Monday, February 17, 2014

"A Penny for Your Thoughts"

Dick York as Hector B. Poole, a human coin in The Twilight Zone

"A Penny for Your Thoughts"
Season Two, Episode 52
Original Air Date: February 3, 1961

Hector B. Poole: Dick York
Miss Turner: June Dayton
Mr. E.M. Bagby: Dan Tobin
Mr. Smithers: Cyril Delevanti
Mr. Sykes: Hayden Rorke
Mr. Brand: James Nolan
Driver: Frank London
Newsboy: Anthony Ray
Brand: Patrick Waltz

Writer: George Clayton Johnson (original teleplay)
Director: James Sheldon
Producer: Buck Houghton
Associate Producer: Del Reisman
Production Manager: Darrell Hallenbeck
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Philip Barber
Set Decoration: Henry Grace and H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: Lindsley Parsons, Jr. 
Casting: Ethel Winant
Editor: Leon Barsha
Sound: Franklin Milton and Charles Scheid
Music: Stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
"Next week on this very spot there commences a very kooky chain of occurrences. The story has to do with a young bank clerk who, for some unexplained and most uncanny reason, finds himself able to read other people's minds. And then finds that the power can get him into a peck of trouble and a bushel of travail. Our show is called 'A Penny for Your Thoughts' and it'll be here waiting for you next week on the Twilight Zone."

Rod Serling's Opening Narration:
"Mr. Hector B. Poole, resident of the Twilight Zone. Flip a coin and keep flipping it. What are the odds? Half the time it will come up heads, half the time tails. But in one freakish chance in a million it'll land on its edge. Mr. Hector B. Poole, a bright human coin, on his way to the bank."

            While buying a morning newspaper from a street vendor, Hector B. Poole tosses his coin into the vendor's pay box only to watch the coin land perfectly on its thin edge. A moment later, after almost being hit by a car while crossing the street, Poole realizes that he can hear people talking without seeing their mouths move. He quickly learns that he is reading people's thoughts.
            At the bank at which he is employed, Poole attempts to explain to the bank manager, Mr. Bagby, why he, Poole, was late arriving only to find Bagby irritated and excited about something. Overhearing Bagby's thoughts, Poole learns that his boss is having an extramarital affair. He stumbles awkwardly out of the office with his newfound knowledge.
            Poole spends the remainder of the day using his new power to discover an assortment of interesting and alarming things about his coworkers and customers of the bank. He learns that his coworker Miss Turner has a crush on him and that another coworker is a blatant misogynist. More alarming still is one of the bank's customers, a man in for a loan named Sykes. Poole reads Sykes's mind and discovers that he is planning to use the bank loan to gamble in an attempt to repay losses that occurred when Sykes embezzled from his own company. When Poole inadvertently confronts Sykes about it, Sykes goes haywire and the deal for the loan is lost, to the irritation of Mr. Bagby.

            The final straw is when Poole overhears Mr. Smithers, the bank's oldest and most trusted employee, thinking about his method of robbing the bank. After alerting Mr. Bagby to this possibility, Bagby and the bank guard confront Smithers as the old man exits the bank vault. They search him to no avail. There is no money being stolen. Mr. Bagby has had enough of Poole and fires him. As Poole apologizes to Mr. Smithers, the old man, astonished that Poole even had an inkling of his intentions, explains that his thoughts of robbing the bank are nothing more than a daydream.

            As Hector is cleaning out his desk, Bagby learns that Mr. Sykes was arrested for gambling with company funds and that Hector had saved the bank such embarrassment had the loan gone through. Bagby offers Poole his old job back but, with Miss Turner's encouragement, Poole demands a promotion and uses the leverage he has on Bagby, about Bagby's affair, to get it, along with a round trip ticket to Bermuda for Mr. Smithers at the bank's expense. Bagby has no choice but to agree with Poole's terms.
            Satisfied, Poole walks Miss Turner home and stops to buy an afternoon paper. As he throws his coin in the vendor's box he knocks down his earlier coin which the vendor had managed to keep standing on edge all day. His mind reading powers disappear but Poole walks on contentedly with Miss Turner.

Rod Serling's Closing Narration:
"One time in a million, a coin will land on its edge. But all it takes to knock it over is a vagrant breeze, a vibration, or a slight blow. Hector B. Poole, a human coin on edge for a brief time, in the Twilight Zone."

            By late 1960, writer George Clayton Johnson had sold two stories to The Twilight Zone, "All of Us Are Dying" (filmed as "The Four of Us Are Dying") and "Execution." Rod Serling wrote the adaptations and both stories aired during the first season. By the time production was rolling on the second season, George Clayton Johnson harbored aspirations for producing his own teleplays. Johnson was good friends with Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, the show's two leading writers besides Serling, and was heavily encouraged by Beaumont in particular to start producing his own teleplays if he wanted to start building a serious body of work. Johnson would use his story "A Penny for Your Thoughts" as an opportunity to break in.
            The story actually begins with another story. Johnson sold a short story titled "Sea Change" to producer Buck Houghton. "Sea Change" concerned a sailor who loses his hand in a boating accident only to have his hand miraculously grow back. Even more miraculous is that the hand he lost has grown a new body, a deadly doppelganger intent on destroying him. When passed in front of corporate sponsors, a food company, they deemed the story too grisly, fearing their target audience losing their appetite. Johnson's story would not see print until the October, 1981 issue of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine. Buck Houghton approached Johnson to ask the writer to buy back his story. Johnson agreed to buy the story back but only under the condition that he be allowed to submit a new story which he could adapt into a teleplay for the show. Johnson's story, "A Penny for Your Thoughts," was read by Houghton and approved for production.
            When Johnson breached the idea of writing the first draft teleplay himself, Houghton was initially against the idea due mainly to fact that their previous arrangement operated very smoothly and successfully. Houghton was apprehensive to deviate from this proven method. Not to mention the fact that Johnson was, in a way, holding Houghton hostage because if Johnson was not allowed to write the first draft teleplay he would not allow the show to use his story. Houghton would have to scrap the entire episode and search for new material. Houghton left Johnson waiting for an answer for two weeks before the show's lawyer called Johnson down to a Los Angeles office and gave him a check. It was payment for a teleplay, in an amount much more than Johnson had received for his stories, and it came with the condition that a teleplay would be in producer Houghton's hands in two weeks.
            Johnson was elated and had to quickly learn the routine of regular writing work. With assistance from story editor and associate producer Del Reisman, who came on board during the show’s second season, Johnson got the teleplay written and the show was produced. Though Johnson would never be as prolific as Beaumont or Matheson (he would produce only three additional teleplays ("Kick the Can," "Nothing in the Dark," "A Game of Pool") and provide two additional stories ("The Prime Mover" and "Ninety Years Without Slumbering")), the high quality of his contributions put him in the front ranks of the show’s writers. Johnson's innovative ideas were a refreshing addition to a show which had found its unique, if off-beat, identity among a very small core of principle creators.
            Rod Serling and Buck Houghton never regretted the idea of allowing Johnson into that core group. Johnson visited the set during the filming of "A Penny for Your Thoughts" and was greeted warmly by the production team and by Serling in particular. Johnson relates the story of how he and his wife, Lola, were standing off to the side and watching it all happen on the set when Rod Serling came by with a group of studio people he was touring around the production. When this group arrived in front of Johnson and his wife, Serling proudly informed the people that Johnson was the writer whose idea and teleplay was making it all happen. Being treated as an important element in the production did wonders for Johnson's confidence going forward.
            Since principle production on the show was achieved at MGM and the writers for the show all lived around the Los Angeles area, it allowed the show to become somewhat inclusive and lend a feeling of cohesion to the show. Despite the show's wide range, in both subject and style, there is no mistaking an episode of The Twilight Zone for something else. This was achieved principally because writers were treated not only with respect but as the core creative foundation upon which all else rested. Writers visited the sets, discussed the story with actors and directors and photographers and make-up artists, and were generally a part of production in a manner which was unusual in television. It made the show very strong on story and is the main reason certain episodes are fondly remembered fifty plus years later.
            As originally written, Hector B. Poole's mind reading power was to have originated from being hit by a car. Though the episode still featured Poole being hit by a car shortly after his coin landing on its edge, the production team felt that staging a realistic car accident would be too difficult and decided on the coin effect instead when a special effects technician demonstrated to Serling how the effect could be achieved with a coin on a string. This seemed to be the better choice since the car accident that is featured in the episode is not very convincing and required an obvious quick cut and edit to achieve the effect.
            While visiting the set, George Clayton Johnson spoke with actor Dan Tobin, who played the role of Mr. Bagby. Tobin felt that the idea for the episode was very clever and suggested to Johnson that it would make a good ongoing series in which different people encountered the coin and were possessed of its uncanny power for a short time each. Johnson took Tobin seriously enough to write up a series treatment which featured as one potential character a poker player that used his mind reading ability to destroy the competition until he is paired with a high stakes player that just happens to be Japanese and whose thoughts aren't in English. The series never panned out as it would be hard to sustain a series on such a simple premise for any length of time, though it would have been interesting to see Johnson's idea for a sequel dramatized.
            Since the episode required light comedy, the casting was very important. Dick York (Sept. 4, 1928-Feb. 20, 1992) was so perfectly cast in the role of Hector B. Poole that it is difficult to imagine another actor in the role at this point. In this pre-Bewitched role, York is honing his light comedy skills and doing it well. The show had earlier used in him in a much more serious role in the downbeat war episode "The Purple Testament," where York played a rugged infantry leader. This prior role didn't seem suited for someone with York's skill set. The show got it right the second time around. Though best known as the first Darrin Stephens opposite Elizabeth Montgomery's Samantha on Bewitched (1964-69), York had been featured on film and television since the late 1940's and worked up until the mid 1980's when he was permanently laid up with a degenerative spine injury which he first sustained while filming They Came to Cordura in 1959. A longtime smoker, York developed emphysema and died from the disease in 1992 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His additional genre credits include an episode of Boris Karloff's Thriller, a whopping six episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
            Actor Dan Tobin (Mr. Bagby) had a long career, first films and later on television as a comic relief type who always played the roughly the same character he portrays in this episode of Twilight Zone. Tobin crossed paths again with York on Bewitched. He died in Santa Monica in 1982.
            English actor Cyril Delevanti was the son of an Anglo-Italian music professor and in his long acting career, stretching from the early 1930's to the early 1970's, he managed to amass over 150 credits. He was also a highly regarded drama coach. Delevanti always appeared older than his years and frequently played characters older than his actual age. He was a specialist in cockney- accented English characters. His substantial genre roles, often uncredited, include: Night Monster, Son of Dracula, Phantom of the Opera (1943), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, The Lodger (1944), The Invisible Man's Revenge, Phantom Lady, Ministry of Fear, The House of Fear, 4 episodes of Science Fiction Theatre, and episode of The Adventures of Superman, I Bury the Living, 3 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, an episode of Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond, an episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery. He died in Hollywood on Dec. 1, 1975.
            A final thought about this episode: it seems strange that the world which is presented to the viewer in "A Penny for Your Thoughts" seems very innocent and meek. In other words, it's not a world the viewer feels like something really bad would happen in and yet there is certainly an unacknowledged darkness underlying everything in the episode. Here you have a character reading people's thoughts to discover infidelity, embezzlement, misogyny, and daydreams of grand larceny. It is a interesting contrast to play the light comedy over the dark impulses running through the minds of the principle characters. Though this broad sort of writing was done to illustrate the main idea behind the episode, that people often say things they don't believe and think things they have no intention of doing, it still strikes the viewer as odd, especially how coolly Poole reacts to his boss's infidelity and how easily he slips into the role of blackmailer. Just another example of how the show was always working on more than one level. In all, it's a good start to George Clayton Johnson's contributions as a writer of original teleplays and a fondly remembered episode with fine performances.

Grade: B

Grateful acknowledgement to:
Twilight Zone Scripts and Stories by George Clayton Johnson (Streamline, 1996)
The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic by Martin Grams, Jr. (OTR, 2008)

-Dick York also appeared in the first season episode, "The Purple Testament."
-Cyril Delevanti appeared in three additional episodes of the show, "The Silence" (season two), "A Piano in the House" (season three), and "Passage on the Lady Anne" (season four). He also appeared in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "The Sins of the Father."
-"A Penny for Your Thoughts" was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama by Dennis Etchison, starring David Eigenberg. 

--Jordan Prejean