“And When the Sky Was Opened”
Season One, Episode 11
Original Air Date: December 11, 1959
Colonel Clegg Forbes: Rod Taylor
Major William Gart: James Hutton
Colonel Ed Harrington: Charles Aidman
Amy: Maxine Cooper
Bartender: Paul Bryer
Girl in Bar: Gloria Pall
Nurse: Sue Randall
Medical Officer: Joe Bassett
Writer: Rod Serling (teleplay based on the short story “Disappearing Act” by Richard Matheson).
Director: Douglas Heyes
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and William Ferrari
Set Decoration: Rudy Butler and Henry Grace
Assistant Director: Edward Denault
Casting: Mildred Gusse
Editor: Fred Maguire
Sound: Franklin Milton and Jean Valentino
Music: Leonard Rosenman
And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week three men return from a flight into space only to discover that their nightmare has just begun. Rod Taylor, James Hutton, and Charles Aidman appear in ‘And When the Sky Was Opened.’ What happens to these men once they’re picked up in the desert? [Serling vanishes] Well, that gives you a rough idea. You’ll see next week on the Twilight Zone. Thank you and good night.”
Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“Her name: X-20. Her type: an experimental interceptor. Recent history: a crash landing in the Mojave Desert after a thirty-five hour flight, nine hundred miles into space. Incidental data: the ship with the men who flew her disappeared from the radar screen for twenty-four hours. But the shrouds that cover mysteries are not always made out of a tarpaulin, as this man will soon find out on the other side of a hospital door.”
Colonel Clegg Forbes is having a bad day. Forbes is an astronaut with the United States Air Force whose spacecraft, the X-20, has crash-landed in the Mojave Desert after it mysteriously disappeared from the radar screen. He was accompanied on the trip by two others, Colonel Ed Harrington and Major William Gart. Several days after the crash Forbes, noticeably shaken, visits Major Gart in the hospital. Forbes asks Gart if he remembers Ed Harrington. Gart looks at him like he is insane and tells him that he doesn’t know anyone named Ed Harrington, and that he and Forbes went up in the X-20 alone. Forbes then launches into an outline of the events of the previous day.
Forbes visited Gart in his hospital room with Ed Harrington just before going out to a bar. In his hands Harrington held a newspaper with a picture of the three astronauts on the front page. The two senior officers poked some fun at Gart’s condition and then left. Once at the bar, Harrington’s behavior became erratic. He told Forbes that he felt as if something was terribly wrong, like he didn’t belong there. Attempting to brush it off, Harrington excused himself and walked to a payphone in the corner to call his parents. A few minutes later Harrington called Forbes over to the payphone where Forbes found his friend trembling. He told Forbes that he called his parents but they claimed that they didn’t have a son. Forbes walked back to the bar to order Harrington a drink to calm his nerves. When he returned, the phone booth was empty. Forbes asked the bartender if he knew where his friend had gone but the bartender replied that Forbes had come into the bar alone. Forbes then noticed the newspaper with the picture of the astronauts on the front cover. It was exactly the same except now there were only two people in the picture, Forbes and Gart. Later that night Forbes’s girlfriend arrived at his hotel room. Forbes asked her if she knew a man named Ed Harrington. She said she did not. Fearing that he might be losing his mind, Forbes left the hotel room and wandered around town in a paranoid frenzy for the rest of the night before showing up at Gart’s hospital room in the morning.
Major Gart looks at his friend with concern and tells him that he doesn’t know anyone named Ed Harrington. Forbes tells Gart that he thinks Harrington was somehow erased from existence and that the two of them are next. He says he feels a strange sensation then runs out of the room screaming. Gart notices that the newspaper photo has changed and Forbes is no longer in the picture. The caption says that it was a solo mission.
Later. A nurse shows a hospital supervisor into Gart’s room, now empty.
Even later. Airplane hangar, also empty. The X-20 was once housed here. Or perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps the only place it ever really existed…was in the Twilight Zone.
Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Once upon a time, there was a man named Harrington, a man named Forbes, a man named Gart. They used to exist, but don’t any longer. Someone—or something—took them somewhere. At least they are no longer a part of the memory of man. And as to the X-20 supposed to be housed here in this hangar, this too does not exist. And if any of you have any questions concerning an air craft and three men who flew her, speak softly of them…and only in the Twilight Zone.”
“And When the Sky Was Opened” is Rod Serling’s adaptation of Richard Matheson’s story “Disappearing Act,” although the similarity between the two stories is virtually nonexistent. Matheson’s story is an epistolary account of a down-on-his-luck writer whose life is made even worse when all of the things important to him (his wife, his mistress, his friends, his house) suddenly start to disappear. Eventually, even he disappears, ending his story in mid-sentence. Serling took the premise of this story and wrote an entirely new one with different characters, a different setting, and a much different plot. Serling felt that there was no rationale to Matheson’s story, no reason why the narrator’s life suddenly starts to disappear. In Serling's story the characters are astronauts recently returned to Earth, giving the audience something to blame for their inexplicable disappearance: Space. In 1959 Space exploration was still a new concept and many people were apprehensive about sending human beings where no man had gone before. Serling likely had this is mind when he rewrote Matheson’s story into a teleplay about astronauts. He also might have seen an opportunity to exploit the international space race between the United States and Russia. Writing about current events would establish the show’s credibility with mainstream viewers who ordinarily did not watch fantasy programs. He even named the aircraft in his script the X-20 after the X-20 Dynamic Soarer (Dyna-Soar), an experimental vessel designed by the United States Air Force for military espionage as well as space exploration.
Serling’s statement concerning the lack of rationale in the original story holds a certain amount of validity in that it works on the page very well but if adapted faithfully it probably would not have worked on the screen for it relies heavily on its epistolary structure of journal entries. However, his version is so far removed from the original it seems odd that he would go to the trouble of purchasing the story from Matheson just to credit it as source material. The title could be the reason he wanted the screen rights to the story. Serling originally intended to use Matheson’s title, which he would have had to purchase if his story resembled Matheson’s in any way, but changed it to “And When the Sky Was Opened” after production was completed.
Richard Matheson is a writer whose work seems tailor-made for a show like The Twilight Zone. In his introduction to the definitive collection of his short fiction, Richard Matheson: Collected Stories (edited by Stanley Wiater; Edge Books, 2003), Matheson describes the underlying motif in much of his early fiction in this manner: the individual isolated in a threatening world, attempting to survive. Matheson’s fiction is heavily concerned with psychology and even though much of it is fantasy he takes a realistic approach to exploring how people react to their surroundings. His characters are usually incredibly flawed individuals, fraught with disillusionment and paranoia. Serling often described the most devastating type of fear as a fear of the unknown that affects only one person, a fear which that person cannot share with anyone else. If this was going to be a central theme on The Twilight Zone then a writer like Matheson would have been an obvious choice for the series. He is widely recognized as the writer who shaped the modern horror story, taking it out of the tired confines of European folklore and placing it in suburban neighborhoods and shopping malls. Matheson wasn’t the first writer to do this—friends and fellow Twilight Zone alumni Ray Bradbury and Henry Kuttner had been publishing horror stories set in the modern world since the 1940’s—but he was the first to make it a defining characteristic of his fiction. Matheson’s world was immediately recognizable to readers and his protagonists were far more sympathetic than the archetypal heroes of Lovecraft and Poe.
Although CBS greenlit production on The Twilight Zone based on the popularity of Serling’s unofficial pilot “The Time Element,” which aired on Westinghouse-Desilu Playhouse in 1958, they had done so reluctantly. Network officials were still not entirely sold on the mainstream appeal of a fantasy program and wanted to insure their investment. In exchange for their risk CBS wanted Serling to write eighty percent of the scripts for the first season. The basis for this requirement was that Serling’s name was familiar and was frequently associated with quality material. This amounted to Serling writing 28 of season one’s 36 episodes by himself. Because of such a monumental obligation he often adapted the works of others to consolidate time. Serling had always possessed an eye for adaptation even in his days as a writer for live television—his 1957 adaptation of Ernest Lehman’s story “The Comedian” for Playhouse 90 earned him an Emmy Award. Dialogue and characterization were always his greatest attributes as a writer. He could analyze a story quickly, picking out the idiosyncrasies of the characters and expanding upon them in a way that was compelling.
In the months before production began on The Twilight Zone, Serling, always a writer’s writer, opened up story submissions to anyone who felt that their work would be a good fit for the show. He and a small editorial staff received over 14,000 manuscripts worth of unusable material in just five days. This approach was quite obviously not going to work. Months later, Serling tried again. He arranged a screening of “Where is Everybody?” and invited a number of highly regarded science fiction and fantasy writers to attend. Among those in attendance were Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and Ray Bradbury. All three had been on Serling’s radar for some time. It had initially been thought that Bradbury—by this time a reputable name on the page and on the screen—would be a major contributor to the show. However, after having multiple teleplays rejected for various reasons—usually budgetary concerns—Bradbury grew frustrated with the show and with Serling in particular, causing a life-long strain on their friendship. Beaumont had come to Serling’s attention through Bradbury and through Beaumont’s literary agent, Forrest J. Ackerman, who was also Lynn A. Venable’s agent and would sell Serling the rights to Venable’s story “Time Enough at Last.” After getting his foot in the door Beaumont repaid the favor, so to speak, by recommending close friend George Clayton Johnson as a possible contributor. Serling bought and adapted Johnson’s stories “All of Us Are Dying” (as “The Four of Us Are Dying”) and “Execution” before allowing Johnson to write his own teleplays. Matheson had also come to Serling’s attention through Bradbury. Serling had been particularly moved by Matheson’s story “The Test” about a dystopia where elderly people were required to pass a state-mandated exam in order to avoid being euthanized. Serling likely had an affinity for this story because it resembled his recently rejected teleplay “The Happy Place” which he submitted as the show’s potential pilot episode. However, Serling decided not to purchase screen rights for “The Test,” feeling it would be more effective in a longer format. Instead, he secured the rights to two much shorter stories, “Disappearing Act” and “Third From the Sun,” before inviting Matheson to the pilot screening to persuade him to write for the show.
Los Angeles in the 1950’s and 60’s was the place to live if you were a science fiction or fantasy writer. It’s also where one needed to live in order to have a career in the television and film industry. By the time they met Rod Serling, Matheson and Beaumont were close friends who had known each other for nearly a decade. Although they were very different people, Beaumont an enthusiastic adventurer who was constantly in motion and Matheson quieter and more reclusive, they shared similar opinions about fiction, especially fantasy. No matter what the fantasy element, they felt, the story should be grounded in reality and the characters, at least some of them, relatable in some way. Serling obviously shared their feelings and this is likely why he sought them out as contributors.
When Matheson first moved to California in 1951 after publishing his famous first story “Born of Man and Woman” in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction the year before, he fell in with a group of writers who called themselves the Fictioneers. Matheson, only twenty-three at the time, was staying with writer William Campbell Gault while looking for a place of his own. Through his friendship with Gault he met William R. Cox, Henry Kuttner, Les Savage, and a dozen or so other writers who would meet several times a month for all-night drinking sessions where they would discuss sales, share influences, and workshop each other’s writing. Many of them wrote mysteries and westerns which, Matheson says, is why he turned to the mystery genre when writing his first two novels, Someone Is Bleeding and Fury on Sunday (both Lion Books, 1953).
Within a year or so, however, Matheson had fallen in with another group of writers that would collectively become known as “The Southern California School of Writers,” (taken from a quote by Los Angeles Times critic Robert Kirsch) or simply “The Group.” The Group played a significant part in the history of The Twilight Zone because almost all of the show’s writers including Beaumont, Johnson, Bradbury, Jerry Sohl, and John Tomerlin were connected to it. Robert Bloch, William F. Nolan, Harlan Ellison, Ray Russell, Chad Oliver, Frank M. Robinson, Charles Fritch, and Forrest J. Ackerman were also closely associated with this circle of friends. The Group found in each other the creative drive to produce the best work possible. Their spirited enthusiasm had an indelible impression on their work and out of this camaraderie came countless masterpieces of American popular fiction—Matheson’s I Am Legend, Nolan and Johnson’s Logan’s Run, Bloch’s Psycho, and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles are but the peak of a mountain of quality work from this group of writers, many of whom are unfortunately forgotten. Many contemporary writers of fantasy and science fiction, genres that now make the New York Times bestsellers list on a regular basis, cite these authors as major influences and it is to the discredit of the publishing industry that so much of their work is no longer in print.
Like Matheson, Beaumont could hop genres effortlessly. A look at his first three collections will reveal fantasy stories, science fiction stories, crime stories, mainstream stories, social commentaries, and stories that explored his varied interests like jazz and auto racing. His second novel, The Intruder (1959), which was based on a real event, is a vicious commentary on racial segregation that could have been written by Serling. After establishing themselves as novelists and short story writers they decided to venture into the world of screenwriting. Because it was a new medium to both of them they decided to collaborate on a handful of projects to increase their chances of success. Together they wrote scripts for western shows like Wanted: Dead or Alive, Have Gun—Will Travel, and Buckskin, and detective shows like The D.A.’s Man and Markham. They also wrote a feature-length adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s classic horror novel Conjure Wife (1943) called Night of the Eagle. It was made into a film by Sidney Hayers for American International in 1962 and released under the title Burn, Witch, Burn. Also, between the two of them they wrote, or co-wrote, all of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe films for American International, although they did not collaborate on any of these. When they were approached to write for The Twilight Zone each felt comfortable enough writing in his native genre that they decided to write their own material.
Matheson’s first screen credit came back in 1955, several years before he began trying to sell his own scripts, when his story “Shapeshift Home” was adapted by Lawrence Kimble as “Young Couple’s Only” for the anthology show Studio 57 on the DuMont Network—Peter Lorre played an evil janitor with an eye in the back of his head. His big break into the film industry came when he was approached by producer Albert Zugsmith for the screen rights to his novel The Shrinking Man (Fawcett Gold Medal, 1956). Matheson agreed to sell the rights with the stipulation that he write the screenplay. Released by Universal Studios in 1957 as The Incredible Shrinking Man, it was directed by science fiction screen legend Jack Arnold and features groundbreaking special effects and a terrific performance from Grant Williams as the tragic Scott Carey. Today it’s considered a classic of the genre.
Throughout his prolific and illustrious screen career Matheson regularly worked with some of the most recognizable names in the history of cinema including Vincent Price, Steven Spielberg, Dan Curtis, Roger Corman, and of course Rod Serling. He wrote fourteen episodes of The Twilight Zone—not including Serling’s two adaptations or his rejected fifth season teleplay “The Doll”—which makes him the third-most frequent contributor after Serling and Beaumont. His catalog includes some of the most recognizable images from the show like Agnes Moorehead demolishing the enemy spacecraft in season two’s “The Invaders” or William Shatner’s taunting gremlin in season five’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Matheson worked with Serling again on Night Gallery during the show’s second season where he wrote the segments “Big Surprise” and “The Funeral.” In 1983 he wrote 3/4 of the script for Twilight Zone: The Movie, which saw Mad Max director George Miller remake “Nightmare at 20,000” with John Lithgow in the Shatner role. He also wrote an episode of the 1980’s Twilight Zone series called “Button, Button,” which he adapted from his well-known short story of the same name. The segment was poorly directed, however, with underwhelming performances and Matheson replaced his byline with his pseudonym, Logan Swanson, as he often did whenever he disliked an unfavorable adaptation of his material. He also wrote a segment of The Twilight Zone: Rod Serling’s Lost Classics, which aired on CBS in May of 1994. It brought to the screen two works by Serling, an apparent story treatment for an unrealized Twilight Zone film called “The Theatre,” adapted by Matheson, and an unproduced, fully-scripted teleplay called “Where the Dead Are.” Outside of The Twilight Zone, Matheson had a fruitful relationship with American International Pictures, adapting the works of Poe and Jules Verne as well as scripting a film about the Marquis de Sade. He wrote six episodes of the ABC series Lawman for which his episode “Yawkey” (1960) earned him a Writer’s Guild Award. He also wrote an episode for the first season of Star Trek called “The Enemy Within.” In 1971 he adapted his story “Duel” into a film for ABC which was the first feature-length film directed by Steven Spielberg. He wrote the teleplay for the ABC film “The Night Stalker” (1972) which inspired the Kolchak series. This won him another Writer’s Guild Award and an Edgar Allan Poe Award. He wrote a sequel the following year called The Night Strangler. He wrote screenplays for his novels Hell House and Bid Time Returns which were made into successful films as The Legend of Hell House (1973) and Somewhere in Time (1980), respectively. His acclaimed miniseries The Dreamer of Oz about the life of Wizard of Oz creator L. Frank Baum aired on NBC in 1990. His career in film and television spanned four decades and produced hundreds of teleplays and screenplays, some realized and some not, but his work on The Twilight Zone may be his lasting legacy.
Unfortunately, despite his successes on both the big screen and the small, Matheson never saw a faithful adaptation of his classic vampire novel I Am Legend (Fawcett Gold Medal, 1954), which many consider to be his masterpiece. Hollywood has tried three different times to bring this landmark novel to the screen but none of their attempts have been particularly successful. Director Sidney Salkow made the first attempt in 1964 with The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price. Matheson wrote the initial draft of the screenplay but it was rewritten by William F. Leicester. Matheson was unhappy with the finished draft and replaced his name with the Logan Swanson byline. And while he admired Vincent Price a great deal Matheson felt that he was not the right choice for this role which is probably true. Still, the film is enjoyable and is probably the best, and most faithful, adaptation of his novel. The second attempt came just a few years later in 1971 when Warner Brothers released The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston. Directed by Twilight Zone alumni Boris Sagal from an extremely loose adaptation by John William Corrington and Joyce H. Corrington, this version is neither faithful nor enjoyable. The third and probably most well-known version is 2007’s I Am Legend starring Will Smith. This was also released by Warner Brothers and is in fact based partially on the Corrington’s screenplay for The Omega Man although the resemblance is minimal. It was adapted by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman and directed by Francis Lawrence. This version is up and down. Smith delivers a compelling performance but an unfaithful screenplay and horrible computer imagery make it mediocre and predictable. Ironically, the film that best captures Matheson’s novel is not an actual adaptation. Director George Romero has stated several times that his classic 1968 zombie film Night of the Living Dead was heavily inspired by I Am Legend as Matheson’s novel has more to do with survival and psychology than with vampires.
“And When the Sky Was Opened” also marks The Twilight Zone debut of Douglas Heyes (1919 – 1993), one of the finest directors to ever work on the program. A renaissance man, Heyes was also a skilled musician, painter, actor, screenwriter, and novelist—his 1985 crime novel The Kill was nominated for a Shamus Award. Heyes made nine episodes during the first and second seasons of the show, although his influence can be felt throughout the entire run of the series. He had an eclectic style that lent itself to the show spectacularly. If Houghton knew that an episode was going to be aesthetically challenging Heyes was usually his first choice as director. In “Eye of the Beholder” Heyes meticulously storyboarded each shot and maneuvers the camera so that none of the actors’ faces are seen until the big reveal at the end. In “The Howling Man” he uses tilted camera angles throughout much of the episode to convey the confusion of the main character. This established an atmosphere from the very beginning that The Twilight Zone would be a show that took risks. His style here is more reserved than most of his episodes but Serling’s script focuses mostly on the psychological deterioration of each character so Heyes simply lets the actors do most of the heavy-lifting. There are a few unusual shots in the episode. In the hotel scene, as Taylor slowly backs out onto the balcony, Heyes gives the illusion that the room is higher off the ground than it actually is. When Taylor suddenly leaps off the balcony it is revealed that the room is ground level. In the scene immediately after this, when Taylor returns to the bar, Heyes has him spontaneously crash through a glass door, a ludicrous idea that works brilliantly.
The actors are largely what make this a memorable episode. Charles Aidman and James Hutton both turn in great performances, but Rod Taylor is unquestionably the hero of this episode. Taylor (1930-2015) was an Australian-born actor who is probably best remembered for his roles in George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960) and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and as the voice of Pongo in Disney’s 101 Dalmatians (1961). His performance as the frazzled Clegg Forbes is brilliant. His facial expressions and physical mannerisms are particularly impressive, especially in his scenes with Hutton. At times, he is so committed to the neurosis of this character that some of his scenes are nerve-racking to watch. Taylor maintained a relatively successful career in film and television until the end of his life. His last role was as Winston Churchill in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards (2009). He died in 2015 at the age of 84.
This episode isn’t without its flaws, however. Many fans and critics have expressed their dissatisfaction with the final scene in which the camera pans over a neatly folded canvas tarp sitting inside a square of caution tape inside an airplane hangar. This is a throw-back to the opening scene which features the X-20 inside the hangar with caution tape around it and a tarp pulled over it. The scene is effective upon the first viewing but it discredits the continuity of the script. Shouldn't the ship's hangar be empty now that everything from the mission is being erased? During a screening of this episode at Sherwood Oaks College in 1975 several students brought this question to Serling’s attention. He agreed that the scene didn’t follow the continuity of the story very well and said that the episode probably should have ended with Hutton’s realization that he would be the next to vanish.
Despite a few loose ends “And When the Sky Was Opened” is still a solid episode with terrific performances, great direction, and a great script. Serling recognized in Matheson’s fiction the type of fantasy he most identified with stripped to its basic thematic foundation: a fear of the unknown that one cannot share with others. His teleplay remains faithful to the original intent of Matheson’s story while changing the plot to fit the medium. It’s comes recommended to any unacquainted viewers looking for a starting point on their journey through the Twilight Zone.
Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following:
The Twilight and Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson edited by Stanley Wiater, Matthew R. Bradley, and Paul Stuve (Citadel Press Books, 2009)
--“The Matheson Years: A Profile in Friendship” by William F. Nolan (1996)
--“The Incredible Scripting Man: Richard Matheson Reflects on His Screen Career” by Matthew R. Bradley (2009)
--“Bibliographies, Filmographies, and More” by Paul Stuve and Matthew R. Bradley (2009)
Richard Matheson on Screen: A History of the Filmed Works by Matthew R. Bradley (McFarland, 2010)
Richard Matheson: Collected Stories, Volume 1 edited by Stanley Wiater (Edge Books, 2003).
“California Sorcerers: A Group Portrait” by Christopher Conlon. California Sorcery (Cemetery Dance, 1999), edited by William F. Nolan and William Schafer.
The Twilight Zone Definitive Edition DVD Season One (Image Entertainment, 2004)
--“And When the Sky Was Opened”
--Rod Serling Lecture at Sherwood Oaks College, 1975
--Douglas Heyes interview with Marc Scott Zicree
--Rod Taylor Commentary
The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic by Martin Grams, Jr. (OTR Publishing, 2008)
-“Disappearing Act” by Richard Matheson first appeared in the March, 1953 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It appeared in his first short story collection, Born of Man and Woman (Chamberlain Press, 1954). It also appeared in The Twilight Zone: The Original Stories (MJF, 1985) which Matheson co-edited with Martin H. Greenburg and Charles G. Waugh. It can currently be found in his collection Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (Tor, 2002). According to Matheson's friend and biographer Matthew R. Bradley an unaccredited adaptation of this story was included in the 1969 Brazilian anthology film O Impossivel Acontece (Believe It or Not).
-Charles Aidman also stars in the season three episode “Little Girl Lost.” He is also the narrator of the first revival series of The Twilight Zone, which aired from 1985 to 1987 on CBS.
--Douglas Heyes directed a total of nine episodes of the show including the classics “The After Hours,” “The Howling Man,” “Eye of the Beholder,” and “The Invaders.” He also wrote three segments of Night Gallery: “The Dead Man” (based on the story by Fritz Leiber and which Heyes also directed), “The Housekeeper” (season one, as Matthew Howard) and “Brenda” (season two, as Matthew Howard), the latter based on the story by Margaret St. Clair.
--"And When the Sky Was Opened" was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Barry Bostwick.
--Updated October 17, 2016