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.
Now for our Top 5 performances from the series:
#5 – Robert Duvall, “Miniature” (Season 4)
Duvall’s sympathetic turn as a lonely man who falls in love with a female figure in a doll’s house has been largely overlooked due to the fact that the episode was kept out of syndication for many years, which is a terrible shame since it is one of the more moving performances featured on the series. Duvall’s performance is at once understated and yet fiercely defiant, lending the character an aspect of proud dignity which is ultimately rewarded by the episode’s happy ending. The episode overall is a triumph of acting, writing, and directing and one of the more underrated masterpieces from the series.
#4 – Agnes Moorehead, “The Invaders” (Season 2)
It is a justly celebrated performance from a legendary actress and it is played almost entirely silent. Moorehead, renowned for her versatile voice on dramatic radio, was tasked with creating a sympathetic character using only mannerisms and facial expressions. She succeeds wildly and gives herself totally to the challenging role of a hermit who is attacked by a tiny invading force from beyond the stars. Read our episode review here.
#3 – William Shatner, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (Season 5)
If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Shatner’s turn in writer Richard Matheson’s classic nightmare of an episode may be the most influential and celebrated performance from the series. Despite the parodies of Shatner’s performance, he does not allow the performance to go too far over-the-top and manages to bring the audience over to his side very quickly through his convincing portrayal of a man suffering the torment of a recurrent nervous breakdown. Shatner’s performance is even more remarkable when one considers the laughable creature design, underwhelming direction and set design, and bland supporting cast.
#2 – Burgess Meredith, “The Obsolete Man” (Season 2)
Though Meredith is rightly celebrated by fans of the series for his four lead turns on the show, only Rod Serling’s powerful second season episode allowed him the dramatic reign to showcase his dramatic skills. His other three roles were largely comedic, in “Time Enough at Last,” “Mr. Dingle, the Strong,” and “Printer’s Devil.” Here, Meredith channels all of the doomed heroes of the famous dystopias, from Orwell’s 1984 to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and he does so through a fierce independence and a proud stance in the face of ignorance and intolerance. Not only is Meredith’s performance a sympathetic one but it is a triumphant one which has the audience cheering in the end for his character’s daring and symbolic revenge. Read our episode review here.
#1 – Gladys Cooper, “Nothing in the Dark” (Season 3)
It is difficult to select any single quality of Cooper’s performance for praise as it encompasses so much in so little time. Her performance possesses a poetic, sympathetic, melancholic, and terribly desperate quality before culminating in an exuberant hopefulness. She is greatly aided by George Clayton Johnson’s exceptional script and by Lamont Johnson’s direction but Cooper makes the story her own through her passionate portrayal of a woman kept inside her dilapidated apartment due to a fear of death. The episode is a culmination of many ruminations on aging and dying featured on the series and there is no better performer to illustrate the accompanying complicated emotions than Gladys Cooper. “Nothing in the Dark” is surely one of the finest offerings of the series and Cooper’s performance is nearly in a league of its own. Cooper might well have made the list for her performance in the fifth season episode, “Night Call,” and she was also featured in the fourth season episode, “Passage on the Lady Anne.” Cooper held the distinction of performing for the three core writers for the series not named Rod Serling. Read our full review of “Nothing in the Dark” here.
Let us know in the comments which are your favorite performances from the series.