|Jerry Etherson (Cliff Robertson) and Willy|
Season Three, Episode 98
Original Air Date: May 4, 1962
Jerry Etherson/Voice of Willy/Voice of Goofy Goggles: Cliff Robertson
Frank: Frank Sutton
Willy as Ventriloquist: George Murdock
Georgie: John Harmon
Noreen: Sandra Warner
Ralph, the Doorkeeper: Ralph Manza
Master of Ceremonies: Rudy Dolan
Chorus Girl #1: Bethelynn Grey
Chorus Girl #2: Edy Williams
Writer: Rod Serling (based on a story idea by Lee Polk)
Director: Abner Biberman
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: E. Darrell Hallenbeck
Casting: Robert Walker
Special Makeup: William Tuttle
Editor: Jason H. Bernie
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Optical FX: Pacific Title
Rod Serling’s Wardrobe: Eagle Clothes
Filmed at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios
And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week on The Twilight Zone, a return visit from an illustrious young actor, Cliff Robertson. He stars in one of the strangest tales we’ve yet to throw at you. It’s called ‘The Dummy’ and it involves a ventriloquist and a piece of painted wood, a unique slab of carved pine who decides that lap-sitting is for the birds and who takes things into his own wooden hands. Now this one we recommend to the voice-throwers across the land. We hope to see you then.
“Chesterfield King? Extra length? Sure, and more. For only Chesterfield King gives you the wonderful taste of twenty-one great tobaccos. Try a pack.”
Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“You’re watching a ventriloquist named Jerry Etherson, a voice-thrower par excellence. His alter ego sitting atop his lap is a brash stick of kindling with the sobriquet ‘Willy.’ In a moment, Mr. Etherson and his knotty-pine partner will be booked in one of the out-of-the-way bistros, that small, dark, intimate place known as The Twilight Zone.”
Jerry Etherson is a ventriloquist working the nightclub circuit in New York City. Etherson is a recluse who drinks too much, which hampers his career and frustrates his agent, Frank. Frank believes Etherson’s personal and professional problems can all be attributed to his excessive drinking. Etherson insists he drinks to escape the fact that his dummy, Willy, is alive and trying to ruin him. Frank dismisses Etherson’s fears as irrational paranoia.
In an effort to free himself from Willy, Etherson decides to use another dummy, Goofy Goggles, for his next performance. After the performance, Etherson learns that Frank is quitting as his agent. “You keep your ten percent and I’ll keep my self-respect,” Frank tells him. After the nightclub closes, Etherson locks Willy in a trunk in his dressing room and leaves. He cannot escape Willy that easy, however, and is haunted by Willy’s voice calling out to him and laughing at him. Etherson bungles an attempt to join the company of Noreen, a chorus girl from the nightclub.
Etherson rushes back to the nightclub intent on destroying Willy. In his darkened dressing room, he throws open the trunk, pulls the dummy from within, throws it to the floor, and smashes it with his foot. He turns on the light and finds that he has destroyed Goofy Goggles. “How could I have gotten the wrong one?” Etherson asks. “Maybe you need glasses,” comes a familiar voice in the room.
Willy sits on the sofa, fully alive and intent on continuing their partnership. Sometime later, Willy and Jerry are introduced in a nightclub in Kansas City. When the curtain parts, the performers walk on stage. Willy is now the ventriloquist and the dummy on his knee is Etherson.
Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“What’s known in the parlance of the times as ‘the old switcheroo,’ from boss to blockhead in a few uneasy lessons. And if you’re given to nightclubbing on occasion, check this act. It’s called ‘Willy and Jerry,’ and they generally are booked into some of the clubs along the ‘Gray Night Way’ known as The Twilight Zone.”
Perhaps an under-discussed aspect of The Twilight Zone is the frequency, and variety, with which the series approached tales of doubles, dummies, dolls, and effigies. Such tales were a recurring story motif for the entirety of the series. Even the pilot episode “Where is Everybody?” contained an emotional scene centered on a store mannequin. Beginning with such first season episodes as “The Lonely,” “Elegy,” “Mirror Image,” and “The After Hours,” and continuing on with “The Lateness of the Hour,” “The Trade-Ins,” “In His Image,” “The New Exhibit,” and more, this type of tale included some of the most well-regarded episodes of the series, such as “Living Doll” and the episode we are looking at here.
The best of these episodes play on what is known in psychological terms as automatonophobia (fear of human-like figures) and the related term pediophobia (fear of dolls). The tale of the evil ventriloquist dummy offers an opportunity to explore these fears through a uniquely psychological perspective, due to the intrinsic aspect connecting the performer to the object of the performance. In this way, it is closely related to tales of puppets or marionettes, objects which achieve a semblance of life through human interaction. Despite a prevalence in the genre, tales of evil dummies and dolls remain fascinating and effective because they explore identity, sanity, control, and the ability to animate the inanimate through a lens of fear and fantasy.
Though ventriloquism was used in religious ceremony since the middle ages, it did not see widespread use as a form of entertainment until the latter part of the 18th century. The form as we recognize it today flourished in the music halls of England and on the vaudeville stage in America in the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. Early performers simply spoke through their hands but the use of a doll or dummy was quickly instituted and has remained an essential part of the performance art to this day.
By the time Rod Serling came to write his take on the tale of an evil ventriloquist dummy, using a story idea from television writer Lee Polk, the subgenre was well-worn and had already produced a handful of works now recognized as classics of their type.
The earliest of these stories was “The Rival Dummy” by Ben Hecht, originally published in Liberty Magazine for the issue of August 18, 1928. The story tells of a ventriloquist whose fragmented sanity is reflected in his continued dependency on his dummy in order to express himself. The most famous version of the story is the film The Great Gabbo (1929) starring Erich von Stroheim as the ventriloquist. Though many sources are quick to point out that the film is not a horror film, it is certainly a strange film, unusual even today and in its treatment of a now well-thread theme. If nothing else, Hecht’s story and the von Stroheim film are important progenitors of a certain subgenre of strange story. “The Rival Dummy” was adapted for radio on The Mollé Mystery Theatre for November 1, 1946 and for television for Westinghouse Studio One (Studio One in Hollywood) for September 19, 1949. Twilight Zone actress Anne Francis appeared in the television adaptation.
English author Gerald Kersh published his famous story, “The Extraordinarily Horrible Dummy,” in the anthology Penguin Parade #6 in 1939. This story would prove to be enormously influential on subsequent writers who tackled the theme, including Rod Serling. Kersh’s story relates the tale of a ventriloquist who is controlled by a dummy that is animated with the spirit of his dead father. The story was included in Kersh’s 1944 collection, The Horrible Dummy and Other Stories (William Heinemann) and adapted for film, in an uncredited sequence, in 1945 for Dead of Night. More on this in a moment.
A year after the Kersh story came “Farewell Performance” from prolific English ghost story writer H. Russell Wakefield. First published in Wakefield’s 1940 collection, The Clock Strikes Twelve (Herbert Jenkins), it tells of a living dummy which reveals the ventriloquist’s crime of murder. Wakefield’s story was adapted for television for Pepsi-Cola Playhouse on January 22, 1954 and re-aired as an episode of Moment of Fear on July 20, 1965. Twilight Zone actor John Hoyt appeared in the television adaptation.
A tale which rivals Gerald Kersh’s for notoriety, mainly due to an excellent television adaptation, arrived in 1944 from British author John Keir Cross, titled “The Glass Eye.” Originally appearing in Cross’s collection of strange stories, The Other Passenger, “The Glass Eye” relates the love affair between a lonely woman and the handsome ventriloquist who is the object of her affection. The tale is remembered chiefly due to its clever and shocking twist ending. It was adapted as the opening episode of the third season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, featuring Twilight Zone actor William Shatner.
Then arrived a film in 1945 which has proven hugely influential on Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone. The film, Dead of Night from Ealing Studios, is a supernatural horror anthology film which contains five story segments and a wraparound narrative segment. Rod Serling offered his adaptations of three of the film’s five segments for The Twilight Zone, seen in the episodes “Twenty-Two,” “The Mirror,” and “The Dummy.” The final segment of Dead of Night, generally referred to as “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” concerns a ventriloquist whose dummy, Hugo, is alive and intent on taking over the act. Michael Redgrave stars as the afflicted ventriloquist in a remarkable performance which likely influenced Cliff Robertson’s turn as Jerry Etherson. “The Dummy” is a virtual remake of the Dead of Night segment with a few interesting variations. The film segment was an authorized, yet uncredited, adaptation of Gerald Kersh’s story. Kersh’s biographer, Paul Duncan, noted in the second issue of Kershed: An Occasional Newsletter about Gerald Kersh that correspondence between Kersh and the screenwriter of Dead of Night confirm that the film segment is a loose adaptation of Kersh’s story. Kersh was not compensated for the adaptation but he assured the screenwriter that he would not bring litigation to the film’s producers and that he did not require on-screen credit, due to the fact that the screenwriter changed enough of the tale to disguise the source material. The film segment was adapted for radio as “Dead of Night” as the one-off episode of Out of This World for February 28, 1947. A second performance of the radio play served as the pilot episode of Escape! and aired on March 21, 1947. Twilight Zone actor Art Carney appeared in the radio adaptation. For a more detailed look at this film and how it relates to The Twilight Zone, see our full review here.
Other examples of the theme which appeared before “The Dummy” include “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” first published in the February/March, 1952 issue of Tales from the Crypt comic magazine. The story was written by Albert Feldstein, from an idea by Feldstein and publisher William M. Gaines, and illustrated by “Ghastly” Graham Ingels. The story effectively uses gruesome physical horror and was memorably adapted for the second season of the Tales from the Crypt television series starring Twilight Zone actor Don Rickles and directed by Twilight Zone director Richard Donner.
Twilight Zone writer Ray Bradbury offered his unique take on the theme with his story, “And So Died Riabouchinska,” first published in the June/July, 1953 issue of The Saint Detective Magazine. Bradbury’s story was adapted for radio by Mel Dinelli and aired on Suspense for November 13, 1947. Bradbury adapted the story for the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, featuring Twilight Zone actor Charles Bronson, and again for The Ray Bradbury Theater.
The final notable story to predate Rod Serling’s “The Dummy,” and which offered a unique take on the theme, was Robert Bloch’s “The Final Performance,” first published in the September, 1960 issue of Shock magazine and included in Bloch’s 1961 collection Blood Runs Cold (Simon & Schuster). Bloch’s story has a pleasingly noir style and contains a memorable twist ending. It was adapted for the third season of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour by frequent Twilight Zone director John Brahm.
Rod Serling knew well enough the preceding history of the subgenre to offer some interesting variations on the theme and to offer his own unique explanation for the animating factor of the dummy. In a climactic moment, Willy the dummy, now revealed to the audience as fully alive, tells Etherson, “You made me real. You poured words into my head, you moved my mouth, you stuck out my tongue. You jerk, don’t you get it? You made me what I am today.” Whereas many writers choose to leave the animating factor unexplained, Serling chose to connect the ventriloquist and the dummy in a definable way. Willy is, in a sense, all of Etherson’s anxieties, insecurities, and fears made real through the communion which occurs between performer and the object of the performance. The ending which follows suggests that this side of Etherson is the dominating side and that he has succumbed to this aspect of his nature. This moment is symbolically realized visually by having Etherson on his knees with head bowed before Willy.
The story idea was provided to Serling by New York City television writer and programmer Lee Polk, who specialized in programming for children and in educational programming. It is interesting to note that although Serling was constantly inundated with unsolicited story ideas, he typically felt comfortable accepting story ideas provided by fellow television writers such as Polk and Frederic Louis Fox.
In Polk’s version, the details of the story concerned a ventriloquist who discovers during a performance that his dummy is alive and changing the act. In this way, Serling was free to adapt the initial story idea in any way he wanted and, more importantly, to dictate the tone of the tale in any way he saw fit. Serling took his cue largely from the aforementioned film Dead of Night and found the idea of a ventriloquist battling his dummy for ultimate control to be intriguing enough to neatly lift the framework of that story and to place upon it his own unique style. One aspect which Serling eschewed was the ambiguousness of the earlier treatment. In Dead of Night the audience is never clearly told whether the dummy was really alive or only part of the psyche of the ventriloquist. Serling wanted to craft a story where there was no doubt that the dummy was alive, setting up his inventive twist ending.
This being so, Serling left ambiguous supernatural aspects in the tale, including Willy’s voice following Etherson outside the nightclub and the moment Etherson accidentally destroys the wrong dummy, which, under the circumstances, seemed impossible.
Serling was aided in bringing his story to life by a talented team of actors and technicians, beginning with Cliff Robertson in the role of ventriloquist Jerry Etherson. Robertson is making his second appearance on The Twilight Zone after his moving turn in the second season timeslip episode, “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim.” Robertson is best known for his Academy Award-winning performance in the 1968 film Charly, based on the 1959 Hugo Award-winning short story “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes, who in 1966 turned the story into a Nebula Award-winning novel. Robertson earlier starred in a television adaptation of the story, “The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon,” for The United States Steel Hour, which aired on February 22, 1961.
It is difficult to imagine a better choice for the role of Jerry Etherson than Robertson, who throughout the course of his distinguished career mastered the portrayal of sensitive, emotional, and damaged characters. The role of Etherson allows Robertson to show off his range through the entire emotional spectrum and he particularly excels in moments of breakdown and crises. The scene in which he attempts to engage the company of Noreen (Sandra Warner) only to send the young woman running in panic is one of the most memorably uncomfortable scenes in the entire series.
Robertson found this role much easier to prepare for than that of “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim,” a role which was historical in nature, due to the fact that his role in “The Dummy” concerns show business and performance in a way he knew and could relate to. Robertson began as a journalist who was pulled into acting while covering the theater scene and ultimately joined the Actors Studio in New York City. He did some stage work before moving into television and well understood the intricate differences between performing on stage and performing in front of the camera, allowing him to expertly combine these two disciplines for “The Dummy.” An ingenious addition to the role is the fact that Robertson also provides the voices of both dummies, Willy and Goofy Goggles, and chillingly captures the malevolence and mania of Willy, particularly during the climactic scenes.
To prepare for the role, Robertson consulted his friend Edgar Bergen, an accomplished ventriloquist who had a long career on stage and radio. Robertson also experienced a Twilight Zone moment when he was preparing to begin filming “The Dummy.” He decided at the last moment not to board the flight which was to take him from New York to California. The flight crashed soon after takeoff, reminiscent of the plot to the second season episode “Twenty-Two.” Robertson died in 2011. The Robertson estate maintains an excellent website and those readers who wish to know more about Robertson’s life and work are encouraged to go here.
“The Dummy” is essentially a two-man show and working alongside Robertson is Frank Sutton as Jerry Etherson’s agent, Frank. Sutton was a prolific actor on television, stage, and, occasionally, in film, known for playing brash, tough characters. He is best known for his role as Gunnery Sergeant Vince Carter opposite Jim Nabors’s Gomer Pyle in Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. Sutton brings his characteristic toughness to the role of Frank but also lends the performance a sad and melancholy character which contributes to the overall tone of the tragic tale. Sutton died in 1974.
Director of “The Dummy,” Abner Biberman, is best known for his prolific work as a character actor beginning in the 1930s and for his work as an acting coach. Biberman was drawn to directing in the 1950s and his television work includes such programs as Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, Gunsmoke, and Hawaii Five-O. Biberman continued acting and directing into the 1970s. He died in 1977.
Biberman directed four episodes of The Twilight Zone, two of which must be considered among the front rank, “The Dummy” and the underrated fifth season episode “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,” written by John Tomerlin from a story by frequent Zone contributor Charles Beaumont. Biberman brings a unique style to the series characterized by innovative camera angles, subjective filming techniques, and heavy symbolism. Biberman was also skilled in eliciting great performances from his actors, due in no small part to his own prolific acting career and his efforts as an acting coach.
“The Dummy” also marked the return of Academy Award-winning makeup technician William Tuttle to the series. At the time Tuttle was the head of the makeup department at MGM, where The Twilight Zone was filmed. This episode offered a unique challenge to Tuttle in that he had to create a ventriloquist dummy which resembled Cliff Robertson to effectively achieve Serling’s twist ending. Tuttle decided that the best approach would be to create a caricature of Robertson from which he could create a mold and build it upon a traditional ventriloquist dummy. The problem which arose was that Tuttle was not skilled enough in the art of caricature to create the preliminary art require to build a workable model. Tuttle approached production manager Ralph W. Nelson with the problem and through Nelson’s industry connections was put in touch with skilled animator Thornton Hee, who went by the name T. Hee.
Hee began his animation career at Leon Schlesinger Productions where his skill in caricature was put on display in various Merrie Melodies cartoons, produced at the Schlesinger studios at the time before Schlesinger sold Merrie Melodies to Warner Brothers in 1944. Hee is best known for his on-again, off-again relationship with the Walt Disney Studio, including his work directing the “Dance of the Hours” segment of Fantasia. Hee provided the required caricature sketches of Cliff Robertson which enabled Tuttle to build his model. The dummy of Willy is now housed in the private collection of magician David Copperfield, who began on his path to show business stardom as a ventriloquist before discovering that his true skill lay in magic. Copperfield’s massive private museum houses an entire room dedicated to the art of ventriloquism.
Prolific character actor George Murdock, then at the beginning of his career, was selected to portray Willy as the ventriloquist due to the unique appearance of his facial features. Tuttle applied some light makeup touches, including accentuating the eyebrows, nose, and cheeks, to better bring out these features on Murdock. The result has divided some viewers on the effectiveness of the ending, with some feeling that the dummy doesn’t resemble Cliff Robertson and others that Murdock doesn’t resemble Willy. For all that, the twist ending remains one of the best of the series and serves as a fine example of Tuttle’s unique style and skill. For more on William Tuttle’s work in television and film, see our profile here.
The final aspect of “The Dummy” which bears discussion is the rather unfortunate radio drama adaptation featuring Bruno Kirby in the role of Jerry Etherson. The Twilight Zone Radio Drama series is, without question, one of the finest and most successful endeavors of its type but one of the few missteps is their version of “The Dummy.” Two principal factors contribute to the overall underwhelming effect of the radio drama. The most obvious is the fact that “The Dummy” is a story which heavily relies upon visual cues. Without such visual cues, the radio drama is forced to have Etherson continuously talk to himself in order to tell the listener what they should “see.” The effect is tiring and unbelievable. This reliance upon the visual particularly hinders the radio dramatization in the ending, where a sound effect of a clicking wooden mouth is added to make clear to the listener who is the dummy and who is the ventriloquist. Perhaps another actor could have brought it off effectively but actor Bruno Kirby was not the ideal choice to recreate the role of Jerry Etherson. Kirby is a fine actor who did great work on the radio drama series but the quality of his voice acting is not varied enough to convincingly create three separate characters (Jerry, Willy, and Goofy Goggles), which is absolutely required for “The Dummy” to work. Kirby would appear frequently on the radio drama series, in such episodes as “The Last Night of a Jockey,” “Mr. Bevis,” and “What You Need.”
“The Dummy” is a masterpiece of dramatic writing, acting, and technical achievement which remains one of the most fondly remembered and frightening episodes produced on the series. It overcomes its essential derivative nature to present a compelling portrait of psychological horror and transformation and remains an enduring testament to the powerful storytelling of Rod Serling and the unique appeal of The Twilight Zone.
Grateful acknowledgement to:
--Cliff Robertson audio commentary, The Twilight Zone Definitive Edition DVD
--The Internet Speculative Fiction Database (isfdb.org)
--The Internet Movie Database (imdb.com)
--The Classic TV Archive (ctva.biz)
--The Digital Deli (digitaldeliftp.com) for radio drama information
--Paul Duncan, “Dead of Night, the Mystery Solved,” from Kershed, issue 2 (12/22/98)
---The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree (2nd ed, Bantam, 1989)
---The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic by Martin Grams, Jr. (OTR, 2008)
--Abner Biberman directed three additional episodes of the series, “The Incredible World of Horace Ford,” from season four, and “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” and “I Am the Night-Color Me Black” from season five.
--Cliff Robertson also starred in the second season episode, “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim.”
--George Murdock also appears in the pilot film for Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, in the segment, “Escape Route.”
--John Harmon also appears in the fourth season episode, “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville.”
--Sandra Warner also appears, uncredited, in the first season episode, “A Nice Place to Visit.”
--Ralph Manza also appears in an episode of the first revival Twilight Zone series titled “Cold Reading.”
--“The Dummy” was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Bruno Kirby.