Question: Here's a stupid one, but I'm wondering about it anyway. Was Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea shot in a real submarine? Don't laugh. — Stu H., Alamosa, Colo.
Televisionary: Laugh? At my readers? Never, Stu. Besides, a question's a question, no?
No, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which ran on ABC for four years beginning in September 1964, was shot on a soundstage, and the 400-foot atomic sub Seaview was only a fiberglass model. Well, it was a series of models, actually — a 4-foot and an 8-foot model for underwater shots, and an 18-footer for surface work. (The underwater sequences were shot at one of two indoor tanks on the Fox lot, while the surface sequences were shot on a lake at the old Fox ranch, which is now part of California's Malibu Creek State Park.)
A set was used for the sub's interior, and views through the observation windows in its bow were done using rear projection. (That footage was shot both in the Bahamas, where the water was clear, and off the California coast, which allowed producers to film larger aquatic species.)
If the series, produced by late TV legend Irwin Allen (Lost in Space, Land of the Giants) had been in an actual sub, you most likely wouldn't have seen Richard Basehart in the lead as Adm. Harriman Nelson. "Who? Me? Go down in a real submarine? Never," Basehart told TV Guide in 1965. "My god, I get claustrophobia."
That being the case, even an actor of Basehart's abilities would have been challenged to come to work every day. And his abilities were considerable. At 13 he was in a local Zanesville, Ohio, stock company and before he hit 20, he'd been studying theater near Philadelphia, appearing in nearly 40 productions of Shakespeare, Chekhov and Ibsen. He moved to New York to make a name for himself, winning a 1944 Most Promising Actor of the Year Award from the New York Drama Critics for his work in The Hasty Heart. Then it was on to Hollywood, where he appeared in, among other things, John Huston's version of Moby Dick, playing Ishmael to Gregory Peck's Captain Ahab.
After gravitating for years to higher-brow fare, Basehart naturally drew questions from those who wondered why he'd stoop to fighting giant creatures and evil puppeteer Vincent Price on network TV. Let's just say he was aware of the difference. Take the time a reporter was interviewing the actor, and someone standing nearby commented on how fascinating submarine sets were.
"Yeah, I'll bet they are," Basehart said, in a tone suggesting his own fascination had run out 12 episodes earlier. "Oh, there's a lot of challenge in this role. I mean it. Really wild things happen to the admiral. Once I remember the script called for the heavies to do away with the Seaview by giving the commander, me, a fear-producing drug. I spent half the show in a state of euphoria, the other half in a horrible depression. That's acting, television-style.... You didn't see the pilot film by any chance? You did? Oh, lord, forget about that. The scripts have improved. We have some very inventive stories — sometimes. There was one recently about a court-martial — awfully good idea. But I don't know. Somehow, that old monster showed up there, at the end."
Of course, the actor had been working long enough to appreciate a high-paying gig, and to know the ins and outs of P.R. "Now don't get me wrong," he said. "I like to work and I like to earn money. Nothing irritates me more than actors who take all the money and then complain about how terribly limited TV is. That kind of talk only reflects on them."
Later, he got more existential about the whole grind, especially since his good friend, 12 O'Clock High star John Larkin, had died of a heart attack after doing the heavy work a series requires while performing in local repertory productions at night. "Sometimes I wonder what it's all about," he said. "We knock ourselves out — you know, it's a backbreaking schedule. And besides this, I'm doing some narration for documentaries on Saturdays. But I don't plan to stay in this game forever. A couple of years, a few more dollars, and then I'll go off and do some stage work or something."
And then it was time to shoot another scene with costar David Hedison (Commander and then Captain Crane) that would tax his acting skills to the utmost. "C'mon, Dick, we're ready to shoot," his director told him. "Pick it up at, uh, where you say to Crane, 'This mission won't be aborted if I have to put this submarine together with spit and glue.' OK?"