Saturday, September 16, 2017

A Conversation with Author William F. Nolan


Recently, we were fortunate enough to correspond with legendary author William F. Nolan. Nolan was a core member of the Southern California School of Writers in the 1950s and 1960s, having collaborated on numerous occasions with his close friends and Twilight Zone writers Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson, and John Tomerlin.


Nolan is the author of the 1967 dystopian novel Logan’s Run (written with George Clayton Johnson), which has been adapted into a film, a television series, multiple comic books series, and followed by two Nolan-penned sequels, Logan’s World (1977) and Logan’s Search (1980). He is the author of a highly regarded body of short fiction, primarily in the horror, fantasy, science fiction, and suspense genres, which have been collected across several volumes including Impact-20 (1963), Alien Horizons (1974), Things Beyond Midnight (1984), Night Shapes (1995), Dark Universe (2001), and Like a Dead Man Walking (2014). His novels include The Black Mask series, the Sam Space series and the horror novel Helltracks (1991), among many others.

Nolan’s work in film and television is showcased in his collaborations with director Dan Curtis, which includes screenplays for The Turn of the Screw (1974), Trilogy of Terror (1975), Burnt Offerings (1976), and Trilogy of Terror II (1996). 

Nolan is also an accomplished editor, having compiled such anthologies as The Pseudo-People (1965), Man Against Tomorrow (1965), A Wilderness of Stars (1969), A Sea of Space (1970), and, with Martin H. Greenberg, Urban Horrors (1990) and The Bradbury Chronicles: Stories in Honor of Ray Bradbury (1991). With William Schafer, Nolan compiled the essential Group anthology, California Sorcery (1999). In recent years, Nolan has worked closely with author, editor, and filmmaker Jason V. Brock on such projects as William F. Nolan: A Miscellany (2011), The Bleeding Edge: Dark Barriers, Dark Frontiers (2009), The Devil’s Coattails: More Dispatches from the Dark Frontier (2011), and the comic book series Tales from William F. Nolan’s Dark Universe.

Nolan’s work in non-fiction fields is equally accomplished and includes such essential volumes as The Ray Bradbury Companion (1975), The Work of Charles Beaumont: An Annotated Bibliography & Guide (1986; 2nd ed. 1990), and Nolan on Bradbury (2013). He has written essays on such science fiction luminaries as Theodore Sturgeon, Alfred Bester, Chad Oliver, and Philip K. Dick, as well as book-length biographies of Dashiell Hammett, Steve McQueen, and John Huston, among others. He is the author of two books on writing, How to Write Horror Fiction (1990) and Let’s Get Creative: Writing Fiction That Sells (2006).

Nolan’s output also includes poetry, art, articles, teleplays, and books on a variety of subjects. Of particular interest are his two books on automobile racing compiled with Charles Beaumont, The Omnibus of Speed (1958) and When Engines Roar (1964). Nolan has won multiple Bram Stoker Awards from the Horror Writers Association, including a Grand Master Award in 2014. He won the International Horror Guild’s Living Legend Award in 2001 as well as the World Horror Society Grand Master Award in 2015. Nolan’s accolades also include awards from the Mystery Writers of America, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and the World Fantasy Convention.

Mr. Nolan was kind enough to talk to us about his time with the Group, his assessment of The Twilight Zone, and his long and successful writing career.

 -JP

Vortex: You were a core member of the creative group which produced so much of the material seen on The Twilight Zone. What was the feeling amongst members of that group during production of the series?

Nolan: They were proud to be a part of what they came to realize was a unique series. Everyone admired Rod Serling, but none of us realized the impact that the show would have. We just thought it was another TV series. At the time, they greatly appreciated having their scripts shot exactly as written. Most shows would make significant changes, but most of the Twilight Zone episodes were shot pretty much as they were imagined by the writers.

Vortex:  Can you talk about your Twilight Zone story, “Dreamflight,” written with George Clayton Johnson?  What was it about and why did it go unproduced? Were there any other Twilight Zone stories which you wrote but were never produced?

Nolan: It was a modern version of Sleeping Beauty. In our take, an airliner suddenly lost all four engines and was headed down for a fatal crash. Then, at the last minute, a young man stepped up to a still sleeping girl and kissed her goodbye. Instantly, all four engines roared back to life, and the plane was saved. Saved by a magic kiss.

Rod liked it, paid us for it, and I’m sure would have produced it. But by that time, Twilight Zone was headed into its next season with hour long episodes. Written to a half-hour format, “Dreamflight” didn’t fit. “Dreamflight” did get printed in the 2006 anthology, Forgotten Gems from the Twilight Zone, Volume 2. This was my one and only teleplay for the series. Alas, I was too busy to write other episodes for the show.

Vortex: One of distinguishing characteristics of the Southern California Group of Writers was the willingness to collaborate on a variety of creative projects, from novels and anthologies, to television and film scripts. What fostered this desire to work together? How did close friendship affect the creative process?

Nolan: We in the Group were all close friends: Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Charles Beaumont, Chad Oliver, Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson, John Tomerlin – all of us were close. We enjoyed working with one another, as we felt we were getting a bonus in doing this; that two sets of imagination added to every collaborative project. After all, two heads are better than one. Logan’s Run was better with Johnson’s contribution.

We also criticized each other’s work relentlessly, sometimes spending all night at a coffee shop doing so. But it made us each a stronger writer than we would have been alone.

Vortex: How would you describe your style of writing?

Nolan: It varies considerably. My Logan novels are swift and direct, never a wasted word. Extremely fast-paced. Hard edged. I’ve used many styles over the years with my work. Depending on the kind of story I’m telling. Plot and character dictate how I write. To sum up: I have no primary writing style. This way I stay fresh. My cardinal rule: never bore the reader. I do my best to follow this rule.

Vortex: Your best known work is the novel Logan’s Run but a large portion of your career has been dedicated to the short story form, including much of your finest work. What continues to draw you to the short story form and how has your approach to short story writing changed over the course of your career?

Nolan: The short story is, to my mind, the purest form of fiction. They demand a tight structure, sharp dialogue, and a clear beginning, middle, and end. They are direct, akin to a one round knockout punch in a fifteen-round bout. With each new story, I attempt to “push the envelope” – to do things I’ve never done before. I love writing them.

Vortex: You produced an influential body of work for film and television, particularly your work with producer/director Dan Curtis. Can you talk about how you broke into film and television? What do you feel are your most successful forays into those mediums?

Nolan: Back in 1959, Charles Beaumont and John Tomerlin both allowed me to co-write teleplays with them under their by-line. That’s how I learned how to write for television. By 1971, I was able to strike out on my own when I adapted my story “The Joy of Living” for Norman Corwin’s Canadian television series, Norman Corwin Presents. Among my most successful projects for television: The Norliss Tapes, The Turn of the Screw, Trilogy of Terror – and for film Burnt Offerings – all with my friend, the late Dan Curtis, who produced and directed them. Dan was a very talented guy, and I was recommended to him by another good friend, the late Richard Matheson.

Vortex: Another interesting aspect of your career is the large body of essays, biographies, catalogues, and bibliographies you’ve produced, much of it exploring the careers of your contemporaries in science fiction and fantasy. Can you tell us about this dedication to cataloguing and commenting upon the work of your contemporaries?

Nolan: I’ve always been very interested in what my fellow writers do. I enjoy exploring their output in bibliographic form. Very satisfying, and I feel of real value. Plus, it offers a nice break from my fiction.

I guess I’ve always had a preoccupation with list making. In the Group, they called me “the old indexer.” I felt it was important to record people’s accomplishments, even when they didn’t think so themselves at the time. Sometimes, when asked about when a certain story appeared and where, even Richard Matheson would say, “Go ask Bill. He knows more about my work than I do.” I’d always have the answer.

This interest also led me to create the Ray Bradbury Review, the first critical treatment of Bradbury’s work. I went on to do other bibliographies and several full biographies. I have even kept a month-by-month journal of my own life since my birth in Kansas City. Right now, I am working on my memories as I push 90 years of age.

Vortex: One of the writers to whom you dedicated your career retrospective, Dark Universe, was Charles Beaumont. Beaumont’s work has been kept alive largely through his association with The Twilight Zone but also by a dedicated group of readers and by Beaumont’s close friends such as Ray Bradbury and yourself. With his inclusion into the Penguin Classics line of books, Beaumont’s work has reached new heights of accessibility and respectability. How did Beaumont’s work strike you at the time it was being written and what do you feel is the quality of the work which elicits such devotion from its readers?

Nolan: Charles Beaumont was indeed a fine writer. One of the trailblazers. His work had a lyrical quality and always dealt with humanistic concerns. He was a superb storyteller, and my dear pal. In many ways, I owe my career to him. I speak about him at length, and so does Bradbury, Matheson, Johnson, and others, in the documentary Charles Beaumont: The Life of Twilight Zone’s Magic Man. Of everything out there, I think that film most closely captures the essence of why Beaumont was an important figure in all our lives.

Vortex:  Charles Beaumont’s excellent fourth season episode “Miniature” related to your own life at that time. Could you tell us the story behind that episode?

Nolan: Well for one thing, the character was shy around women and Chuck (which is what we called Beaumont) was well aware of this. It was partly his way of ribbing me, but I also have always had a thing for miniature figures and models. Maybe it’s because my eyesight – I am near-sighted in one eye, and far-sighted in the other – prevents me from really seeing large objects in 3D. But a small object that I can hold up in front of my face can become a whole world to me.  I can see it in its totality and study it. It fascinates me. Chuck was one of the only people who knew me well enough to pick up on this and used it in the story.

Vortex:  You recently won a Bram Stoker Award for your book, Nolan on Bradbury: Sixty Years of Writing about the Master of Science Fiction. Before that you created publications such as The Ray Bradbury Review and The Ray Bradbury Companion. Although Bradbury only saw one teleplay produced on The Twilight Zone, his influence can be felt in everything seen on the series. Can you tell us what Bradbury’s work and friendship meant to you personally and to the Group as a collective?

Nolan: Well of course, Bradbury was the master, the role model for us all. He had a tremendous influence on modern literature around the world. To the Group, he was our mentor. To me, a deeply valued friend as well. Bradbury was generous to all of us. He spent time with us and helped us with our problems. Even when we interrupted his writing, he was never angry or impatient. He gave his time and advice freely and he helped all of us with our careers.

Vortex:  I feel that The Twilight Zone was the purest creative expression of the Southern California Group. What do you feel are the qualities of the series which causes it to endure and renew itself with each succeeding generation?  

Nolan: The Twilight Zone told human stories, no matter how fantastic the basic concept might be. It used fantasy and fable to illumine human character. Rod Serling deserves much credit for the creation of a truly memorable series.

Thank you again to William F. Nolan and a special thanks to Sunni Brock. 

Visit William F. Nolan’s official website
View William F. Nolan’s listing on the Internet Speculative Fiction Database

A William F. Nolan cover gallery:


































































































Monday, September 11, 2017

"Hocus-Pocus and Frisby"

Somerset Frisby (Andy Devine) on his biggest adventure yet,
a journey into the Twilight Zone

“Hocus-Pocus and Frisby”
Season Three, Episode 95
Original Air Date: April 13, 1962

Cast:
Somerset Frisby: Andy Devine
Alien #1: Milton Selzer
Alien #2: Larry Breitman
Alien #3: Peter Brocco
Mitchell: Howard McNear
Scanlan: Dabbs Greer
Old Man: Clem Bevans

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (based on an unpublished story by Frederic Louis Fox)
Director: Lamont Johnson
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens and Jack Swain
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Merrill Pye
Set Direction: Keogh Gleason
Makeup: William Tuttle
Assistant Director: E. Darrell Hallenbeck
Editor: Bill Mosher
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Casting: Robert Walker
Music: Tom Morgan

And Now, Mr. Serling:

“As it happens to all men, a newcomer takes his first step into the Twilight Zone next week when Mr. Andy Devine joins us for a show called ‘Hocus-Pocus and Frisby.’ He plays the role of a storekeeper of the cracker barrel variety who stretches the truth like most people pull on taffy. This one is for laughs and for the congenital liars amongst you. Next week, Mr. Devine, ‘Hocus-Pocus and Frisby.’”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:

“The reluctant gentleman with the sizable mouth is Mr. Frisby. He has all the drive of a broken cam shaft and the aggressive vinegar of a corpse. As you’ve no doubt gathered, his big stock in trade is the tall tale. Now, what he doesn’t know is that the visitors out front are a very special breed, destined to change his life beyond anything even his fertile imagination could manufacture. The place is Pitchville Flats. The time is the present. But Mr. Frisby is on the first leg of a rather fanciful journey into the place we call…the Twilight Zone.”

Summary:

            Somerset Frisby is an aging small-town yokel who spends his days lazily manning his quiet general store, playing his harmonica, and entertaining the locals with extravagant tales of a life well lived. Taken at his word, Frisby has been a war hero, an accomplished government engineer, and a meteorologist—Old Cumulus Frisby, they called him—to list just a few of his former occupations. His friends don’t believe a word of his fantastical claims but listening to them passes the time just the same.
            While closing up his shop one evening, two men in suits drive up to buy gas. Frisby walks out to greet them. They seem inquisitive and slightly peculiar but Frisby brushes it off as the curiosity of out-of-towners just passing through.
            After the shop is closed and everyone has gone home Frisby hears a voice. Believing it is a prank, he plays along. The voice tells him to walk outside and travel a mile or so down the highway where he will find a great surprise. Before he can make the journey, however, he is whisked away to a barren field where he discovers a spaceship waiting quietly for him. Curious, he climbs inside and finds the two men in suits from earlier.
They believe Frisby to be the most accomplished human being to ever live and they want to take him back to their planet to be studied and marveled. Frisby tells them that his stories are mostly lies, tale tales made up to entertain and pass the time. He demands that the aliens release him at once. They refuse his request so Frisby punches one of them. To his horror the man’s face breaks into several pieces before falling off completely revealing a bizarre figure beneath.
Later, Frisby begins to play his harmonica out of boredom. The creatures immediately clamp their hands over their ears and begin to scream. Frisby plays as loud as he can and the aliens are forced to release him.
Frisby races back to his store and is surprised to find his friends waiting for him. Today is Frisby’s 63rd birthday. He tries to tell them about the spaceship and the aliens but his story is met with good-natured laughs and jeers. They simply wish him a happy birthday and thrust a box into his hands. He opens it to find a trophy inside with the inscription: World’s Greatest Liar.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:

“Mr. Somerset Frisby, who might have profited by reading an Aesop fable about a boy who cried wolf. Tonight's tall tale from the timberlands of the Twilight Zone.”

Commentary:

            “Hocus-Pocus and Frisby” is Rod Serling’s whimsical adaptation of an unpublished story treatment by Frederic Louis Fox which itself is a twentieth century take on “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” fable as Serling mentions in his closing monologue. This was actually the second Fox story that Serling adapted for the show, the first being “Showdown with Rance McGrew” which aired in February of the same year. Like its earlier counterpart, “Hocus-Pocus and Frisby” has an interesting premise and begins promisingly enough, with an all-star cast and a well-crafted opening sequence, but quickly loses its momentum after the first act. It manages to redeem itself with a light-hearted final scene where Frisby is reunited with his friends who obviously care a great deal about him but by this point the episode has become more or less forgettable. This is unfortunate for several reasons but mostly because it proves a missed opportunity for veteran director Lamont Johnson and a highly talented ensemble cast.
            Frederic Louis Fox (1902 – 1981) enjoyed a fairly successful career as a television writer during the medium’s golden age, contributing primarily to western series such as Lawman, Zane Grey Theatre, Branded, Rebel, and Bonanza among others. His film career was a bit more sporadic but it did produce a handful of feature-length titles including the 1956 crime drama When Gangland Strikes, the 1969 Elvis Presley vehicle Charro! and director Gerd Oswald’s 80 Steps to Jonah (1969), featuring Twilight Zone alumni Keenan Wynn and Mickey Rooney. One of his earliest screen credits was a 1954 Joe McDoakes short film called So, You Want to Be a Banker? which was directed by frequent Twilight Zone director, Richard L. Bare.
In The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic (OTR Publishing, 2008) author Martin Grams, Jr. writes that after completing the script for “Showdown with Rance McGrew” Serling sent a copy to Frederic Louis Fox as a gesture of good will. Fox wrote back complementing Serling on a fine script and attached to his letter a paragraph-long story treatment titled “Mister Tibbs and the Flying Saucer.” In Fox’s story an aging service station owner named Henry Tibbs dreams of traveling the world but is trapped in his small town. Instead, he constructs elaborate imaginary adventures and tells them to his regular customers. Unbeknownst to Tibbs, his fantastical tales are being broadcast on Martian radio. One day he is contacted by a Martian who wants to pay him for his worldly adventures. He asks instead for a trip around the world in a space ship. Upon his return home he learns that he has been awarded first place in the town Liar’s Contest. Dismayed, he decides not to tell people about his trip because he knows they would not believe him. Instead, he keeps a souvenir from his adventure in his home as a secret reminder to himself.
Serling liked the story and promptly wrote back saying that he would be interested in adapting the short treatment into an episode of The Twilight Zone. Overall he remained relatively faithful to Fox’s story. His decision to nix the idea of the main character’s rants being broadcast on Martian radio was a smart one as it makes the plot tighter and easier to follow. It was also smart to have Frisby’s friends bestow upon him the title of World’s Greatest Liar instead of the local paper as it establishes that he has a healthy social life and makes him a likable character despite his tall tales. Most of the other changes—the title and character names—are mainly for stylistic preference.
            This episode has traditionally not received high marks from fans or reviewers. While it has its share of sore spots it is not without its own personal charm. Serling begins his script with a fantastic opening act, full of witty tongue-in-cheek banter from an interesting set of characters played by a remarkable cast. Frisby is an immensely likable character from the moment he appears on screen and the close community of tough-talking friends he surrounds himself with seems natural and welcoming.
It’s the second act that I think loses a lot of people. The audience is abruptly transported from a warm, familiar environment to one that is cold and totally alien to them—no pun intended. The juxtaposition between the sleepy Midwestern town with its charmingly cantankerous peanut gallery and the confines of the alien vessel is obviously intentional on Serling’s part but it simply does not transition well on the screen. It almost feels like two different episodes, not vastly so but to the extent that it loses the audience’s attention and never fully earns it back. The other weak spot of the second act is the rather cartoonish faces of William Tuttle’s alien masks. Tuttle of course was an enormously talented makeup artist and industry legend who provided the show with a number of memorable designs but unfortunately these simplistic masks are not among them.
The cast is really what makes this episode memorable. The opening and closing scenes feature a handful of talented character actors which many will recognize from various television and film roles. Dabbs Greer, who plays Scanlan, the loudest of Frisby’s skeptics, was an immensely prolific actor. His profile on the Internet Movie Database lists over three hundred acting credits on both the small and big screens in every genre imaginable. Among his more well-known television credits are appearences on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits, Perry Mason, and Gunsmoke and roles in genre classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), House of Wax (1953), and the Jerome Bixby-penned It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958). He capped his film career off with a moving performance in The Green Mile in 1999.
Howard McNear is probably the most familiar face in the supporting cast thanks to his role as Floyd the Barber on The Andy Griffith Show. His other television credits include episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Thriller. His film career includes appearance in Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1960).
            Milton Selzer is probably best known to Twilight Zone fans for his fantastic performance as the greedy son-in-law in season five’s “The Masks.” Selzner was often cast in similar roles playing unlikable characters with overtly pathetic qualities. He seems a bit out-of-place in this episode though. His performance here seems wooden and doesn’t really do the second act of the episode any favors. Selzer later appeared in Buzz Kulik’s 1963 screen adaptation of Whit Masterson’s novel The Yellow Canary which was written by Rod Serling.
           The most memorable thing about the episode of course is veteran character actor Andy Devine as the lovable but highly flawed protagonist Somerset Frisby. Devine’s career goes back to the era of silent films and at the time that this episode originally aired he was one of the biggest names to appear on the show. Commonly recognized by his signature raspy voice and heavy figure he was told repeatedly as a young actor that he would never have a career as a performer. Similar to Frisby, Devine is remembered by those close to him as a loud, lovable prankster who liked to be the center of attention. He was even known for bending the truth to get a reaction from people. For instance, he often told interviewers that he earned his scratchy drawl from a childhood accident in which a curtain rod became lodged in his throat. Several biographers have dismissed this as barely more than a fabrication and Devine’s son said it was one of several stories he used to explain his raspy voice.
Devine was often cast in westerns, usually as the quirky comedic relief but he did occasionally play more serious characters. Over the course of his six decade career he worked with some of most highly acclaimed directors in cinema history. His first major role was as Danny McGuire in the 1937 version of A Star is Born directed by William A. Wellman. Devine would work with Wellman numerous times throughout his career. He also appeared in films made by John Huston, George Stevens, James Whale, Michael Curtiz, Jacques Tourneur, and Victor Flemming. He appeared in five films made by John Ford including Stagecoach (1939) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). He also appeared in ten films with Roy Rogers as his sidekick, Cookie. His unique voice also landed him a career as a voice artist. He worked extensively in radio, most notably for NBC’s The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, which would eventually make the transition to television delivering 112 episodes from 1951 to 1958. He also voiced Friar Tuck in Disney’s Robin Hood (1973) and provided the voice for the rooster in the famous Kellogg’s Corn Flakes commercials during the 1970’s. Frederic Louis Fox originally suggested Ed Wynn for the role of Somerset Frisby and Wynn would have undoubtedly delivered a fine performance. Devine, however, was perfect for the part and is easily the best thing about the episode.
Lending this episode an appropriately nonchalant personality is renowned harmonica player Tommy Morgan. Morgan's career spans over six decades and he is considered one of the most important harmonica players of all time, contributing to a countless number of projects in virtually every medium. As a session musician he has worked with Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, Johnny Cash, Randy Newman, Ray Charles, and dozens of others. He has composed music for dozens of television series including Gunsmoke, The Waltons, Green Acres, The Rockford Files, and Family Guy. His filmography includes Blazing Saddles, Cool Hand Luke, and How the West was Won. He has also recorded solo albums and written books and instructional guides to playing the harmonica. Morgan also composed the music for "The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank" and "Mr. Garrity and the Grave" and can also be heard on the soundtracks for the episodes "Dust" and "The Big Tall Wish" which were written by close friend Jerry Goldsmith.
            While we will likely never see “Hocus-Pocus and Frisby” crack any top ten lists it certainly isn’t a terrible episode. Fox’s story is charming and Serling’s script is full of witty dialogue far better than most of the banter found in the lighter episodes. This one deserves at least one viewing for those who have never seen it and for the naysayers perhaps even a second viewing if only to discover the quaint and pleasant charm that they may have missed.


Grade: C


Grateful acknowledge is made to:

The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic by Martin Grams, Jr. (OTR Publishing, 2008)

The Joe Franklin Show, Interview with Andy Devine conducted by Joe Franklin (1976)

www.mohavemuseum.org/andy.html

www.tmorganharmonica.com

www.filmmusicsociety.org/news_events/features/2008/121108.htm


Notes:

--Milton Selzer also appeared in the season five episode “The Masks.”
--Howard McNear also appeared in the season four episode “The Bard.”
--Dabbs Greer also appeared in the season four episode “The Valley of the Shadow.”
--Peter Brocco also appeared in the season one episode “The Four of Us Are Dying.” He later appeared in a segment of Night Gallery written by Rod Serling called “Deliveries in the Rear” during the show’s second season. He also played “Mr. Mute” in “Segment II” of Twilight Zone: the Movie (1983) directed by Steven Spielberg and based on George Clayton Johnson’s season three episode “Kick the Can.”
--This episode is one of many to feature the spaceship from MGM’s Forbidden Planet (1956).
--This episode also features a camera shot very similar to the famous opening shot of the earlier season three episode "To Serve Man."

--Check out the Twilight Zone Radio Drama featuring the late comedy legend and “The Mind and the Matter” star Shelly Berman.



--Brian

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The 20 Greatest Performances from The Twilight Zone, #5-#1

Although The Twilight Zone is celebrated for the talented group of writers who created such memorable stories for the series, the show excelled in every aspect of production, from direction and Emmy Award-winning cinematography, to unforgettable music, set design, and makeup. The series was also a showcase for some of the finest acting presented on television at the time. This list was created to celebrate what we think are the 20 finest performances from the series. Choosing only 20 performances from 156 episodes was extremely difficult. There were many standout performances which missed the list, especially from ensemble casts, such as in “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” “The Shelter,” and “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” as well as excellent turns from child actors in episodes such as “The Big Tall Wish,” “It’s a Good Life,” and “Mute.”  If I’ve missed your favorite performance I apologize. Let me know in the comments which are your favorite performances from the series.

Grateful acknowledgement to The Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) for the use of images.


-JP

Now for our Top 5 performances from the series:

 #5 – Robert Duvall, “Miniature” (Season 4)


Duvall’s sympathetic turn as a lonely man who falls in love with a female figure in a doll’s house has been largely overlooked due to the fact that the episode was kept out of syndication for many years, which is a terrible shame since it is one of the more moving performances featured on the series. Duvall’s performance is at once understated and yet fiercely defiant, lending the character an aspect of proud dignity which is ultimately rewarded by the episode’s happy ending. The episode overall is a triumph of acting, writing, and directing and one of the more underrated masterpieces from the series. 


#4 – Agnes Moorehead, “The Invaders” (Season 2)


It is a justly celebrated performance from a legendary actress and it is played almost entirely silent. Moorehead, renowned for her versatile voice on dramatic radio, was tasked with creating a sympathetic character using only mannerisms and facial expressions. She succeeds wildly and gives herself totally to the challenging role of a hermit who is attacked by a tiny invading force from beyond the stars. Read our episode review here.  

#3 – William Shatner, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (Season 5) 


If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Shatner’s turn in writer Richard Matheson’s classic nightmare of an episode may be the most influential and celebrated performance from the series. Despite the parodies of Shatner’s performance, he does not allow the performance to go too far over-the-top and manages to bring the audience over to his side very quickly through his convincing portrayal of a man suffering the torment of a recurrent nervous breakdown. Shatner’s performance is even more remarkable when one considers the laughable creature design, underwhelming direction and set design, and bland supporting cast.

#2 – Burgess Meredith, “The Obsolete Man” (Season 2)


Though Meredith is rightly celebrated by fans of the series for his four lead turns on the show, only Rod Serling’s powerful second season episode allowed him the dramatic reign to showcase his dramatic skills. His other three roles were largely comedic, in “Time Enough at Last,” “Mr. Dingle, the Strong,” and “Printer’s Devil.” Here, Meredith channels all of the doomed heroes of the famous dystopias, from Orwell’s 1984 to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and he does so through a fierce independence and a proud stance in the face of ignorance and intolerance. Not only is Meredith’s performance a sympathetic one but it is a triumphant one which has the audience cheering in the end for his character’s daring and symbolic revenge. Read our episode review here. 

 #1 – Gladys Cooper, “Nothing in the Dark” (Season 3)


It is difficult to select any single quality of Cooper’s performance for praise as it encompasses so much in so little time. Her performance possesses a poetic, sympathetic, melancholic, and terribly desperate quality before culminating in an exuberant hopefulness. She is greatly aided by George Clayton Johnson’s exceptional script and by Lamont Johnson’s direction but Cooper makes the story her own through her passionate portrayal of a woman kept inside her dilapidated apartment due to a fear of death. The episode is a culmination of many ruminations on aging and dying featured on the series and there is no better performer to illustrate the accompanying complicated emotions than Gladys Cooper. “Nothing in the Dark” is surely one of the finest offerings of the series and Cooper’s performance is nearly in a league of its own. Cooper might well have made the list for her performance in the fifth season episode, “Night Call,” and she was also featured in the fourth season episode, “Passage on the Lady Anne.” Cooper held the distinction of performing for the three core writers for the series not named Rod Serling. Read our full review of “Nothing in the Dark” here. 

Let us know in the comments which are your favorite performances from the series.

Friday, September 1, 2017

The 20 Greatest Performances from The Twilight Zone, #10-#6

Although The Twilight Zone is celebrated for the talented group of writers who created such memorable stories for the series, the show excelled in every aspect of production, from direction and Emmy Award-winning cinematography, to unforgettable music, set design, and makeup. The series was also a showcase for some of the finest acting presented on television at the time. This list was created to celebrate what we think are the 20 finest performances from the series. Choosing only 20 performances from 156 episodes was extremely difficult. There were many standout performances which missed the list, especially from ensemble casts, such as in “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” “The Shelter,” and “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” as well as excellent turns from child actors in episodes such as “The Big Tall Wish,” “It’s a Good Life,” and “Mute.”  If I’ve missed your favorite performance I apologize. Let me know in the comments which are your favorite performances from the series.

Grateful acknowledgement to The Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) for the use of images.


-JP

Continuing our countdown:

 #10 – Fritz Weaver, “The Obsolete Man” (Season 2)


The first of two performances from this powerful episode to make the list, Weaver’s turn as the manic but ultimately cowardly mouth of a dictatorial society stands as one of the supreme villainous turns on the series. Weaver earlier played a far different, though no less affecting, character in the first season episode, “Third from the Sun.” Read our review of “The Obsolete Man” here.

#9 – Jack Klugman, “In Praise of Pip” (Season 5)


Klugman is one of the signature performers on the series, featured in a lead role in four episodes, including “A Passage for Trumpet,” “A Game of Pool,” and “Death Ship.” It is for his fourth and final appearance on the series that Klugman finds his way onto this this. He presents a devastating portrait of the cruelness of blind circumstance, not least of which concern the effect of war, and of the special relationship between a father and a son. He has never been more convincing or compelling as he is here. 

#8 – Gig Young, “Walking Distance” (Season 1)


Rod Serling’s melancholy meditation on childhood and aging is given all of its power by Young’s exceptional performance as an ad executive whose fast life is quickly passing him by. Everything about the episode works to garner the sympathy of the audience and Young’s interactions with Frank Overton, who plays his father, are some of the most powerful and compelling scenes in the entire series. Read our full episode review here.

#7 – Cliff Robertson, “The Dummy” (Season 3)


In perhaps the most frightening episode of the series, Cliff Robertson portrays a tortured ventriloquist who is tormented by his living dummy. Though the story was far from original, Robertson imbues the character of the tormented performer with a pathos that is palpable. The audience shares in his terror and desperation in a way almost unique to the series. Robertson also provided the voice of the ventriloquist dummy and virtually played the episode against himself. Robertson earlier appeared in the second season episode, “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim,” in another excellent performance. 

#6 – James Whitmore, “On Thursday We Leave for Home” (Season 4)


Though I’m not a great fan of this episode, I find Whitmore’s performance as the desperate leader of a rag-tag band of planetary colonists to be one of the more tragic and humanizing performances from the series. Whitmore greatly saves the episode from its padded story through a sad and ultimately heartbreaking turn which elicits great pity from the audience. 

Check back tomorrow for our Top 5 performances from the series.