist, Dr. Markova (Gia Scala) Sharkey tells the ratings to "be careful" and nods to the skipper , in a way that indicates his real concern for them all;
    in "Time Bomb", when Crane is told by Katie (Susan Flannery) that if they can’t neutralize the compound Nelson has been injected with, he, Crane, will have to kill him -- watch Hedison’s expression. It’s brief and subtle...but affecting.

    Again, reflecting characterization and relationships that weren't in the scripts, and certainly something that Irwin didn’t expect, or perhaps didn’t even see.

    In "ManBeast", Crane has been exposed to an experimental gas that turns him into a raging creature. In one scene, as the creature, he is shot by Morton -- who doesnt know who the creature really is. A crewman is also killed by the beast (apparently, there are two "creatures" on the boat, one the scientist who created the gas, and one Crane. The scientist’s beast-alter-ego is the killer, not Crane). We see Crane’s deep pain when he tells Nelson that he killed a man. We see Nelson confronting Crane, yelling at him for taking such a risk, not as a superior officer, but a friend who deeply cares (again, a father-figure) and we see the look of gratitude on Crane’s face in the final scene, when he realizes the risk that Nelson took to cure him of the metamorphosis.

    Again, none of this is written in the scripts, but the actors, with their skill and talent, give us characters that we truly care about, and want to see again and again; in spite of the lack of material they are given.

    So what does all this mean to the characters and their characterization? Ask the fans. At every convention I have attended, in the last ten years and worked with the actors, I watched and listened, as they listened to the stories the fans coming to the tables tell them; "Chief", to Terry Becker, (Chief Sharkey), "I loved the show, and loved the character you played. I went into the Navy because of you, and wanted to be the best CPO I could be. Thanks." [9]

    "Mr. Hedison", to David Hedison, (Captain Crane), "I watched the show, and loved it. I went into the service because of you… And I became a Captain." A smile, "Thank you." [10]

    "Sir," to the late Del Monroe, (Kowalski), "I watched the show every week, and you made me want to go into the electronics field. Thank you." [11]

    "Chief", to Terry Becker, "If you ever see Mr. Dowdell, could you tell him for me, thank you? Because of the way he played Morton, I went into the Navy, and when I became an Executive Officer, I patterned myself on his character. I did well, in my service, and I want him to know it was because of him. Thank you." [12]

    Again and again, stories from many fans of different origins with different backgrounds, telling the actors that the men that they portrayed on the screen sent them, men and women into a variety of fields, inspiring them to be the best that they could be, because of what they saw on the screen.

    In talking to all of the actors, after a show, or at dinner, or when visiting, they all say the same thing. They were just doing a job, one that they, like the rest of us, did everyday. They find it hard to believe that a vintage TV series and the characters they portrayed in it could have impacted so very many people, all over the world.

    But what they portrayed for us, what we saw on our screens every week, left an impression that inspired many of us to "be the best we could be", and helped us to be better people in the long run. For that we say, "Thank you, Irwin Allen. And thank you, Richard Basehart, David Hedison, Robert Dowdell, Terry Becker, Del Monroe, Allan Hunt and all the regular actors on the show. You inspired us, and helped many of us seek to choose careers that we might never have thought of, had it not been for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and the actors who worked in it every day."

    All studio photos and screen captures are owned by Twentieth Century Fox, The Irwin Allen Properties, LLC and the actors whose images they represent.

    1 - Photos from Chiller Theatre Voyage Reunion Copyright Linda Delaney
    2 - Script, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea by Irwin Allen and Charles Bennett, Revised 1/16/61
    3 - Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Theodore Sturgeon, ©1961 Pyramid books
    4 - Writer’s Guide for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Cambridge Prod Ibid
    5 - Production Memo, Season Two, from Twentieth Century Fox, quoting Irwin Allen.
    6 - Writer’s Guide for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Cambridge Prod
    7 - Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Theodore Sturgeon, ©1961 Pyramid books
    8 - Interview with David Hedison, January 2005
    9 - Chiller Theatre, April 2004
    10 - Chiller Theatre, April 2004
    11 - Hollywood Collectors Show, October, 2007
    12 - Hollywood Collectors Show, October, 2007

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