Corrections Department #1: Behind the Scenes of “Long Distance Call”
February 26, 2008
Last year Stewart Stanyard’s terrific new book Dimensions Behind the Twilight Zone opened up a new avenue into television history when it published a huge cache of never-before-seen production photos from fifty or so Twilight Zone segments. It was the first glimpse I’d ever had of many of the series’ soundstages, props, makeup effects, directors, and crew members. The text of the book wisely supplements rather than rehashes Marc Scott Zicree’s definitive Twilight Zone Companion, mainly through new interviews with surviving Zone participants who testify at greater length than they did for Zicree. (There’s an accompanying website with a lot of additional material, although the frame-based design quickly gave me a headache. The webmaster, “tzoneman,” is apparently Mr. Stanyard.) Between these two books, the website, and the extras in the DVD collections (which I’ve barely begun to dip into), The Twilight Zone has become the only important television show of its vintage for which we have exhaustive, multi-media documentation of its production.
I wouldn’t plug Dimensions Behind the Twilight Zone if I’d found many mistakes in it, but one thing did nag at me when I first read it. In this photo on page 229 from the taping of the segment “Long Distance Call” (the one where Lost in Space‘s Billy Mumy talks to his dead grandma on a toy phone), the caption identifies the bald man standing behind Mumy as the episode’s director, James Sheldon:
But Sheldon has become a friend since I approached him for an interview a couple of years ago, and this fellow in the picture didn’t look at all like James – even though, given the difference of over 45 years, who could really be sure? The uncertainty bothered me enough that I finally showed the book to James, who confirmed that he is not the man in the photo (and that, for the record, he still has all his own hair).
And then I became very glad that I had asked, because James pulled out one of his scrapbooks and showed me several photos from his private collection that were taken on that set on that same day in 1961. He has graciously allowed me to reproduce a couple of them to clarify matters. Here’s an image of Mumy standing behind the same table. James Sheldon is the man in the white shirt right in the center of the photo. (He couldn’t remember the name of the young man at right, standing directly behind Mumy, but thought he was the stage manager. “Long Distance Call,” you’ll remember, was one of the six videotaped episodes, which had technical crews more akin to live broadcasts than filmed series.)
Now I was curious as to the identity of the bald man in the original photo. If he wasn’t the director, who was he, and what was he saying to Mumy as the child actor dipped into his ice cream? I spotted him in the background of a few of James’s other stills. Here’s one in which James is giving direction to Lili Darvas, the legendary Hungarian stage actress (playing the grandmother).
The bald man is in the background, and seems to be directing his attention to the cabinet behind Ms. Darvas. It’s purely a guess, but I’d wager he’s the prop man. In that case, if I’m not mistaken, Mumy’s ice cream would also fall under his jurisdiction.
Of course, I present this small correction not as a knock against Mr. Stanyard’s fine research, but as a supplement to it. One of the ways in which the internet can be useful (and in which, unfortunately, outposts like Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database often tend to be counterproductive) is as an arena for like-minded aficionados to share data and comment upon each other’s work. I’ll continue to use this blog periodically as a forum for this sort of exchange whenever the opportunity presents itself.