Dick Tufeld

d. January 22, 2012

Dick Tufeld, 85, veteran announcer who became something of a legend to cult TV fans for his uncredited role as the voice of the robot in Lost in Space, died Jan. 22 at his home in Los Angeles. His family said the cause of death was heart disease and complications from a fall last year.

Tufeld, a Los Angeles native, broke into radio announcing after studying speech at Northwestern University. One of his early radio jobs was on a local Hollywood gossip show hosted by a neophyte producer and director named Irwin Allen. On network radio, his announcing jobs included Space Patrol (“Travel into the future with Buzz Corry, commander-in-chief of the Space Patrol!”). Moving into television, Tufeld worked on many of the live shows that all used announcers, and landed announcing and narrating jobs on Walt Disney’s anthology series, Disneyland on ABC and then Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color on NBC (“And now your host, Walt Disney!”). He also did the voice-over introductions on Disney’s Zorro series seen on ABC from 1957 to 1959, and on Warner Bros. series such as Surfside 6 and The Gallant Men.

Tufeld was already the announcer-narrator on Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea when Allen asked him if he would not only narrate the new Lost in Space series but also provide the voice of the robot that would accompany the Robinson family into space. Tufeld assumed Allen wanted a machine-like monotone, but the producer had a different idea.

“Irwin wanted a low-key, cultured-sounding, Alexander Scourby approach,” Tufeld told Starlog magazine in 2003. “Scourby was a marvelous narrator of National Geographic specials. So I read the lines in my best Scourby impression, sounding like HAL in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ And Irwin said, ‘No, try it again.’ After 10 minutes, he told me, ‘Dick, I appreciate you coming in but I’m not hearing what I want.’”

As Tufeld prepared to leave, he took one more shot. “In my best mechanical, stiff-sounding, robot voice that he did not want, I said, ‘Danger, Will Robinson, danger. That does not compute.’ Irwin exclaimed, ‘My God, that’s exactly what I want. What the hell took you so long?’ I had to turn my back so I didn’t laugh in his face.”

Tufeld’s dialogue changed from standard “That does not compute” responses and the ubiquitous “Warning, warning — danger, danger!” to more expansive repartee as the robot became a comic foil to scheming stowaway Dr. Zachary Smith. By the end of its first season, Lost in Space had evolved from a handsomely mounted if juvenilely written adventure into a ludicrous comedy centered on the hammy villainy of Dr. Smith. As yet another plot to betray the Robinsons and return to Earth blew up in his face, the sneering Smith invariably hurled the insult “You bubble-headed booby” at the robot, to which the robot delivered a scathing retort, all of it made tolerably amusing by Tufeld’s dry delivery.

Bob May, the man in the robot suit, delivered the robot’s scripted lines during shooting and blinked the robot’s chest light in sync with the words. Tufeld then came in to the 20th Century-Fox looping studio to record the lines in the robot’s voice. May died in 2009.

Tufeld continued for years as an announcer: on Allen’s next series The Time Tunnel; for variety shows such as The Red Skelton Hour and The Hollywood Palace (always closing with the familiar line, “This is Dick Tufeld speaking”); on special events such as the Emmy and Grammy awards broadcasts; for 1980s cartoon series like Thundaar the Barbarian and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends; and on hundreds of commercials. He was the network announcer on ABC’s daytime programming for nearly 30 years.

He kidded his work as a TV announcer in the raunchy, low-budget comedy film “Tunnelvision” that satirized television and featured a group of then unknown performers that included John Candy, Chevy Chase, Howard Hesseman and Laraine Newman.

Three decades after Lost in Space went off the air, the producers of the misbegotten 1998 movie version brought Tufeld in as the voice of their robot. “It was no big deal, since 30 years have passed and no one ever saw my face,” he said when the film was released. “It’s not like the robot needs Botox.”

Like many other cult-TV figures, Tufeld also reprised his famous role in several episodes of The Simpsons.


Above: The robot and Dr. Smith, played by Jonathan Harris, became the comical focus of “Lost in Space.”

At left: Dick Tufeld with Bob May, right, the actor inside the robot.

Below: “Lost in Space” stars Angela Cartwright, Marta Kristen and Billy Mumy with Tufeld in 2002.