By Larry Laneer
October 31, 2020
The Great Interregnum of 2020 has given me a chance to revisit television’s The Twilight Zone (1959-1964). A while back, I acquired a boxset of all 156 episodes. The episodes are around 27 minutes, so three or four about equal an evening at the theater. I just completed the first three seasons.
The show solidly reflects its era. The Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation informed the early seasons. People at the time pretty much assumed the world would end in an atomic holocaust; it was just matter of how soon and who would survive. And would surviving a nuclear conflagration be the most desirable outcome? Other differences from today stand out. It’s odd to see the show’s creator and host, Rod Serling, making his famous introductions to each episode, often with a cigarette in hand.
Although some storylines lean a little maudlin or far-fetched, most of the teleplays stand up to scrutiny today. The second season included one of the most famous episodes, titled “Eye of the Beholder.” It’s the one where a family’s “ugly” daughter undergoes a facial operation to improve her looks. At the end, the bandages are removed before her grotesque-looking family to reveal the failed surgery and comely visage of Donna Douglas, who later played Elly May in The Beverly Hillbillies. Several episodes are westerns, a nod to the popular television genre of the time. At the end of some, James Arness does a promo for Gunsmoke, which also aired Saturdays on CBS.
The second season also included a one-hander titled “The Invaders” in which the great Agnes Moorehead has not a single word of dialog. Just some grunts, gasps, moans, snorts, and other gesticulations. Her performance should be studied in drama schools. An intense, suspenseful score by Jerry Goldsmith also enhances the episode.
Most of the actors are not well-known today, but many were big stars of their era, future stars, or familiar character actors, some in the same episode. The list is almost hard to believe. Season one had Ed Wynn and Murray Hamilton (Mr. Robinson in The Graduate); Dan Duryea and Martin Landau; Ida Lupino and Martin Balsam; Gig Young and a young Ronnie Howard together.
Season two brought Art Carney playing Santa Claus with the character actor John Fiedler; Dick York; Burgess Meredith and Don Rickles; Buddy Ebsen; Billy Mumy; John Astin; and Dennis Weaver.
Season three glows more star-studded: Elizabeth Montgomery and Charles Bronson; Jack Klugman and Jonathan Winters (really!); Peter Falk playing a Fidel Castro-like figure; Lee Marvin and Strother Martin; Cloris Leachman; Buster Keaton in a time-travel episode harkening back to silent films; Dean Stockwell and Leonard Nimoy; Robert Redford as the Grim Reaper (I kid you not); Burt Mustin; Barry Morse as an irascible theater critic named Fitzgerald Fortune who lives in an garishly opulent apartment (file this one under fantasy); Edgar Buchanan and Dub Taylor; J. Pat O’Malley and Nancy Kulp (Mr. Drysdale’s secretary in The Beverly Hillbillies); Claude Akins; Theodore Bikel; Andy Devine and Howard McNear (Floyd the barber in The Andy Griffith Show); Cliff Robertson playing a ventriloquist who thinks he’s going insane and Frank Sutton (Sgt. Carter in Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.); Jesse White and Carol Burnett; and Donald Pleasence.
Ray Bradbury penned the teleplay for an episode titled “I Sing the Body Electric” (after Walt Whitman and about a cyborg nanny), which included a young Veronica Cartwright. Bernard Herrmann’s score for a 1962 episode closely resembles his music in the early scenes of Psycho.
The nuclear holocaust never happened (yet). The show with Pleasence playing an elderly teacher at a boys’ school gives a poignant lesson on how we can enrich the lives of others, even when we don’t know it. That theme still rings true today.