Last night at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood (formerly Grauman’s Egyptian, where my grandmother went to the theater’s opening of the silent TEN COMMANDMENTS in the Twenties), I hosted a 50th Anniversay tribute to THE TWILIGHT ZONE.
It was a phenomenal evening, sold-out with an audience of thousands (they had to turn away over a hundred people at the door). We opened with my greeting the audience and telling them that we had censorship to thank for the evening – if Rod Serling hadn’t been unable to get anything he wanted to say about race, social issues or politics past the censors and sponsors on such 1950s shows as PLAYHOUSE 90 he’d never have been forced to create TWILIGHT ZONE as his way of using science fiction as his coded message regarding “hot button” issues (much as Jonathan Swift used GULLIVER’S TRAVELS for the same purpose).
I also had Matheson sign my first editions of his novels I AM LEGEND and BID TIME RETURN (which was made into the wonderful time travel romance SOMEWHERE IN TIME).
We then screened three terrific episodes – “It’s a Good Life,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and “Kick the Can.” They looked just amazing on the big screen, and the writing, directing and acting were just top-notch. Billy Mumy, Ernest Truex and William Shatner’s performances were remarkable.
Then I moderated a panel with a veritable who’s who of THE TWILIGHT ZONE: CBS’ exec Bill Self, who produced the TWILIGHT ZONE pilot “Where Is Everybody,” ZONE writers Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson and Earl Hamner (who, along with Serling and Charles Beaumont, wrote almost all of the great TWILIGHT ZONE episodes made), director Robert Butler (who did the episodes “Caesar and Me” and the long-lost George Takei-starring “The Encounter”) and actors H.M Wynant (“The Howling Man”) and Arlene Martell (who in the episode “22” uttered the immortal line, “Room for one more, honey,” as well as playing Spock’s fiancee T’Pring in Ted Sturgeon’s STAR TREK episode “Amok Time” and Robert Culp’s fellow prisoner in Harlan Ellison’s classic OUTER LIMITS episode “Demon With a Glass Hand”).
Over the hour-length of the panel, we reminisced about Serling and the Zone, with Self recalling when Serling turned in the TWILIGHT ZONE pilot script “The Happy Place” and he told Rod he hated it in its entirety. Serling went off in a huff and Self was worried his bosses at CBS would fire him for rejecting a script they had already said they liked. Instead, three days later, Serling returned to Self’s office and said, “I thought about what you said and you’re right. That wasn’t the TWILIGHT ZONE pilot – this is,” and he tossed a new script down on Self’s desk that he’d just written in three days. It was “Where Is Everybody,” which got shot and sold the series.
After the panel, we all signed books – particularly copies of my book THE TWILIGHT ZONE COMPANION (it’s a real trip to see an audience full of folks walking around carrying your book under their arm). Then we screened four more ZONE classics – “The Hunt,” “Time Enough at Last” (Burgess Meredith is just spectacular as the bookworm who ends us the Last Man on Earth), “Walking Distance” and “The Howling Man.”
What a great night, and one we won’t see again.
But I’m planning on being back for TWILIGHT ZONE’s 75th anniversary down the road…