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.
Although his credits go back to the 1950s, Irwin Allen 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, beginning a lengthy association between the writer/producer and television network. Three additional science-fiction shows would air on ABC throughout the decade: Lost in Space premiered in 1965, The Time Tunnel in 1966 and Land of the Giants in 1968. Of the bunch, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was on the air the longest, from 1964 to 1968 and The Time Tunnel the shortest, from 1966 to 1967.
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 some other feature films. When he died in 1991, Irwin Allen had left his mark on both television and film, with fans new and old around the world.
Written by Johann David Wyss, The Swiss Family Robinson (its English title) was originally published in 1812 and has been edited and added to greatly over the years. The story deals with, as the title explains, a Swiss family that is shipwrecked — much like Robinson Crusoe — and must fight to survive. The popularity of the novel led to a wide variety of adaptations in other media, ranging from feature films to comic books to television shows. The earliest film version, a serial from 1925, is considered a lost film.
In 1940 the first full feature film was released, followed by a 1958 television version on NBC and another feature film from Walt Disney in 1960. A Canadian television series premiered in 1974. On Tuesday, April 15th, 1975, ABC aired a two-hour made-for-TV movie that was Irwin Allen’s take on the classic tale . Martin Milner, of Adam-12 fame, starred as Karl Robinson, patriarch of the family, and Pat Delaney played Lotte, his wife. Willie Aames and Eric Olson played Fred and Ernie Robinson, respectively, and Helen Hunt played Helga Wagner, a young girl who was shipwrecked alongside the Robinsons.
On Sunday, October 12th, 1958, NBC aired an hour-long dramatization of The Swiss Family Robinson, 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 excerpts. Reviewers at the time deplored the dull script and a confined set — the island was actually the inside of a studio .
On the island, they meet Jeremiah Worth (played by Cameron Mitchell) a cantankerous old sailor who was himself shipwrecked some seven years before the Robinsons showed up. Together, the group must deal with dangerous pirates and an even more dangerous volcano (how could an Irwin Allen adventure series not include a volcano?).
When ABC released its fall schedule for the 1975-1976 schedule, Swiss Family Robinson was included, airing Sundays from 7-8PM opposite The Wonderful World of Disney on NBC and Three for the Road on CBS . All three shows were defined as children’s programming in order to fulfill requirements set by the FCC to give the network’s an additional Sunday hour of television (the prime-time access rule). The network promoted Swiss Family Robinson, along with Mobile One and Barbary Coast, as the ABC “world of adventure,” as this promotional spot demonstrates:
Copyright © TV Guide, 1975 
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 .
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 . Thus, there was little chance Three for the Road would manage to last for thirteen episodes, let alone the entire season.
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 . 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 .
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.
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.
2 Shanley, John P. “Cramped Quarters.” New York Times. 13 Oct., 1958: 52.
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.
Originally Published October 10th, 2007
Last Updated June 24th, 2012