Lost in the Twilight Zone

August 26, 2009

Time Enough at Last

Last year saw the publication of a valuable new book called The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic.  The author, Martin Grams, Jr., has written or co-written histories of various radio series as well as television shows like I Led Three Lives and Have Gun, Will Travel.  Most of those programs had not been the subject of a book-length account before Mr. Grams, a prolific young historian, turned his attention to them.

For that reason I was somewhat surprised to find The Twilight Zone under Grams’s microscope, because the show’s history had already been ably chronicled in Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion.  Zicree’s book, which has been reprinted several times since its publication in 1982, offered a highly readable history and appreciation of The Twilight Zone.   Indeed, The Twilight Zone Companion launched the television episode guide as a literary genre and established a format that scores of books (some terrific, some worthless) about old TV shows  would follow.

Had anyone asked, I would have guessed that little of substance could be added to Zicree’s research.  Grams has proven me wrong, by unearthing a multitude of previously unreported facts and providing some new insights into how The Twilight Zone was made.  Here are a few examples that I found particularly fascinating:

  • Two highly regarded third season shows, “The Grave” and “Nothing in the Dark,” were actually produced during the second year and shelved, apparently because the network wanted to stockpile some strong shows for the new year.
  • Rod Serling and producer Buck Houghton went into a panic after seeing the rough cut of “To Serve Man,” an episode that ends on an infamously droll punchline but is, otherwise, kinda stupid.  James Sheldon (who was himself replaced, ironically, on a subsequent episode, “I Sing the Body Electric”) directed reshoots, the footage was extensively re-edited, and alien giant Richard Kiel’s voice was replaced with that of another familiar character actor, Joseph Ruskin.
  • A rather absurd legal conflict over a G. E. Theatre episode also entitled “The Eye of the Beholder” is finally revealed as the reason why the rerun broadcast of the famous Twilight Zone segment, and later some syndicated prints, bore the alternate title “A Private World of Darkness.”  Grams also examines the plagiarism claims, covered vaguely or not at all by Zicree, that led to the exclusion of four episodes from syndication for many years.
  • On several occasions where actors played dual roles, a performer of note was engaged to supply an on-stage performance as the “double,” one which would be replaced by optical effects and never seen by the public.  Joseph Sargent, later a major film and television director, doubled for George Grizzard in “In His Image,” and Brian G. Hutton (the director of Where Eagles Dare) filled in as the “mirror version” of Joe Mantell in “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room.”  And Keenan Wynn, gave the off-camera performances in Ed Wynn’s mirror scenes in “Ninety Years Without Slumbering” while visiting his sickly father on the set!  (Zicree’s book reported the part about Sargent, but the others were news to me.)

Grams has re-interviewed surviving Twilight Zone cast and crew members, albeit somewhat selectively (Collin Wilcox’s recollections of the show, for instance, remain exclusive to this blog).  His primary source is a trove of correspondence, memoranda, and other paperwork, some of it apparently acquired on Ebay.

The centerpiece of Grams’s research shelf was a set of ledgers from Serling’s accounting firm, which break down the budgets of most of the Twilight Zone episodes.  Grams records these figures and, although he rarely dwells on their significance, the reader can have a lot of fun crunching numbers.  Why did some episodes cost far more than others, and were the results were worth it?  In the first season, for instance, the classic “Walking Distance” toted up to a whopping $74,485, while the cute season finale, “A World of His Own,” cost a meager $33,438.  Grams also reports the actual shooting dates of the episodes, and in so doing he confirms one of my long-standing suspicions about Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion: that, apart from grouping them by season, it presents the episodes in no particular order.  (Why?  I have no idea.)

Much of the above may seem trivial.  But Grams also probes into more substantive behind-the-scenes happenings.  Extensive quotations from production memoranda and private correspondence offer far more detailed glimpses than we have had before of the personalities of The Twilight Zone’s creative minds.  Buck Houghton, producer of the first three seasons, seems much the same man as he did in Zicree’s account: a sage line producer gifted with an unflappable pragmatism and an uncommonly good story mind.  Charles Beaumont, who served as a sort of informal ambassador between The Twilight Zone and the world of science fiction fandom, proved a shrewd salesman for both the series and for his own talent.  Richard Matheson was a virtual geyser of grievances who managed to find fault with the execution of nearly all his scripts.

Grams’s depiction of Rod Serling has more complex shadings than I expected.  His reputation as an all-around nice guy, and an especially generous ally to fellow writers, is confirmed in the many letters quoted in Unlocking the Door.  But Serling’s correspondence also wallows in an extreme form of self-deprecation that comes across as masochistic in some instances, phony in others.  He wasted a great deal of time replying (and often apologizing) to viewers who wrote in with picayune complaints about each week’s episode.

But Serling’s humility did not extend to his fame.  Previous accounts have depicted Serling as a default choice to host The Twilight Zone, but Grams makes it clear that Serling plotted from the start, over the sponsors’ objections, to insert himself in front of the camera.  There is ample evidence that Serling relished his status as a celebrity; Grams quotes an especially shameless letter to an old teacher in which Serling faux-sheepishly plugs an upcoming appearance on The Garry Moore Show.  In some people, an outsized ego might be a small imperfection.  For Serling - the frequency of whose media appearances during and after The Twilight Zone can be measured neatly in inverse proportion to the quality of his writing - it was a flaw that took on Shakespearean dimensions.

Grams’s coverage of the individual Twilight Zone episodes varies in length and quality, but I admired his attention to some of the tangents and failures that other scholars have neglected.  The coverage here of “Mr. Bevis,” the unfunny comedy spinoff about a hapless guardian angel, and Serling’s distaff rehash of same two years later (as the Carol Burnett vehicle “Cavender Is Coming”), is exemplary.  Grams reprints plot summaries for unmade episodes of the “Mr. Bevis” series, and casting suggestions for the starring roles in both pilots.  He quotes Serling’s lacerating confessions as to why both versions failed creatively, although just why Serling remained so attached to his bungling angel idea as to make it twice remains a mystery.  (“Bevis” originated via a sweetheart deal between CBS and a potential sponsor, Prudential Insurance, which may explain how it bypassed the usual common-sense scrutiny that would have vetoed such a slim premise.)  In a note to Carol Burnett, Serling admitted that “Cavender” was “lousy,” adding that “I feel like Napoleon surveying the aftermath of Waterloo, except at least I get residuals – all he got was Elba.”  Even in his letters, the poor man wasn’t funny.

*

After three seasons during which it ran smoothly and excelled creatively, The Twilight Zone fell into chaos.  Dropped by CBS in the fall of 1962, the series returned the following January in an hour-long format, and limped along (as a half-hour again) for a fifth year.  During the half-season in which The Twilight Zone appeared to be dead, both Houghton and Serling took other jobs.  Houghton was replaced by three successive producers, none of them as good.  Serling, on the other hand, exiled himself in dramatic fashion, taking a teaching job in far-away Antioch College (in Yellow Springs, Ohio) and declaring to the press that he was burned out on television.

In The Twilight Zone Companion, Zicree describes Houghton’s immediate replacement, Herbert Hirschman, as a talented producer who disagreed mildly with Serling.  On Hirschman’s successors, Bert Granet and William Froug, Zicree remains noncommittal.  The most important sections of Grams’s book are those that expand Zicree’s and other sources’ minimal coverage of the final two seasons (widely viewed by fans as inferior to the first three) into a dramatic struggle for control of a troubled series.

In actuality, Hirschman fell immediately out of favor with Serling, who began – in exasperated and (for him) harshly worded memoranda – to question Hirschman’s compatibility with The Twilight Zone’s elements of fantasy and the macabre.  Serling was right, I think, based on his specific disagreements with Hirschman over the scripts for “The Thirty Fathom Grave,” “The Incredible World of Horace Ford,” and “The Bard.”  In each case, Hirschman favored a more pedestrian approach.  Serling lobbied to have Hirschman fired, and after a few months the producer was unceremoniously ousted.  But Serling’s move backfired.  Serling’s choice as Hirschman’s replacement, executive and sometime director Perry Lafferty, was passed over in favor of Granet, a CBS executive already assigned to the show.  (Granet, marking his territory, insisted on the right to recut Hirschman’s episodes.)

What’s fascinating about this account is how effectively the network took advantage of Serling’s physical absence to distance him from his own show.  Serling still had to supply scripts and commute to Los Angeles to film his introductions, but the new regime did not consult with him on casting, production, or other writers’ scripts.  Many key decisions previously made by Serling and Houghton fell not just to the new producers, but to CBS executives above them in the food chain, including Robert F. Lewine, Boris Kaplan, and George Amy (a distinguished film editor who must have been supervising post-production for the network).  Kaplan, formerly a TV producer at Universal (of Riverboat and 87th Precinct), seems to have played a critical role, and yet I don’t believe his contributions to The Twilight Zone have ever been examined in detail.

Ultimately Serling was reduced to fuming impotently in letters to production manager Ralph W. Nelson, a Houghton-era holdover who loyally supplied back-channel reports from the set.  Serling’s anger at being exploited as a figurehead on his later series Night Gallery has been well documented, and I think Grams’s work recasts Serling’s Night Gallery unhappiness as a rerun of his role during the fourth and fifth seasons of The Twilight Zone.  That begs the question of why Serling would allow himself to be trapped in the same limbo twice.  The answer seems to be that Serling hoped to wield his influence from afar without battling in the trenches; and the tragedy was that television doesn’t work that way.

*

Can a well-researched book that’s bigger than two bricks fail to become the definitive account of its subject?  Sadly, I think that may be the case here.  I remember a great line from a review of David Fincher’s Zodiac, to the effect that watching the film was like being trapped inside a file cabinet.  That’s how I often felt as I macheted my way through the eight hundred pages of Grams’s book.

It’s a common peril for an author to get bogged down in the minutiae of his topic, and the biggest problem with Unlocking the Door is simply that it contains too much information.  In my own work, I have sometimes made the case for detail at the expense of readability.  But does anyone really need to know the dates on which “Queen of the Nile”’s hand inserts were filmed, or that the production staff may have failed to pay MGM for the rental of the episode’s Egyptian props?  Or that Serling’s original narration for “Sounds and Silences” gave the protagonist’s weight at 217 pounds, instead of 220 in the filmed version?  Grams’s book is so choked with this kind of junk data that it becomes nearly impossible to read for pleasure.

Some of the trivia is not merely irrelevant, but also, perhaps, misleading.  On three occasions, Grams lists names submitted for specific roles in Twilight Zone episodes by a talent agent named Robert Longenecker.  As Grams points out, none of those actors (with one exception) landed a part on The Twilight Zone.  Judging by the names on his list, Longenecker managed a stable of bit players.  Ethel Winant, The Twilight Zone’s casting director, had the budget and the clout to attract top actors to the show, and she likely filed Longenecker’s correspondence away without giving it serious consideration.  But Grams neglects to provide that context, and the casual reader may assume that these were actors in serious contention for major roles on the series.

Both here and in his introduction to the book, Grams takes particular exception to an erroneous figure in The Twilight Zone Companion.  Zicree, evidently sourcing only the memory of producer William Froug, wrote that The Twilight Zone purchased the rights to Robert Enrico’s short French film “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” for $10,000.  Grams documents that the actual figure was $20,000, plus an additional $5,000 in post-production costs.  The correction is welcome.  But even the $25,000 figure falls well below the halfway point of an average fifth-year Zone episode’s budget.  In fussing over the amount, Grams distracts the reader from the larger point, conveyed succinctly in Zicree’s account, that the acquisition of “Occurrence” was a clever coup that both rescued The Twilight Zone’s budget and introduced American audiences to a fine foreign film they would not otherwise have seen.

Perhaps inevitably, Grams compounds this pedantry by organizing his data in a sequence that is only roughly chronological, and often follows no other structure that I can discern.  Essential, well-written chronologies of the series’ production alternate with gobs of trivia that should have been consigned to an appendix or cut altogether.  Chapter Six, for example, begins with an overview of plans for The Twilight Zone’s second season, then segues into sections on: letters from agents and actors plying Rod Serling for jobs; Serling’s transition into on-camera hosting; the various clothing manufacturers who supplied Serling’s suits; Serling’s charitable activities; a Shakespearean sonnet sent in by a fan; fan clubs; the soundtrack album; and so on.  The introductory material, and even the production histories of some episodes, read as if a clipping file had simply been emptied onto the pages.

It’s discouraging to see books on important subjects like The Twilight Zone wind up self-published, or on tiny imprints, for the obvious reason that not enough people will read them.  (OTR Publishing, which issued Unlocking the Door, is Grams’s own company).  But it is equally relevant, I think, that many of those books are not as good as they could be because their authors do not have the input of a seasoned editor.

*

In his introduction to Unlocking the Door, Martin Grams presents a sort of mission statement that guided his writing.  Grams eschewed earlier published histories of The Twilight Zone and consulted only primary documents.  He avoided the kind of shorthand that blurs the opinions of historian and subject.  Most radically, he decided that he would not attempt “to offer a critical analysis of the episodes.”

In an era where many alleged journalists source their information from Wikipedia, I applaud authors who stake out a rigorous methodology for themselves and stick to it.  But in Unlocking the Door, Grams’s “just the facts, ma’am” approach is too dry.  A historian who has immersed himself in his subject for years has earned the right to present reasonable, thoughtfully argued opinions.  In fact, he may owe them to his readers.  It would be unthinkable, for instance, for the biographer of a major film director not to take a position on which of that director’s works are canonical; or for a professor in a media history class to offer only data without context or analysis.  Surely Grams, after studying The Twilight Zone so closely, has some interesting ideas on where the show succeeded and failed, and why.  It’s a shame he felt the need to deprive us of them.

While fact-checking some of what I have written above, I pulled out my copy of The Twilight Zone Companion.  Immediately, I found myself getting drawn in by Zicree’s clean, witty prose, just as I did decades ago, when I began reading his book for the first time (at a school bus stop, in case anyone cares, on a frigid morning in the winter of 1989).  Yes, Zicree’s four-line dismissals of some episodes and his overpraise of others can be infuriating, but they are part of why his book is so enjoyable.  And, at least during the years before the internet, Zicree’s reviews also dominated the conversation about The Twilight Zone; I realize now that my own initial thoughts about the individual episodes formed very much in agreement with or in opposition to what Zicree wrote.  Much more than his facts, I would have liked this new Twilight Zone book to rebut Zicree’s opinions.

Some of my criticisms of Unlocking the Door may sound harsh.  But as a work of scholarship, this is a worthwhile book, a cornucopia of factoids that will delight hardcore Twilight Zone wonks.  Luckily, there are a multitude of worthwhile resources on this classic show.  For new fans crossing over into The Twilight Zone for the first time, Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion remains the essential intro.  For supplemental, multi-media studies, there are Stewart Stanyard’s Dimensions Behind the Twilight Zone: A Backstage Tribute to Television’s Groundbreaking Series (an astonishing trove of behind-the-scenes photos), and the special edition DVDs, which are crammed with new and vintage video and audio interviews with the show’s creators.  And now, finally, for the advanced scholars who feel ready to begin a post-graduate course in Zoneology, Martin Grams, Jr., has published their textbook.

Martin Grams, Jr., is also the organizer of the annual Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, which occurs this week (August 27-29) in Aberdeen, Maryland, and benefits the St. Jude Children’s Hospital.  Part of Grams’s presentation on The Twilight Zone from last year’s event can be viewed here, here, and here.

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2 Responses to “Lost in the Twilight Zone”

  1. bobby J. Says:

    Stephen, didn’t know where to post this to notify you and your readers….

    And I know that Tise Vahamigi wrote some brilliant pieces about the show in the UK magazines of the ’80s and is a follower of the blog and I’m sure others are too.

    For those that haven’t heard…After the success of last year’s blog ‘A Thriller A Day’ celebrating the release of ‘Thriller’ – the second greatest horror show in the history of TV, today sees the birth of the sequel…the ‘Citizen Kane’ of SF TV and the fantastical….’The Outer Limits’…

    The ‘Thriller’ allowed all to watch one per day and comment on it, anyone could participate. And it was run by two authors – experts in pulps – who edit horror magazines such as Bare-Bones, ect.

    As of today, they are launching ‘The Outer Limits’, an episode per day from Mon to Fri. Among the authors will be David Schow, who wrote the classic companion, Gary Gerani, who wrote landmark ‘Fantastic TV’ and numerous luminary authors, including the author of the recent ‘Richard Matheson on Film’; it’s probably the most star-studded blog fun to be had. So, dust off your boxed dvds sets and if you don’t have them – find a way to watch one of the most extraordinary television experiences to be had (next to ‘The Wire’, ‘I, Claudius’, ‘Bilko’, ‘Seinfeld’, ect)…

    http://wearecontrollingtransmission.blogspot.com/2011/01/outer-limits-first-seas\on-primer.html

  2. Kliph Says:

    Your criticism of Grams’ hard work is spot on. He’d be an invaluable research assistant to a strong writer.


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