The Twilight Zone: One of the finest anthology series of all time

The Twilight Zone created by Rod SerlingThe Twilight Zone created by Rod Serling

The Twilight Zone created by Rod SerlingViewers who tuned in to CBS at 10 PM on October 2, 1959, a Friday, to try out the brand-new show with the unusual title The Twilight Zone could have had little idea that the program they were about to watch would soon develop into one of the legendary glories of 1960s television. Today, of course, The Twilight Zone needs no introduction. For most of us — at least, for those of us younger than 65 years old — it is a show that has always been with us, and one that has been in constant rotation on cable TV. The very name of the program has entered into the everyday lexicon of the average man on the street, supplanting the dictionary definition of “twilight zone” as “a narrow zone in which a pilot flying at the edge of the on-course radio beam can detect both the on-course and off-course signals.” For most of us now, thanks to the ageless power of this program, the “twilight zone” refers to any unusual or unworldly situation that we might find ourselves in. But you surely don’t need me to tell you this. For most of us, The Twilight Zone is old news, and since its classic five-year run, consisting of a whopping 156 episodes broadcast from 1959 – ’64, it has been the subject of endless discussion and review. A quick search on Amazon will turn up dozens of books on the subject, with Marc Scott Zicree’s Twilight Zone Companion perhaps being the single indispensable Bible on the subject (although I have found that Zicree and I disagree on the relative merits of many of the episodes, Zicree being a much harsher critic than I am). The program itself, despite being only a middling success when originally run (Friday nights at 10 during its first three seasons; Thursday nights at 9 for its hourlong 4th season; and back to Friday nights, but at 9:30, for its final season), would soon be responsible for a host of spin-off entertainments, and to date, the show has been revived on television no fewer than three times (once in 1985, resulting in 65 episodes over three seasons; again in 2002, bringing in another 43 episodes during its sole season; and once yet again as recently as 2019, resulting in 20 more episodes over its two seasons). And then there was the British radio adaptation from 2002 – ’12, resulting in no fewer than 176 programs, not to mention 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie, which consisted of four episodes, three of them (“Kick the Can,” “It’s a Good Life,” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”) being remakes of beloved originals. But it is of the original series here that I would speak; the classic series that has stood the test of time for over half a century now and bids fair to remain in the hearts of viewers for many more decades to come.

The Twilight Zone, of course, was the brainchild of Syracuse, NY-born Rod Serling, who in 1959 was already something of a very big deal in the world of TV. Serling had been responsible for two critically acclaimed television films, “Patterns” on a 1955 episode of Kraft Television Theatre and “Requiem for a Heavyweight” on a ’56 episode of Playhouse 90. Chafing under the dictates of sponsors and their inhibiting and frankly silly censorship regulations, Serling decided to create his own program, for which he would insist on full creative control, and bringing in his own writers. Serling was born on Christmas Day in 1924, and so was 35 years old when his newest project got off the ground. He would serve as the host for most of the episodes to come, his droll and urbane deliveries for both the intros and outros, ubiquitous cigarette in hand, becoming yet another hallmark of the series to come. Serling would ultimately be responsible for an almost superhuman 92 scripts out of the eventual 156, followed by Charles Beaumont with 22 and Richard Matheson with 15, and with such other scribes as George Clayton Johnson and Earl Hamner, Jr. contributing four and eight, respectively. That first episode on October 2, 1959, entitled “Where Is Everybody?” — in which a man (Earl Holliman) awakes in a small town completely devoid of people — was a somewhat atypical one for the series, in that it contained very little in the way of horror, sci-fi or fantasy elements. What it did contain, however, was a twist ending of sorts, a feature that would become one of the keynotes in the overwhelming number of TZ episodes over the next five years.

Where is Everybody?

Where is Everybody?

Since its demise in 1964, The Twilight Zone has remained a snap to see on television, and it would seem that it has never really left us, being, as I mentioned, in constant network rotation. To this day, it continues to be shown five nights a week here in the U.S. on the ME TV cable channel. And for many of us, a New Year’s Day or July 4th weekend would not be complete without sitting down for a few hours to watch a Twilight Zone Marathon on that station, or perhaps on the Syfy channel. All of which brings us to my old predicament. I had seen a good half of those 156 original episodes over and over throughout the years, but every time I tuned in to one of those marathons, it seemed that the channel would be showing one of the eps that I had already seen before. And really, how many times can one watch Billy Mumy’s Anthony Fremont send some offending adult off to the cornfield, in that classic episode “It’s a Good Life”? Too, watching those episodes on television also means that one must sit through the inevitable commercial interruptions (and yes, I’m well aware that those commercials were unavoidable back in 1959 – ‘64 also), as well as deal with deleted snippets from the episodes themselves. The only solution, it seemed to me (besides streaming), was to purchase the complete Twilight Zone DVD package myself and watch at my own leisure, which is precisely what this viewer wound up doing. I had delayed doing so for many years, as the price tag that I kept seeing for this box set was usually on the order of around $150. When I eventually saw the package selling for the low low price of $45, I pounced, and have never regretted doing so. The set that I bought a few years back was perhaps necessarily titled “The Twilight Zone: The Complete Series,” and is a product of CBS DVD. More on this package itself in a moment. I had put off watching those 156 episodes until just the right moment, but during the recent COVID-19 lockdown, I often had the feeling that I was in a kind of Twilight Zone myself. The moment was finally right and propitious. Thus, over the course of some four lockdown months, I finally got the chance to do what I had long wanted to do: watch every single episode of The Twilight Zone in their original, chronological order of airing. What follows are some thoughts as a result of this four-month “binge,” during which I watched three half-hour episodes a night, OR one hourlong episode per evening; that seemed a proper “binge rate” for this viewer.

To Serve Man

To Serve Man

My first impression, as I got deeper into the series, was a sense of startlement as to how many of those 156 episodes I had NOT seen before. I would say that a good half of the episodes were indeed new to me, and out of that other half, the ones that I had experienced, at least 50% were episodes that I had very little recollection of having seen. I was also amazed at how consistently excellent the series was, and indeed, of those 156 episodes, only a bare handful were not satisfying for me; perhaps eight in all. Several of those lesser episodes were comedic in nature, such as the rather silly “Mr. Dingle, The Strong” and “Hocus-Pocus and Frisby,” and the completely unfunny “The Bard” (Burt Reynolds’ remarkable Marlon Brando impersonation excepted) and “Sounds and Silences.” Another, “The Gift,” was very slow and draggy. Another still, “Four O’Clock,” was much too weird for its own good, I thought. And for this viewer, “Showdown With Rance McGrew” was just flat-out bad. More surprising still: The much-beloved “To Serve Man” was revealed to me, upon a repeat watch, to be rather contrived and overrated. (Really, was there any actual necessity for those darn Kanamits to bring their cookbook with them to planet Earth?) Still, eight clinkers out of 156 is hardly a bad record, right? And those other 148 episodes were all very much of a uniformly entertaining and fascinating nature. Something that must have impressed and lured in the viewers of the 1960s was the fact that each episode was completely different from the one that had come the week before. Thus, one could never predict what he/she was going to be sitting down in front of next: a fantasy with a twist, a scary episode with a twist, a drama with a twist, a Western with a twist, a sci-fi outing with a twist, etc. The Twilight Zone really is the perfect show, thus, for marathon bingeing, each episode coming off like a tasty bonbon, each with a different flavor than the one recently consumed. Betcha can’t eat just one, indeed!

Okay, I’m going to do a little name-dropping now. Here is a partial list of some of the more well-known players who appeared in those 156 episodes (although it might almost be easier to list who did NOT appear during the course of this wonderful series), many of whom were hardly household names at the time of their appearance, and many of whom appear in The Twilight Zone on more than one occasion, portraying different parts: Luther Adler, Brian Aherne, Claude Akins, Jack Albertson, Dana Andrews, Edward Andrews, John Astin, Mary Badham, Martin Balsam, Richard Basehart, Orson Bean, Shelley Berman, Theodore Bikel, Bill Bixby, Joan Blondell, Ann Blyth, Lloyd Bochner, Antoinette Bower, Neville Brand, Morgan Brittany, Charles Bronson, Edgar Buchanan, Carol Burnett, Sebastian Cabot, Art Carney, Jack Carson, Veronica Cartwright, Fred Clark, James Coburn, Michael Constantine, Richard Conte, Gladys Cooper, Jackie Cooper, Ted de Corsia, Hazel Court, Jerome Cowan, Wally Cox, Nick Cravat, Patricia Crowley, Robert Cummings, James Daly, Richard Deacon, William Demarest, Andy Devine, Ivan Dixon, James Doohan, Donna Douglas, Howard Duff, Douglass Dumbrille, Dan Duryea, Robert Duvall, Buddy Ebsen, Jack Elam, Shelley Fabares, Peter Falk, Anne Francis, James Franciscus, Beverly Garland, Don Gordon, James Gregory, Joan Hackett, Kevin Hagen, Cedric Hardwicke, Jonathan Harris, Mariette Hartley, Irene Hervey, Pat Hingle, Earl Holliman, Dennis Hopper, Ron Howard, John Hoyt, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Diana Hyland, Sherry Jackson, Dean Jagger, Ann Jillian, Arte Johnson, Russell Johnson, Henry Jones, Buster Keaton, Cecil Kellaway, Ed Kemmer, Richard Kiel, Jack Klugman, Nancy Kulp, Martin Landau, Robert Lansing, Cloris Leachman, Ruta Lee, Joanne Linville, Richard Long, Celia Lovsky, Ida Lupino, Patrick Macnee, George Macready, Florence Marly, Sarah Marshall, Arlene Martel, Dewey Martin, Ross Martin, Strother Martin, Lee Marvin, Kevin McCarthy, Doug McClure, Roddy McDowall, Burgess Meredith, Gary Merrill, Vera Miles, Martin Milner, Elizabeth Montgomery, Agnes Moorehead, Greg Morris, Jeff Morrow, Barry Morse, Billy Mumy, Alan Napier, Barry Nelson, Ed Nelson, Lois Nettleton, Julie Newmar, Barbara Nichols, Leonard Nimoy, Jeanette Nolan, Tim O’Connor, Patrick O’Neal, Simon Oakland, Warren Oates, Susan Oliver, David Opatoshu, Nehemiah Persoff, Phillip Pine, Edward Platt, Donald Pleasence, Thalmus Rasulala, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Don Rickles, Robby the Robot, Cliff Robertson, Mickey Rooney, Hayden Rorke, Janice Rule, Albert Salmi, Telly Savalas, William Schallert, Joseph Schildkraut, Jacqueline Scott, William Shatner, Penny Singleton, Everett Sloane, Vladimir Sokoloff, Inger Stevens, Warren Stevens, Dean Stockwell, Frank Sutton, George Takei, Rod Taylor, Franchot Tone, Lee Van Cleef, Jack Warden, Dennis Weaver, Jack Weston, James Whitmore, Edy Williams, John Williams, William Windom, Jonathan Winters, Joseph Wiseman, Ed Wynn, Keenan Wynn, Dick York and Gig Young.

And those are just the names who I think you might know. Also scattered over the course of these 156 episodes are dozens of faces that you may have seen in countless programs of the 1960s; character actors who appeared on Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and, well, really, just about every other show of that decade, although you might be hard put to recall the names that go with those faces. Thus, the invaluable contributions of such terrific performers as Philip Abbott, Stanley Adams, Charles Aidman, John Anderson, R. G. Armstrong, Barry Atwater, Val Avery, Raymond Bailey, Arthur Batanides, Terry Becker, Oscar Beregi, Jr., Edward Binns, Larry Blyden, Peter Brocco, Walter Burke, Paul Comi, John Fiedler, Paul Fix, Joe Flynn, Michael Forest, Ned Glass, Thomas Gomez, Dabbs Greer, Sterling Holloway, Arthur Hunnicutt, Will Kuluva, Charles Lane, John Larch, George Lindsey, Ken Lynch, Theodore Marcuse, Joe Maross, John McGiver, John McIntire, Burt Mustin, J. Pat O’Malley, Cliff Osmond, Frank Overton, Doris Packer, Alice Pearce, Vic Perrin, Barney Phillips, Stafford Repp, Joseph Ruskin, Liam Sullivan, Dub Taylor, Vaughn Taylor, Ray Teal, Harry Townes, John Van Dreelen, Robert Warwick, David Wayne, David White, Jesse White, Ian Wolfe and more … so many more. Truly, a wonderful assemblage of talent in front of the cameras, to help bring those terrific scripts to life.

From that very first episode, the previously mentioned, Serling-scripted “Where Is Everybody?,” with its surprising twist ending, all the way to its last, the Earl Hamner, Jr.-penned “The Bewitchin’ Pool,” with its sweet blend of realism and outright fantasy, The Twilight Zone managed to maintain the very high quality of its 156 offerings to a remarkable degree, those eight lesser episodes excepted. Thus, choosing Top 10 favorites is a somewhat daunting undertaking. But with some thought, I have managed to whittle down the many candidates to this following provisional group; a list that might very well change the next time I “binge” through this series. As will be seen, for me, my favorite episodes are the ones that are the might frightening, chilling and nerve racking, and the ones that strike a very deep emotional chord or hit the hardest in some manner.

And so, this list, from a person who has just watched many of these episodes for the very first time, presented in chronological order:

Walking Distance

Walking Distance

(1) “Walking Distance” — The Twilight Zone, over the course of its five seasons, offered viewers several episodes in which the protagonist wishes to return to the more innocent time of his youth, or to a more uncomplicated age in the past, and then indeed manages to accomplish this seemingly impossible feat. It happened in such outings as “A Stop at Willoughby,” “The Trouble With Templeton,” “Young Man’s Fancy,” “Miniature,” “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville” and “The Incredible World of Horace Ford.” But this wonderful concept was perhaps never done more movingly than in this episode from early in Season 1, in which adman Gig Young returns to the town of his youth and finds himself in the past. His conversation with his father (Frank Overton) is one of the more emotionally moving moments in TZ history. A beautifully well-done half hour from Mr. Serling!

The Hitchhiker

The Hitchhiker

(2) “The Hitch-Hiker” — As I said, I love the spookier episodes of The Twilight Zone, and they really don’t come too much more chilling than this one, in which lovely Inger Stevens suffers a blowout while driving cross-country, and then finds herself repeatedly encountering the same shabby-looking man (Leonard Strong) with his thumb out on the side of the road. Serling supposedly wrote the script for this Season 1 episode in just six hours, and yet it remains, for this viewer, one of the most effective episodes of the entire series.

 

Mirror Image

Mirror Image

(3) “Mirror Image” — And talk about frightening episodes, this one, also from Season 1, has remained, for me, the single scariest episode of the entire series ever since I first saw it as a kid. Here, Vera Miles plays a woman who sees her exact twin while sitting alone in an empty bus depot, on a rainy night in upstate NY. The atmosphere in this half hour outing is very claustrophobic and intense, and the scene in which Vera sees her doppelganger smirking at her from inside an idling bus might very well be the most chilling in any TZ episode. Some terrific supporting work from future Route 66 star Martin Milner, as well as a fascinating script from Rod Serling, result in one of the most nerve-racking half hours of the series.

Eye of the Beholder

Eye of the Beholder

(4) “The Eye of the Beholder” — This Season 2 episode is a beloved classic for many viewers, and for good reason. Here, a hideously unattractive woman lies in her bed, her face swathed in bandages after having undergone her 11th and final procedure to rescue her looks. This episode features one of the finest twist endings that this series ever boasted, and director Douglas Heyes shoots his film in a manner that greatly heightens its unusual atmosphere. It is a dark and brooding episode, and cameraman George T. Clemens shoots the proceedings in an ingenious manner, in order to withhold the big reveal till the very end. Another wonderful Serling script, and fine thesping from Janet Tyler (not an easy thing to do, with one’s features under wraps, as it were), help make this one of the top episodes of the series.

Twenty-two

Twenty-two

(5) “Twenty Two” — Along with “The Hitch-Hiker” and “Mirror Image,” this episode makes up my personal Big 3, as far as frightening TZ episodes are concerned. In this one, a professional stripper (Barbara Nichols) lies in a hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown. She is still a nervous wreck, though, suffering every night from the same dream, in which she descends by elevator to the hospital’s morgue, the titular Room 22, where she encounters a smirking nurse (future Outer Limits and Star Trek alumnus Arlene Sax/Martel), who says to her “Room for one more, honey.” (I get chills just thinking about Nichols’ screams that follow as a result.) Serling’s script for this Season 2 episode is an economical one, and if the story itself is a bit too reminiscent of one of the segments in the classic 1945 film Dead of Night, it yet remains remarkably effective. The fact that this was one of six TZ episodes to have been shot on crummy-looking videotape only makes the episode all that more bizarre to watch.

Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time

(6) “Once Upon a Time” — As I mentioned up top, The Twilight Zone was guilty of a bunch of DOA comedy episodes, in which the laffs were forced and the stories themselves silly. But many of the comedic episodes worked just fine; I am thinking of outings such as “Mr. Bevis,” “The Whole Truth,” “The Mind and the Matter,” “Cavender Is Coming,” “A Kind of Stop Watch” and “From Agnes — With Love.” But of all the comedy episodes in the series’ five seasons, this one is most assuredly the best, and no wonder, as it stars one of the true legends of Hollywood’s Golden Age of Comedy, Mr. Buster Keaton. Here, “The Great Stone Face” stars as a janitor in the year 1890 who purloins his employer’s time helmet and gets stranded in the year 1962, where he gets into all kinds of trouble! The film’s opening and closing sequences are shot in the mode of silent films themselves and are a true gift to all viewers who love and esteem the silents. A truly magical — and hilarious — Season 3 episode, courtesy of Richard Matheson.

Changing of the Guard

Changing of the Guard

(7) “The Changing of the Guard” — This episode, from late in Season 3, is another one that I find both wonderfully acted and emotionally moving. Here, an English professor at a boys’ school, played by the great Donald Pleasence, is forcefully retired after 51 years of service, and begins to have suicidal thoughts as he reviews the uselessness of his life. But his life and his sanity are rescued when the ghostly images of the boys who he had nurtured in decades past, but who had prematurely passed on, visit to tell him what a difference he had made in their young lives. Both Pleasence and Liam Sullivan (playing the Headmaster who gives him the sack) have rarely been as sympathetic on film, and Serling’s script is both tender and affecting, in the tradition of It’s a Wonderful Life. A very moving episode, indeed.

Jess-Belle

Jess-Belle

(8) “Jess-Belle” — I happen to be a sucker for all things Anne Francis, an actress who has been a personal fave ever since I was a kid and watched her in the 1965 detective show Honey West. And in this one-hour Season 4 outing, Anne just shines, and makes the episode something very special. Here playing a brunette for a change, Anne is the eponymous Jess-Belle, a backwoods vixen who buys a love philtre from the area’s local witch, Granny Hart (Jeanette Nolan), in order to catch her man, Billy-Ben Tuner (James Best), who is engaged to another. This episode thus conflates witch magic, woman-into-leopard transformations, tragedy, romance, and loads of rural/bucolic atmosphere into a dark yet satisfying stew. Earl Hamner, Jr.’s script is a fine one, the players are all marvelous, especially Anne, and the tone of the tale is increasingly dark and menacing. A haunting folk melody that runs through the course of the hour like a dirge (and even displaces Serling’s closing narration, for a change) only adds to the wondrous atmosphere here.

Night Call

Night Call

(9) “Night Call” — Still another half hour that I find especially chilling. In this Season 5 outing, scripted by Matheson, an old woman named Elva Keene (legendary Hollywood supporting actress Gladys Cooper, who many will recall from the Bette Davis movie Now Voyager) lies in her bed and becomes increasingly distraught after receiving repeated phone calls from a mysterious personage. All she can hear on the line are the whispered words “Where are you?” and “I want to talk to you.” And let me tell you, the sound of this caller’s voice is one guaranteed to send the ice water coursing down your spinal column! Eventually, the source of the calls is established, and that is a truly scarifying moment, indeed! For all lovers of the ghostly and the supernatural, this episode should prove a godsend!

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

(10) “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” — I am perhaps cheating a bit with this selection, as this half hour was not even filmed as an episode of The Twilight Zone at all. Rather, it is a short film that was shot in France and won the Best Short Film award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1962, and later an Oscar in that same category. The producers of The Twilight Zone later purchased it for $25,000 to make up for their Season 5’s budget overage, deleting a few minutes to allow for Serling’s intro and outro. But the result is simply stunning: a short feature that plays like a European art film, which is precisely what it is, and revealing what happens to a Confederate soldier during the Civil War after he is hung by the neck but later escapes, after his noose is snapped and he plummets into a river below. It is an episode that is practically devoid of dialogue, but the look and feel of this outing are simply remarkable, and its final moments beautifully well done. It is a marvelous filmization of Ambrose Bierce’s famous short story from 1890, and with that marvelous twist ending, manages to fit itself right into the schema of The Twilight Zone. Unavailable for many years for TV viewing (it was one of five TZ episodes not syndicated, for obscure reasons), I believe it is indeed back in the rotation today, to startle and impress a new generation of viewers.

With 156 episodes’ worth of wonderful performances, choosing 10 outstanding acting turns is an extremely difficult proposition. But if I HAD to honor 10 terrific ones (putting aside from consideration those featured in my 10 favorite episodes, largely because the acting turns in those episodes were largely responsible for those episodes being what they are themselves), they might be these (again, in chronological order):

The Big Tall Wish

The Big Tall Wish

(1) Ivan Dixon in “The Big Tall Wish” — Those viewers who have only seen Dixon perform in the mid-‘60s sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, in which he played Sgt. Kinchloe, might not be aware of what a fine dramatic actor he could be. But anyone who has seen him in the terrific 1964 film Nothing But a Man is well aware of this fact. Dixon gave a very fine performance in the Season 5 episode “I Am the Night — Color Me Black,” but here, he is even better. Playing the part of Bolie Jackson, an aging boxer hoping for a comeback in the ring, Dixon gives a terrific performance, making us truly believe in his character: a man who just cannot believe in the power of the magic wish made by his friend, a little boy named Henry … to his great regret. Dixon is at once warm and appealing and, ultimately, convincingly tragic in this late Season 1 episode, written by Serling.

The After Hours

The After Hours

(2) Anne Francis in “The After Hours” — Given what I previously mentioned above regarding my abiding love for all things Anne Francis, this selection might come as no surprise. Still, even objectively speaking, Anne is just terrific in this classic Season 1 episode, again written by Serling. Here, she plays Marsha White, a young woman who goes to a department store to buy a golden thimble and has a rather startling adventure in that store’s seemingly deserted 9th floor. Anne makes us really feel the horror of being locked in an empty store at night, and her reactions are convincingly jarring. Anne always projected great intelligence in all her film and TV performances, in addition to her obvious beauty, and her portrayal here is no exception. Without spoiling things for those poor unfortunates who have not experienced this episode yet, take it from me: In real life, this was one blonde beauty who was no dummy!

The Invaders

The Invaders

(3) Agnes Moorehead in “The Invaders” — I have great admiration for any performer who can carry an entire episode all by him- or herself; that is to say, a solo performance, or one that is very nearly so. The Twilight Zone featured a few other episodes in which a single performer carried the brunt of the show; I am thinking particularly of Joe Mantell in Season 1’s “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room” and Mickey Rooney in Season 5’s “The Last Night of a Jockey.” But of all the solo performances in TZ history, perhaps none other was finer than the turn that Moorehead gave us in this beloved half hour from Season 2, written by Richard Matheson. Playing an elderly woman whose house is suddenly invaded by tiny aliens, Moorehead gives a powerhouse performance that is also very much a physical one. The great character actress throws herself into the part with abandon; it really is a, um, towering performance, if you get my drift.

A Game of Pool

A Game of Pool

(4) Jonathan Winters in “A Game of Pool” — The inclusion of a goofball comedian in a list of great acting performances might strike some as a peculiar choice, but the fact remains that Winters, here in his very first bit of dramatic acting on screen, is just aces. Playing the materialized ghost of the great Fats Brown, who is challenged to a game by a wannabe champ named Jesse Cardiff (Jack Klugman, who was also aces here), Winters is remarkably cool and convincing as the legendary pool shark. Not only did he do all his pool shots himself, but he also held his own remarkably well with the great Klugman. Any viewer will be stunned to realize that this was Winters’ very first bit of acting. Perhaps his great success here gave him the confidence to appear in the classic comedy It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World a few years later. Who knows? Winters was a natural comedian, of course, but as this episode demonstrates, he was something of a natural dramatic actor, as well. A very fine script here from George Clayton Johnson is the icing on the cake in this Season 3 outing.

Death's Head Revisited

Death’s Head Revisited

(5) Oscar Beregi, Jr. in “Death’s-Head Revisited” — Up until my recent Twilight Zone binge, I had never heard of Hungarian-born actor Oscar Beregi, Jr. The Season 2 episode entitled “The Rip Van Winkle Caper” had spotlighted him very impressively, but he is even better in this later half hour, from Season 3. Playing the part of Captain Lutze, a former captain in the S.S. who returns to an abandoned concentration camp and is driven to madness by the ghosts of his old inmates there, Beregi gives a performance of great complexity and impassioned zeal. Fortunately, he is aided by one of Serling’s most brilliant and heartfelt scripts. I had considered putting this important episode in my Top 10 list, but that would have precluded my singling out Beregi for special praise, which he more than deserves for his great work here.

Nothing in the Dark

Nothing in the Dark

(6) Gladys Cooper in “Nothing in the Dark” — Again, Cooper was such a fine character actress that she might very easily have gotten a pride of place for her work in the previously mentioned “Night Call.” But she might be even better here, in this earlier, Season 3 episode written by George Clayton Johnson. Here, she plays Wanda Dunn, an old woman who has shut herself in her dilapidated apartment for years on end, for fear of allowing anyone inside who might be “Mr. Death” in disguise. But when a handsome blonde cop (how handsome? He is played by the young Robert Redford himself!) is shot right outside her door, she has no other choice but to allow him entrance. By this point, the English actress had been a professional for almost 50 years, since her first appearance on stage in 1905, at age 17. And I guess it’s true what they say about practice, practice, practice! A consummate stage and screen professional, Cooper here gives a fully realized performance that helps make this episode still another TZ classic.

Cavender is Coming

Cavender is Coming

(7) Carol Burnett in “Cavender Is Coming” — “What, another comedian?,” you might be saying. Well, yeah. Shocking confession time: I have never really been a big fan of Burnett’s and have never found her beloved Carol Burnett Show to be all that funny, even though I have long found her to be a personable enough lady. But here, playing the part of klutzy but loveable Agnes Grep, in the final episode of Season 3, written by Serling, she is absolutely charming and quite winning. Agnes is given the chance to completely rewrite her life by her guardian angel, Cavender (the great character actor Jesse White), only to ultimately come to the realization that she was happier with the little that she had had before. And Burnett is simply adorable as the overwhelmed Agnes. Hers, again, is both a fully realized and quite physical performance, and Burnett manages to carry the load in both departments remarkably well.

Printer's Devil

Printer’s Devil

(8) Burgess Meredith in “Printer’s Devil” — It is almost inevitable that Meredith should make this list of favorite performances, as he was wonderful in no fewer than four Twilight Zone episodes. He was unforgettable in “Time Enough at Last,” playing the myopic Henry Bemis (this episode, BTW, has always struck me as being needlessly cruel to its lead character), fun enough in the previously mentioned silly comedy “Mr. Dingle, The Strong,” and pretty wonderful in the dystopian entry “The Obsolete Man.” But in this hourlong entry from Season 4, written by Charles Beaumont, and in which he plays a character who very possibly just might be THE devil, Meredith is just fantastic. Playing the part of “Mr. Smith,” a Linotype operator who comes to save an ailing, small-town newspaper, Meredith gives us a winking, leering, maniacal, delicious performance, during which he is constantly seen chewing on a zigzaggy cigar. Truly, it is almost a warm-up of sorts for his role as The Penguin on the Batman TV show of three years later. Some great work here from one of the series’ true champs!

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet

(9) William Shatner in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” — I know that many people deride the great Shat for his acting quirks, dramatic pauses, overly emotional line readings and so on, and many of those claims are often justified. However (and it is a big “however”), Shatner could also be remarkably effective, and anyone who has seen his work in the great Roger Corman film The Intruder (1964) might know just what I’m talking about. Shatner had been excellent in the Season 2 episode entitled “Nick of Time,” but in this way-classic episode from Season 5, written by Richard Matheson, he is even better. Playing the part of Bob Wilson, returning home via plane with his wife after having suffered a nervous breakdown, Shatner gives a remarkably intense portrayal of a man who keeps seeing a sabotaging gremlin on the airplane’s wing, right outside his window during flight. You can read what’s going on in Wilson’s mind even when he is not speaking, the mark of a truly great actor. This is a terrific performance, truly, and the episode would not be nearly as effective without Shatner’s excellent work therein.

Spur of the Moment

Spur of the Moment

(10) Diana Hyland in “Spur of the Moment” — Hyland is an actress who I only recently became aware of, via her performances in at least three terrific episodes of the classic ‘60s TV show The Fugitive. And in this mid-Season 5 half hour, written by Matheson, she is most impressive indeed, giving us what is essentially a double role. In this one, she plays a young fiancée named Anne Henderson, who is scared out of her wits one day, while riding on horseback, when she sees a woman who looks almost exactly like herself screaming at her from atop a hillside. Courtesy of a marvelously clever script, we later learn the meaning of this maniacal doppelganger, during which time Hyland gives us two portrayals that are as different as can be: one, sweet and innocent; the other, bitter and cruel. Some marvelous work here from a sadly underrated actress.

As you may have noticed, this list of my 10 favorite Twilight Zone performances is evenly divided between five male and five female acting turns, and truth to tell, it was not easy to make things work out that way. For some reason, there was any overwhelming number of male lead characters in these 156 episodes as opposed to female; indeed, I don’t think more than 17 of the episodes (by my count) featured a woman as the main protagonist. Perhaps that is because only one of the episodes — the late Season 5 outing “Caesar and Me,” written by A. T. (Adele T.) Strassfield — was written by a woman … and that episode was centered around a male ventriloquist and his dummy. Still, I have done the best I can, and am only sorry that such great performances as that of Richard Conte in “Perchance to Dream,” Robert Cummings in “King Nine Will Not Return,” Cliff Robertson in “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim,” Richard Long in “Person or Persons Unknown” and Robert Duvall in “Miniature” could not be included here. And again, this is a list that might very well change the next time I “binge watch” through this series.

The Twilight Zone created by Rod SerlingNow, as for this CBS DVD itself, it is a rather pleasing package, with the 156 episodes divided amongst 25 discs. Picture image and sound quality are both of a very fine order — granted, I watched these DVDs on a Blu-ray player, which does tend to upgrade the quality of both sound and picture — and indeed, this viewer could not have hoped for better. (I hear that the newer and necessarily more expensive Blu-ray DVD package looks even better, and that should not come as a surprise, really.) There are no options for the hearing impaired, such as subtitles, but the print quality of all 156 episodes seemed to me absolutely pristine … with the exception of those six episodes that had been shot on videotape; I suppose no amount of modern-day tech magic could have sufficed to rectify the odd look of those half dozen. The box set does include all 156 episodes, however, even the five that had for the longest time not been available for syndication — “Miniature,” “A Short Drink From a Certain Fountain,” “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “Sounds and Silences” and “The Encounter.”

As for extras, this is pretty much a bare-bones affair, although most episodes do feature Serling giving us a spoken teaser for the next installment to come, which is something that you will never find in the syndicated prints. These teasers sometimes feature Serling segueing right into a verbal pitch for the program’s sponsor, usually a cigarette brand, and it is somewhat distressing to see Serling speak so highly of the tobacco products that probably led to his early demise, at the age of 50. (Serling had long been a user of some three to four packs of cigarettes a day!) Also to be found at the tail end of some Season 1 and 2 episodes are the original ads that were tacked on at the tail end, for various CBS shows such as Gunsmoke, as well as household products. So the net effect feels as if one were watching most of these episodes just as the original viewers did in the early ‘60s, and I suppose that is something of a nice extra, indeed! In all, this box set of The Twilight Zone served me quite well, and I strongly urge those who have not yet experienced this classic series in its entirety to avail themselves of this particular DVD package or that newer and pricier Blu-ray edition. Those purchasers will then find themselves the owners of one of the very finest anthology programs of all time…

Editor’s Note: You can stream The Twilight Zone here.


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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2 comments

  1. I’ve watched The Twilight Zone many times (and probably not seen all of them) and I will watch many times again. One of the finest shows ever made.

    Also, you’ve now created the urge for me to watch them again. 😛

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