Sunday, April 17, 2016

"The Mirror"

Peter Falk as Ramos Clemente, gazing into the mirror that will display his downfall

“The Mirror”
Season Three, Episode 71
Original Air Date: October 20, 1961

Ramos Clemente: Peter Falk
General DeCruz: Will Kuluva
Cristo: Antony Carbone
Tabal: Arthur Batanides
Garcia: Rodolfo Hoyos
D’Allesandro: Richard Karlan
Father Tomas: Vladimir Sokoloff

Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Don Medford
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
Editor: Bill Mosher
Story Consultant: Richard McDonagh
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Music: Stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“We’ve had some performances of great depth on The Twilight Zone and next week is no exception. A distinguished and incredibly talented young man lends us his services when Peter Falk stars in ‘The Mirror.’ This is the story of a tyrant and his assassins, a shattered dream, and the death of a cause. Next week on The Twilight Zone . . . ‘The Mirror.’”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration: 
“This is the face of Ramos Clemente. A year ago a beardless, nameless worker of the dirt who plodded behind a mule, furrowing someone else’s land. And he looked up at a hot, Central American sun and he pledged the impossible. He made a vow that he would lead an avenging army against the tyranny that put the ache in his back and the anguish in his eyes. And now one year later the dream of the impossible has become a fact. In just a moment we will look deep into this mirror and see the aftermath of a rebellion in The Twilight Zone.”

            Ramos Clemente, leader of a bloody political revolution in an unnamed Central American country, basks in the adulating cries of the crowd gathered below the balcony of his new office. Together with his four trusted advisors he drinks wine in a toast to the new regime. 
            Clemente has the deposed leader, General DeCruz, brought in so that he, Clemente, can explain how all of DeCruz’s supporters will be executed and how DeCruz’s own death will be long and painful. DeCruz, however, is unaffected by Clemente’s threats. He tells Clemente that they are more alike than Clemente is willing to recognize and now that Clemente has taken control life will be fraught with fear and suspicion. He then warns Clemente that the large, ornate mirror hanging on the wall in the office will reveal the assassins who will come for Clemente’s life.
          Paranoia sets in quickly. As Clemente gazes into the mirror he sees a series of visions in which each of his most trusted men threaten him with an array of deadly weapons, from machine guns to knives to poison. In each case, Clemente either kills the man himself or has the man killed, all in quick succession. Clemente ponders how he can kill his best friends and yet feel nothing at all. Despite warnings from his most trusted friend, Cristo, Clemente cannot see the error of his ways. Even Cristo falls victim to Clemente’s murderous paranoia. When a priest, Father Tomas, arrives to beg Clemente to cease the ongoing executions of DeCruz’s supporters, Clemente rages against the idea, displaying the full measure of his psychosis.
            When the priest leaves, Clemente throws his gun at the mirror, shattering the glass. From without, the priest hears a gunshot. Accompanied by Clemente’s men, he rushes back into the office to find Clemente dead on the floor from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The final assassin, states the priest, is the one they never recognize until it is too late.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Ramos Clemente, a would-be god in dungarees, strangled by an illusion, the will-o’-the wisp mirage that dangles from the sky in front of all ambitious men, all tyrants. And any resemblance to tyrants living or dead is hardly coincidental, whether it be here or in The Twilight Zone.”      

            “The Mirror” is marred by a derivative premise, a divisive lead performance, an uneven supporting cast, unintentionally funny special effects, and a ludicrous ending. Despite this uneven quality, Rod Serling’s “The Mirror” is interesting for the audacious move to dramatically illustrate the terror and corruption immediately evident in the regime of Fidel Castro, and, by extension, the regimes of the many dictators that had recently risen to power in Central and South America.
By utilizing a thinly-veiled, fictionalized version of the young Cuban dictator, as well as his then-enforcer Ernesto “Che” Guevara, here portrayed by Arthur Batanides as “Tabal,” Rod Serling delivered perhaps the most violent and angry episode of the entire series. It comes a mere two years after the end of the Cuban Revolution, illustrating not only how quickly established was the Castro cult of personality, as well as that of Che Guevara, the one-time overseer of Castro’s execution squad whose stylized likeness is now used as a counter-cultural symbol of personal freedom, but also how much Rod Serling had his finger on the pulse of social and political issues. This is demonstrated time and again on the series, from the red scare of “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” to the threat of nuclear annihilation in “The Shelter” to the aftermath of the Holocaust in “Deaths-head Revisited,” Serling was always working to fit the directly frightening aspects of the modern world into a relatable cultural context for the modern viewer.
“The Mirror” does not present an abstract social issue like the aforementioned episodes. It deals directly with its subject in an immediately recognizable way. Only one other time had the series presented a real-life communist leader in an episode, this when the veiled figure of Nikita Khrushchev, the premier of the Soviet Union, appeared in the humorous, shot on videotape, second season episode, “The Whole Truth.” In “The Mirror,” a decidedly non-humorous episode, the deposed leader, General DeCruz, alludes to three real-life dictators when delivering his warning to Castro stand-in Ramos Clemente. DeCruz mentions Castro, Batista, and Trujillo. The character of DeCruz is the fictional stand-in for Fulgencio Zaldívar Batista, the dictator deposed by Castro in the Cuban Revolution. Rafael Trujillo was the President, and longtime shadow dictator, of the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. 
   One presumes these issues were fresh in the minds of most members of the American viewing audience. Either way, by the spring of 1961, with the Bay of Pigs disaster, and into the fall, with the Cuban Missile Crisis, there remained little doubt that Serling’s, and many a political commentator’s, view of the issue was both prescient and, in many cases, blindly optimistic. Serling was no different in his ultimately optimistic depiction of the violent usurper Ramos Clemente besieged by paranoia and self-inflicted violence. What lends the character of Clemente depth is the fact that he was a poor, idealistic young man who grew, in only the space of a calendar year, into a cold, sociopathic leader more brutish than those he rose up against. It was this sort of ideological hopefulness meeting the brutal nature of reality that made the bloody coupes of the period so disheartening for the United States and its own ideological foundations.
            Viewing the episode 55 years after its initial broadcast, it still manages to shock and provoke, even as we see through the thin storytelling, due mostly to the powerful, and contentious, performance of Peter Falk and the heated dialogue in Serling’s script. It was this type of bold social and political commentary which set the series apart from almost any other dramatic series of the time, especially any other science fiction series. It is this quality also which most closely relates The Twilight Zone to the well regarded science fiction series that followed in its wake, from The Outer Limits to The X-Files, and, conversely, which separates it from the series which seem unable to emerge from its long shadow of influence.
            A lot of filmed science fiction contemporary to The Twilight Zone, including the series itself, presented social and political commentary through the malleable symbolism of alien invaders, mad scientists, and atomic monsters. At its best, The Twilight Zone didn't bother to cloak its message to the viewer in any veneer of fantasy other than the most threadbare kind. The Southern California Group of writers, of which Serling was a satellite member and who collectively wrote virtually all of the material for The Twilight Zone, are notable for the fact that their approach to fantasy was to set it in as realistic a situation as possible. They approached fantastic material as would a writer of realist fiction, something they borrowed from notables like Jack Finney (The Body Snatchers), Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House), and Theodore Sturgeon (More Than Human). It was the model set beforehand by Sturgeon, the brilliant short fiction writer, which exerted the strongest influence on the group. In 1958, Sturgeon published both a short story and a collection entitled A Touch of Strange, the idea being that to create a convincing fantasy for the modern reader the writer must create a wholly believable setting and set of characters, one to which the modern reader can instantly relate, only then to introduce a touch of something strange, an intrusion of the fantastic upon the lives of the characters.
The most successful episodes of The Twilight Zone come with no deconstruction required at all. Think “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” or “The Obsolete Man” or “The Shelter” or “Deaths-Head Revisited” or “He’s Alive.” All Rod Serling penned episodes and all moral tales painted in strokes broad enough for an average middle school child to easily comprehend, which undoubtedly explained both the popularity of the show among children and its fascination for adults. So it is with “The Mirror.” Serling doesn’t feel the need to convince the viewer of the truth of the fantasy element, in this case a magic mirror, but rather decides to leave it purposefully ambiguous. The episode can just as easily, perhaps more easily, be interpreted from a psychological perspective, the fantasy element being a result of psychosis on the part of the protagonist. There are assassins everywhere, intimates DeCruz, and whether or not it is only in the mind of Clemente is left for the viewer to decide. A quick interesting note is that Serling previously used the name DeCruz for the villain among villains in the second season episode “The Rip Van Winkle Caper.” In that episode, DeCruz was played by Simon Oakland.
            Serling had earlier exited the dramatic anthology programs which soon after died away and underwent a transformation from cutting edge drama to unthreatening and watered-down television movies of the week. Here he is in 1961 with a twenty six minute play consisting almost entirely of a fictional Fidel Castro systematically murdering an array of people, including his own entourage, and culminating in his own self-inflicted death. Clemente’s brutal murder of D’Allesandro, slammed through a set of glass doors and thrown bodily over a balcony, should be indication enough that this was a different sort of program than those Serling was writing five years before.
It’s hard to imagine the corporate sponsors on Playhouse 90 giving a script like this the green light. Yet, here it is on Serling’s “kooky” (his word) Twilight Zone presenting just such a scenario. There was a reason the series aired at 9:00, the traditional time slot where a more mature block of programming commenced. If we as regular viewers of the series have become accustomed to the nostalgic comforts inherent in The Twilight Zone, “The Mirror” is anything but comforting or nostalgic, which may explain its status as an almost forgotten episode and one which is rarely commented upon in the circle of science fiction and fantasy fans that examine such things.  
            The major problems with “The Mirror” are the problems with most of Serling’s moral episodes. If you’re looking for an original plot, look elsewhere. As a writer, Serling was clearly more interested in using science fiction and fantasy as a lens through which to view the world around him than in developing unique story concepts. Not that he was unable to achieve the latter but only that he couldn’t be expected to produce “Eye of the Beholder” or “The Masks” each time out, nor did he care to do so. Serling was always keenly aware of the fantasy tradition and was never shy about using familiar concepts as springboards to drive his stories across.
During the course of producing The Twilight Zone, Serling was always beleaguered with calls of plagiarism and, for the vast majority, undeservedly so. The burden of producing a science fiction show, and the grave mistake of a call for open submissions prior to the first season, something which was still plaguing Serling three seasons in, was such that every episode put out, however successful or unsuccessful, would be claimed by some quack in his living room or by some professional writer irked by viewing a genre outsider like Serling, and don’t be fooled, he was viewed as such, clutching his Hugo and Emmy Awards at the end of each television season. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror have always been communal pools from which everyone drinks. One must simply stop short of drinking from someone else’s cupped hands.
             In “The Mirror,” Serling is using fairly standard fantasy elements to explore a very modern problem, the rise of the violent dictator in the 20th century. There is the old adage that science fiction isn’t really talking about the future; it’s talking about the present. So it goes with many of Serling’s Twilight Zone episodes. Serling’s plot constructions often suffered from cliché and repetition. One can hardly fault the guy since he was still writing about sixty-five percent of everything on the series, along with assuming his duties as executive producer. That aspect has been examined in detail before here in the Vortex, as has his reliance on common concepts of folklore, and there’s no need to go over it all again, except to say that “The Mirror” contains elements that go back to the Black Forest fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, themselves records of a much older oral tradition.
There is the haunted mirror which tells of a possible future. There is the character who seals his fate through the action of attempting to avoid a dire portent. The deposed leader, de Cruz, plays the role of both the accuser and of the one that lays the curse at the feet of the new leader. There is the wise old villager, here played by Vladimir Sokoloff, a Moscow-born character actor again relegated to playing a Hispanic character as he had previously done in the season two episode, “Dust,” who begs for understanding and spells out the moral for the audience at the conclusion of events. These are surely elements familiar to anyone with even a cursory interest in film or literature. Once passed through the cipher of Serling’s moralizing oratory the story becomes less about plot, thankfully, and more about what William Faulkner termed “the human heart in conflict with itself,” something at which Serling was masterful.
It is remarkable how confined are many of The Twilight Zone episodes. This was less to serve a small budget and more the series not needing the decorative aspects of a less cerebral, or more outer space oriented, science fiction series. The series was exceptional at minimization and producer Buck Houghton was not only a master at managing the production, along with Ralph W. Nelson, but had assembled a group of technicians that thrived within the constricted confines of the show. The effectiveness of the MGM backlot, the finest such studio backlot at the time, didn’t hurt matters either.
“The Mirror” takes place on two sets, one interior (Clemente’s office) and one exterior (the office balcony), and is all the better for it. It lends the episode intimacy which masks many of the missteps in narrative. Much like the later fifth season episode, “The Masks,” the use sound indicates vastness, as great crowds and the gunfire of the execution squads can be heard continuously roaring beneath the windows of Clemente’s office. Clemente never leaves the office, never changes clothes, so strong is his paranoia, so defined is his cause. Never is the viewer allowed to imagine this man with anything resembling a personal life. As far as we know, he has no wife, no children, no mother, no father, nor any siblings. He is a single minded individual, driven by will, desperation, violence, and an unacknowledged need for exoneration. Serling reminds us again and again, violence begets violence, hate begets hate, and prejudice begets prejudice. Clemente is the latest personification of this. There is a moment late in the episode which seems unnecessary and yet perfectly displays who and what Clemente represents. After murdering all but one of his entourage, Clemente wonders aloud how he can murder men he thought of as brothers and feel nothing about it.
Peter Falk portrays Ramos Clemente. Falk would later, of course, become famous as Lt. Frank Columbo in the show of the same name. Serling was very impressed with the young Falk as evidenced in his preview narration. Falk was nominated for two Academy Awards, for Murder, Inc. (1960) and Pocketful of Miracles (1961) and would go on to win five Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe. His performance as Clemente is a manic, exuberant performance which has undoubtedly left many viewers divided. Falk hovers the line between parody and effectiveness yet is unquestionably menacing and perfectly displays the single-minded arrogance of a man who knows only achievement through violence.
            Even as early as the late 1970's, when author Marc Scott Zicree was conducting interviews for The Twilight Zone Companion, series producer Buck Houghton was apologizing for Falk’s performance, finding it too flamboyant and explaining it as the way in which many Americans viewed the Cuban leader. The problem which this assessment is that even though Falk is clearly made up to resemble Castro, he is playing a much broader character, an amalgamation intended to represent the maniacal dictators which had risen to power in several nations in Central and South America at the time. Whether or not Falk’s performance is a result of American perspective or not, the violence sweeping through that portion of the world at the time is undeniable fact, as are the leaders responsible for it.
            Antony Carbone, an Italian-American actor, matches the broad nature of Falk’s performance, often delivering his lines which one eye squinted closed and his teeth bared in a grimace. The other supporting players are simply fodder for Clemente’s mania and are not given ground to really offer anything to the episode. The ever-present Robert McCord makes another uncredited appearance at the end of the episode as an off-screen voice and the Priest’s companion.  
            The final aspect of the episode that needs to be briefly commented upon is the ineffective mirror effects. One after another each of Clemente’s men are viewed in the mirror approaching the paranoid leader with a different array of deadly weapons, gun, knife, poison, etc. The effect simply doesn’t work and very closely skirts the line of being unintentionally humorous, especially the image of D’Allesandro (Richard Karlan) wielding a large machine gun and turning in a semi-circle. Perhaps Serling felt that he must show something in the mirror but one wonders if the episode would have been more effective if the viewer were not privy to what Clemente saw but left only to imagine what he beheld in the mirror.
            Director Don Medford was a veteran of television direction and is probably best remembered today for directing the two-part finale of The Fugitive. He was at the helm for four additional Zone episodes, including the similar and more successful “Deaths-head Revisited,” about a Nazi war criminal (Oscar Beregi, Jr.) who revisits the concentration camp where he committed his atrocities, which was filmed before “The Mirror” but aired afterwards. It is very likely Medford’s work on “Deaths-head Revisited” indicated he was the right man for the “The Mirror.”
            In all, “The Mirror” is not an episode easy to recommend as something other than an oddity in a third season populated with established classics. It is never boring and the high third season production values hold the viewer’s attention, as well as the opportunity to see a genuine artifact of the Cold War era. Call it average, though that hardly speaks to the unique qualities offered by the episode.

Grade: C

--Don Medford also directed “A Passage for Trumpet” from season one, “The Man in the Bottle” from season two, “Deaths-head Revisited” from season three, and “Death Ship” from season four.
--Vladimir Sokoloff also appeared in the season two episode, “Dust.”
--Arthur Batanides also appeared in the season one episode, “Mr. Denton on Doomsday.”
--Richard Karlan also appeared in the season one episode, “Execution.”
--Rodolfo Hoyos appeared in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "The Miracle at Camafeo." 
--“The Mirror” was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Tony Plana.

-Jordan Prejean  

Saturday, April 2, 2016

"A Game of Pool"

A game of life or death. Fats Brown (Jonathan Winters) attempts
to teach young pool shark Jesse Cardiff (Jack Klugman)
about the price of being the best.

“A Game of Pool”
Season Three, Episode 70
Original Air Date: October 13, 1961

Jesse Cardiff: Jack Klugman
James Howard Brown (a.k.a. Fats Brown): Jonathan Winters

Writer: George Clayton Johnson (original teleplay)
Director: Buzz Kulik
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: Jack Swain
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Phil Barber
Set Decoration: H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: Darrell Hallenbeck
Editor: Jason H. Bernie
Story Consultant: Richard McDonagh
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Music: Stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week we engage in ‘A Game of Pool.’ That’s both an activity and a title. A play written by George Clayton Johnson and starring Mr. Jack Klugman and Mr. Jonathan Winters. It’s the story about the best pool player living…and the best pool player dead. And this one, we submit, will stay with you for quite a while. Next week on the Twilight Zone, ‘A Game of Pool.’”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“Jesse Cardiff, pool shark. The best on Randolph Street. Who will soon learn that trying to be the best at anything carries its own special risks in or out…of the Twilight Zone.”

            Empty pool hall. Randolph Street, Chicago. Young pool hustler Jesse Cardiff spends his life here pledging to one day be the best at his craft. While practicing alone after hours one night he decides that he is the best pool player that ever walked the streets of Chicago. Better even, than the legend, Fats Brown, dead fifteen years now. If only he could play one round with the late legend he could claim his rightful title.
            In another world somewhere, Fats Brown quietly plays a game of pool by himself. A voice summons him to a pool hall on Randolph Street in Chicago. He picks up his belongings and prepares to leave.
            Back on Randolph Street Cardiff hears a voice behind him and turns to find a familiar face hidden in the shadows. It belongs to Fats Brown. He is here, he says, to challenge Cardiff’s claim of being the best pool player on Randolph Street. It takes some harsh prodding but Cardiff agrees to play the big man. But it doesn’t come without risk. Brown proposes to make it a life or death affair. If Cardiff wins then he lives. If he loses, he dies.
            Cardiff racks the balls and Brown breaks them, a break that sends two balls gently into the railing and then back towards the formation, leaving it up to Cardiff to scatter the balls. Impressed, Cardiff is caught off-guard by this maneuver but doesn’t let it shake him. He gently nudges one of the loose balls leaving the original triangle unbroken. Then he smiles. Brown calls the fifteen ball and misses, leaving Cardiff the run of the table.
            They continue like this for hours, with Cardiff in the lead. Then Brown begins to land every single shot, rarely giving Cardiff an opportunity to shoot. It appears the young hustler has been hustled. At the end of the night they are nearly tied with Cardiff only two points ahead. He needs to sink one ball to win. Brown does everything he can to distract his opponent, causing Cardiff to miss. Brown takes his last shot and misses, leaving Cardiff with a pocket-hanger. If he sinks this, he wins. He’ll get to live and he will be the greatest pool player of all time. He begins to boast to Brown, throwing the big man’s words back in his face. Brown informs him that he would actually like to see the young man win but warns him that if he does he “may win more than he bargained for.” Cardiff brushes him off and sinks his last shot. He picks the cue ball up and gives it a kiss. He is king.
            Brown simply says, “thanks.” Cardiff asks him what he means and Brown tells him that he will find out whenever he tries to leave Randolph Street. Cardiff turns away for only a second but when he turns back Brown is gone. Cardiff then comes to the realization that he is the only one who will ever know that he beat the legend, Fats Brown. But at the moment, it doesn’t matter.
            Later, far away somewhere. A broken Jesse Cardiff rests his head on a pool table. A voice tells him to report to Mason’s Pool Hall, Sandusky, Ohio. Weary and exhausted, Cardiff reluctantly stumbles off to defend his crown.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Mr. Jesse Cardiff, who became a legend by beating one, but who has found out after his funeral that being the best of anything carries with it a special obligation to keep on proving it. Mr. Fats Brown, on the other hand, having relinquished the champion’s mantle, has gone fishing. These are the ground rules in the Twilight Zone.”

            “A Game of Pool” marks the fourth contribution and second original teleplay from writer George Clayton Johnson, cementing his foothold as an invaluable voice on the program. Widely considered a highpoint in the show’s run, it set the bar exceedingly high for pure dramatic tension. The most interesting, and discussed, aspects of “A Game of Pool” is the casting of comedian Jonathan Winters (1925 – 2013) in the dramatic role of the ghost of pool hall legend Fats Brown, and the changing of George Clayton Johnson’s original ending into the light and irreverent ending seen in the episode.           
            Jack Klugman (1922-2012) portrays Jesse Cardiff, an angry young pool player who has dedicated an unhealthy amount of his life to the game and longs to be remembered as the best to ever play. Klugman, as noted in previous posts, already had a successful career as a dramatic actor who developed his craft on the stage and in live anthology programs of the 1950s, as well as in such feature films as Twelve Angry Men (1957). Klugman and Serling first worked together in 1959 when the young actor appeared in Serling’s semi-autobiographical Playhouse 90 production, “The Velvet Alley.” Klugman’s “everyman” stage persona likely appealed to Serling a great deal and made him an obvious choice when casting The Twilight Zone. Serling reportedly postponed production on Season One’s “A Passage for Trumpet,” Klugman’s first appearance on the show, specifically to accommodate the actor’s filming schedule. Klugman would become arguably the most recognizable actor to grace the series, turning in excellent star performances in four above average episodes. His relationship to the show was such that by the time production began on “A Game of Pool” he was willing to accept offers for work on the series without first reading the script, such was his respect for Rod Serling and the quality of the writing on the series. Although he would go on to achieve pop culture immortality in the television adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple and later on the NBC medical drama Quincy M.E., The Twilight Zone is still considered one of the jewels of his long career.
            With the unusual nature of “A Game of Pool,” two actors on two simple sets (the pool hall and the afterlife set), the actor cast opposite Klugman would need to be effective and have the acting talent to carry an intensely compact story. Initially, Buck Houghton sought an actor like Jack Warden, the gruff actor who previously appeared in the first season episode, “The Lonely.” However, Rod Serling had an ace in his pocket. Martin Grams, Jr., author of the book The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic (OTR, 2008), indicates correspondence which Rod Serling had previously received from Jonathan Winters in which the popular television comedian expressed interest in appearing in an episode of the series. At the time, according to this correspondence, Serling had nothing in line that would suit Winters but assured Winters that a call would come when something came up that they could both get behind. Whether or not this is the method in which Winters was actually hired to portray Fats Brown is inconsequential. Serling did have a great amount of imput with casting and it is probable that he recommended Winters for the part. 
            Winters did not quite fit George Clayton Johnson’s original description of Fats Brown. Though Winter's had the build of the Minnesota Fats-like character, Johnson wrote him as bearded and ponderous. It quickly became evident, however, that Winters was going to make the character his own. Johnson was an avid pool player at the time he wrote “A Game of Pool” and was especially enamored by the 1959 novel The Hustler by American novelist Walter Tevis. The novel tells the story of a young, ambitious pool shark named Fast Eddie Felson who challenges pool legend Minnesota Fats only to lose and receive a much needed lesson in winning and losing and the price of being the best at something. According to Johnson, he was working on a story that would eventually become “A Game of Pool” (originally titled, “The Pool Player”) when he first read Tevis’s novel. Johnson took the general premise and theme of the novel and compressed it into a dialogue-filled sketch that focused on Cardiff’s obsession with being the best and his ignorance at ignoring the world around him. But while Felson learns his lesson at the end of the novel, Cardiff, at least in Johnson’s original script, does not and the story ends with him falling even deeper into his obsession.
20th Century Fox released a film adaptation of The Hustler in September, 1961, directed by Robert Rossen and starring Paul Newman as Fast Eddie and Jackie Gleason (another comedian in a breakout dramatic role) as Minnesota Fats. The similarities between The Hustler (both the novel and the film) and “A Game of Pool” are profound, so much so that George Clayton Johnson considered changing the name of Fats Brown to something more prosaic, like John Brown, to disguise the debt owed to the Walter Tevis story. And although Johnson’s script owes much to the novel, no one involved with the episode could have known for certain of the similarities between Rossen’s film and “A Game of Pool” as the former was theatrically released on September 25, 1961 and the latter filmed two months earlier, in late July. Despite the similarities, however, the show delivered an end product with enough dramatic tension to challenge even such a venerated American film as The Hustler.
            Though Jonathan Winters would appear on hundreds of television broadcasts throughout his long career, he was mainly known as a comedian on television variety shows at the time he appeared in “A Game of Pool.” The episode served to show the quality talented comedians could bring to a dramatic series. This was not the first time The Twilight Zone presented a well-known comedian in a dramatic fashion. The first season episode “One For the Angels” featured comedian Ed Wynn in a dramatic role, though Wynn had already displayed his dramatic skills in Rod Serling’s Emmy Award winning Playhouse 90 production “Requiem For a Heavyweight” in 1956. An interesting note here is that both Wynn and Jonathan Winters, when first attempting a dramatic role, would fall into comedy routines when accidentally flubbing a line or missing a mark as a way to ease the tension of the transition.
            In 1960, Jonathan Winters began recording comedy albums and would continue to do so throughout his career, albums which would eventually pull in eleven Emmy Award nominations. It was an obvious course for his career as he had been performing voice work for commercials since the mid-1950s. Winters launched his career on radio after an impromptu talent show entry (and win) and would move on to commercials selling beer and trash bags and appearances on television. During this time he also began doing stand-up comedy and quickly gained a reputation within the comedy circuit for his unique blend of quick-witted impressions and deadpan facial expressions. Today he is considered a master of improvisational comedy. In 1954, Winters made his first appearance on television on the talent show Chance of a Lifetime. By the end of the decade Winters had his own television show on NBC and was a frequent guest of Jack Parr’s Tonight Show and The Steve Allen Show. By the early 1960s Winters was interested in diversifying his resume and thus came the letter to Rod Serling expressing interest in appearing on The Twilight Zone.
            The decision to broaden his acting career came at a difficult period in the comedian’s life. Time spent on the road away from his family and the pressure of non-stop touring caused Winters to suffer a breakdown and subsequently spend two weeks under psychiatric evaluation in 1959. In 1961, Winters was again admitted for psychiatric evaluation in Belmont, California for an even longer stay, some reports stating as long as eight months, which would have allowed very little time between his discharge from Belmont and the filming of "A Game of Pool." After this period of difficulty, Winters quit touring the stand-up circuit and focused on television work and his recording career. 
           At the time, Hollywood’s attitude towards mental illness was very different than it is today and artists who had been publicly outed as unstable were often slighted and ignored by the industry. Winters likely wanted to prove himself as a performer by venturing into unfamiliar terrain. “A Game of Pool” was the first of many serious dramatic performances that would showcase the actor’s flexibility. According to Buzz Kulik and Buck Houghton, Winters was very nervous about his performance and was very eager to do it well.
           Though originally written to be a ponderous character, Winters played Fats as focused, intense, a bit patronizing. He exudes confidence, wisdom, and pressure. He doesn’t need to verbally berate the young, blindly confident Jesse Cardiff. The mannerisms and facial expressions of Winters told the audience everything going on inside the character’s head. It is a testament to Winter’s mastery of expression that he was able to be subtle in his performance and still bring across more than enough dramatic tension to keep the encounter between the two men lively and believable.
            Buzz Kulik would direct a total of nine episodes of the show before it was over, many of them overlooked classics such as Season Two’s “Static” or “The Trouble with Templeton.”  But “A Game of Pool” is arguably his greatest achievement. Realizing that the script was deliberately simplistic, Kulik shoots the episode with a restrained attitude, leaving much of the focus on the relationship of the actors. The episode has an unusually high number of extreme close-ups, revealing endless beads of sweat dripping down the faces of the actors, emphasizing the effort given by both the characters and the actors. This is one of only a handful of episodes that does not feature stalwart director of photographer George T. Clemens. Jack Swain steps in for Clemens here and does a fine job. He would go to work on five more episodes during the third season. It is likely that the Emmy Award which George T. Clemens received after his exceptional work on the second season of the series meant more calls for his skills behind a camera on other television and film projects. 
            The most reported aspect of “A Game of Pool” is the fact that the ending as filmed was not that as written by George Clayton Johnson. This is interesting chiefly because The Twilight Zone was seen as a series that served the writer more than other series and production rarely changed anything about the script without the writer’s approval. An episode such as “Long Distance Call” from the second season required rewrites to suit a more effective ending but was served by the fact that the writers, Charles Beaumont and William Idelson, were available on the set to do the rewrites then and there and therefore not impede the tight shooting schedule. Perhaps “A Game of Pool” would have been served the same way but for the fact that George Clayton Johnson was unable to be present on the filming of the episode.
            At the time of production, Johnson was on the set of the 1962 Roger Corman film, The Intruder. This film was an adaptation of the 1959 Charles Beaumont novel of the same name, in which a racist named Adam Cramer (portrayed by William Shatner) incites racially motivated violence in a fictional Southern town. Beaumont and Johnson both had roles in the film and were therefore devoting a sizable amount of time to the film while in the midst of production on the third season of The Twilight Zone. In a much later interview with author Matthew R. Bradley, Johnson recalled how Buck Houghton called him at the time of filming "A Game of Pool" to tell him there was a problem with Johnson’s ending and that they were considering a new conclusion to the show. Director Buzz Kulik told author Marc Scott Zicree (The Twilight Zone Companion) that it required three attempts before they settled on an ending upon which they could wrap the episode. The ending George Clayton Johnson wrote was never filmed for the original series and would have to wait until the 1980s Twilight Zone series to be realized with rather uninspiring results. Johnson’s original ending can be read in its entirety in Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion.
            As written, Jesse Cardiff loses the game to Fats, much as Fast Eddie loses to Minnesota Fats in The Hustler. Though Fats Brown told Jesse that the terms of the game were life and death this turns out to be a bit of a bluff as Fats tells Jesse that he won’t die then and there but would instead live out his life as a second rate player and die forgotten while he, Fats, would live on in the minds of those that followed the game as a legend and the best there ever was. The episode was to end with Jesse raging against this fate and promising to practice harder than ever in the coming years and to again one day challenge Fats’s mantle as legend. Johnson was particularly eager to see Jack Klugman deliver the final furious lines of dialogue as the writer noted that Klugman was particularly talented at this type of enraged defiance in his performances.
            Though the reasons for the change are hazy at best, the show was, by the third season, well aware of its own reputation as a series which displayed the O. Henry-type twist ending on stories. For the casual fan of the series this is the quality most often recalled about The Twilight Zone and it stands to reason that production felt the need to insert this type of twist in all of its episodes. Though Johnson’s original ending packed a dramatic punch it may have been seen as too subtle, too straight forward drama for a series that traded in fantasy. Although the filmed ending does alleviate some of the hard earned tension built up in the episode, it does present some interesting design elements and reveals interesting aspects of character.
            As mentioned, in 1989 the first Twilight Zone revival series filmed a new version of “A Game of Pool” for its third season, with Esai Morales as Cardiff and Maury Chaykin as Fats Brown. It was directed by Randy Bradshaw. The decision to remake such an exceptionally well-crafted and revered episode is due likely to the controversy surrounding the original ending. The producers chose to utilize Johnson’s original script for this version and, unfortunately, the result is fairly underwhelming. The plot of the episode, up until its denouement, is much the same as in the original. One notable difference, however, is that the episode begins with the pool hall closing for the night and briefly features a handful of other actors instead of just the two leads. The time period is also updated to then present day 1989. Morales and Chaykin both deliver competent but forgettable performances and Bradshaw’s direction is similarly uninspiring. In his interview with Bradley, George Clayton Johnson says that he was even more disappointed with this second version, featuring his restored ending, than he was with the original episode. 
          A macabre touch during the afterlife scenes, for both Fats and Jesse, is that all the balls on the pool table are black, thus making it impossible to play anything but a solitary game of the traditionally competitive sport, highlighting the loneliness that is part of the baggage of being the best. It is interesting to note as well the difference in character when viewed in the afterlife. At the beginning of the episode Fats is seen actively playing pool in the afterlife, dutifully taking his cue along when the next challenger is announced by a disembodied voice. On the other hand, Jesse is seen as dejected and weary when he finally achieves his legendary mantle. The moral, perhaps, is be careful what you wish for, and that the burden of being a legend can be heavy indeed.
            The ending as filmed is not quite as bad as many viewers and critics have made it out to be despite an inappropriate flourish of light music to end the episode, which, in general, treads along a dark path. Though the changing of the original writer’s intentions is rarely a good idea, the episode remains a favorite of viewers and one of the two dozen or so most highly regarded episodes by those of us that analyze the series. One positive aspect of the episode is that it fully utilized George Clayton Johnson’s skill as a writer of tough, street-wise dialogue and his unerring sense of drama using little more than two or three characters. Although “A Game of Pool” largely represented a change in Johnson’s writing style, from sentimental, Ray Bradburyesque stories to tough, noir-type fiction, it is a transition easy to follow from the writer's previous work. Johnson was writing the streetwise type of story as early as his stroy treatment that was eventually filmed as Ocean’s 11 in 1960. The viewer may also look to Rod Serling’s adaptations of “The Four of Us Are Dying” and “Execution” to see that Johnson’s story ideas were often on the tougher end of the spectrum, replete with violence and noir-ish sensibilities. Of course, Johnson would go on to write his share of light and touching material, such as “Nothing in the Dark,” “Kick the Can,” and “Ninety Years Without Slumbering,” episodes which are much more sentimental and optimistic than “A Game of Pool.”

Grade: A+

--Information on Jonathan Winters's nervous breakdowns of 1959 and 1961 was taken from "Jonathan Winters, Unpredictable Comic and Master of Improvisation, Dies at 87" by William Grimes, New York Times, April 12, 2013. Accessed on 4/1/2016. 
--Jack Klugman also appears in Season One’s “A Passage for Trumpet,” Season Four’s “Death Ship,” and Season Five’s “In Praise of Pip.”
--Director of Photographer Jack Swain lent his talents to five other episodes, all during Season Three:
            “Deaths-head Revisited”
            “Still Valley”
            “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank”
            “The Fugitive”
            “Hocus-pocus and Frisby”
--“A Game of Pool” was adapted as an episode of the 1980’s Twilight Zone revival series. It was directed by Randy Bradshaw with Elias Morales as Jesse Cardiff and Maury Chaykin as Fats Brown. It features George Clayton Johnson’s original script with updated material by Will Bermender. It originally aired on February 4, 1989. 
--"A Game of Pool" was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Wade Williams (Falcon Picture Group).  

--Jordan Prejean and Brian Durant