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That Time I Hid From William Hurt on the Set of ‘Lost in Space’ – and How He Got All ‘Wiggy’

An unforgettable encounter with the late, great actor on the set of 1998’s big-screen adaptation of a cheesy TV classic

William Hurt, who died on March 13 at age 71, will be remembered for some remarkable performances over the years. A gay South American prisoner in the 1985 groundbreaking drama “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (for which he won an Oscar for Best Actor). A speech teacher who falls in love with a deaf janitor in 1986’s “Children of a Lesser God” (for which he was nominated for Best Actor). An in-over-his-head anchorman in James L. Brook’s 1987 comedy “Broadcast News” (another Oscar nom). 

“Altered States,” “Body Heat”, “The Big Chill,” “A History of Violence” — the list goes on and on.

But I didn’t meet Hurt on any of those great film sets. Instead, I got to watch him agonize over his acting choices in a picture that won’t make anybody’s best-of lists, least of all his own. That would be 1998’s “Lost in Space,” a big-budget, big-screen adaptation of the cheesy 1960s CBS sci-fi series famous for its plywood rocket ships and monsters with visible zipper lines, that pretty much everyone on this planet has already forgotten.

Except, that is, for me. I’ll remember that movie set forever.

At the time, I was writing for the now-deceased Entertainment Weekly, a ridiculously sweet gig that had me jetting all over the world and popping in on movie productions to interview their casts and crews. But when I arrived at the soundstage outside London, in Shepperton Studios, where “Lost in Space” was filming, I could tell right away this was going to be no ordinary set visit.

For one thing, it was a colossal affair, spreading over 11 soundstages filled with giant flying saucers, huge animatronic robots (controlled by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop) and bizarre alien worlds teeming with the sort of weird botanical lifeforms you’d normally find crawling around the refrigerator’s crisper bin after a two-week vacation.

New Line was betting the house on the film — $80 million, real money at the time, and the most the now-defunct studio had ever spent on a movie before. Hurt was rumored to have been paid a bundle to star as Professor John Robinson, the space-faring family man who takes the wife and kids for a spin through the cosmos, gets lost, and — typical dad — refuses to ask for directions. Some of his castmates couldn’t have come cheap, either, like Matt LeBlanc, then one of the biggest TV stars on Earth, who played swashbuckling pilot Don West, and Gary Oldman, then on a winning streak playing whacked-out bad guys, as the deliciously sinister Dr. Smith. 

But what really caught my attention wasn’t the huge amount of cash sloshing around the sets — I’d seen that before. What was different was the glint of fear and anxiety in everybody’s eyes, especially when they found out I was planning on interviewing Hurt. One actor, whom I knew a bit from other movie set visits, discreetly sidled up to me at one point and whispered in my ear, “Watch out for William,” then went on to describe how Hurt had sent the entire cast and crew spiraling into a three-day depression by rambling incessantly about God and death. Even actors I had never met before seemed concerned for my well-being. “William can get a little wiggy,” Mimi Rogers, who played John Robinson’s biochemist wife, warned me. “He’s on his own wavelength.”

Hurt had always been known to be “difficult” — it’s long been a prerogative of the truly gifted in Hollywood. But even actors who genuflected at the altar of his talent found his intensity on the “Lost in Space” shoot a bit much. “There were times when William would come up to me on the set for a little chat,” Oldman told me during a break in takes. “Matt would come up to me afterwards and ask, ‘So what’d you guys talk about?’ I’d tell him, ‘I have no idea.’”

Another tip-off that I was venturing into dangerous territory was the behavior of the unit publicist, my handler who was supposed to guide me around the set during shooting and smooth the way for my interviews. “Whatever you do, don’t let him see you,” he whispered nervously before opening a stage door. “Try to find some place inconspicuous to stand. And if Hurt does see you, don’t tell him you’re a journalist. Tell him you’re a friend of the producer. Come to think of it,” he paused, tiptoeing back from the door, “maybe you’d better go in without me.”

And so it went for three days, as I skulked around the Jupiter 2 like a stowaway, peering from behind space boulders, trying to look like a pal of the producer — while Hurt blasted at swarms of interstellar spiders and barked orders at a hulking nine-foot robot.

By the time I finally did get to interview him, I felt a bit like Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard at the end of “Apocalypse Now,” when at long last he sits down with Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. Hurt was in his trailer, unbuckling a ray gun from his space suit, when the publicist, sweating profusely, briefly introduced us and then quickly disappeared. We sat for over an hour with my tape recorder whirring. After all the whispered warnings and days of lurking furtively around the set, I found him surprisingly pleasant. He was charming, intelligent and considerably more gracious than a lot of stars I’d interviewed with far less of a reputation for being difficult.

But, oh yeah, he got wiggy.

“The total scene is consciousness, and consciousness is a relationship… because when you’re involved with a consciousness, which is looking at the world from a certain point of view, you have to engage with that consciousness,” he said when I asked him something about acting in a space movie. “The battle between technology and the family unit. Between artificial intelligence and natural intelligence. The notion of amorality as represented by the Dr. Smith character. These are the things that intrigue us all.” I don’t remember how we got on the subject, but even TV ads were fodder for his epistemological ruminations. “I think everybody who ever made a commercial owes a debt to Sophocles,” he declared. “You know what I’m saying?”

Truthfully, I didn’t have a clue. But I had a blast anyway.

After I heard that Hurt had died, I found “Lost in Space” on HBO Max and watched it again for the first time since it came out 24 years ago. I’ll be honest — it kind of creaks. The special effects, once so cutting edge, look like something that today could be rendered on an older generation iPhone. But Hurt’s acting, even in a role with about as much depth as that mechanical bubble-headed booby that Dr. Smith keeps ordering around, is impeccable.

I may have found what he told me in his trailer that day so long ago utterly incomprehensible, but it obviously made sense to him. He did indeed operate on his own wavelength, and that’s undoubtedly what made him so very great at what he did, no matter what part he was playing. 

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