The Twilight Zone has endured and enchanted for decades because its themes are timeless, its performances are iconic, and its eerie black and white cinematography transports viewers into, as creator and host Rod Serling famously said, “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.”
Diehard fans of fantasy, science fiction, and horror who love concise tales with a twist ending have always been able to fall back on this beloved series whenever they’re in the mood for a thrill ride. The behind-the-scenes history of The Twilight Zone is in many ways just as fascinating and unusual as the show’s most famous episodes. With that in mind, here are fifteen factoids that you might not know about Serling’s classic series.
15. Orson Welles Was The Original Choice For Narrator
It’s impossible for any fan of The Twilight Zone to imagine the series narrated by anyone else than Rod Serling. But the series creator and head writer wasn’t network brass’ first choice. Wanting a star with a bigger cachet, CBS network trained their sights on actor and filmmaker Orson Welles, whose sonorous baritone freaked out listeners on his 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast.
Serling wasn’t fond of Welles however, thinking his style too pompous and distracting. When the network discovered they couldn’t afford Welles’ services, Serling randomly suggested he’d like to try out for the job — a highly unusual request, given that showrunners and writers were rarely featured in the spotlight. But the network found that his style fit the tone of the series perfectly and history was made, making Serling one of the most recognizable television hosts next to another man equally famous in front of and behind the camera: Alfred Hitchcock.
14. The Show Used Props From Forbidden Planet
The Twilight Zone’s grand science fiction concepts of alien worlds and futuristic societies didn’t have the advantage of the big budgets that premium cable genre shows like Game of Thrones and Westworld are afforded today. And for a show with only modest ratings at the time, certain episodes stretched their meager budget to the breaking point.
To help save costs, the production staff often used props from science fiction films, with Forbidden Planet being the most fruitful. The series used that film’s flying saucer in the classic episode “To Serve Man”, along with the haunting hour-long episode “Death Ship”.
The wardrobe was also retrofitted for several occasions, most notably by the invading alien faction in “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”. Forbidden Planet‘s most recognizable character, Robbie the Robot, also made appearances in two Twilight Zone episodes, “Uncle Simon” and “The Brain Center at Whipples” (with modest redesigns of Robby’s face)
13. One Episode Was Originally An Oscar-Winning Foreign Film
Series producer William Froug was looking to save money on The Twilight Zone, which often went over-budget in its fifth (and final season). In an effort to cut costs, he bought the rights to the short French film, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, based off of Ambrose Bierce’s short story of the same name.
It was an unusual move at the time, co-opting an Oscar and Cannes festival award-winning film, but it’s dark and poetic twist ending made it a perfect fit, while adding a European flair that made it stand out from the rest.
But for many fans, “Owl Creek Bridge” is an elusive, forgotten episode, as it was never sold into syndication, depriving many viewers of one of the most distinctive entries in the series. In later years, this has been rectified, with the episode appearing on in both DVD and Blu-ray fifth season special edition box sets. It also aired for the first time on Syfy for the 2016 New Year’s Marathon.
12. “Cavender Is Coming” Was Designed As A Sitcom Pilot
While The Twilight Zone was an anthology series with self-contained episodes and casts, Serling had something different in mind with “Cavender is Coming”, a comedic episode starring Carol Burnett and Jesse White. Serling thought the episode could lay the groundwork for a successful sitcom.
White plays the title character, a bumbling guardian angel whose attempts at wish-fulfillment for theater worker Agnes (Burnett) continually backfire. In the end, he doesn’t get his wings, but gets the go-ahead to help other subjects, just setting up the recurring premise for a new series.
The problem was that “Cavender is Coming” was a dud. Terribly unfunny and missing the sharpness of Rod Serling’s best writing, the episode even features a laugh track, but it fails to be infectious. The end result not only killed its prospects of becoming a new series, but also being notable as one of the worst Twilight Zone episodes ever. Marc Scott Zicree, author of The Twilight Zone Companion, joked that episode should be called “Cadaver is Coming”, and that’s a pretty fitting description!
11. Music Was An Integral Element
It’s almost a Pavlovian response: the name Twilight Zone comes up in conversation and immediately the “do dee do do” notes of the theme song pops into your head. That avant-garde jazz theme was composed by Maurius Constant. However, this theme song wasn’t introduced until the second season.
The original score came courtesy of Bernard Herrmann, the legendary film composer behind the scores of Psycho, North by Northwest, Cape Fear and Taxi Driver (to name a few). His moody, dark and mysterious score was for some reason considered a downer, and the decision was made to go for Constant’s quirkier theme. This was also a way to save money: since Constant was French, the network didn’t have to pay union fees for music created outside the United States.
10. The Secret Behind “The Silence”
“The Silence” was one of the rare Twilight Zone episodes with no elements of the supernatural or science fiction. In it, smug country club member Archie Taylor (Franchot Tone) bets loudmouth fellow member Jamie Tennyson (Liam Sullivan) that he can’t remain quiet for a year. When Tennyson takes him up on the offer, he’s promised half a million dollars if he can stay silent while living in a glass room. This proves difficult, as Taylor taunts him relentlessly to make him lose the bet.
During shooting, the cast and crew became concerned when Tone didn’t show up on set one day. They soon found out that he had an accident and ended up with one-half of his face scraped completely raw. The solution to shoot only the other half of Tone’s face had an unexpected creative benefit. Many critics praised director Boris Sagal’s creative choice, with Tone talking out of the side of his mouth making him extra cruel and manipulative as he chides and humiliates Tennyson (leading to one of the harshest twist endings of the series).
9. Rod Serling Wrote 94 Out of 156 Episodes
Rod Serling’s workload for The Twilight Zone feels as fantastical as the series itself. Forever on the edge of burning out, Serling wrote a staggering 94 episodes. This output was virtually unheard of at the time (let alone now), especially when he was also the showrunner and narrator.
Wearing so many hats would eventually take their toll, which is why some episodes are stronger than others. His schedule became so harried that rather than use a typewriter to pump out his scripts he eventually just dictated his storylines into a dictaphone and had his secretary translate it into script format. Serling’s workaholic tendencies would catch up with him, which, along with his chain-smoking and family history, resulted in dying from a heart attack at age 50.
But The Twilight Zone wasn’t solely dependent on Serling as the creative engine, and he would reach out for help from other writers to balance the workload — which leads us to our next entry.
8. The Tragic Fate of Writer Charles Beaumont
When Serling became overwhelmed with writing duties, he searched for new writers to help balance the workload. The two most notable contributors included Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, What Dreams May Come) and pulp horror writer Charles Beaumont, best known for the Twilight Zone episodes “The Howling Man”, “Living Doll”, “Long Live Walter Jameson”, and “Number 12 Looks Just Like You”.
Beaumont’s wild persona and fervent imagination entertained all those who read his works or shared his company, but he became a tragic figure, dying at the age of 38 from a mysterious illness that made him look well beyond his ears, as well as mentally and physically feeble.
No official cause of his death has ever been claimed, but theories run from having Spinal Meningitis as a child, to Alzheimer’s and Bromo-seltzer poisoning. Beaumont’s son described his father’s state in The Twilight Zone Companion, saying: “he looked ninety-five and was, in fact, ninety-five by every calendar except the one on your watch.”
In this tragic way he resembled the rapidly aging character from “Long Live Walter Jameson”, or as his former writing partner William Nolan reflected, “Like his character ‘Walter Jameson,’ Chuck just dusted away.”
7. Serling Lost Millions in Syndication Rights
During the 1960’s, syndication of television series was a pretty new concept, and after The Twilighcanceleds cancelled in 1964, Rod Serling gave little thought to what the future of The Twilight Zone would be in reruns on UHF stations, and later, cable (and Syfy).
So the creator behind the landmark series sold the rights to the series to CBS for one lump some — described as sizable, but miniscule in relation to the profits the series has made so many times over. Serling’s wife Carol would explain that, in addition to her husband not seeing a future in syndication, “One reason that my husband sold out, was that the show often went over budget and CBS said they would never recoup the costs. Needles to say, they have, many, many times.”
While Carol would retain the rights to his screenplays and written works, his family lost out in millions of future revenue after his death. For his part, Serling hated that reruns of Twilight Zone episodes had full scenes excised to make room for commercials (a problem that persists in Syfy marathons).
6. Sex In A Parallel Dimension
Sex was a topic rarely touched upon in 1960s television, with prudish censors doing everything they could to make sure programs were wholesome enough to gain the largest audience and most profitable sponsors.
This was obviously a source of frustration to the creative types in the industry, who often felt stifled with such silly constrictions. The Twilight Zone was not immune to this, and they delicately tackled sexuality on their fourth season hour-long episode, “The Parallel”. The story revolved around astronaut Robert Gaines (Steve Forrest) who thinks he’s arrived back on Earth — except everything is slightly different. He soon realizes he’s in a parallel universe, and must try to find a way back home.
The episode employs several elements to show how Gaines isn’t on home turf, with the most novel occurring when he tries to be intimate with his wife. As series producer Bert Granet explained in The Twilight Zone Companion: “Censorship was so strict at the time…we tried something that was a shade too subtle…the sexual habits were different…unless your’e looking for it I don’t think you’ll find it.” Indeed, it’s just a brief awkward embrace, but daring for the time.
5. George Takei Starred In The Most Controversial Episode
The Twilight Zone has had several episodes that weren’t included in syndication, such as the previously mentioned “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge”, while others (“A Short Drink From A Certain Fountain”, “Miniature”, and “Sounds and Silences”) were all held up by copyright lawsuits (which were resolved by 1984).
But “The Encounter” wasn’t included in syndication for another reason entirely: it was deemed deeply offensive. The episode starred George Takei as Arthur, a Japanese American who knocks on the door of Fenton, a WWII veteran (Neville Brand) looking for work. But when they go converse in Fenton’s attic, their conversation takes a turn for the worse when they begin a xenophobic argument that turns violent.
The episode was not well-received. Japanese American viewers were incensed about the backstory of Takei’s character, which centered around him being the son of a Japanese spy involved in Pearl Harbor (based off a rumor that was never proved). As a result, the episode was removed from American syndication until the 2016 Syfy Twilight Zone New Year’s Marathon (and earlier home video releases).
4. “The Big Tall Wish” Was The First Television Episode Featuring An All Black Cast.
Serling refused to turn a blind eye to the prejudice and racism that was prevalent in the 1960s, as he was to so many social ills of the era (more on this in a bit). And on the episode “The Big Tall Wish” he took a big gamble: it was the first television episode in history to feature a predominantly black cast.
The episode, which focused on a boy’s magical wish to help his down-on-his-luck boxer father, wasn’t just revolutionary in its casting choices, but in the fact that the story never acknowledged their ethnicity as part of the plot. It was a small tale of normal people not mired in racial politics.
Regarding this creative decision by Serling, he made his progressive intentions clear: “Television, like its big sister, the motion picture, has been guilty of the sin of omission… Hungry for talent, desperate for the so-called ‘new face,’ constantly searching for a transfusion of new blood, it has overlooked a source of wondrous talent that resides under its nose. This is the Negro actor.”
3. The Gremlin Problem Surrounding “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet”
When one thinks of The Twilight Zone, the image of the infamous airplane Gremlin from the episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” usually comes to mind. It’s beyond iconic, with the battle between William Shatner and the airplane-meddling creature having been referenced in countless films and television shows over the decades.
But episode writer Richard Matheson was not a fan of the furry monster displayed on the small screen: “I didn’t think much of that thing on the wing. I had wished that Jacques Tourneur (Cat People) had directed it…Tourneur was going to put a dark suit on him and cover him with diamond dust so that you hardly saw what was out there. This thing looked like a panda bear.”
That being said, the episode is still a chilling bit of TV theater. One reason for its success was the direction by Richard Donner (who would go on to feature film fame with Superman The Movie and The Omen). Even if his choice of Gremlin costume displeased Matheson, it has thrilled millions of fans the world over.
2. How Serling Avoided Censorship With Social and Political Content
Early in his career, Rod Serling was known as “The angry young man of television.” This moniker was earner for tackling social issues in teleplays like “Patterns”, which dealt with cutthroat capitalism, or “Requiem for a Heavyweight”, about a boxer trying to get back on the top.
Serling became demoralized by corporate censors, who watered down the racial commentary of “A Town Has Turned To Dust”. He even had to take the Chrysler building out of another teleplay because the show was sponsored by Ford Motors. The writer was so disgusted he went on a rant in a 1959 interview with Mike Wallace: “I don’t want to have to compromise all the time, which in essence is what a television writer does if he wants to put on controversial themes.”
Wallace needled him on escaping to sci-fi and fantasy, but Serling never intended to leave his themes of social injustice behind. The Twilight Zone gave him leeway to speak out on fascism, prejudice, and religious zealotry by infusing his views into stories about aliens and post-apocalyptic worlds. As a result, viewers gained life lessons disguised as genre storytelling, and these ever-timely concerns are one reason the show has held up so strongly for decades.
1. A Big Break For Young Actors
The Twilight Zone wasn’t just a groundbreaking show in terms of content: it was also notable for its onscreen talent, as it served as a launching pad for young actors before they became famous. The Twilight Zone was a destination visited by many notables, including Robert Redford (“Nothing in the Dark”), Burt Reynolds (“The Bard”), Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery (“Two”), Cloris Leachmen (“It’s A Good Life”), Carol Burnett (the aforementioned “Cavender is Coming”) and Dennis Hopper (“He’s Alive”).
Other performers of note include Martin Landau, Robert Duvall, Ron Howard, Jonathan Winters, Dennis Weaver, Dick York, Jack Klugman, and Peter Falk, to name but a few thespians that would go on to bigger fame and fortune,
There’s also a strong connection between The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, with series regulars William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, James Doohan, and George Takei all getting early exposure on Serling’s series. There was another behind-the-scenes Trek connection as well: Serling was good friends with creator Gene Roddenberry, who even gave the eulogy at Serling’s memorial service.
Well that wraps up our list of 15 interesting facts about The Twilight Zone. Do you know any other obscure factoids about the series? Tell us in the comments!
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