Bill Mumy is an actor, musician, voice-over artist, and comic book writer who is best-known for playing Will Robinson in the 1960s television show Lost in Space. We spoke at his home in the Hollywood Hills.
Q. What’s going on in your life?
A. I’m channeling the muse and I’m very grateful for that. I’m writing constantly. I have a really nice studio upstairs. I have a new album out and Barnes and Barnes made our first album in 18 years, in 2009. I’ve been very lucky to keep working in the voice over industry. That’s been my gig since Babylon 5 wrapped, pretty much. I did that show for five seasons in the ‘90s and that was a really busy time for me. I had co-created and co-wrote two seasons of a family sci-fi show called Space Cases, the band was gigging, and the kids were really little. So that was a really knuckle-down, make your money kind of time and I paid off the house and I don’t owe anybody any money which is a great feeling. I’ve got to say, if anybody’s fortunate enough to be in a position where they don’t owe anybody any money and they own what they have, it really affects decisions in a big way.
Q. How does being financially comfortable affect your decisions?
A. Playing an alien on a television show for five years and gluing foam rubber to your head at 5 in the morning for 14 hours a day is certainly not the same as being in the trenches of a war or having to work in the fields all day picking grapes or whatever, but it was like, “Wow. I’m burnt.” I was really grateful to segue into a good amount of voice-over work. As much as I like about on camera work, and I do like to work on camera and I think I’m pretty good at it, the process of getting a job as an actor over the age of 40-something is pretty heinous. I just got to a point where it was, like, thank God I was saying “Farmer’s Insurance gets you back where you belong” for 11 years or narrating Biography, or whatever. Doing that stuff, the checks continued to come in.
Q. You sound pretty turned off to the film and television industries.
A. My observation of the way things have changed in the industry, the entertainment industry, is that it hasn’t changed for the better. The deals, the contracts for actors, the union, everything has been whittled away. We’re not really getting a better deal than we used to get. We’re getting a much worse deal. If someone were to come along and offer me a good part in even a low-budget film, sure, I’d get on a plane. I’d deal with what I had to deal with if it were creatively satisfying to me, but it’s much more creatively satisfying to me to write an album’s worth of tunes and see them through with an uncompromising perspective, thank you. An actor is a chess piece, a director’s chess piece, and the director is a producer’s chess piece. In the long run an actor is very low on the level of having much creative input into a television show.
Q. It sounds like music is a far more satisfying endeavor for you at this stage of life than acting.
A. That’s absolutely true, and even from a much younger age, being part of a musical group or doing my own music was always more artistically rewarding to me than hitting my mark and reading my lines and making that believable. I can do that. “Okay, I’m an alien from the Planet Minbar and I’m mad at you.” I can just go there. It’s easy, right? I’m a doctor, I’m a lawyer, I’m a sick guy, I’m a mean guy, I’m a good guy. I can do that easily but it’s still not the same as creating something yourself. I enjoy it sometimes, but it’s never been as rewarding as creating something from nothing and seeing it through to a point where you’re willing to share that canvas, so to speak.
Q. When did you start acting?
A. I started at five and it was – I stress this — it was not something my mother or father wanted me to do and it was not something that they ever profited from. It was me breaking my leg playing Zorro as a little boy, three or four, and instead of going out and playing with my friends on the cul-de-sac we lived at in Beverlywood, I stared at Zorro and Superman on TV every day and went, “That’s exactly what I want to do. I want to be in the TV like Superman and Zorro.” Will Robinson, and to a degree this character on Babylon 5, they were kind of those superhero characters and certainly there were a lot of other guys along the way. But I’m not one of those guys who was pushed into it by his mom or dad. When my parents married it was the second marriage for each of them. My mom was 41 when I was born and in the ‘50s that was really interesting. My dad was 50 when I was born. My dad was at the time – not forever – a very wealthy guy. They didn’t have any reason to push me into show business. We lived five minutes from the studios and my grandfather had been an agent in the ‘30s and ‘40s and had represented a lot of directors and writers and actors. He represented Boris Karloff, negotiated the Frankenstein deal. My mom had been a writer’s secretary – assistant as it would be now called – at 20th Century Fox for 11 years before she married my dad. So my family, my mother’s side of the family especially, was not impressed by, intimidated by, and didn’t have any preconceptions about the business. I really wanted to get inside the television set and ultimately you can’t escape your destiny.
Q. Adulthood hasn’t turned out well for a lot of child actors.
A. No. It’s out of proportion, I agree. But I know so many of those iconic people and so many of them are just great and well-adjusted and impressive people. I could give you the list but I don’t have to. Kurt Russell and Ronny Howard and Jodi Foster, and to a lesser degree Angela and Veronica Cartwright [the latter played Penny on Lost in Space] and the Livingston brothers [Barry and Stanley were Ernie and Chip, respectively, on My Three Sons] and Tony Dow [Wally on Leave It to Beaver] and Billy Gray [Bud from Father Knows Best], all these guys and women that were doing it for the right reasons, because they were good at it. Certainly you can be a little bitter saying, “Well I made $500 a show in 1962 and now they make a million,” but you know at the time it was all good. Everybody drove the cars they drove and bought the houses they bought. And we all make mistakes, right? I made a pretty big mistake, but it was my mistake so I acknowledge it, but I don’t bemoan it that much. I worked straight through 17, when I was a lead role in a Stanley Kramer film called Bless the Beasts & Children.
Q. What was your mistake? What happened after Bless the Beasts & Children?
A. When that movie was finished the man who had been my manager and previously my agent retired and bought a ranch in New Mexico and said, “I’m through with show business.” I know this sounds a bit overly dramatic, but my first really intense, long-term love relationship had ended badly for me and I was bummed. When my manager quit and it coincided with this breakup, I happened to have been at that point in time very much in the thick of an acoustic trio with Paul Gordon and Gary David called Redwood that was working and recording a lot, and I just said, “I’m done. I’m closing the book on acting right now and I am a member of Redwood. I’m not Billy Mumy from Lost in Space in Redwood. I’m just this guy with a guitar with these other two guys.” We fought, which may or may not have been a mistake, but we fought very hard to keep any of the show business side of my past out of the profile of the band, and I gave it two years. The band worked a lot, but we did not become Crosby, Stills and Nash as we had kind of thought we might. So after those two years I decided, “Well maybe I should make a movie or go back into show business.” So now I’m 19. It’s a new category. There are suddenly a lot of people after those roles, and I had been gone for a couple of years. The first thing I did after deciding to go back was Papillion with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, which is a great experience to reflect on and I could write a book about the shit that went down on that film, but it was also the first time in my life I made a movie for 12 weeks and then when I saw the movie, basically I was cut out of it. Dalton Trumbo was writing the script. He was dying of cancer. We shot everything. They probably ended up with five hours of film and Franklin Schaffner, the director, said, “Well I got to make a movie out of this. Mumy can go.” So I went to the screening at the studio for the cast and crew and I came out going, “Wow, this is show biz.” So that was a big wakeup call. I kept working, but that two-year space between adulthood and teenage-ness was probably a mistake. But I don’t really bemoan that. What are you going to do? What are you going to do?
Q. What did you do?
A. I’m really pleased to say during that period in the ‘70s I turned down a lot of exploitative movies. Remember the movie The Re-Animator? It was a hack up naked women movie. They offered me a lot of money to do that movie, at the time a lot of money, and I read the script and I said, “You know, my bills are paid. I feel good about myself. Do I want to add this to my list of things?” There was some scene where this guy is holding a head in his hands and the head was licking the naked body of this woman. That was my guy. I said, “You know what? I’m going to just pass on this.” Passing on that movie made my agents very unhappy and I think they kind of stopped working for me at that point in time. So I made decisions like that based on what I felt was the high road. I didn’t want to Fantasy Island or Love, American Style, or The Love Boat. I said no to a lot of stuff which, on one hand, I don’t have a problem with, but on the other hand made the people who worked for me, whose job was to make me money go, “Well why are we working for you if you keep saying no?” I said, “I’m saying no to garbage.” There is no doubt in my mind, none whatsoever, that if my family needed money, more than I’m able to provide, I’d go out every weekend and I’d fly around the world and I’d sign autographs at shows all the time, or I would have been on television shows that I didn’t want to do.