An Interview with Land of the Lost’s Wesley Eure
Gayne C. Young
Wesley Eure starred on the cult series Land of the Lost, is the co-creator of Dragon Tales, played Michael Horton on Days of Our Lives for seven years, was host of the game show Finders Keepers, is the author of children’s novel The Red Wings of Christmas, and is an activist for several charitable organizations. I was fortunate enough to speak with Eure about his time on Land of the Lost and the lasting impact of the show.
Gayne C. Young : Tell us how you got involved on Land of the Lost.
Wesley Eure: I was on Days of Our Lives and I got invited over to Sid Krofft’s house for a pool party. I went there with Bruce, one of my best friends. Sid came up to me and said, “Hey, I’ve got a new show. Take the casting director’s number. Call her tomorrow. I want you to audition.” And I got the show.
Sid told me the other day, “You’re the only person we looked at. You walked in and the role of Will Marshall was yours. We then cast everybody else around you. We found a dad that looked like you in Spencer Milligan”
Both Days of Our Lives and Land of the Lost were NBC shows, so NBC let me film both at the same time.
GCY: What was that schedule like? Doing two shows at the same time?
WE: In the mornings, on Days of our Lives, I got to shoot all my scenes first. The cast hated me for three years because I would film my scenes while they waited. I’d then leave, drive to the other studio to film Land of the Lost.
In the morning I’m crying that my girlfriend is leaving me, I’m having sexual problems, or the Mafia is after me. And then in the afternoon I’d go, “Run, Holly, run, there’s a dinosaur,” so it felt a little schizophrenic, but it was fun. The best job ever!
GCY: How was the show sold to you? Was it described as a kids’ show or as a science fiction show that would air during Saturday morning?
WE: No, it was a Saturday morning kids’ show for sure. But it broke a lot of barriers. It was written by many of the Star Trek writers. David Gerrold was our head writer and a producer. He wrote the classic Trouble with Tribbles episode for Star Trek. He got D.C. Fontana and Larry Niven and even Walter Koenig, who played the original Chekov, to write episodes for Land of the Lost. Walter created and wrote the episode that introduced Enik, the talking Sleestak.
GCY: So, despite all these heavyweight writers, they still said, “This is a kids’ show?”
WE: It was. But the thing about Land of the Lost is they never talked down to kids. They made kids rise up to the occasion, talking about time doorways and matrixes and complex concepts of sci-fi, they just put it right out there and let the kid’s imagination take over. The science fiction had us seeing our deceased mother in the mist and we walked through time doorways. At the end of season one, the Land of the Lost entered a time loop that was going to destroy this amazing land. Enik told us in order to save the Land of the Lost we HAD to go back to earth because our doppelgängers needed to come into the Land of the Lost in order to keep the loop from imploding. He told us “three must leave so three may enter.” I believe the reason we have such a huge fan base today is because the sci-fi is terrific. I know the visual effects now seem hokey, but at the time they were state of the art. Obviously, they’re not CGI, but if you look at the scripts by Dorothy Fontana and all of these amazing writers, you see why it holds up today. It’s the science fiction!
GCY: Concerning the special effects. Like we said, they may not hold up now, but those of you on the show were definitely pioneers. Today it’s nothing for an actor to walk in front of a blue screen and have a director say, “You’re going to have to pretend there’s something over there.” But y’all were kind of the first to experience such and it was pretty state of the art, wasn’t it? How was it being introduced to chroma key? And having directors say, “Okay, now you’re going to pretend you see something over there.” That had to be a completely different style of acting than you were used to.
WE: First of all, the fact that you know it was chroma key back in the day… bravo. I’m impressed.
We had two sound stages; they were huge. One soundstage was our lagoon, our jungle, and the exterior of our cave. Half of the second soundstage was the interior of our cave and the other half was all painted blue for the chroma key scenes. Everything was blue… the floor, the walls, the whole half of the soundstage. It was truly gigantic. What they did was so new and unique, they didn’t know if Land of the Lost was going to work after the first episode. Sid just told me they technically couldn’t make it work because the dinosaurs that were stop frame animation were filmed on film and the actors were on videotape because of cost. They couldn’t meld the two, the actors on chroma key blue and the dinosaurs. The best technicians in Hollywood, some of the biggest heavy hitters came together and scrambled. They finally figured out a way to meld both in real time.
And so, by the second episode, we’d be on the chroma key set and we could look on a monitor and see Dopey or Grumpy. We could see them on film moving and they would shrink us down to size and could put it onto the screen. Then the director would say, “Okay, look at that light up there, way up there. That’s Grumpy’s head, run away from the light.” And that’s how we did it.
But the most amazing effect, I think, is in the credits. In the closing credits, you see Kathy (Holly) riding Dopey. Of course, Dopey was Claymation, so they had a sawhorse, that was painted completely blue. The wheels were blue, the rope was blue…everything was blue. Stagehands pulled her in time with the animation of Dopey walking. Because everything was blue, everything disappeared. They repeated the process until they were sure it was perfectly timed so that it looked like she was riding the dinosaur.
GCY: That’s still dealing with actors on Land of the Lost. I’m sure over at Days of our Lives you were like, “Yeah, yesterday I had to pretend I saw this while I was actually looking at a TV screen and doing this.” That had to blow people’s minds.
WE: Listen, I was the luckiest person in the world. I was a little kid from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I didn’t have any family in showbiz or anything like that. And suddenly I’ve got two network TV series. I didn’t even have the money to buy a car. Finally, I got the shows and I said to myself, “I’d better buy a car to get back and forth.” It was an extraordinary time in my life. It was an honor. I always just felt really honored to be able to follow my dream.
GCY: What was the feeling making this show? I recently saw on a documentary on the making of the original Star Wars. A lot of the actors in the movie were like, “What the hell are we doing? What is this? Is this going to work? Is this not going to work?” Did you ever have any feelings like that with such a new genre and new technology? Were you like, “What are we doing?”
WE: I don’t think so. Every show you make is a crap shoot. It either catches the magic or it doesn’t. And of course, there is no way to know, but after the first episode aired, the ratings went nuts. The Sleestak, (the giant lizard creature) were introduced in the third episode and the ratings went through the roof. We became NBC’s number one show, not just on Saturday morning but number one overall. It was suddenly a runaway.
It was a very hectic, busy time for me. We filmed two episodes of Land of the Lost a week, two and a half days per episode to help keep the costs down. When we finished the 14 weeks of shooting, it only slightly calmed down. I was still on Days of our Lives full-time, and also doing game shows as well as many personal appearances. If I wasn’t able to watch the show on Saturday morning, which was most Saturdays, I’d just not see it. Remember, there were no recordings back then. We didn’t have DVRs or anything like that. As the buzz kept building and building in the fan magazines, 16 and Tiger Beat and all of those it became very surreal. It was a certain era. It was a very heady time and really wonderful.
During all of this, I made lifelong friends. Kathy who played Holly, Phil Paley played Cha-Ka, the guy that played my dad, Spencer Milligan, and I are all like family. We talk all of the time. And to this day, I’ve always said the Kroffts didn’t just cast my TV family, they also cast my real-life family.
GCY: How was it, in the late seventies, getting information on the success of the show? You mentioned a few magazines. Everything today is instantaneous. “The ratings are this. This got a zillion views. This did that.” How did you get information? Did the studio bosses just call and say, “Okay, you’re now on the number one show,” or was it like you said, you just had to wait and see it in magazines or people on the street?
WE: Well, mostly the people on the street, and, of course, the magazines were calling. There were some weeks where I was on four or five magazine covers. The studios would never let us know our ratings because they didn’t want us to try to hold them up for any more money. They tried to keep all that hush-hush. They didn’t want to let us know we were so successful.
GCY: You mentioned a lot of the writers like Walter Koenig and Larry Niven and David Gerrold. Do you think one of the reasons the show has maintained its fan base over the years is because they had such big writers? True, a lot of the effects are dated but it seems like the stories have lasted. Would you say that’s one of the reasons?
WE: It’s the absolute reason. Without those writers it just would have been another show like Swiss Family Robinson, with the family lost somewhere trying to get home.
The fact that this was a drama about a family without a mother bonded together in such an unusual way in this amazing world touched a lot of hearts in so many different ways.
At the autograph conventions we attend, many people come up to us with tears in their eyes saying how it changed their lives as a kid. One guy in his fifties came up to us with tears in his eyes. He told us, “Listen, I know this is going to sound hokey. My family was getting a divorce between the second and third season of Land of the Lost, and I was devastated, I didn’t know how I’d survive. But at the end of the second season, you lost your dad. Then you got your uncle and the family survived.” He said, “It gave me the hope and the knowledge that my family could survive. And it did.”
We hear stories like this all the time. The show, and its stories, just resonated. For example, the episode where our mother, who had passed away, comes through the mist. We are, of course, crying because it’s our mother. It turns out it wasn’t really our mother, but a Sleestak trying to entice us so it could kill us. This was very heavy stuff for kids. It was a real drama.
GCY: That story serves as a reminder that today’s shows definitely talk down to not just kid audiences, but a lot of audiences. They’re just like, “Okay, how can we make this more the masses can understand it,” rather than get them to actually think.
WE: Most of the kids shows today are about a wisecracking kid who thinks they are smarter than their parents. In Land of the Lost, our dad was really a big figure. Kathy’s character, Holly, was a very strong character. Holly frequently saved the day. I think it was the first time for a lot of girls to see someone like them be so strong. Holly frequently rescued her father and brother. It was empowering to a lot of little girls. We get that feedback all the time. Women come up and talk about it. Of course, part of Holly’s strength was because Kathy’s portrayal of Holly was so extraordinary.
GCY: I can’t say that I ever noticed that but looking back, yeah.
WE: Yeah. It was the first time we saw a girl take the lead and I think that’s one of the reasons the show has a shelf life.
GCY: You’ve kind of answered this, but let’s just get it from you: Are the Sleesak lizards or insect people?
WE: I always thought they were lizards.
GCY: You said lizard earlier.
WE: Yeah, because they had scales. Mike Westmore, who created them, was, of course, one of the top Star Trek makeup artists. He created much of the alien makeup. He has the show Face Off on TV. So, our connection with Star Trek continued. We were like the little brother of Star Trek.
In fact, Kathy and I do the Star Trek Convention at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas every year. We are the only non-Star Trek show that they allow in to sign autographs because of our close ties to Star Trek. He created the Sleestak in his garage using wetsuits and glued on scales. I’ve always saw them as giant lizards. The Sleestak were UCLA bound high school basketball players. In their bare feet, they were close to seven feet tall. In fact, Bill Laimbeer of the Detroit Pistons, the bad boy of basketball, was one of the Sleestak.
GCY: Was it pretty frightening to see the costumes in real life for the first time? Or could you tell the were made in his garage?
WE: They were definitely frightening. These guys were so huge and we were so small in comparison. They could only stay in those costumes for maybe four or five minutes at a time because they were so hot, especially under the lights of the soundstage. When they’d pull off the head, these guys would be pouring with sweat. They’d have to wrap towels around themselves to absorb all of the sweat. It wasn’t an easy job.
Kathy and I just surprised Bill Laimbeer in Las Vegas. He was coaching the ACEs women’s basketball team. He’s known as the bad boy. He’s very rough. All of the players on the team knew we were coming and each had an 8×10 of a Sleestak to surprised him. When we walked in, they held up the 8×10 of the Sleestak head in front of them. We gave him some gifts and took some press photos. It was great! As we were leaving, the head of the league came up to us and said, “I’ve got to tell you, I’ve known Bill Laimbeer since he just started out being a player, and I have never seen him smile this much.”
GCY: That’s great.
Back to the show, so the third season saw a lot of changes, the biggest of which was Spencer Milligan, who played your father, left. I mentioned how the special effects on the show were pioneering for the time, but y’all were also pioneering in terms of, Spencer was one of the first to say, “Wait a minute, y’all are making money on this merchandising and we’re not getting anything.” That was some real out of the box thinking back then.
WE: It was, and it’s so bizarre because just the other day, a fan posted on Facebook a product with my picture on it, a toy that I had never seen. After all these years there was yet another product. It was some star gazer plastic thing with a cute picture. It was just extraordinary. We were everywhere and Spencer didn’t think it was right. He was looking out for the cast. It’s sad because I think we really lost out with Spencer leaving, we sort of lost our mojo. And the third season really became about guest stars.
GCY: Yeah, it became like Gilligan’s Island. It was, “Here comes somebody. Now they’re gone.” But y’all stayed stuck there.
WE: There was Medusa. The Abominable Snowman showed up. It was a different thing every week. We lost our cave and moved into the Lost City. This wasn’t a script idea. It happened because we shared the cave with Sigmund the Sea Monster. The set caught fire the first day of filming for their second season. It burned everything down. In fact, burned down the entire soundstage. They didn’t want to rebuild the cave due to budget constraints, so they moved us into the Lost City.
GCY: A lot of tight-fisted decisions made over there it sounds like.
WE: There were. It’s interesting, Sid calls me a lot and we talk. Well, we don’t talk, I listen for an hour. He regales me with these amazing stories. I just did a show with Marty Krofft. Susan Anton has a new show called Idol Chat, Marty and I were guests on it. Now that we are older and our dynamics have changed, I’m not the young actor and they my all-powerful producers, it’s nice to get the inside story of what happened. And it’s nice, as we sort of wind down this journey, to get to know them as friends.
GCY: Okay. You’re a successful author and producer a kids television show and the co-creator Dragon Tales. You’ve been in movies. And yet you’re kind of, I would dare say, mostly known for Land of the Lost. Is that difficult? I’m thinking of like Leonard Nimoy. It took a long time where he was like, “I am not that character.” And then he just kind of turned around and said, “Okay, I am. And I’m going to go to conventions and I’m going to embrace this.”
Did you have a period where you fought for what you were known for? Where you were like, “I know I’m more than Will. I do all these other things. Why am I just being pigeonholed?”
WE: Absolutely not.
GCY: No? Not at all?
WE: I am so grateful.
No, not an iota. I know a lot of actors, mostly from huge shows, who won’t even talk about it anymore. They just don’t want to go there. They tell interviewers we can’t talk about my most famous show. I was so lucky. I am so grateful. I had a magical time and I embrace it to the fullest. I love to celebrate it. And, as I said, the cast and I are still very close and we’re really a family. I guess I have a real bone to pick with actors who try to put down their work or their past work because it’s what got them here, the work. We’re a very lucky few that make it on a show that becomes a hit.
GCY: Yeah, I would imagine.
How did you get into the convention scene? Because again, that seems to be another thing where there’s some actors that just embrace that and they make a ton of money doing it and they get to meet, like you said, some fantastic people and hear stories of how you impacted people’s life. And then there’s people that are like, “This is what I have to do now?! I’m going to do conventions the rest of my life?” And you, like you said, you seem to enjoy it. How did all that come about?
WE: I didn’t do them for years. Kathy did a lot of them. I got invited to one of them, I think in Pittsburgh, and I did it with Kathy. We had so much fun meeting the fans and we just had a blast. So, I said, “Let’s start doing them.” It’s been a glorious time. When Kathy and Phil (Cha-Ka) and I do the shows, we bring, if we can, a yellow raft, yellow life jackets, and yellow oars. We put our fans in the rubber raft, like the opening scene of Land of the Lost and do photos because we try to make it an experience. At the conventions coming up we can’t bring the raft because of the pandemic. Instead, we have a huge cutout dinosaur for photos. The entire cast has made a commitment to make it something special for the fans rather than just sitting at our table, signing a photo, pointing to the photograph and smile for a photo op. We want to make it fun, for us and our fans! We are all there together. The fans are the reason we can even be there.
We had one promoter who came up to us and said, “Hey, that raft thing, I’ve just never seen anybody doing anything like that.” And he said, “That’s the future of these shows, experiencing stuff.” And that’s what Kathy, Phil and I have decided we wanted to do. We haven’t seen each other, obviously in over a year, and suddenly we’re going to Connecticut at the end of this month. And Kathy and I will do the Star Trek convention for two weeks. And we just got booked at Dragon Con, which is the huge one in Atlanta. We also just got booked at one in Florida. We are slowly venturing back into that world, but it’s fun.
We were a Saturday morning show, so we don’t have lines and lines and lines of people like a William Shatner, but it’s fun and we always call it our summer camp. I don’t care what time of year it is. It’s just like going to summer camp. We see old friends and fans that have become friends and meet new people. Our fans are amazing! One fan built a life-sized pylon and brought it to a show. Another fan brought a full replica of a matrix table, which was in the pylon that lit up with the crystals. Another one made a different prop from the show, a robot that jumped around. It is amazing what people will do. I think you can tell we have a good time.
GCY: All right. Let’s not talk about the Will Ferrell version, movie. Is there talk of a reboot or another movie on the horizon?
WE: Well, there’s always talk. Marty says, “Oh yeah, we’re going to do another show. We’ve got another movie plan.” “I gave control of the movie up. I shouldn’t have done that. It became like Abbott and Costello.” It was the first time they’d given up control. They announced at Comic-Con a couple of years ago that there was another series, based on the original, in the works.
David Gerrold announced he was writing a book about what happened 40 years later. In his book, he said that we had a baby brother, that he was too young to go on the rafting trip. And 40 years later, he has two daughters and they come looking for us and we have evolved. Cha-Ka is head of the Pakuni tribe. I’m a crazy man living in a cave. Kathy has become this ethereal spirit that’s become the spirit of the Land of the Lost. We are going to be with David at the convention in Connecticut. It’ll be interesting to see where he is with that novel.
GCY: It will be.
You do a lot of charity work. I’m assuming a lot of that came about because of your success in acting and producing. What charities are you working for and working with now?
WE: Years ago, I was one of the top fundraisers for the March of Dimes. I would host telethons back when there used to be telethons. And then I produced big celebrity fundraisers. We did okay here in Palm Springs. We’d raise money for Shelter from the Storm, battered women, breast cancer, AIDS. Each show raised money for seven different organizations. Our big fundraisers always had lots of celebrities. We had 85 performers and celebrities in them. In fact, one year I called Marty. I said, “Marty, I want Pufnsnuf, the costume.” He told me, “You can’t have Pufnsnuf. It’s in a vault. It’s been in a vault for years, 30 years. No, nobody touches that.” I said, “Marty, it’s for charity.” He said, “Well, you have to have somebody wear that costume.” So, I had this beautiful choreographer named Palmer Davis who was choreographing our big show, she went and met Marty and she’s gorgeous, long legged. And he said, “Okay, you can have it.”
He sent a guard with the costume. He let Pufnsnuf out of the vault after 30 years and let Palmer wear the costume. The show was called “LalaPOOLooza”. We had it around the swimming pool at a big hotel here in Palm Springs We sold out. I love being able to bring all that together for the community.
Gayne C. Young is the author of Murder Hornets, The Tunnel, Bug Hunt, Teddy Roosevelt: Sasquatch Hunter, Vikings: The Bigfoot Saga, the Editor-at-Large for Field Ethos Journal, and a columnist for and feature contributor to Outdoor Life and Sporting Classics magazines. His work has appeared in magazines such as Petersen’s Hunting, Texas Sporting Journal, Sports Afield, Gray’s Sporting Journal, Under Wild Skies, Hunter’s Horn, Spearfishing, and many others.
In January 2011, Gayne C. Young became the first American outdoor writer to interview Russian Prime Minister, and former Russian President, Vladimir Putin.