Although The Twilight Zone is celebrated for the talented group of writers who created such memorable stories for the series, the show excelled in every aspect of production, from direction and Emmy Award-winning cinematography, to unforgettable music, set design, and makeup. The series was also a showcase for some of the finest acting presented on television at the time. This list was created to celebrate what we think are the 20 finest performances from the series. Choosing only 20 performances from 156 episodes was extremely difficult. There were many standout performances which missed the list, especially from ensemble casts, such as in “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” “The Shelter,” and “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” as well as excellent turns from child actors in episodes such as “The Big Tall Wish,” “It’s a Good Life,” and “Mute.” If I’ve missed your favorite performance I apologize. Let me know in the comments which are your favorite performances from the series.
Grateful acknowledgement to The Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) for the use of images.
First, a few Honorable Mentions that just missed the Top 20:
Nehemiah Persoff, “Judgment Night”
Vera Miles, “Mirror Image”
Robert Cummings, “King Nine Will Not Return”
Art Carney, “The Night of the Meek”
Dennis Weaver, “Shadow Play”
Elizabeth Montgomery, “Two”
Jonathan Winters, “A Game of Pool”
Martin Balsam, "The New Exhibit"
Now, on to the countdown:
#20 – George Grizzard, “In His Image” (Season 4)
Grizzard earlier appeared in the entertaining first season episode, “The Chaser,” but here is given room to stretch his acting muscles as he takes on the dual role of an inventor and the automaton he creates in his image. Grizzard largely carries the episode through his emotional performance, bolstered by an excellent Charles Beaumont script.
#19 – Ross Martin, “Death Ship” (Season 4)
In one of the more emotional, and emotionally affecting, performances from the entire series, Martin portrays an astronaut who is denied an idyllic afterlife with his family due to his Captain’s stubborn refusal to accept their fate. Though it is only a supporting role, Martin walks away with the episode and lends the story its intrinsic tragedy. Martin earlier appeared in the excellent ensemble cast episode from the first season, “The Four of Us Are Dying.”
#18 – Donald Pleasence, “The Changing of the Guard” (Season 3)
Aged by makeup and affecting a tired, melancholy performance style, Pleasence hits all the right notes in this rather grim tale of an aging teacher who contemplates suicide because he believes he has not made a difference in the lives of his students. It is one of the many episodes which approaches aging and dying from a compassionate and sympathetic angle.
#17 – Anne Francis, “The After Hours” (Season 1)
In one of the scariest episodes of the series, Francis runs the gamut from angry and confused to terrified and ultimately understanding of her position of existence. Though Francis’s performance is somewhat overshadowed by the more theatrical aspects of the episode, it remains one of the more understated yet complex performances from the series. Francis would later appear in another excellent performance in the fourth season episode, “Jess-Belle.” Read our review of “The After Hours” here.
#16 – Lee Marvin, “Steel” (Season 5)
Marvin excelled at playing tough-guy sorts who are ultimately more than outward appearances indicate. Although he was fine in the spooky third season episode, “The Grave,” for his second appearance on the series Marvin presented a run-down former boxer who remains incredibly proud and defiant in the face of impossible odds. It is a powerful performance that is painful to watch due to the sympathy elicited by the character Marvin creates. Although Marvin had his share of problems off-camera, he was always professional on-screen and here delivers one of his finest performances.
Check back tomorrow for our picks for #s 15-11.