‘The Blob’: How fame took shape from an amorphous sci-fi classic
By Jack Harris’ own account, his life has been a dream come true. His career in show business began during the bygone days of vaudeville and has spanned 10 decades. Along the way, he has crossed paths with a galaxy of Hollywood luminaries that includes Mary Pickford, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor, Laurel & Hardy, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand. Harris was introduced to the world of film back when Tom Mix was king of the westerns and live organ music supplied the only soundtrack. He was immediately hooked. After working as everything from child performer, to projectionist, to theater manager and distributor, Harris tried his hand at producing his own film, achieving great success with his first feature, the 1958 sci-fi classic “The Blob.” Now, at 96, Harris has written a book chronicling his adventures, “Father of the Blob: The Making of a Monster Smash and Other Hollywood Tales.”
I met with Harris and Judy, his wife of 27 years, at their Beverly Hills home and discussed his long career, how a $130,000 film about a jelly-like monster from outer space changed his life and why he decided to put it all down on paper. “My esteemed bride was asking me a lot questions,” Harris said. “And as I answered them, she said, ‘You’ve led a very interesting life; why don’t you put it in writing?’ So she made an outline and said, ‘It’s up to you.’ ”
Harris agreed to go ahead with the project for reasons that went beyond mere self-promotion. “As I was writing it, I realized that members of my family and friends were not even aware of the experiences I’ve had,” he said. “That’s who I had in mind when I wrote it.”
Judy Harris had her own reasons for wanting her husband to write the book. “I was selfish,” she admitted. “I wanted to remember all of his stories, and I don’t have a great memory. That was the purpose at first, but then I thought, this is way bigger than that, because his career spanned the history of movies, so if you combined the two, this could be very interesting. I sat at the computer and typed as fast as I could while he talked. He dictated perfect stories — his memory is so acute.”
Harris’ story begins with his Jewish immigrant parents, Sara, from Romania, and Benny, who, with his family, fled from the pogroms of Warsaw in 1907. Like many immigrants, Benny’s original family name was changed at Ellis Island (from Ostravsky to Harris), before they settled in Philadelphia. It was his father who first became enthralled by movies after seeing a Charlie Chaplin short at the local Nickelodeon. Early in life, Benny chose to forgo his religion and live strictly as an American.
“When I came along, there was no pressure on me to know anything about religion,” Harris said. “My mother, on the other hand, was partially religious.” It wasn’t until he was 7 that Jack’s parents decided the boy should be educated in the Jewish religion. “Father hired a Russian rabbi, and he trained me so good in the Old Testament that when I went up to the altar and read my part of the Bible, I turned the tablet away and recited it from memory. The rabbi jumped up and said, ‘I’m not supposed to do this,’ and he gave me a big hug. That was the beginning of a serious belief and admiration in the faith.”
Harris’ credits as a film producer include “The Eyes of Laura Mars” (1978), starring Faye Dunaway; “Dark Star” (1974), directed by John Carpenter; “Schlock”(1973), director John Landis’ first feature; and the sci-fi thriller “The 4D Man”(1959). But it’s his production of “The Blob” that has stuck to movie audiences for nearly 60 years. The film’s endurance can be credited in part to Harris for casting a young actor named Steve McQueen in his first starring film role. Harris first saw McQueen in a live TV drama broadcast titled “The Defender” and was electrified by his performance. A few days later, Harris went to see a New York stage production of “A Hatful of Rain,” with Ben Gazzara. In a twist of fate, Gazzara was ill that evening and was replaced by his understudy — McQueen. Harris was warned that McQueen was difficult to work with, but he was, nevertheless, determined to sign the charismatic actor as the star of his film. (The warnings proved to be true, so much so that Harris chose not to exercise his option to make two more films with McQueen.)
“The Blob” director Jack Harris. Photo courtesy of Jack Harris
Although Harris was an experienced distributor, he had never distributed a film that he had produced, so he signed the theatrical rights over to Paramount studios. The film became a huge hit — inadvertently. “They paired it with one of their own films, ‘I Married a Monster From Outer Space,’ ” Harris said. “They opened them together in 15 cities, and when the results came in, there was one city that did as much as the other 14. And the reason was, the shipping department made a mistake and only sent them ‘The Blob’ — and that was the result.” The low-budget film grossed $4 million.
Fortunately for Harris, he kept the television rights to “The Blob” and regained the film’s copyright once the Paramount contract expired, which taught him the valuable lesson, “The only positive is the negative.”