Growing up as an only child in the 1960’s, I had countless potential imaginary brothers and sisters to choose from in prime time and in syndication. Wally and the Beaver were too old-fashioned, even for me; My Three Sons didn’t seem to offer too much stability, an important consideration to a seven-year-old after we lost my father. Family Affair, ditto. But week after week and year after year, Will Robinson provided an ongoing presence in my life and became the big brother I didn’t have. What was it that made Will such an appealing surrogate, not only for me, but for countless others?
Most importantly, I think, it was because Will had great adventures. What boy wouldn’t want to hang around with pirates, cowboys, knights, magicians, androids, and aliens? He lived in a spaceship and had the Robot as his best friend. He got to use all this fantastic equipment, pilot the Space Pod (and sundry other vehicles) and carry a laser pistol (very responsibly, I must add). He had a geologist’s hammer of his own, fer goshsakes. I might not get a working laser gun in my stocking at Christmas, but a geologist’s hammer was a possibility. (It never showed up, and when I was old enough to buy one myself, the moment had sort of passed).
Will could outsmart grown-ups (and get off with just a scolding because he was often right) and aliens (and get praised for it), always for the best motives. Even when his predicaments were caused by Dr. Smith, Will often showed he was aware of the folly of the latter’s plans, but went along with them anyway, either to protect the Doctor or to keep him out of trouble, or, at least, out of his genuine affection for the man.
From an adult’s perspective, watching the show now, I see a lot of other qualities in Will that were just as important as all of the action and adventure. The most overlooked quality that he shows consistently throughout the series is his love for his family and Dr. Smith. On the four or five occasions we see Will shed tears, it is because of a (possible) loss or separation from them. Despite some friction with his sisters, especially Penny, he showed himself thoughtful and devoted to both. In short, Will was a loving, kind, and thoughtful boy.
I never really put the pieces together as a child, but I can now see how well-rounded a character Will possessed, for all of his genius. Aside from being interested in all the pastimes other boys his age engage in, like sports, hobbies, and just “hanging out” with his pals, Will had many other talents that were seen throughout the series. He wrote and directed a play, cut and polished rocks to make a necklace for his sister Penny, sang (he had a good voice) and played the guitar from a young age.
Perhaps the one aspect of Will’s character that I found most appealing was his geek chic. He was intelligent (frighteningly so), mechanically inclined (I loved to take things apart too, but seldom got them back together in working order), and had the most brilliant insights when confronted with the unknown, all the while remaining what he was—a young boy only a few years older than I. Will showed me that being smart and being interested in “normal” things were not mutually exclusive. He was the model of a well-balanced boy.
So it was hard for me not to think about Will as my own older brother; I felt like I knew him intimately. He liked all the things I did, was smart to boot, and he was a nice guy without being smarmy about it (I had trouble with that part in my own life). I wanted to be just like him, even without the spaceship, Robot, or adventures.
After seeing the movie Rascal, I spent the better part of a summer at our cottage reading the novel, and seeing Billy in my head. I was a little alarmed a few years later to see a long-haired Bill in Bless the Beasts and Children and Sunshine, though; but despite the change in his look, he was still a decent guy.
Of course, Lost in Space went off the air, I grew up, and I had my own adventures. When I returned to the LiS universe decades later and started reading about Bill Mumy’s life, I have to say that what I felt was happiness—here was a grown man I had known and looked up to when we were boys together, and after the space of many years I saw that he had grown up too. He managed, as far as I have seen, to avoid the pitfalls facing so many other child actors. He’s enjoyed success in a variety of fields, married and raised a family, and continues to go strong. And that made me very happy for him.
Now that I’m a man at that stage of life where retirement is looming, I can’t, with a straight face, thank Will for being there when I was a kid, but I can say “Thanks, Bill,” and maybe, just maybe, that boy still inside me might add the “Thanks, Will.”