by Patricia Grandjean
May 4, 2011
09:01 AMBox Office
My "Twilight" Chronicles—No, not THAT "Twilight"
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1. "The Lonely." Starring the ever-intense Jack Warden (as Corry) and pre-"Upstairs Downstairs" Jean Marsh (as Alicia), "The Lonely" marked a number of firsts for the Twilight Zone—most significantly, it was the first episode to go into production once the series was greenlighted by CBS, and the first of several to be shot in Nevada's Death Valley (in the aptly named Desolation Canyon). Set in the year 2046, the tale centers around convicted murderer Corry, controversially sentenced to solitary confinement for 50 years on the deserted dwarf planet Ceres. In the fourth year of his exile, sympathetic Captain Allenby (John Dehner), assigned to bring Corry supplies every three months, offers him a special gift to help relieve his loneliness: A gynoid—or if you prefer, fembot—named Alicia. Corry is repulsed at first, but falls in love once Alicia reveals human emotions—which creates a crushing dilemma when Allenby unexpectedly returns to tell Corry he's been pardoned and can go back home to Earth. Arguably TZ's most perfect example of pure storytelling, more nuanced and devastating than any half-hour has a right to be. (Look for Ted Knight as a surprisingly sour government functionary.)
2. "It's a Good Life." Not sure anyone tires of this. Based on a story by Jerome Bixby, it stars precocious 7-year-old redhead Billy Mumy, who plays monstrous little Anthony Fremont with such reckless authority you have to wonder about all those stories asserting what a happy childhood the actor had. There are few "stinkeyes" greater or more satisfying than the ones Mumy gives all the "bad men" he meets. Personally, I've always thought Anthony would make a great Secretary of State—rather than going to all the pain and expense of battling or unseating Hussein, Ghadafi, bin Laden, etc., why not have somebody in place who could just wish 'em to a cornfield? While the specter of a "child" with no conscience or moral restraints isn't really "funny," the fact that we've seen so many real-life Anthonys in world history—metaphorically speaking, of course—makes it hard for me to call this episode "horrifying." Wicked, maybe. And I do love Serling's nudge nudge-wink wink closing narration.
3. "The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank." Possibly the funniest and snarkiest piece of slapstick American Gothic next to Raising Arizona—courtesy of writer/director Montgomery Pittman, who before his untimely death was considered a TV savant of the late 1950s-early '60s. Young Jeff Myrtlebank (James Best) has died of the flu—but when he wakes up and rises in his coffin at his funeral, the folks of his "southernmost Midwestern" rural town are, to say the least, flummoxed. His new talent for things he never did in his previous life—like hard work and fist fighting—convinces them that he's a "haint" (wandering demon), and they resolve to drive him away. But Jeff manages to re-curry the favor of his former fiancée, Comfort Gatewood (played by Pittman's stepdaughter, hot mama Sherry Jackson), even though the flowers he picks for her wilt in his hands. When the two stand against the townies together, Jeff makes a case for himself they can't dispute. Best's performance is so giddily "it-getting" (I always giggle at the gleeful way Jeff greets his terrified parents after his "resurrection": "Maw! Paw! Surprise!!") that I have to wonder why, as an actor, his profile never got any higher than playing Roscoe in "The Dukes of Hazzard."
4. "Walking Distance." One rich theme for the Zone is "You can't go home again," or, more to the point, "Don't even try." Most characters' nostalgia for their lost youth or a shared cultural history winds up badly; think of "The Trouble with Templeton," "The Incredible World of Horace Ford" (written by Serling's TV peer Reginald Rose) and "A Stop at Willoughby" (the Zone's most Connecticut-conscious ep, in which James Daly plays a NYC commuter who rides Metro North every day). In this, the first and best episode to explore the conceit, burnt-out middle-aged executive Martin Sloan (Gig Young) literally revisits a boyhood every bit as idyllic as he remembers—three-scoop sundaes are a dime and his beloved dad is still alive—but while he may yearn to reclaim his past, the past doesn't want him. Deeply affecting but hard-edged, "Distance" features an early cameo by little Ronny Howard (that other freckle-faced, red-haired kid actor from the '60s) as one of Martin's childhood friends and a haunting score written especially for this ep by legendary film composer Bernard Herrman (who served as music director for TZ's first season).
5. "Long Distance Call." Intergenerational family relationships are sticky; that's not exactly a revelation. But nowhere has that theme been played out as bravely as on this Zone ep. Very little boy Billy Bayles—again played by Billy Mumy, in his TZ debut—lives with his parents and an ailing, overbearing but beloved grandmother in an uneasy home. Grandma dies on Billy's birthday, but not before sealing their "special relationship" with the gift of a toy telephone that he can use to talk to her even, she says, "when I'm no longer here." Uh-oh. Before anyone can dial 911, the child is talking on the phone 24-7 and telling his mom that Grandma is lonely and wants him to come stay with her. So, here we have a fairy tale about a child who, out of love, becomes obsessed with suicide—a dicey premise even on today's rather grisly prime-time schedule. But it's written and played with such delicacy and subtlety, particularly by Philip Abbott ("The F.B.I.") as daddy Chris Bayles, that it turns into a rewarding story about faith without getting mired in bathos. It's only drawback is that it was a victim of one of the cost-cutting measures that the CBS suits tried to impose on the Zone in its second season—shot on videotape, it exists now only as a filmed kinescope, so looks just about as bad as you'd expect.
By the way, the screenplay was co-written by veteran scifi auteur and regular Zone contributor Charles Beaumont (considered by some to be the series' most gifted scribe) and then-TV tyro Bill Idelson, who was responsible for its killer climactic scene. Idelson went on to be a successful freelancer in '60s and '70s television—contributing scripts to "The Andy Griffith Show," "Get Smart," "The Odd Couple," "The Bob Newhart Show," "Happy Days" and "M*A*S*H"—but is perhaps best-known to baby-boomers as an actor, for his role as Sally Rogers' on-and-off beau Herman Glimscher in "The Dick van Dyke Show."