In 1998, beloved American TV show Lost In Space was adapted for the big screen, telling the story of a family who become stranded in space during a mission to colonise a new planet.
The big budget effects were coupled with a mouth-watering cast: Oscar-winner William Hurt, Mimi Rogers, Boogie Nights' Heather Graham, and legendary actor Gary Oldman as villain Dr. Smith. It also offered the tantalising prospect of Matt LeBlanc as gung-ho pilot Major Don West.
In 1998, the actor was at the peak of his fame thanks to TV show Friends, but the sci-fi extravaganza offered the chance to show a different side to audiences that were used to his sitcom antics.
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The performance itself is interesting to those who had only seen LeBlanc as Joey Tribbiani, the goofy but lovable soap opera actor in the long running series. As Major West, he is filled with bravado, with his earliest scenes showing him destroying alien invaders in a spaceship battle, while delivering lines like “last one to kill a bad guy buys the beer”.
He formed a romantic bond with Graham, playing one of the Robinson family daughters, and was on hand for the action-heavy scenes, fighting robots and (infamously) a mechanic spider version of Gary Oldman.
It was hardly Shakespeare, but the actor rose to the challenge of being the lead in an action-focused, popcorn blockbuster. Even with such prestigious co-stars, he was centred as the headline name, with his lines being sampled in the tie-in single.
Everything seemed in place for a new franchise favourite. However, the film found itself in an odd place in cinema history. 1998 was dominated by the success of Titanic, with more traditional action movies struggling to find an audience.
A big screen adaptation of TV show The Avengers, and Kurt Russell sci-fi film Soldier were all high profile bombs at a time when Hollywood was stuck in a lull between the big disaster epics of the 90s and the mega franchises of the 2000s.
Lost In Space was a modest hit for the time — $136 million against a budget of $80 million — but below expectations and it suffered from scathing reviews (Roger Ebert called it a"dim-witted shoot-'em-up").
A planned multimedia franchise was over before it began, as was Leblanc’s dreams of an action reinvention.
It was one of a number of casualties in the treacherous path from TV to film stardom. In the days before streaming, the lines between TV and cinema were far more rigid, with television even being looked down upon in certain quarters.
Many actors who were massive on the small screen struggled to shake off typecasting – George Clooney had several box office flops following his move from medical drama ER, while Kelsey Grammer has always been Frasier Crane to millions.
The Friends cast also took gambles on film stardom, with varying levels of success. Courtney Cox struck gold as a ruthless journalist in the Scream franchise, while Jennifer Aniston continues to have a prosperous movie career (albeit leaning on the girl-next-door characters that made her a star).
David Schwimmer distanced himself from Ross Geller by playing an Alpha Male sports presenter in rom-com Kissing A Fool, while Lisa Kudrow embraced more caustic characters in comedies like The Opposite of Sex. Neither experiment was very successful, as movie fans had a tough time seeing them as anything other than their weekly Central Perk buddies. As streaming introduced a new generation to the show, those ties only strengthened.
As for LeBlanc, this audition for blockbuster stardom would be his last. Supporting appearances in the 2000s Charlie’s Angels films are his biggest big screen credits since then, while on TV he has been embracing public perception.
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The Friends spin-off Joey ran for two seasons between 2004-2006, leading to a hiatus from acting that lasted until 2011’s Episodes. The BBC production, about a UK TV series being adapted for the US, was a big hit and won LeBlanc a Golden Globe, but rely heavily on LeBlanc playing a fictional version of himself, and several references to Friends in the script.
He showed a different side to himself as a host of car show Top Gear. He went back to the world of sitcoms in the family comedy Man With A Plan, but Joey was still never far away.
In 2021, a year after the cancellation of Man With A Plan, he returned to Central Perk as himself for Friends: The Reunion, a TV special that was a giant hit on streaming services, and the most watched show in Sky One’s history, with over 5 million people tuning in.
25 years on, Lost In Space is an interesting action footnote in a legacy that will forever be tied to comedy. The man himself is philosophical about the connection, even telling The Guardian in 2012 that he would make his ill-fated Joey spin-off again, and felt it was a good show.
It would appear that, almost three decades on from finding stardom, he is content with where his career has gone. Still, given he is around the same age as actors like Robert Downey Jr and Johnny Depp, who sidestepped expectations to become A-list stars, it’s intriguing to wonder what Major Don West might have led to.
Lost In Space is available to buy or rent on VOD.