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, Swiss Family Robinson was not popular with 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.
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 was a silent, 15-episode serial called Perils of the Wild, which was released in 1925 and today is believed to be 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” .
Another feature film from Walt Disney followed in 1960 and a Canadian television series premiered in 1974.
An Expensive Pilot Leads To A Weekly 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 criticized the production values:
Family entertainment, needless to say, does not preclude the standard possibilities of action-adventure formats. Nor does it guarantee any greater injections of realism. For all of the million-dollar budget, the production looks like something out of Tarzan phoniness by way of “Appel’s Way” [sic] cleanliness. There are heavy and incessant musical orchestrations, and the family remains generally well-scrubbed to the point of squeegy artificiality. .
Nevertheless, he recalled Irwin Allen’s earlier TV work and concluded “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” .
When ABC released its fall schedule for the 1975-1976 schedule, Swiss Family Robinson (referred to in the opening credits as Irwin Allen’s Production of Swiss Family Robinson) was on it . 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 and two other news shows, Mobile One and Barbary Coast, as the ABC World of Adventure.
After the series was picked up, the network made several cast changes. Willie Aames took over the role of Fred Robinson, replacing Michael-James Wixted, while Helen Hunt replaced Cindy Fisher as Helga Wagner.
A Critical Drubbing
Swiss Family Robinson premiered on Sunday, September 14th, 1975 with an episode in which the Robinsons faced a dangerous typhoon. Critics were not enthusiastic. Just as he had with the pilot, John J. O’Connor focused on the look of the series in his review of the premiere:
What Irwin Allen, the producer, hath wrought for the films “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno” he is now attempting to inflict on television, using a scale suitably reduced for the small screen. The result transforms what is supposed to be a shipwrecked Swiss family struggling for survival on a tropical island into all-American mannequins getting back to nature and roughing it in a setting that could be Malibu or Nantucket. All of this is seasoned with mini-disasters. 
Jay Sharbutt of the Associated Press was likewise negative in his review, which he ended by arguing “I know it’s a family show and not much is required of it, but ‘Swiss Family’ is so child-like in writing, acting and production it gives infantile a bad name” .
Copyright © TV Guide, 1975 
The Boston Herald American‘s Anthony LaCamera criticized Irwin Allen’s use of “wind machines, fire-makers and water swirlers” in the series opener, suggesting the title of the episode should have been “Obstacle Course” . And Dick Adler of The Los Angeles Times called it a “lugubrious debut” featuring dialogue that “makes Tarzan sound like Oscar Wilde” .
Perhaps the most negative review came from Norman Dresser of the Toledo Blade, who called the show “so bad that it could make strong men cry and drive weak ones to drink. It lacks a single redeeming quality, social or otherwise. It is a disgrace to television” .
A Tough Time Slot
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. Over on 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.
Indeed, Three for the Road received disastrous ratings during the first two weeks of the season, averaging a 9.0/17 Nielsen rating for its first two episodes, easily the lowest-rated network programming . During the same two weeks, Swiss Family Robinson averaged a stronger 15.2/29 rating which put it only just behind The Wonderful World of Disney on NBC, which averaged a 15.6/30 rating .
By October, its ratings put Swiss Family Robinson in limbo according to The New York Times . The problem facing the show, explained actress Pat Delany, was its family-friendly time slot. “We can’t show blood or bullets, or see impact. And we mustn’t depict violence between animals. We can’t go off and kill monkeys in the wild as in the book. And we’re not allowed to depict the real danger in a covered pit awaiting my children in the jungle” . Still, she felt younger viewers were drawn to the island setting and the Robinson’s tree house.
Over at CBS, the network was stuck with Three for the Road through at least the end of November, having nothing better to put in the 7-8PM time slot that affiliates would approve of. Then the network came up with a novel idea: replace Three for the Road with 60 Minutes and give the 6-7PM hour back to affiliates to air local news the way ABC and NBC had done. The decision was made and 60 Minutes would debut in its new time slot on December 7th, 1975 .
The move didn’t help Swiss Family Robinson. Now instead of facing a strong NBC and a weak CBS, it faced two strong networks. With more viewers tuning into 60 Minutes on CBS, there weren’t many left to watch ABC. Broadcasting reported on January 26th, 1976 that ratings for Swiss Family Robinson had stagnated in recent weeks . In it’s defense, it wasn’t the only show to falter in the ratings as the season dragged on and mid-season replacements were introduced.
But a few weeks later the news went from bad to worse: Swiss Family Robinson had seen its ratings decline steadily over the past month and its share of the audience had fallen below the dreaded 25% mark . ABC responded by pulling the series for five weeks from mid-February to mid-March, replacing it with a mix of Olympic coverage, a movie, and several specials.
The final two episodes were seen on March 21st and March 28th, respectively. Only days later ABC revealed its 1976-1977 schedule and confirmed suspicions that Swiss Family Robinson had been cancelled . Its replacement was a variety show staring Bill Cosby called Cos.
The two-hour pilot telefilm that spawned the series was then split into two hour-long episodes and repeated on April 4th and April 11th. All in all, Swiss Family Robinson was pre-empted an astounding seven times between November 16th, 1975 and April 11th, 1976. During that same period four repeats were broadcast.
Pirates, Natives, and Animals
Although the Robinsons had a relatively comfortable life on the island thanks to their tree house and the help of Jeremiah, there was still danger–or at least adventure–lurking around nearly every corner. The family wanted nothing more than to get off the island and the occasional sighting of a ship raised hopes that were always dashed.
The family had to contend with pirates and mutinous sailors as well as deadly and mysterious natives, not to mention wild animals and unpredictable weather.
Episodes typically dealt either with a dangerous situation faced by all the Robinsons or a few members of the family getting themselves into trouble. In one episode, for example, Ernie wanders off after feeling left out and Lotte is trapped in a cave-in while looking for hi. In another, Jeremiah is wounded while exploring a mountain with Karl, leading the rest of the family to fear the worst. One episode even saw Karl performing surgery on Fred after his son comes down with appendicitis.
Swiss Family Robison was syndicated to local stations and was airing as late as 1988. When cable channel FX launched in June 1994, it aired Swiss Family Robinson on weekends. The series was seen on FX at least through early 1996.
The series has never been released commercially on VHS or DVD. There were no tie-in comics or novels published.
In 1998, a new TV 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 O’Connor, John J. “TV: A Two-Hour ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ Tonight.” New York Times. 15 Apr. 1975: 54.
4 “ABC’s TV Network Cancels Nine Shows, Unveils Fall Schedule.” Wall Street Journal. 5 May 1975: 20.
5 O’Connor, John J. “TV Review: The ‘Special Effects’ of ‘Swiss Family’.” New York Times. 13 Sep. 1975: 55.
6 Sharbutt, Jay. “Disney Rivals Come up Short.” Kentucky New Era [Hopkinsville, KY]. Associated Press. 15 Sep. 1975: 21.
7 “How the critics and the public vote on new shows.” Broadcasting. 22 Sep. 1975: 52.
8 Ibid, 53.
9 Dresser, Norman. “‘Swiss Family Robinson’ Terrible.” Toledo Blade. Peach Section. 16 Sep. 1975: 4.
10 Brown, Les. “TV Notes: Hard Luck, Sexism and Maybe a Surprise Hit.” New York Times. 14 Sep. 1975: 119.
11 “The first two weeks.” Broadcasting. 29 Sep. 1975: 19.
13 Brown, Les. “TV Notes: A Lackluster Season Can Still Pay Off.” New York Times. 19 Oct. 1975: 143.
14 Witbeck, Charles. “ABC Stands Pat on ‘Swiss Family Robinson’.” Leader-Herald [Gloversville-Johnstown, NY]. TV Key, Inc. 30 Oct. 1975: 12.
15 Brown, Les. “TV Notes: How ’60 Minutes’ Stumbled Into Prime Time.” New York Times. 23 Nov. 1975: 149.
16 “A big week for ABC-TV.” Broadcasting. 26 Jan. 1976: 51.
17 “ABC pulls even with NBC in season Nielsens.” Broadcasting. 9 Feb. 1976: 40.
18 “‘Marcus Welby’ Canceled With 7 Other ABC Shows.” New York Times. 1 Apr. 1976: 46.
Originally Published October 10th, 2007
Last Updated September 13th, 2016