Thursday, January 28, 2016


On October 30, 2009, the Egyptian Theater hosted a tribute marking the 50th Anniversary of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone. Seven classic episodes were digitally projected in their entirety along with one of the most illustrious panels ever assembled on an American Cinematheque stage: writers Earl Hamner Jr., George Clayton Johnson, and Richard Matheson; cast members Arlene Martel and H.M. Wynant; producer William Self; and director Bob Butler. The program was hosted by television historian Marc Scott Zicree, author of The Twilight Zone Companion. In honor of the recent passing of George Clayton Johnson and his upcoming tribute at the Egyptian on February 26, enjoy his highlights from that evening.

From left: H.M. Wynant, William Self, George Clayton Johnson, Arlene Martel, Earl Hamner, Jr., Bob Butler, and Richard Matheson. Photo by Francisco Arcaute.

Marc Scott Zicree: One thing in sitting here watching the three episodes we just watched, one thing that really comes home is that they’re not just flights of fancy; they’re deeply, profoundly about human truths. I mean "It’s A Good Life" is about having the moral courage to stand up for what’s right, whatever the danger. "Nightmare At 20,000 Feet" – what makes that episode work so wonderfully is it’s a man who begins doubting his own sanity and he becomes assured that he’s all right and again he has the courage to save himself and everyone else, and in taking that courageous step he not only saves his own life, but he’s assured that he’s okay from then on, so there’s a moral point to it. And of course ‘Kick the Can’ is a great, great truth about living your life fully as long as you have your life, and being youthful. And phenomenally – let’s talk about that for a moment, George – when you wrote that episode you were in your early thirties or late twenties. So let’s talk a little about what you think of it, how you came up with it…

GEORGE CLAYTON JOHNSON: Yes, I’d be happy to do that. The year was 1959. All of us were thirty years old, full of energy. All of us were striving to write stories like Ray Bradbury. Richard Matheson was one of those people, Charles Beaumont another. I saw what they were writing, which to my way of thinking was existential literature. It always asked the question, "What if?" It begged for you to suspend your disbelief. These stories could not happen in the real world. You had to understand that there was going to be some magic in these stories; something which Rod Serling called the "Twilight Zone" would happen in these stories. So I got under the influence of Matheson, and Beaumont, and Nolan, and Jerry Sohl, and Theodore Sturgeon, a whole raft of very, very progressive people who were writing short stories for magazines like The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which was a more literary thing than the normal science fiction. It’s also been called "speculative fiction." But basically the art form of the age was "realism." These plays were realistic. We must not forget that Rod Serling was a playwright. He wanted to write plays. Television just happened to come along. And he wrote plays for the camera. Right now, the best Twilight Zones are little, filmed, one-act plays. That is the place where the new literature will go, into this existential way of thinking, the new media where every man can be potentially his own distributor, where all of the old "lines" are not found. I was asked at one of these gatherings what I thought Rod Serling would be doing if he were alive right now. I think he’d be fighting for net neutrality, producing a television show for the cell phone, the tiny screen, and I think this stuff they’re talking about: "mob-isodes" or "webisodes" the coming thing. How they will run it, I said, I have no idea, but you can bet they will.

Requested to elaborate on the process by which a Twilight Zone episode went from the idea stage to a teleplay, George continued:

GCJ: We writers worked for Buck [Houghton]. Rod hardly saw us. He was the final judge, but if Buck said it was okay, you could bet Rod would say it was okay, too, because they were dreadfully in sync. Both of them did their jobs, there was never any conflict that I saw between them. Both of them had this quality that most of my friends had – they were men of honor. They believed in honesty and sincerity. They were real to an extreme. I’ll tell you a story. Charles Beaumont saw the [tele]play that was called The Velvet Alley. Rod Serling’s last Playhouse 90, I think. When Chuck met Rod, he said, "Rod, I’m so glad to meet you, but so we won’t get off on the wrong foot here with everybody praising you for The Velvet Alley, I think The Velvet Alley is the worst piece of crap that has ever been." Well, this obliged Rod to give it to Chuck with the "bark-off" and before long they were talking to each other in the evening over the telephone, and it was obvious that Chuck was Rod’s favorite, because Chuck was able to think in other categories. I think The Twilight Zone gave us that permission. You must remember that we were living in a very buttoned-down Eisenhower world, with Richard Nixon as vice president, and everybody had black shoes and brown shoes and if you didn’t wear a suit you were a nobody. That anything official had to be ceremonial. It was a very, very painful time to live in. There was no permissiveness. No freedom of thought. And then along came The Twilight Zone. And people started thinking of the phenomenon of telepathy. I had a vision the other day of a guy in downtown LA shouting into the air. "What do you mean forty dollars? I wouldn’t pay forty dollars for that." Cut to New York – "Forty Bucks, you’ll pay forty bucks." The only thing wrong with that picture is they don’t have cell phones.

MSZ: Sure, and one thing I want to mention about that is that because The Twilight Zone was shot at MGM, they had access to all the props, costumes, sets and the backlot, of course, with anything MGM had ever done. So they used a lot of stuff from Forbidden Planet, the list goes on and on, and so when I was a producer on Sliders [circa 1995 – 2000] the first question I asked them was could we use some of the props et cetera that Universal had from other productions, because I’d heard that about Rod and The Twilight Zone. So George or Earl, I don’t know if you want to talk about being on that backlot?”

GCJ: I came in near the end of the MGM era. I was hired along with Richard Matheson, and Theodore Sturgeon and Jerry Stohl, to develop a television pilot for Herbert F. Solow who had been Gene Roddenberry's boss at Desilu Studios, but who was now head of production. And he gave us carte blanche to go walk around the backlot and made a point of the fact, if you need a fireplace, there’s a half dozen of them, take one. And it became very clear to me that with all of those sets, over all those MGM years, all of that stuff was available. We also went to their library. They had a huge facility which had all of the scripts that they had ever done. All of the research books that directors and producers had ordered in order to acquaint themselves with some era of time. And I looked at that room full of history and was appalled to have them tell us that they were going to dismantle the entire thing because it was like, old stuff. And I was thinking what a loss – I was there, they were going to tear down the backlot – I think it was Universal – where they had an entire Western street. That was a time of great transition there, really. And it was a shame to me to watch Hollywood melt. Right now you can’t make a black and white film. There’s no black and white videotape. You can denature the film and screw with it, but the whole idea, unless you go back to black and white film, nobody – Eastman gave it up, and then suddenly no black and white film, so the art itself is suffering as a result of this modern technology.”

WILLIAM SELF: I’ve been listening to this and it occurs to me that one of the things that distinguishes The Twilight Zone from all the other television shows is the photography. I put on a show and I won’t know what I’m looking at – it could be The Twilight Zone. It has a certain "clean" look about it. And we should give all of that credit or a lot of it to a man named George Clemens, who isn’t here. George had been an assistant cameraman. When I first started at Schlitz, I had an Academy Award-winning cameraman named Russ Harlan and his assistant was a guy named George Clemens. And when Russ left, George became head photographer and then I suggested George to Rod Serling. And I think what he brought to the show was a clean, clear look, that has never been surpassed. It may have been equaled, but never surpassed, and he deserves a great deal of credit.”

GCJ: Now when I watch television, I turn it on, it’s a drama, an episodic drama. I’ve got to sit through an autopsy. Every bloody show – what are they preparing us for?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: You guys worked in basically what many would consider a golden age and you’ve obviously made one of the biggest contributions to that age, given what you were just discussing. Did you see television going in the direction it eventually went in, to where it is today? What do you think about it and what is it contributing to our culture compared to the contributions that you feel you have obviously made?

GCJ: I really do think it’s a terrible failure of the imagination. We saw Quincy, and I’ve seen every story that I’ve seen since on that show with Jack Klugman. A story about a coroner and it’s all crime scene stuff. It all takes place in a lab. You’ve got a three minute rock video playing over a microscope. House is an example. It’s the same story every week: A guy comes in. He’s got a disease. They treat him. He gets worse. They treat him again. He still gets worse. They treat him again. And he’s standing there dying, and House says, "Aspirin, I’ve read about aspirin." Every darn week, and I want to say to Hollywood, or to the networks, or whoever is responsible for all this stuff, shame on you.

GCJ: It is really lovely to be praised for work you did fifty years ago. That’s really true – these things that we are looking at – fifty years ago, is when we were doing them. We were young, full of enthusiasm, captivated by the whole idea of being a part of Hollywood. And so now when I look back on all of this, I think what a poorer world this would be without The Twilight Zone. Because I believe that The Twilight Zone was just as responsible for the change that took place in America during the sixties as were the student demonstrations and the breakdown of this "eat the scale" system in America where Ike Eisenhower's slogan was "Auto-Buy Now!"

The flower children were very much a part of that. The Twilight Zone was very much a part of that, because it gave us permission to think in other categories and to start to discard some of our old prejudices and to begin to look at things differently. Black revolution, this whole change in the social mores of the country, they all happened after 1959.