You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead —your next stop, the Twilight Zone!
Last time, I introduced this new blog series that I’m going to do: Throwback Thursday—Fangirl Retro TV. My first installment is about The Twilight Zone. (All the photos in this blog are still shots from TTZ.)
The Twilight Zone was created by Rod Serling, an American screenwriter, and aired from 1959 to 1964. Serling’s monologues introducing and/or closing out the episodes were not just well written, they were prophetic, poetic, intelligent, lyrical, and downright chilling. He was able to weave a series of words together that not only made the point, but that wound through your mind like ribbons, binding together the thoughts that reside there with something pretty or flashy (that’s kind of Serling-esque, don’t you think?). I’m often stunned at the eloquence of these monologues.
On the surface, the stories are creepy, eerie stories of aliens and space travel, supernatural beings, paranormal activity, frightening rewrites of history, or post-apocalyptic futures. But when the surface is scratched, each tale is actually a statement of some sort, either political, social, or cultural. Sometimes the Holocaust is the basis for an episode, and the Nazi regime is often alluded to. For example, in “Eye of the Beholder,” the famous “pig people” episode, we see a young woman lying in a hotel bed wrapped in bandages. For most of the episode, we only hear the other characters’ voices. We see silhouettes and backs, but never faces. At the end, they remove the bandages and what emerges is a stunningly beautiful woman. We finally see the others and they have hideous, distorted “pig” faces. But for them, that is the norm. The beautiful patient is the freak. In that world, everyone has to conform and look the same (this is a repeated theme as well in the series), and she is going to be shipped off to live in a community for people “like her.” The woman runs out of the room and through the halls of the hospital, where there is a screen showing their leader talking about how strength will come through uniformity and conformity. He orates and gesticulates exactly as Hitler did.
But my fangirling is going to be partly about the actors who made their way throughout “Hollywood.” There were certain shows that relied on weekly guest stars for their storylines, shows like The Love Boat, Columbo, and Fantasy Island. So you expected to see celebrities on a regular basis. What you have to look at are the bit-part actors, the people who played small roles. You’ll often see a familiar face, before they went on to become stars.
In the case of The Twilight Zone, many of the main roles were played by already established actors, like Burgess Meredith, Art Carney (Ed Norton on The Honeymooners), Mickey Rooney, and Don Rickles, but many were played by as-yet-unknown stars. The Twilight Zone served as a starting point for so many actors, and it was in these episodes that you can see many actors’ earliest appearances. Here are just a few performers who would go on to major TV roles or movies:
- Jack Klugman, who would play Oscar Madison on The Odd Couple)
- Telly Savalas, who was the lollipop-sucking detective Kojak in the 1970s (“Who loves ya, baby?”)
- Peter Faulk, most famous as Columbo (“Uh, just one more thing, sir”)
- Cloris Leachman, who was in everything, from movies (Young Frankenstein, Bad Santa) to TV shows (Mary Tyler Moore Show, Phyllis, Facts of Life)
- Carol Burnett, who needs no introduction
- Robert Redford played a very handsome Death in “Nothing in the Dark”
- Roddy McDowell, who played Cornelius in the original Planet of the Apes, but also made a name for himself in quirky B movies in the 1970s
- Bill Bixby, the original Dr. David Banner, aka the Incredible Hulk
- Donna Douglas, who played the beautiful woman I mentioned above in “Eye of the Beholder,” went on to play Elly May on The Beverly Hillbillies
Many people know William Shatner’s most famous appearance on TTZ, partly because it’s arguably one of THE most famous episodes of the series. Shatner—later Captain Kirk on Star Trek and the eponymous character on T.J. Hooker
in the 1980s—appeared in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” about a traumatized veteran pilot who sees a gremlin on thewing of the airplane he’s on. Of course, mayhem ensues. This was one of 4 episodes that was recreated for the 1983 movie Twilight Zone: The Movie. Shatner was also in another episode, “Nick of Time,” but did you know that George Takei, aka Mr. Sulu on Star Trek (and one of our favorite out gay actors), also appeared on TTZ? He appeared in “The Encounter” as a Japanese-American tortured by childhood memories of World War II. (Incidentally, after it aired, Japanese-Americans complained about its racial overtones and it wasn’t aired again until the SyFy channel included it in its New Year’s Eve marathon in January 2016.)
Burgess Meredith appeared in 3 episodes, the most famous being “Time Enough at Last.” Burgess Meredith had a distinguished acting career but, ironically, he probably is best known to most people as Micky Goldmill, Sylvester Stallone’s trainer in Rocky. You might also remember him as the Penguin on the camp 1960s TV series Batman. (Batman itself was a treasure trove of guest stars!)
Several actors from Bewitched appeared on TTZ as well. The lead actor, Elizabeth Montgomery (Samantha Stevens), appeared in one episode, set in a post-apocalyptic world. Her role was almost wordless, except at the very end when she speaks her name. Dick York (Darren Stevens) appeared in 2 episodes, Agnes Moorehead (Endora) was in one episode (also completely wordless), and David White (Larry Tate) was in one.
The exceptional thing about The Twilight Zone is that although it was produced almost 60 years ago, and their costumes are often cheesy, and what they perceived as futuristic technology and settings are quaint by today’s standards, its themes are still relevant today. In essence, every episode is about human interaction and responses when people are placed in unusual circumstances. That, for good or bad, never seems to change.
I hope you join me again for another stroll down retro TV memory lane. Later on in the year, we’ll play a game and there will be a book giveaway. So tune in next time for another episode of Throwback Thursday—Fangirl Retro TV.
There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call The Twilight Zone. — Rod Serling