Irwin Allen’s Swiss Family Robinson


Based on the classic Johann David Wyss novel, Swiss Family Robinson was Irwin Allen’s second-to-last television series (Code Red in 1981 was his last). Unlike the successful science-fiction shows he produced in the 1960s (Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, etc.), Swiss Family Robinson was poorly received by viewers and barely lasted a season. Mostly forgotten today, it is occasionally mentioned in relation to Helen Hunt, as one of her early television roles.

Irwin Allen’s Magic Touch

Although his credits go back to the 1950s, Irwin Allen’s career really took off in the 1960s with the release of the film Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in 1961. A television version premiered on ABC in 1964 and was soon followed by three additional science-fiction shows: Lost in Space on CBS in 1965, The Time Tunnel on ABC in 1966 and Land of the Giants on ABC in 1968. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea would stay on the air for four seasons, ending in 1968, while The Time Tunnel lasted only a single season. When Land of the Giants went off the air at the end of its second season in 1970, it marked the end of Allen’s particular brand of science-fiction TV.

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A pair of big budget feature films in the early 1970s (The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno) brought Allen new fame, but he was never able to recapture it either on the big screen or the small. He turned his attention primarily to television, producing more than a dozen made-for-TV movies between 1975 and 1986.

Two of these telefilms would spawn weekly series: Swiss Family Robinson in 1975 and Code Red in 1981. He also produced a sequel to The Poseidon Adventure in 1979 and a few other feature films. When he died in 1991, Irwin Allen had more than left his mark on both television and film.

A Classic Tale Of A Shipwrecked Family

Written by Johann David Wyss, The Swiss Family Robinson was first published in Switzerland in 1812. The beloved tale of a Swiss family shipwrecked on an island and their struggles to survive has inspired a number of film and television adaptations over the years. The earliest film version, a serial from 1925, is considered a lost film.

The first full-length feature film version was released in 1940 and starred Thomas Mitchell. On Sunday, October 12th, 1958, NBC aired an hour-long television dramatization written by M. L. Davenport. It starred Walter Pidgeon and Laraine Day as the Robinson parents with Dennis Hopper, Dennis Kohler and Patty Duke as the Robinson children.

Running from 6:30-7:30PM, the broadcast was primarily aired live with some taped inserts. John P. Shanley of The New York Times called it “an admirable attempt to transfer a fascinating story to TV. It failed because it lacked a bright script and a panoramic setting” [1].

Another feature film from Walt Disney followed in 1960 and a Canadian television series premiered in 1974.

A Family Friendly Series

On Tuesday, April 15th, 1975, ABC aired The Swiss Family Robinson, a two-hour telefilm produced by Irwin Allen. Martin Milner starred as Karl Robinson, patriarch of the family, with Pat Delaney as his wife Lotte and Eric Olson and Michael-James Wixted as their sons Ernie and Fred. Cindy Fisher played Helga Wagner, the young daughter of the ship’s captain who also survived the wreck.

On the island, they met Jeremiah Worth (played by Cameron Mitchell) a cantankerous old sailor who had been shipwrecked himself some seven years earlier. Together, the group faced off against dangerous pirates and — since this was an Irwin Allen production — an even more dangerous volcano.

In his review for The New York Times, John J. O’Connor recalled Irwin Allen’s earlier television work and wrote “given the record, Mr. Allen can hardly be accused of straining for reality. The game is escapism. Keep the plot rolling, and hit the audience between the eyes with those special effects” [2].

When ABC released its fall schedule for the 1975-1976 schedule, Swiss Family Robinson (officially Irwin Allen’s Production of Swiss Family Robinson) was on it [3]. It was given the 7-8PM time slot on Sundays opposite The Wonderful World of Disney on NBC and Three for the Road on CBS. All three shows were considered by their networks to be children’s programming, allowing them to fulfill an FCC requirement that gave them an extra hour of prime time on Sunday evenings. The network promoted Swiss Family Robinson, along with Mobile One and Barbary Coast, as the ABC World of Adventure.

The Cast of Swiss Family Robinson
The Cast of Swiss Family Robinson – September 6th, 1975
Copyright © TV Guide, 1975 [1]

There were a few cast changes made after the series was picked up by ABC. Willie Aames took over the role of Fred Robinson, replacing Michael-James Wixted. And Helen Hunt replaced Cindy Fisher as Helga Wagner.

The weekly series premiered on Sunday, September 14th, 1975. TV Guide listings indicate that the second episode aired on following Sunday, September 21st while the episode list contained in Television Drama Programming: A Comprehensive Chronicle: 1975-1980 by Larry James Gianakos states that the next episode would not air until September 28th, 1975 [4].

From the very start, Swiss Family Robinson faced heavy competition from NBC’s Wonderful World of Disney, which had aired from 7:30-8:30PM the previous season and ranked 18th in the Nielsens. NBC moved it to 7PM to go along with the FCC’s guidelines for Sunday programming. For CBS, Three for the Road was its Sunday-night “children’s programming,” but some 40 CBS affiliates declined to show the series, opting instead to continue airing local news programs [5]. Thus, there was little chance Three for the Road would manage to last for thirteen episodes, let alone the entire season.

Pat Delaney as Lotte Robinson
Pat Delaney as Lotte Robinson

However, CBS stuck with Three for the Road through the end of November, having nothing better to replace it with that local affiliates would approve of. Then, the network came up with a novel idea: move 60 Minutes from 6-7PM on Sundays, replacing Three for the Road and giving local affiliates the 6PM hour for local news (which is what ABC and NBC had done). And on December 7th, 1975 60 Minutes premiered in its new time slot [6]. Surprisingly, 60 Minutes performed quite well for CBS at 7PM, and alongside The Wonderful World of Disney on NBC, there were few viewers leftover for Swiss Family Robinson and ABC [7].

Pre-emptions and Repeats

Although the Robinsons had a relatively comfortable life on the island, thanks to a nifty tree house and the help of Jeremiah, there was still danger lurking around nearly every corner. And if not danger, then at the very least adventure. The family also wanted nothing more than to get off the island and the occasional sighting of a ship, be it British or pirate, meant rescue could be at hand (although it never was). The family had to deal with pirates and mutinous sailors, deadly natives (on another island) and mysterious shaman. Episodes typically dealt either with a dangerous situation facing the Robinsons, like the aforementioned pirates, or a member of the family getting into trouble. In one episode, for example, Ernie wanders off after feeling left out. In another, Karl and Jeremiah head out to explore a mountain and are gone longer than expected, leading the rest of the family to fear the worst.

Animals were plot points, too, including a young chimp who bonds with the family until its mother shows up and a hawk Jeremiah has grown close to. Other episodes saw the Robinsons find an ancient city on the island, the volcano from the pilot film erupt again, an inexperienced Karl forced to operate on Fred, who has appendicitis, and Helga thinking her father — believed shipwrecked in dead — is nevertheless on the island with her.

Martin Milner as Karl Robinson
Martin Milner as Karl Robinson

On November 16th, 1975 ABC pre-empted Swiss Family Robinson for a Donny and Marie Osmond special. The next two weeks saw new episodes, followed by another pre-emption on December 7th, a two-hour Christmas episode on December 14th, then another two weeks of repeats. The new year brought with it five new episodes, including a two-part story broadcast on February 1st and February 8th. In it, the infamous pirate Jean Lafitte (played by Frank Longella), who had earlier hidden treasure on the island, returned to claim it and offered to take the Robinsons back to America with him. The series was then pre-empted for the next five weeks. In all, Swiss Family Robinson was pre-empted an astounding seven times between November 16th, 1975 and April 11th, 1976. And there were four repeats.

The final two new episodes were seen on March 21st and March 28th, respectively. The two-hour telefilm that spawned the series was then split into two hour-long episodes and repeated on April 4th and April 11th. A total of nineteen episodes (or twenty according to TV Guide listings) were aired.

In 1998, a new television series based on The Swiss Family Robinson was produced for international syndication. Starring Richard Thomas, the series was called The Adventures of Swiss Family Robinson and ran for 30 episodes, each split into three-part stories.

Works Cited:

1 Shanley, John P. “Cramped Quarters.” New York Times. 13 Oct. 1958: 52.
2 O’Connor, John J. “TV: A Two-Hour ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ Tonight.” New York Times. 15 Apr. 1975: 54.
3 “ABC’s TV Network Cancels Nine Shows, Unveils Fall Schedule.” Wall Street Journal. 5 May 1975: 20.
4 Giankos, Larry James. Television Drama Programming: A Comprehensive Chronicle: 1975-1980. Metuchen N.J. & London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 1981: 169.
5 Brown, Les. “TV Notes: Hard Luck, Sexism and Maybe a Surprise Hit.” New York Times. 14 Sep. 1975: 119.
6 Brown, Les. “TV Notes: How ’60 Minutes’ Stumbled Into Prime Time.” New York Times. 23 Nov. 1974: 149.
7 Connor, Michael J. “Magazine of the Air.” Wall Street Journal. 5 Aug. 1976: 1.

Image Credits:

1 From TV Guide, September 6th, 1975, Page 32.

Originally Published October 10th, 2007
Last Updated April 12th, 2014

9 Comments

  • Barry I. Grauman says:

    The “Jean Lafitte” episode was supposed to have spawned a spin-off series starring Langella, but ABC passed on the idea.

  • Have been trying to find this. Is it not released? I am a Martin Milner fan and never knew of this show till recently from sites like this. With Helen Hunt also in the series, I would think there would be some interest in a release of the show, short lived as it is. With only the first four seasons of Adam 12 available on DVD so far, what is a woman to do for more of her Marty fix? Hmm.

  • Du Mont says:

    Thanks RGJ for linking to this site. So gratifying to see that there are others who fondly remember ‘Swiss Family Robinson’. Perhaps 20th Television will take note.

    Nice to also see the ABC promo bumpers for ‘Swiss Family Robinson’.

  • A500 says:

    The Canadian CTV version was actually broadcast in 1974/75 – a year before the American ABC version, not after.

    In fact, the unexpected development of the American version is what caused the cancellation of the Canadian one.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swiss_Family_Robinson_(1974_TV_series)

  • Chris says:

    The outdoor sets for the treehouse were setup on the Century Ranch, now Malibu Creek State park, near Calabasas. The Treehouse was near the rock pool at the mouth of the Malibu Creek Gorge. As a kid in 1978 I used to play on the treehouse. All evidance of the set has since been removed outside of a few pieces of concrete.

  • Michael Donald says:

    Great site!
    I loved this short lived series, but I do have a correction to what is written.
    In the 2hr movie Fred was played by Michael-James Wixted, not Willie Aames. Willie replaced Michael for the series.
    Helga was played by Cindy Fisher originally and then played by Helen Hunt in the series.
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073775/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_23
    I actually managed to find someone with a copy of the series, so I have it in my collection!!
    Keep up the great work!!

  • Philip Read says:

    I’m enjoying your site!

    Just a minor factual question: wasn’t “Lost in Space” a CBS program and “Time Tunnel” an NBC show? You mention them both as being ABC shows…

  • Alex Isabel says:

    Lost In Space was on CBS. Time Tunnel was on ABC.

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