Sunday, February 5, 2017

"Showdown with Rance McGrew"

Larry Blyden as Rance McGrew
“Showdown with Rance McGrew”
Season Three, Episode 85
Original Air Date: February 2, 1962

Rance McGrew: Larry Blyden
Jesse James: Arch Johnson
TV Director: Robert Cornthwaite
TV Bartender: Robert J. Stevenson
TV Property Man: William McLean
Cowboy #1: Troy Melton
Cowboy #2: Jay Overholts
Old Man: Hal K. Dawson
TV Jesse James: Robert Kline
TV Stunt Double: Jim Turley
Man in Saloon #1: Chalky Williams (no credit)
Man in Saloon #2: Robert McCord (no credit)
Man on Stool: Alvy Moore (no credit)

Writer: Rod Serling (based upon an idea by Frederic L. Fox)
Director: Christian Nyby
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Phil Barber
Set Decoration: H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: E. Darrell Hallenbeck
Casting: Stalmaster-Lister
Editor: Bill Mosher
Story Consultant: Richard McDonagh
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Music: stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week we offer you a Hollywood television cowboy who takes in several bills a week for killing bad men. Mr. Larry Blyden portrays one of these phony-baloneys who always wins in the end. But in this little item, he draws from the hip and realizes his opponent is smack dab out of this world. We invite your attention to ‘Showdown with Rance McGrew,’ next week’s stage coach sojourn in The Twilight Zone.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration: 

“Some one hundred-odd years ago, a motley collection of tough moustaches galloped across the West and left behind a raft of legends and legerdemains. And it seems a reasonable conjecture that if there are any television sets up in cowboy heaven and any of these rough and wooly nail-eaters could see with what careless abandon their names and exploits are being bandied about, they’re very likely turning over in their graves; or worse, getting out of them. Which gives you a clue as to the proceedings that will begin in just a moment when one Mr. Rance McGrew, a three thousand buck a week phony-baloney, discovers that this week’s current edition of make-believe is being shot on location, and that location is The Twilight Zone.”


            Rance McGrew is a pampered television actor currently starring in a historically inaccurate Western program in which he portrays a tough local Marshall that routinely brings down famous outlaws. Rance has been spoiled by his success as an actor and thus rebels against any aspect of the production which he doesn’t like. He forces his director to rewrite and reshoot scenes. He consistently requires the use of a stunt double to shoot any physically demanding scene. He challenges the patience of each and every member of the cast and crew with his whiny, tardy, spoiled nature.
            Rance gets the surprise of his life when he is transported to the real Old West, conjured up by the spirit of the famous outlaw Jesse James, who has been viewing Rance’s television exploits with less than pleasing results. James immediately establishes that Rance is a fake and a coward that cannot perform even the most perfunctory actions of a cowboy, such as roll a cigarette or draw a six-shooter from a hip holster. James aims to make an example out of Rance and punish him for all the damage that Rance has done to the good names of James and his outlaw friends.
            When James challenges Rance to a duel in the street, Rance is unable to draw his pistol and falls to his knees and begs for mercy. James shows mercy but warns Rance that from now on his old way of playing a cowboy on television is finished. Rance finds himself transported back to the modern day television set. No sooner has he arrived back than he finds himself with a new agent, none other than Jesse James, who is going to follow from one acting assignment to the next to ensure that Rance gets more than his share of comeuppance.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:

“The evolution of the so-called ‘adult’ Western, and the metamorphosis of one Rance McGrew, formerly phony-baloney, now upright citizen with a preoccupation with all things involving tradition, truth, and cowpoke predecessors. It’s the way the cookie crumbles and the six-gun shoots in The Twilight Zone.”


"While nothing is certain except death and taxes - and even these may be somewhat variable - it seems reasonable to conjecture that the range riders up in Cowboy Heaven felt appeased. Jesse James used his mandate well, and from that moment on, Rance McGrew, a former phony-baloney, became an upright citizen with a preoccupation with all things involving tradition, truth, and cowboy predecessors." 
              -"Showdown with Rance McGrew," New Stories from the Twilight Zone 

            It is not unusual to view "Showdown with Rance McGrew" as Rod Serling's manifesto on the nature of the television drama in the early 1960's, albeit filtered through the lens of a comedy, when considering the fact that Serling's next television project after the end of The Twilight Zone was to create the unusual Western series, The Loner (more on that later). Like most of Serling's work, the episode functions on two levels. The first is as a marginally successful comedy using the tried and true method of a timeslip story, perhaps the most oft-used plot device in the entire series. The more complex level, full of interpretive possibilities, is that "Showdown with Rance McGrew" is Rod Serling holding a mirror up to the current state of the television drama, especially the television Western, which had long ceased to resemble any type of historically accurate reality (if it ever had in the first place).
            Marc Scott Zicree, author The Twilight Zone Companion, dashes the possibility of the latter interpretation when considering that the "reality" presented in the episode is just as fake as Rance McGrew's television show. Zicree also provides us with an interesting perspective into how the story germinated in the mind of Rod Serling. Even before Frederic Louis Fox (a prolific writer of television Westerns in the 1950's-1960's) related to Serling the story idea which developed into "Showdown with Rance McGrew," Serling contemplated the idea of a television actor slipping into the past to confront real history (or a real historical figure). More specifically, Serling was inspired by watching the endless war films of actor John Wayne. Serling, who saw the horrors of war up close as a WWII paratrooper, was uncomfortable with the idea of an actor repeatedly portraying a war hero when that actor had never experienced real combat.
            Martin Grams, Jr., author of The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic (ORT, 2008), uncovers correspondence between Rod Serling and Frederic L. Fox which shines further light on how the story idea came to be. Fox related to Serling a story idea about a deceased outlaw climbing out of his grave (it is unclear whether this was meant literally or figuratively) to confront the actor that portrays him on television. Although Serling credited Fox with the timeslip element of the story in an earlier interview (included in Zicree's Companion) this does not appear to be the case. Serling combined his idea inspired by John Wayne war movies and married it with Fox's Western idea of an outlaw and a television actor. Also of note is a rather well-regarded narrative poem by the Scottish poet Robert W. Service titled "The Shooting of Dan McGrew." The poem does not occur in the American West but rather in the Yukon Territory of Canada (Service relocated to Canada as a young man) and concerns a mysterious stranger that arrives in a saloon to seek vengeance against the tough prospector Dan McGrew for an undisclosed slight. It is unknown whether this poem was an influence on either Fox or Serling but it does have an interesting parallel to "Showdown with Rance McGrew" in the idea of the past coming back to right a wrong. The poem was enormously influential and has seen adaptation several times.* Read "The Shooting of Dan McGrew."
            Another interesting aspect is that Serling likely did not need to credit Fox with the story idea for "Showdown with Rance McGrew" considering the alterations Serling placed on the story. Serling was very cautious of charges of plagiarism, something that had dogged him since his launch of the Twilight Zone, largely stemming from an ill-advised attempt to accept unsolicited story ideas. It is unlikely that Fox would have levied such charges against Serling. However, Fox was grateful for the credit and was encouraged to submit another story treatment, "Mister Tibbs and the Flying Saucer," which went before Twilight Zone cameras as "Hocus Pocus and Frisby" later in the third season.
            By the time Serling came to write "Showdown with Rance McGrew," he had developed an affinity for (or at least a fascination with) the Western genre, and one could hardly blame him since the Western was arguably the dominate television genre of the 1950's. Of the many Western episodes of The Twilight Zone, all but one were written by Rod Serling.** In fact, "Showdown with Rance McGrew" functions perfectly well as a reverse (both in terms of plot and theme) of an earlier Serling episode which is also both a Western and a timeslip story, "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim."*** In the earlier episode, Serling juxtaposed the harsh reality of pre-Civil War westward expansion with the relative comfort achieved by Americans in the middle of the twentieth century. Serling likely opted for the comedic approach with "Showdown with Rance McGrew" to avoid the essential grisliness of the reverse of that story, in which a pampered television star suddenly finds himself in the violent West and unable to defend himself. Comedy allowed Serling to say what he wanted about the absurd nature of the television Western without repeating himself or sacrificing the fantasy construct of the series.
            It is perhaps wise to view the episode as Serling's reaction to both the over-saturation of the television Western as well as the tenuous relationship between these western programs and the real history upon which they were based. He took the morsel of a story told to him by Frederic L. Fox and from it crafted a humorous take on what would happen if a historical figure were able to view how they were portrayed on American television.
            As all educated adults know, the West was a rough and violent place, and though the Western film had fully matured as an art form by the mid-1950's with films such as The Searchers (1956) and The Left-Handed Gun (1958), as well as Serling's own attempt at the mature form, Saddle the Wind (1958). the television Western was woefully immature as an art form. The television Western refused to grow up, and the programs being broadcast to Americans in the early 1960's were little different than the programs of a decade before, especially in terms of character, setting, and historical accuracy. These television programs were not challenging character archetypes or addressing modern social issues as were Western films. Some programs, The Lone Ranger, The Roy Rogers Show, and The Gene Autry Show, were clearly marketing the inherently violent genre to children. It is easy to imagine Serling's dissatisfaction with the vast majority of the television output of Westerns.
Lloyd Bridges as The Loner
            One of the major problems Serling seems to have had with the television Western is the clear delineation of good guys and bad guys as portrayed on television. Serling well understood that everybody has the capacity for both good and ill within them and used this theme in many of his Twilight Zone scripts. In "Showdown with Rance McGrew," the audience is clearly intended to identify with Jesse James, a known thief and murderer, rather than with petulant television actor Rance McGrew. This fascination with the duality of character would lead Serling to develop a series featuring a single recurring character (the only show of that type Serling created). That series was the unusual television Western The Loner, which ran for a single season of 26 episodes before being pulled by CBS. Serling developed the idea for a different take on the Western as early as the first season of The Twilight Zone but CBS turned it down. It was not until Serling was finished with the Zone that his old producing partner William Self ("Where is Everybody?") pushed Serling's Western into production without even so much as a pilot film in the can. The Loner starred Lloyd Bridges as William Colton, a Union cavalry soldier who roams post-Civil War America searching for meaning in life during a time of crisis. Serling aimed to do for the Western drama what he did for the fantasy drama with The Twilight Zone, namely to explore the human condition though character study and philosophical insight with recognizable genre trapping serving as both a marketing tool and a buffer against censorship. The fact that The Loner was short on shoot-em-up action (not to mention filled with highly controversial and confrontational parallels to current social issues) was a constant point of contention between Serling and the network brass. As a result, the show, despite modest ratings, was never destined to survive. Tony Albarella, editor of the multi-volume Twilight Zone Scripts of Rod Serling, wrote a thorough and fascinating history of the series for the December, 2000/January, 2001 issue of Filmfax magazine. The article can be read here courtesy of the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation.
            "Showdown with Rance McGrew" was directed by Christian Nyby, who made his name in the film industry as the editor of director Howard Hawks's To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Red River (1948), and The Big Sky (1952). Nyby moved into directing television programs by the mid-1950's and found a niche at the helm of the numerous Western programs of the era, including The Adventures of Jim Bowie, Zane Grey Theater, Tombstone Territory, Wagon Train, Rawhide, and Gunsmoke, making him a natural to helm "Showdown with Rance McGrew." Nyby is best known today for directing the 1951 science fiction classic The Thing from Another World. For years Nyby battled (mostly unsuccessfully) the idea that Howard Hawks, the writer and producer of that film, was in fact the director of the film as well. The common argument for Hawks as director, besides the stylistic similarities to Hawks's other films, is that he placed his editor at the helm to avoid the embarrassment of having his name attached to a science fiction film, a derided genre at the time. Nyby ardently denied that Hawks was the director and chalked up the similarities to Hawks enormous stylistic influence on Nyby's own work. An interesting article on Nyby's involvement with The Thing from Another World can be found here. Robert Cornthwaite, who portrays the ever-patient television director in "Showdown with Rance McGrew," also appeared in The Thing from Another World as Dr. Carrington. Nyby would direct another episode of The Twilight Zone but unfortunately it was the unappealing third season comedy "Cavender Is Coming." He died in California in 1993, aged 80.
Pathfinder ed.
            "Showdown with Rance McGrew" was also adapted into prose by Rod Serling for New Stories from the Twilight Zone (Bantam, 1962). That collection included four adaptations from the second season and one other from the third season. "Showdown with Rance McGrew" was the latest episode broadcast to see an adaptation in any of the Twilight Zone story collections. After the third season, Bantam Books bowed out of the Serling Zone books, although Bantam would go through more than a dozen printings of the three Serling Zone books and partner again with Serling in the early 1970s for two similar story collections from his Zone follow-up series Night Gallery (Night Gallery (1971) and Night Gallery 2 (1972)).**** Serling, suffering from creative and physical exhaustion after the third season of the Zone, struck a deal with Grosset & Dunlap publishers and veteran pulp author Walter B. Gibson (known for his more than 300 Shadow novels under the publishers Street & Smith house name Maxwell Grant) to develop new Zone story collections, Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (1963) and Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Revisited (1964). Only a portion of these latter two collections were adaptations of Zone episodes and the majority of the contents were standard pulp supernatural fare. Though it remains unclear whether the story ideas originated with Serling, all of the original stories and adaptations were written by Gibson, and of the adaptations, all were of Rod Serling-penned episodes from the first and second seasons. These include: "Judgment Night" and "Back There" for Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone, and "The Purple Testament," "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim" (as "Beyond the Rim"), "The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine" (as "The 16-Millimeter Shrine"), "The Man in the Bottle," and "Mirror Image" (as "The Mirror Image") for Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Revisited.
            The Grosset & Dunlap volumes were aimed directly to the emerging young
Pathfinder ed.
adult readers market. The volumes were issued in hardcover, were illustrated, and Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone proclaimed on the cover: "13 new stories from the supernatural especially written for young people." When the books appeared in paperback (in 1965 and 1967) they were released under the Tempo Books banner, a paperback line created to appeal to young adults. Bantam Books took the cue with their own Zone books, releasing all three titles with new covers as Bantam Pathfinder editions between 1964 and 1965. The Pathfinder editions were similarly designed to appeal to young adults and included selections from both fiction and non-fiction fields. Zone writer Ray Bradbury saw some of his own titles reissued as Pathfinder editions, including R Is for Rocket (1962; Pathfinder ed. 1966), S Is for Space (1966; Pathfinder ed. 1972), and his anthology Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow (1952; Pathfinder ed. 1972). The appeal of The Twilight Zone to a younger audience, especially once the series began its endless existence in television syndication, was immediately apparent from a marketing perspective. A Twilight Zone comic series aimed at younger readers was already in existence since 1961 and would endure, in its first form, until 1982.*****  
Pathfinder ed.
            One interesting aspect of the adaptation of "Showdown with Rance McGrew" is that it is the only adaptation of any of the Zone episodes for the story collections to originate from another writer's work (in this case, Frederic L. Fox), further indicating that Serling's credit to Fox for the story was professional courtesy more than any debt to originality. The adaptation offers little in the way of alterations to the broadcast version. There are subtle additions of dialogue and changes to props and setting (Rance drives a red jaguar in the short story and experiences his initial confrontation with Jesse James outside the saloon) but no added scenes or radical changes.
            The adaptation does provide the reader with an alternate version of Rod Serling's opening narration. The story version is as follows: "It might be parenthetically noted here that there was a point in history when there actually were top guns. They were a motley collection of tough mustaches who galloped and gunned their way across the then new West. They left behind them a raft of legends and legerdemains. But heroics or hambone--it can be stated quite definitively that they were a rough and woolly breed of nail-eaters who in matters of the gun were as efficient as they were dedicated. It does seem a reasonable guess, however, that if there were any television sets up in Cowboy Heaven, so that these worthies could see with what careless abandon their names and exploits were being bandied about--not to mention the fact that each week they were killed off afresh by Jaguar-drawn Hollywood tigers who couldn't distinguish between a holster and hoof and mouth disease--they were very likely turning over in their graves or, more drastically, getting out of them."
            "Showdown with Rance McGrew" is an episode which is only marginally successful as a comedy but serves as a fascinating window into Rod Serling's thoughts on contemporary television drama. On the surface it's another failed attempt at comedy on a series with many such failed attempts and, worse yet, another timeslip story, further exploring an already tired theme on the series. It should not be completely dismissed on these terms, however, since it offers much to the analytical among viewers and does not overreach the simple boundaries of the narrative it sets up for itself. Larry Blyden is fun to watch (see our review of "A Nice Place to Visit" for more on the actor) and Arch Johnson, though asked to play a ridiculous and highly inaccurate Jesse James, commends himself well to the role. In all, "Showdown with Rance McGrew" is an interesting bit of Twilight Zone silliness with a serious complexity beneath the surface. It is not likely to remain long with the viewer but it is worth a second look.

Grade: C

*William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson list "Dangerous Dan McGrew" on the lengthy dedication pages of their classic 1967 dystopian novel Logan's Run.
**The one not written by Serling is Montgomery Pittman's "The Grave." It is interesting to note that some of the other core writers of The Twilight Zone (Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and John Tomerlin) never wrote a Western episode despite writing for Western television programs, including Have Gun-Will Travel and Wanted: Dead or Alive. 

***It's interesting how many Western episodes are also time travel episodes. Along with the two aforementioned episodes, you can add "Execution" to the lot. 

****Bantam continued their relationship with Serling during 1963 by publishing Serling's anthology Rod Serling's Triple W: Witches, Warlocks, and Werewolves, a volume ghost-edited by science fiction writer Gordon R. Dickson. Dickson edited another volume for Serling and Bantam in 1967 titled Rod Serling's Devils and Demons.

*****NOW Comics brought The Twilight Zone back to four-color form from 1991-1993. In 2014, Dynamite Entertainment brought a new series to comic shops, though this latter series only occasionally made use of the anthology format which worked so well for the Zone brand of publications, preferring to tell over-arching stories across several issues. 

Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following:

-Albarella, Tony. “Cowboy with a Conscience.” Filmfax, December, 2000/January, 2001.

-Fuhrmann, Henry. “A ‘Thing’ to His Credit.” Los Angeles Times, May 25, 1997.

-Grams, Martin. The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic. OTR, 2008.

-The Internet Movie Database (

-The Internet Speculative Fiction Database (

-Serling, Rod. New Stories from the Twilight, Bantam Books, May, 1962.

-Service, Robert W. The Shooting of Dan McGrew

-Zicree, Marc Scott. The Twilight Zone Companion. 2nd edition, Bantam, 1989.

-Christian Nyby also directed the third season episode “Cavender is Coming.”
-Larry Blyden also appeared in the first season episode “A Nice Place to Visit.”
-Arch Johnson also appeared the second season episodes “Static” and (uncredited) “Long Distance Call.”
-Robert Cornthwaite also appeared in the fourth season episode “No Time Like the Past.”
-Robert J. Stevenson also appeared (uncredited) as the radio announcer in the third season episode “The Midnight Sun.”
-James Turley also appeared in uncredited roles in the first season episode “The Lonely,” the second season episodes “Long Distance Call” and “The Silence,” and the third season episode “To Serve Man.”
-Twilight Zone regulars Robert (Bob) McCord and Jay Overholts also make appearances.
-“Showdown with Rance McGrew” was adapted into prose for New Stories from the Twilight Zone by Rod Serling.
-“Showdown with Rance McGrew” was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Christopher McDonald.
-Director Christian Nyby has somewhat of a cameo in the episode as a funeral parlor sign comes into view and displays "C. Nyby" as the funeral director.
-It is ironic that Rod Serling takes a shot at Rance McGrew for using a stunt double for scenes which require physicality since The Twilight Zone used the same practice, most evident in the second season episode "Mr. Dingle, the Strong" in which Burgess Meredith is obviously replaced by a much stouter man in order to effect lifting Don Rickles's character above his head. Check the photograph in our coverage of the episode.
-Rod Serling's western film, Saddle the Wind (1958), was directed by Robert Parrish, who worked with Serling on the first season of The Twilight Zone, directing the episodes "One for the Angels," "A Stop at Willoughby," and "The Mighty Casey."
-Serling took another shot at the television industry in much the same way with the fourth season episode, "The Bard." 



  1. I think Serling and Fox definitely would have known of the Dan McGrew poem. It was commonly known back then and often spoofed. This was one of the better comedy episodes, but that's not saying much. Those TZ paperbacks bring back memories!

    1. I'm sure you're right though I couldn't confirm it. I, too, think this is one of the better comedy episodes and it actually made me laugh out loud a couple times. Larry Blyden is fun to watch. Love that cover art on those paperbacks, especially the Pathfinder editions. I'm still amazed at how many books bear the Zone name, both fiction and non-fiction. Books seem to have been a much larger part of marketing than they are today which, unfortunately, seems to indicate we're not as literate a society as we once were.

  2. I'd like to mention that THE LONER is finally available on legitimate DVD! Released by Shout! Factory and easily found on Amazon. For Serling fans,it's a treat.

    1. Thanks, Dale. I'm looking forward to watching the entire series myself. Who knows, maybe one day we'll take a run through the episodes here in the Vortex.

    2. Here's Tony Albarella's review of the Complete The Loner DVD release.

  3. Great tie-in with "The Loner" which I look forward to watching when it comes out. :)

    There is a third level, which I discuss in my article coming out tomorrow: This isn't about a bunch of historical figures who want to set the record straight. This is about a bunch of hoodlums who hijack McGrew for self-aggrandizing purposes. Jesse James outright COMES BACK TO LIFE to live as a extortionist agent, presumably complete with a high paycheck and a Hollywood address.

    I'm not quite sure what Serling meant to do with this episode, but boy, does it have some interesting ramifications!

  4. I like Showdown With Rance McGrew better now than in the past, mostly due to its nostalgia factor, as it takes me back to the thrilling days of yesteryear of not the of The Long Ranger but of television, still a fairly new medium at the time the episode was made; no one could have guessed where it would go, how it would change, over the next half-century. It was or seemed to be a given that television westerns would go on forever, in one form or another, and that famous outlaws like Jesse James would remain famous as long as there was a U.S. of A. How many schoolchildren today know who Jesse James was? Or Billy the Kid, or Wyatt Earp?

    1. It still astounds me how many western programs were on television at the time this episode was made. I didn't live through it but it always strikes me odd that there was enough of a viewing audience to support the sheer volume of westerns on the small screen. I don't know that we've seen anything like it since, except maybe the viewing public's appetite for "reality" television. Children today (and really all of us) are overloaded with so many channels of information it's difficult to say what sticks and what falls away.

      As for change in the medium, for me at least, I don't think it's changed for the better. There are exceptions, of course, but I think what's wonderful about the older television programs is that they weren't so reliant upon the long-form drama structure. You could jump into the middle of the second or third or fourth seasons of shows like Combat! or Lost in Space or Perry Mason and still enjoy those episodes because they typically told a self-contained story each week. Nowadays, entire seasons of television shows are devoted to telling a single story, removing the ability for the viewer to jump in and enjoy the program at any point they want to. I also believe that's why the older shows do so well in syndication. There's a "binge watch" culture that's grown up around the medium in the 21st century and the product reflects that trend. The only problem is that if you want to understand what's going on in a show like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead you have to watch it entirely from the beginning, in order. Plus, there were so many more anthologies back around the time the Zone was on.