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Television Series Sourcebooks: The Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Underwater Adventures with the Crew of the Seaview
Linda A. Delaney, July 2009

It has been over 45 years since Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea first thrilled fans young and old, and the appreciation for this ground-breaking (or should that be ocean-breaking) series continues to this day. Our guest writer, Linda A Delaney, has a website devoted to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: (fan fiction and more)

The Thunder Child quick tips:

  • Daily Space blog entry: The Plankton! The Plankton! VTTBOTS's first "monster" episode
  • Brief Candle: Tribute to Steve Ihnat

    View the Volcano Seven: Photo page for "Eleven Days to Zero"

    See many more VTTBOTS links at the bottom of this page.

    One of many YouTube tributes to this iconic series

    The 1960s were a time of change and transition, in the real world and the reel world as well. Television was beginning to come into its own as a powerful influence in the homes of America. Television was beginning to come into its own as a powerful influence in the homes of America. Families gathered on the carpet and sofa every evening to watch the television. The medium was transitioning from black & white to color, and the mores of the past generations were still reflected in what we saw on the small screen.

    In Hollywood, the importance of television was also becoming more evident. Actors with long histories of theatre and big-screen film success were finding their way to the small screen. And along with them came the producers, directors, editors, art directors, etc. who were beginning to realize what impact the medium could have. Irwin Allen, who was visionary with so much of his work, realized this, and with the sets from the film Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea safely stored at Fox, sought to present a TV series unlike any before.

    Irwin Allen at a Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea presentation

    Allen was a Columbia University School of Journalism graduate, a magazine editor, the producer/director of a radio show and the owner of an advertising agency before entering film production in the 1950s. His first effort, taking well-know author Rachel Carson?s book, The Sea Around Us and making it into a documentary was the stepping stone for his film career. That film won him an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1953, and allowed him to move into commercial film-making.

    His first film, The History of Mankind (1957), done as a spoof of history was a commercial and critical flop, but he moved into the action/adventure genre with The Big Circus(1959), The Lost World (1960), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) and Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962).

    With each of these films, Irwin worked as producer, writer of both story and script, and frequently as director. During this time, he also began to assemble a production team that would work with him for much of the rest of his career. Names that became tied to Allen and his work included Paul Zastupnevich, L.B. Abbot, Oscar winning cinematographer, Winton Hoch, the Lydecker Brothers, Bill Creber, Charles Bennett, to name a few. Look at the credits of any Irwin Allen Production, and you will see these names and many others. Irwin Allen knew good people, and kept them close throughout his long, prolific career.

    In 1963, Allen decided to make the move to television, and with the sets from his film, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea safely stored at 20th Century Fox, he began preparations to bring the film to the small screen. He made the first of many of his famous lists, of names for the leads. He had decided that he wanted film-noir actor Richard Basehart, known in Hollywood at the time, as an "Actor's actor", to play Admiral Harriman Nelson, USN (ret.), the volatile creative genius behind the submarine, SSRN Seaview and Institute in the series.

    According to the lists, which are in the files at UCLA, there were several actors that Allen would consider, if Basehart was unavailable, including the star of the film, Walter Pidgeon. However, fortunately for Allen, (and the later fans of the series), Basehart was available, and willing to do the series. He was signed by Allen to do the pilot, and had a five year contract to do the series, if it sold.

    Richard Basehart as Admiral Harriman Nelson, USN(ret)

    In conferences with Charles Bennett regarding the script, loosely based on the motion picture, but on an obviously smaller scale, he commissioned production illustrator, Maurice Zuberano, to story-board the entire episode, some 1100 sketches. Allen was one of those producers who wanted every move in a film or TV show planned before the directing began and Zuberano had worked with him before on the film and that made the daunting task somewhat less intimidating.

    While all the pre-production planning was going on, Allen continued to search for his cast. Robert Sterling had played Captain Lee Crane, in the film, and was on Allen' list for the series, but he was not the first choice. His first choice was David Hedison, of Five Fingers on television and as reporter Ed Malone, in Allen' The Lost World. Hedison had turned down the role of Crane in the film, but now he was actively pursued by Irwin Allen for the TV series. Initially, Hedison said no to Irwin, for a variety of reasons, but Allen was not about to let that stop him from getting the perfect actor to play the part. "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." Allen said and so he chased Hedison all the way to London, where he was filming an episode of The Saint, with friend Roger Moore. Moor encouraged the actor to take the part, and when Hedison found that Basehart had signed for the series, he agreed to do the pilot, and also signed a five year contract with Allen, pending the sale of the show to a network.

    David Hedison as Commander Lee Crane, Captain of the SSRN Seaview

    Allen was searching for an actor to play the Executive Officer, Lt. Cdr. Chip Morton, to Hedison's Captain Crane with little success, until Hedison himself offered the producer a suggestion. Hedison's across the street neighbor was Bob Dowdell, late of Stoney Burke, an ABC series. Hedison suggested that Allen watch some of the film from the series, as an audition, so to speak, and Irwin liked what he saw. Dowdell was hired to play Morton, contracted as were the two stars of the show, for five years.

    Robert (Bob) Dowdell as Lt. Cdr. Chip Morton, Executive Officer, SSRN Seaview.

    After assembling the rest of his cast, including bringing both Mark Slade and Del Monroe to the pilot from the movie, shooting of "Eleven Days to Zero" commenced in the fall of 1963 with a tight shooting schedule, and timeline.

    Behind the scenes shooting "Eleven Days to Zero" with Irwin Allen, David Hedison, and in the foreground, side to camera, guest star Eddie Albert.

    Tragically, it was during the filming of the episode that President Kennedy was assassinated. Shooting on the pilot performance came to a halt, as the nation grappled with the aftermath.

    Because of the time lost, it was impossible for Allen to put together a proper Presentation Reel for the networks, so he did what he did best, cut and insert parts of his films to represent some of the places and things he intended to show and do with the series. With the support of Fox, and enough interest in the project, ABC TV took the series, and slated it to the 7:30-8:30 timeslot on Monday nights.

    According to the Production Memo for the second season, found in the UCLA files; "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is not science fiction in its accepted form, but actually an extension of science fact, thereby all the more exciting and thrilling because of the extreme plausibility of the men, their submarine and the situations the sub and crew encounter in their hour-long television voyage."

    As with any show, the pilot was made to sell the season and the advertising time to the sponsors. There were several things that changed, once the series was sold to the network. The story is that no one liked the initial music for the theme, so Paul Sawtell was hired to write the music, and what is now known as the 'classic' Voyage theme came into being.

    During the initial filming, Werner Klemperer played Dr. Gamma, but when there were scenes that needed to be reshot and changed, he was not available, so veteran actor Theo Marcuse was hired to fill in the necessary scenes, shot in shadow. Also added to the pilot for airing was the entrance of Captain Crane, to 'explain' how he came aboard, in contrast to the film, where he is 'there' as the movie begins.

    The show began its run on Monday, September 14, 1964, with the pilot being aired in black & white. Indeed, the first season was being shot in that format, according to the wishes of the network. The thinking at the time was apparently, "if the show goes into a second season, it will go to color, but until we know, let's keep it in black & white."

    So the series began its run. During the four years, Voyage employed some of the most notable actors, directors and writers in Hollywood at that time, or indeed any time. The first season storylines were the closest to Allen's vision of the series that he put in his Writer's Guide;

    Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is an exercise in action-adventure. It has dash, verve, an honest high-hearted approach to exciting entertainment. In spirit, each episode contains a rapidly sputtering fuse, the breathless, desperate race against the clock, the gripping suspense of overwhelming danger.

    With that, VTTBOTS, in season one, gave us espionage and spies, brainwashing, saboteurs, doomsday events, attacks on the President, experiments gone awry, rampaging sea creatures, an alien or two, and all of the action-adventure that Irwin Allen could put into one hour episodes. He kept true to his Writer's Guide, with the idea that "This is NOT a submarine series, per se. Its plots are not confined to a group of sweating men, surrounded by the intricate plumbing of a sub interior, as they listen breathlessly to the shattering explosions of depth charges. In the majority of stories, the sub is merely a conveyance to get our principals to the scene of the action. The greatest part of any one specific story will take place off the submarine. Unlike the pilot, the typical submarine-type scenes - when they occur - will be incidental for the big climax of the story."

    Most fans, critics and the actors as well will say that the first season was the best season of the series. Actor David Hedison, when asked at a convention in 1998 in Arlington, Va., said, "Why the first year, of course. We had the best writers, the best guest stars, the biggest budget." The themes of the stories were frequently strong, Cold War-based tales that still stand strong today.

    The second season changed the series in several ways. Most prominent was the switch to color. 1965 saw the dramatic growth of color televisions in the United States. NBC was already a network strong in color programming, and CBS and ABC were rushing to 'catch-up' with the Peacock network. VTTBOTS lent itself naturally to color, and the network ordered up 26 episodes in color from Allen and his Cambridge productions.

    In order to make the show more colorful, costume designer Paul Zastupnevich designed the red and blue (sometimes a grey one slipped through!) jumpsuits for the crew. Irwin and his design crew also reconfigured the Seaview, creating four 'windows' over the former eight, and cutting a hole in the bow of the boat to fit in Irwin's newest addition, The Flying Sub called in the original press releases, The Flying Fish, a vehicle that can fly through the air at Mach speeds, and submerge to travel underwater at depths equal to that of her mother ship, the Seaview. According to Allen, "this opens up an entirely new vista of activity for the Seaview's crew, taking them, literally out of the water and placing them in the fast-moving space age."

    The Flying Sub

    Two new crewmembers joined the series in season two as well. The Chief of the Boat, the role that had been played by Henry Kulky in season one had to be filled, because of Kulky's sudden passing. Veteran theatre and television actor Terry Becker was tapped for the role, creating the character of Chief Francis Sharkey, full of bluff and bluster, and something of a persona for Basehart's Nelson to play off of. While Allen was determined to keep the series 'grim', Becker's arrival on the set, and his chemistry on-screen with Basehart gave the series some of its lighter moments in the next three years.

    Also added to the series was young actor, Allan Hunt, a former courtier for Shelly Fabres in The Donna Reed Show, Hunt was brought in to attract the 'younger set' as hip surfer dude turned sailor, Stu Riley. Unfortunately for Hunt, with the Vietnam War becoming more intense, his draft number was getting close to being called. In order to choose his branch of service, he enlisted in the Marines, and by the end of the second season, Stu Riley was no longer one of the crew.

    Cast, Season two:
    Richard Basehart as Admiral Harriman Nelson, USN(ret), David Hedison as Cdr. Lee Crane,
    Captain of the SSRN Seaview, Allan Hunt as Seaman Stu Riley, Terry Becker as Chief Petty Officer Francis Sharkey,
    Robert(Bob) Dowdell as Lt. Cdr. Chip Morton, Executive Officer, SSRN Seaview

    The move to color brought a move in time-slot for the show. The network decided to pit Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea against the more family oriented shows on Sunday night, putting it against Lassie on CBS, and even more daunting, The Wonderful World of Disney on NBC. Voyage, however, continued to hold its own, the color episodes, some moving into the more 'fantastic' realm, seeming to keep the interest of the original fans, and garner new ones.

    Budgets continued to be an issue. While in the first season, in spite of huge costs involved using stock footage, most of the weekly budgets continued to be well adhered to, with the advent of color, the budgeting became even more precise, for want of a better explanation. The success of Voyage allowed Allen to move to another project for television, Lost in Space. Voyage allowed Allen the luxury of charging costumes and props to one show and using them on the two shows. Other costs, like salaries, the cost of now making stock footage work with color film, and basics like lighting, music, post-production continued to grow, while the budget remained the same. So using props and costumes back and forth helped ease some of the financial strain.

    Season three is thought by many to be the 'worst' for its frequent monster stories, ghost stories, leprechauns and terrible toys. It was this year that caused the lead actors to become somewhat disenchanted with the show. Nonetheless, they continued to do their work, and, as Hedison has said, "rising to the levels that Richard brought us to, to make even a bad story, at the very least, believable." Indeed, they made many a glass of proverbial lemonade from the many lemons they were fed. Yet even the third season had one or two stories that harkened back to the first season, and the Nielson numbers were high enough for the series to be renewed for a fourth season.

    Season four found Voyage slowly groping its way back to its roots in the first season. There were fewer "monster" episodes, a few more action/adventure ones, several ghosts, mad scientists, and political adventures, and while the numbers were not outstanding, the series wasn't cancelled at the end of the season. David Hedison has said that no one had any inclination that the series was being cancelled when they left the set at the end of the season. There was a wrap party, but no end-of-series indications. When they were all notified later on that the series had been cancelled, it came as a surprise.

    Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea had completed 110 episodes, and run for four seasons. It was the longest running Science-Fiction series on network TV in the USA for several decades. It pre-dated Star Trek by two years and ran a year longer. It had given producer/director/writer Irwin Allen a remarkable run on Network TV, at that time, being the only producer with three science fiction television shows running on the major networks at the same time. Voyage gave Allen the ability to make his other shows, Lost in Space (1965), The Time Tunnel (1966) and Land of the Giants (1968) and gave him the name to carry back to films, where he went on to become "The Master of Disaster" with The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno.

    Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea left the small screen and went into syndication, running for many years on local stations, at odd hours, and generally being given short shrift, being used to fill airtime. Not until the advent of cable and the Sci-Fi Channel did a new generation get the chance to see all of the series, the black & white episodes, along with the color ones. Horribly cut to fit the needs of the cable network, the episodes sometimes didn't make much sense, the way that they were edited. But the old fans watched, and the new fans did as well, and the realization came about that the show might just have something that would appeal to young and old, even in these more technically advanced times.

    The Seaview on the surface

    In 2006, the first volume of DVDs was released by Fox. The episodes had all been restored and re-mastered, and fans were amazed at the clarity and sharpness of the episodes. The technique has made the episodes so clear that the details of many episodes are seen for the first time since the initial airings in the 60s, as well as many things not meant to be seen, like wires and lights, microphones and other things that the technicians used to make the show work.

    Since the initial airing, Irwin Allen has been called many things, and accused of many things. Perhaps the greatest injustice is that he was cheap, when it came to his shows. Based on research in the UCLA library, this author would beg to differ with that assumption. He did use stock shots, from his and other movies and shows. But that is NOT a cheap process. It is, in fact, rather expensive. The numbers on the budget sheets prove that. And every episode that uses stock shots has to have those shots edited into the master reel. It is a complex and time consuming process.

    The Seaview on the surface

    Irwin has also been called cheap because he used the same costumes on several of his shows. In a time when a show was budgeted at the same amount of money for each episode, and the network and the studio watched when, where and how money was spent, the studio was the one who kept the costume. The studio was the one who also would have it reused, albeit with minor alterations. No producer was omnipotent. All of them at the time had to answer to the studio and the network.

    28 seconds of bloopers

    The series, as all of the series of the time also had to answer to the network department of Standards and Practices, who saw all script submissions and made sure all the changes that they required were made. Making changes in the script is also costly and time consuming. Yet, ninety percent of the episodes came in at or under budget.

    Today, we tend to look at things that took place in the past with the eye of today, rather than assuming the eye of the time in which we are exploring.

    Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was a ground-breaking TV series. It originated from a movie, and brought to the small screen the same verve and excitement of the original. It brought innovative ideas, the Flying Sub; the idea of a privately owned submarine, with government ties, designed for research; it featured a cast of fine actors, had amazing writers, directors and guest actors, and it carved a place in TV history, for its producer/director/writer. It gave a generation of viewers ideas and goals, and produced military men and women, engineers, civil servants who watched the men of the Seaview do 'the right thing' and took what they saw, and brought it into their own real-life lives.

    Fisheye view of Seaview

    Although it's not given much credit today, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was a TV show that is well-remembered45 years later, for its influence and contributions then and now. And for that, we have to thank Irwin Allen for his vision and foresight.


  • The Irwin Allen Papers, UCLA Library, Performing Arts Collection; The James E. Young Research Library
  • Interviews with David Hedison, Robert Dowdell, Terry Becker, Del Monroe, Allan Hunt
  • All Photos copyright Twentieth Century Fox Corporation and Irwin Allen Properties, LLC

    For another article on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea located at The Thunder Child, check out: The Seaview Dives, The Flying Sub Flies, by Joseph Umberto

    Recommended Websites

  • Site devoted to all of Irwin Allen's ouvre
  • Mike's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea pages
  • View 58 episodes online at Hulu (before purchasing the complete DVD collection from the link on this page!
  • : Nelson Institute of Marine Research
  • Richard Basehart

  • Click on the icons for new features in The Thunder Child.
    Radiation Theater: 1950s Sci Fi Movies Discussion Boards
    The Sand Rock Sentinel: Ripped From the Headlines of 1950s Sci Fi Films

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