Monday, April 2, 2012

"The Big Tall Wish"


Portrait of a washed-up hero: Ivan Dixon as Bolie Jackson with Frankie Van as referee
“The Big Tall Wish”
Season One, Episode 27
Original Air Date: April 8, 1960

Cast:
Bolie Jackson: Ivan Dixon
Henry Temple: Stephen Perry
Francis Temple: Kim Hamilton
Joe: Walter Burke
Thomas: Henry Scott

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Ron Winston
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Merrill Pye
Set Decoration: Henry Grace and Keogh Gleason
Assistant Director: Kurt Neumann
Editor: Bill Mosher
Sound: Franklin Milton and Philip Mitchell
Music: Jerry Goldsmith

And now, Mr. Serling:
“The man who lives in this tenement is an aging fighter named Bolie Jackson.  Over the hill at age thirty-six from leaving too much of himself in too many arenas, for too many years, before too many screaming people.  And next week he looks for a miracle and he finds it in a little boy.  On the Twilight Zone next week, ‘The Big, Tall Wish.’  Something very, very special.  I hope we’ll see you then.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“In this corner of the universe, a prizefighter named Bolie Jackson, one hundred eighty-three pounds and an hour and a half away from a comeback at St. Nick’s Arena.  Mr. Bolie Jackson, who by the standards of his profession, is an aging, over-the-hill relic of what was, and who now sees a reflection of a man who has left too many pieces of his youth in too many stadiums for too many years before too many screaming people.  Mr. Bolie Jackson, who might do well to look for some gentle magic in the hard-surfaced glass that stares back at him.”

Summary:
An aging boxer named Bolie Jackson stands in his tiny boarding room staring into a mirror at a man worn thin by his past.  By his side is Henry, the ten year old boy who lives in the same apartment building.  Henry sees past the scars and misery etched into Bolie’s face and instead sees the hero he once was.  Bolie is only a few hours away from a fight which will either thrust him back into the spotlight or lock him out of it forever.  On his way out, the boy tells Bolie that he is going to make a wish for Bolie to win the fight tonight.  The Big Wish, Henry calls it.  Bolie tells him goodbye and Henry’s mother tells Bolie how much he means to her son, how much Henry looks up to him.  Then she tells him an interesting story of how they needed some extra money for the rent one month.  Henry had told his mother not to worry, that he was going to wish for it.  A few days later she received a package in the mail which contained the exact amount they needed.  Bolie is charmed by this story and by Henry’s genuine exuberance for life.  He only wonders when it will all fade away for him.  At what age do we stop believing in magic? he wonders.  And at what age do children stop being children?  He walks away solemnly, thinking to himself, no doubt, about his own youth, and wondering where it went. 
                In the locker room before the fight, Bolie sits with his trainer and a fight promoter named Thomas.   Bolie has hired Thomas as a promoter for tonight’s fight but it’s obvious that Bolie does not like him.  Thomas offers Bolie a job working for him as a fighter.  Bolie knows that Thomas hires only washed up boxers who can no longer fight and then bets money against them.  Bolie then realizes that this is exactly what Thomas has done tonight.  Enraged, he swings at Thomas and misses, striking the cinderblock wall and fracturing his hand.  He cringes in pain and at this exact moment someone comes into the room to tell him that they are ready to start the fight.  With a broken right hand he walks out of the room toward his inevitable defeat.
                In the ring Bolie does terribly.  It is not very long before he is knocked flat on his back.  The referee begins to count.  Back in his apartment, Henry decides it is time to make the Big Wish. At the count of ten Bolie is suddenly back on his feet with the referee holding his arm triumphantly in the air.  Lying motionless on his back in the middle of the ring is his opponent.  Underdog Bolie Jackson has won the fight by a knockout.  There is a look of panic and confusion on Bolie’s face as he attempts to comprehend what has just happened to him.
                Back in the locker room, Bolie confides in his trainer that he is unable to remember getting back up after being knocked down.  His trainer acts as if Bolie’s comment was meant to be taken as sarcasm and tells Bolie that he was never knocked down.  Unable to believe this, and fearing that he might be losing his mind, Bolie leaves the arena in a trance-like state of unease.  On the way back to his apartment he is greeted warmly by everyone in the neighborhood and they congratulate him on his spectacular performance in the ring.  Once inside his apartment building, Bolie visits Henry’s apartment.  Henry is ecstatic with excitement over Bolie’s win.  He tells Bolie that when he was down he made the Big Wish for him and that is why he won the fight.  Bolie, who has now convinced himself into denial, says Henry is mistaken; Bolie won the fight because he was the better fighter.  Henry tells Bolie that he has to believe in the magic or it will not work.  Bolie says that he couldn't believe in magic even if he wanted to because he is too old.  He has spent his life wishing for things and has nothing to show for it.  Henry begs him to believe but Bolie admits that he simply cannot.
                Flashback.  Bolie is lying on his back in the middle of the ring, unconscious.  The referee hovers over him, shouting a succession of numbers into his face.  At the count of ten Bolie is still out and the ref calls it.  Bolie Jackson has lost the fight.  Back in the locker room, Bolie’s hand is killing him.  His trainer pats him consolingly on the back and tells him not to take the loss too personally.  On his walk back home, Bolie receives grimaces and disappointed looks from his neighbors.  Inside his apartment building, he visits ten-year-old Henry, who is already in bed.  Bolie explains to Henry how he went into the ring with a busted right hand.  Henry tells him that it doesn’t matter, he is proud of him all the same.  Then he says that he is not going to be making any more wishes.  He is too old to believe in magic.  As Bolie is leaving Henry asks him if he thinks magic is real.  After considering this a moment, the boxer tells Henry that perhaps magic is real, but maybe the problem is that there are not enough people in the world that believe in it, and maybe that is what keeps people from knowing that it’s there.   With this, he tells the little boy goodnight and closes the bedroom door quietly behind him.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Mr. Bolie Jackson, a hundred and eighty-three pounds, who left a second chance lying in a heap on a rosin-spattered canvas in St. Nick’s Arena.  Mr. Bolie Jackson, who shares the most common ailment of all men: the strange and perverse disinclination to believe in a miracle, the kind of a miracle to come from the mind of a little boy, perhaps only to be found…in the Twilight Zone.”

Commentary:
For the first time since his Emmy-winning Playhouse 90 drama, Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956), Serling returned to the sport of boxing to pen this touching morality tale of a washed up fighter trying to recapture a part of his life that no longer exists.  Serling apparently had a great admiration for boxing and his stories about boxers were always sentimental in tone and warmly sympathetic in their portrayal of the aging fighter who suddenly finds himself in a world he no longer understands.  While training as a paratrooper in the 11th Airborne Division during WWII, Serling took up amateur boxing as a means of coping with the pre-combat anxiety he was experiencing prior to being sent overseas, and his familiarity inside the ring no doubt led to his fascination with the sport and his affinity for boxers.  As he did with many of his protagonists, Serling seems to have held a genuine affection for the bruised and battered athletes that give so much of themselves for the sake of public entertainment, only to be discarded and forgotten once their careers are over.  Requiem for a Heavyweight and “The Big, Tall Wish” share a likeness thematically and structurally in that the heroes are both at a crossroads in which they have to leave the life they wanted behind them and seek out another means of making a living.  Both stories take place at the end of one chapter and the inevitable beginning of another.  Much like Mountain Rivera in Requiem, Bolie is hesitant of unlacing his gloves because he is frightened of what life is like outside of the ring.  The difference here, of course, is that Bolie gets to choose his own path and Mountain is not awarded such a luxury.  Also, as in the earlier story, the audience is left to form their own ever-after for Bolie as the story ends not long after he loses the fight.  He may very well continue to fight until there is nothing left of himself to give, much like Lee Marvin in the Richard Matheson penned Season Five episode “Steel,” which is an even bleaker depiction of boxing than either of the aforementioned stories.  But the implied assumption here is that his career as a boxer is over.  The story may end on a relatively somber note but it was most likely Serling’s intention to leave the audience with a sense that Bolie is, at the very least, moving on to a more fulfilling life than the one he had when they first met him, which also makes him a far more fortunate man than the tragic Mountain Rivera, whose story ends on disquietingly uncertain terms.
                Magic is the overlying motif in “The Big Tall Wish,” an episode that questions whether or not it is morally sound to alter preordained fate.  Is it right to undo what has already been set in motion for our own benefit?  Historically, wishes are almost always a bad thing in horror fiction.  If this story took place in a darker corner of the Twilight Zone, then it might have more in common with episodes like “The Man in the Bottle” and “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville” and the repercussions of Henry’s wishes would have terrible consequences.  But Henry uses his magic sparingly and does not use it self-servingly so he is spared the fate of a W.W. Jacobs-like aftermath and his wishes come true with little expense.  Looking at it another way, this episode is also a stark contrast to the Season Three classic “It’s a Good Life” in which six-year old Anthony Freemont wreaks psychological havoc on the residents of Peaksville, Ohio by constantly threatening them with his selfish and erratically morbid wishes.  The recipients of Henry’s magic are always people he cares for and his wishing is never an unwanted intrusion into their lives.
                This episode can be interpreted many different ways, with magic usually being the deciding factor.  If taken literally, as Serling’s closing monologue suggests, then Bolie Jackson has regrettably passed up a second chance at immortality by failing to believe in this magical gift that is given to him.  He has not only let himself down but he has also shattered Henry’s belief in something quite special.  This outcome seems contrary to the sentimentality of the rest of the episode and it seems odd that Serling would want to leave the audience feeling depressed and angry at a character that is otherwise very vulnerable and sympathetic.  But Bolie Jackson could simply be a character that is too honest to accept his good fortune under false pretenses.  And in choosing not to believe in magic, he refuses to accept what is not rightfully his and seeks to restore balance to the world and to his own frame of mind.  But perhaps magic is not as literally relevant as the viewer is led to believe.  In several ways, this story seems quite reminiscent of Ambrose Bierce’s oft-anthologized “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (later to be made into a short film by French director Roberto Enrico and re-broadcast as an episode of The Twilight Zone).  This may be a risky comparison considering that Bierce’s story is also notorious for its numerous interpretations.  At the end of his story the main character, Peyton Farquhar, is mysteriously transported back to the hangman’s noose that he escaped from earlier.  Similarly, once Bolie stops believing in Henry’s magic he ends up back in the ring, only now he lies battered and motionless on his back as the crowd cheers for his opponent, the winner of the fight.  And from this point on his victory is never mentioned again.  Nor is anything said of Henry and Bolie’s conversation about the Big Tall Wish.  It is possible that Serling is suggesting that this event took place only in Bolie’s mind while he was lying on his back in the middle of the ring, much the same way that many interpret Peyton Farquhar’s escape and journey back to his plantation to be just an elaborate episode that exists only in his head.  “The Big Tall Wish” may simply be a story about aging and the things people let go of as they grow older.  For Henry, magic is real because he believes it to be.  His hero’s loss could be seen as a coming-of-age event in his life, his first disillusionment with reality.  And if this is the case then he handles the situation relatively well.  He isn’t angry with Bolie, nor is he upset to the point of tears; he simply accepts this life lesson with a kind of understanding melancholy which leads the audience to believe that in the long run everything will be okay.  Bolie also goes through a transformation as he realizes that his days as a boxer are probably numbered.  But at the age of thirty-six this is a fact of life that is inevitable.  However, by the end of the episode he seems ready to accept that this part of his life is over and he is ready to move on to a more conventional lifestyle.  Serling leaves unspoken the relationship between Bolie and Henry’s mother but the audience is well aware that the intimacy is there, whether the characters have realized it or not.
                This episode revolves around the relationship between Henry and Bolie and because of the superb performances from Dixon and Perry there is never a time when their chemistry is not believable.  In the early 1950’s Dixon had made a name for himself on Broadway before crossing over into television and film.  His many early television appearances include roles in Have Gun-Will Travel, Perry Mason, Dr. Kildare, and The Outer Limits.  Today, however, he is probably best recognized for playing Sergeant Kinch on Hogan’s Heroes from 1965 to 1970.  Later in his career he more or less abandoned acting to become a director and his credits here include episodes of The Waltons, The Rockford Files, and Magnum P.I.  A year or so after “The Big Tall Wish” Dixon and Perry worked together again in the critically celebrated film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun.
                This is the second episode directed by Ronald Winston and he does a spectacular job with it, particularly with the fight sequence.  It is a noticeable and pleasant change of pace after the slow emotional scenes that precede it.  To give the audience the sense of a crowded, noisy boxing arena Winston employed the use of still photography that allows the audience to see the actions of the crowd without ever actually seeing the crowd.  This was also a good way to heighten suspense.  Winston also chose to shoot Bolie from underneath the canvas of the ring during the knock-out scene.  To do this he had Dixon lie on a clear piece of glass and he just shot from underneath it.  It’s a simple idea but it proves to be a very cool effect and adds an extra kick to the already highly stylized scene.         
                “The Big Tall Wish” has the distinct honor of being one of the first television shows to feature a nearly all-black cast.  It should be noted that this was six years before programs like Star Trek and I Spy began to consciously tear down the racial barriers of Hollywood.  The fact that both of the lead roles (and most of the supporting roles) were played by black actors was a bold move for Serling and Houghton and it could have potentially had major repercussions.  During the 1950’s black actors were rarely cast in leading roles unless the project dealt with racial issues in some way.  The thing that makes “The Big Tall Wish” unique is that it is not a social commentary on race relations.  Nowhere in the script does Serling make any mention of race, nor are the characters in any way identified by their ethnicity.  Bolie could just as easily have been an Irish or Latino boxer and the story would have played out exactly the same way as it does here, without changing a single line of dialogue.  In many ways, this non-direct approach is a far more effective form of social commentary than a script that is overbearingly didactic.  While it is non-confrontational thematically, the decision to cast mostly black actors was a conscious one.  In Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion Serling, in defense of this episode at the time of its original broadcast, is quoted as saying:

“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.”

In any event, this episode was a big step in the desegregation of television and apparently made quite an impression when it was first broadcast in 1960.  In 1961 Rod Serling was awarded the annual Unity Award for Outstanding Contributions to Better Race Relations.  He was also praised by several national organizations dedicated to racial equality including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.  In 1962 CBS adopted a policy that encouraged producers to begin casting more black actors on their programs. 
               
Grade: B

Notes:
--Rod Serling adapted this episode into a short story for his book More Stories From the Twilight Zone (Bantam, 1961).  You can also listen to it as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Blair Underwood (Falcon Picture Group, 2002).  It was also adapted into a graphic novel by Mark Kneece with art by Chris Lie as part of a series developed by the Savannah College of Art and Design published by Walker & Company Books (2009).
--Ivan Dixon also appears in Season Five’s “I Am the Night—Color Me Black.”
--Henry Scott also appears in Season Four’s “The Thirty Fathom Grave.”
--Walter Burke also appears in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "Deliveries in the Rear." 
--Ronald Winston also directed Season One’s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” and Season Five’s “Stopover in a Quiet Town.”

--Brian

7 comments:

  1. This is one of those first season episodes that seems so lyrical and beautiful. Serling and his team were really pushing the envelope to tell a story like this in 1960 with a black cast and avoid sterotypes. I always found this one rather hopeful, not sad at all. Thanks for the insightful commentary!

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  2. Thanks, Jack. Because of its subtlety, I think this episode often goes overlooked. In addition to being a cultural landmark, it may be one of Serling's best efforts from Season One.

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  3. I am a big fan of Ivan Dixon. He knows how to underplay a roll in a way that makes him very believable. I don't think many actors could have pulled off the roll of Bolie Jackson as well as Dixon did. Stephen Perry was a much better actor then his seven years would indicated he could be.The entire cast was great.

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    1. Hey, thanks for checking out our site, Matt. I think we're on the same page as far as the casting of this episode. Before I wrote this I was largely unfamiliar with Dixon but he really is quite a sharp performer. And you are right, the entire cast is great. Stephen Perry was a terrific child actor, it makes you wonder why he abandoned acting after such a short period of time. It took some time to grew on me, but this episode has become one of my favorites from the first season. It's Rod Serling in his true form, writing the kind of characters that stay with you for a long time. Classic.
      Thanks again for stopping by!

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  4. I've read somewhere that cbs never aired this episode, true or false?

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  5. False. It aired on CBS on April 8, 1960. The all black cast was sadly unusual for the time but this didn't cause the episode any production or broadcast problems.

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