Allen was born in New York City. In 1952, he won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for The Sea Around Us, which was based on Rachel Carson's best-selling book of the same name. Carson was so disappointed with Allen's final version of the script that she never again sold film rights to her work.
Allen's film credits include the 3-D film Dangerous Mission (1954), The Animal World (1956), the critically-panned The Story of Mankind (1957), The Big Circus (1959), The Lost World (1960), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), which later became the basis of his TV series of the same name, and Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962).
In the 1960s Allen moved into television as a producer and was responsible for series such as:
There is also a movie, City Beneath the Sea (1971), intended as a pilot for a new series, using many of the props from Voyage. Allen's science-fiction series became notorious for their inclusion of absurd science and an emphasis on the juvenile 'sci-fi' element.
In the 1970s Allen returned to cinema screens and was the most popular name associated with the decade's fad for the disaster film genre. Allen produced the hugely successful The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974), which he also co-directed. He directed-produced The Swarm (1978), and produced/directed Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) and When Time Ran Out (1980).
In the late 1970s/1980s Allen sporadically returned to tv with mini-series like The Return of Captain Nemo/The Amazing Captain Nemo (1978) and a star-studded version of Alice in Wonderland (1985). He was planning on making a star studded musical version of Pinocchio, but a decline in health caused an early retirement in 1986 after his last film made.
Irwin died from a heart attack in 1991.