Wednesday, September 21, 2016

"Five Characters in Search of an Exit"

Five lost characters searching for a way back
to their own stories
“Five Characters in Search of an Exit”
Season Three, Episode 79
Original Air Date: December 22, 1961

Major: William Windom
Ballerina: Susan Harrison
Clown: Murray Matheson
Tramp: Kelton Garwood
Bagpiper: Clark Allen
Woman with Bell: Carol Hill
Girl: Mona Houghton

Writer: Rod Serling (teleplay based on the story “The Depository” by Marvin Petal)
Director: Lamont Johnson
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Phil Barber
Set Decoration: H. Web Arrowsmith
Make Up: William Tuttle
Assistant Director: E. Darrell Halenbeck
Editor: Bill Mosher
Story Consultant: Richard McDonagh
Sound: Franklin Milton, Bill Edmondson
Casting: Stamaster-Lister
Music: Stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week on the Twilight Zone, you’ll find yourself inexplicably entangled in this dark dungeon. You’ll meet an incredible group of people who, like you, will be quite unable to explain how they got there, why they got there, or how they’re going to get out. And at the end, we’re going to belt you with one of the most surprising endings we’ve ever had. Next week, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” on the Twilight Zone.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“Clown, Hobo, Ballet Dancer, Bagpiper, and an Army Major. A collection of question marks. Five improbable entities stuck together into a pit of darkness. No logic. No reason. No explanation. Just a prolonged nightmare in which fear, loneliness, and the unexplainable walk hand-in-hand through the shadows. In a moment we’ll start collecting clues as to the why’s, the what’s, and the where’s. We will not end the nightmare we’ll only explain it. Because this…is the Twilight Zone.”

            A man awakens in a dark room, unsure of how he got there. He wears a military uniform. United States Army. Rank: Major. The room is small and circular and the top is exposed to the air. With him in the room are a clown, a tramp, a Scottish bagpiper, and a ballerina. None of them can recall how they arrived in the room, although they have all been there much longer than the major. Every now and then, a loud ringing shakes the room and knocks them to the ground.           
            The major is determined to find a way out. First, he tries to break through the wall. Then he attempts to dig a tunnel in the ground. Finally, he suggests that he and his roommates form a human ladder against the wall. The clown is opposed to the plan because it is dangerous but he is eventually persuaded. They form a ladder by standing on each other’s shoulders. The ballerina goes last. When she gets to the top she finds that her hands cannot quite reach the top of the cylinder. A bell rings violently and sends the five strangers tumbling to the ground. As a result the ballerina injures her leg. The major insists that they try it again, this time fashioning a rope from their clothes and tying it to the end of a sword. They form another ladder without the injured ballerina. The major goes last this time. When he gets to the top of the ladder he swings the rope over the top of the cylinder and hooks it onto the ledge. He pulls himself up and makes it out of the cylinder. Before he has a chance to tell the others what he sees he plummets to the ground below.
          City sidewalk. Winter.
A young girl finds an army doll lying on the ground covered in snow. She picks it up and hands it to a woman ringing a bell next to a box marked 17th Annual Christmas Doll Drive. The woman tells her to put it back inside the bin.
            Back in the place at the bottom of the barrel, five lonely people attempt to find comfort in the fact that, at least for now, they have each other.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Just a barrel, a dark depository where are kept the counterfeit, make-believe pieces of plaster and cloth wrought in the distorted image of human life. But this added hopeful note: perhaps they are unloved only for the moment. In the arms of children there can be nothing but love. A clown, a tramp, a bagpipe player, a ballet dancer, and a major. Tonight’s cast of players on the odd stage known as the Twilight Zone.”

           Episode 79 of The Twilight Zone is one of the most memorable the show would ever produce. It’s also one of the best. It’s a premise that revolves almost exclusively around its twist ending and in the hands of lesser storytellers it could have been mediocre and predictable. It is to Rod Serling and Buck Houghton’s credit that they saw in writer Marvin Petal’s five page story more than just a simple plot twist to be stretched into a 25 minute teleplay. Instead, they saw a clever idea with interesting characters and a generous amount of screen time in which to develop them. The result is a weird, existential film that manages to be emotionally compelling and philosophically hopeless at the same time.
            “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” is Serling’s adaptation of Marvin Petal’s (1929 – 2013) unpublished short story “The Depository.” Petal was a successful journalist who wrote for The Los Angeles Herald Examiner and later worked for former news conglomerate McGraw-Hill World News throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s. He began his career at television station KTLA in Los Angeles where he wrote scripts for local sports programs, court procedurals, and legal documentaries. He met Serling at a political rally held at the home of actor Robert Ryan in 1960. Anticipating that Serling would be there, Petal brought along a five page story he had written called “The Depository” with the hope that he could convince Serling to buy it for The Twilight Zone. Serling seemed interested enough and suggested that he submit it to Buck Houghton for consideration. Houghton saw the potential and promptly purchased the story.
            One of Serling’s strongest attributes as a writer was his eye for adaptation. Many of his best episodes were either adapted from the works of others or inspired by true events, although he did write a number of original teleplays that were brilliant. Serling had always possessed a knack for adaptation even in his days as a writer for live television—his 1957 adaptation of Ernest Lehman’s story “The Comedian” for Playhouse 90 earned him an Emmy Award—but on The Twilight Zone he began to rely on existing source material more and more. This is likely due to his contractual obligation to write 80 percent of the teleplays for the first three seasons. However, this proved to be beneficial and many of his adaptations are among the best episodes of the show. “The Depository” has never been published so no comparison can be drawn between the two versions. According to Petal, other than the omission of a minor character, Serling remained relatively faithful to the original story. Given the short length of Petal’s story, it can be assumed that most of the dialogue was added by Serling. Dialogue was always Serling’s greatest strength as a writer and it has never been more apparent than in this episode. His words are crisp and clever and overflowing with emotion.
            The title is a reference to Luigi Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of an Author, first performed in Rome in 1921. The play tells the story of a family of six who interrupt rehearsals for a play written by Pirandello. The group claims to be Pirandello’s unfinished characters and they need to find him in order to be complete. The director agrees to let them stay and rehearse with the actors. The six newcomers immediately begin to argue with each other and with the rest of the cast and crew for no apparent reason. It is revealed that their family history is one of deceit, adultery, and a multitude of morally questionable offenses. The play ends with one of the children committing suicide on stage and another drowning in a fountain. The remaining characters exit the stage leaving the cast and crew to process the day’s events.
Although “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” bears little resemblance to the experimental and highly explicit play from which it takes its name, the reference to Pirandello is almost certainly deliberate. Luigi Pirandello is largely considered the major predecessor to the movement in European drama prevalent during the mid-twentieth century known as the Theatre of the Absurd. The movement was born out of Elizabethan tragi-comedy and was heavily influenced by existentialism, particularly the darker themes of Franz Kafka and Albert Camus. It was also influenced by the devastation of war witnessed throughout Europe during the first half of the century. Authors associated with the Theatre of the Absurd stress a deterioration of the human condition and a breakdown in communication in modern society. Their works usually avoid a traditional plot structure and conflicts are seldom resolved. The dialogue is repetitive and characters often babble back and forth at one another without moving the conversation forward. Characters usually find themselves trapped in situations they cannot control or understand. Vaudeville was also a significant inspiration. Authors juxtapose satire and farce with hopelessness and despair to emphasize a pessimistic view of humanity. Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Edward Albee are all closely associated with the Theatre of the Absurd. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953), a play practically devoid of plot in which two men wait aimlessly for a person named Godot who never appears, is considered the masterpiece of the genre.
            If Serling was influenced by writers like Pirandello then it seems obvious that The Twilight Zone also carries that influence to a certain degree. An ordinary episode of the show commonly features a character, or characters, inexplicably thrust into an unfamiliar and sometimes hostile environment which they cannot control and often cannot share with anyone else. Serling’s ambition as a writer was to point out society’s flaws much like the works commonly placed under the umbrella of the Theatre of the Absurd. But Serling’s work is rooted more in honesty and realism which sets it apart from his European contemporaries.
“Five Characters in Search of an Exit” is perhaps the closest the show ever came to this type of drama. The story begins without explanation, forcing the characters and the audience to immediately begin evaluating the situation. The characters are archetypal, a trait common to absurdist plays. The atmosphere is bleak but features totally absurd characteristics like bagpipe melodies and ballet dancing which give it a highly unsettling quality. It also deals with identity crisis, probably the most common recurring theme on the show, but features two distinct sides of the dilemma. The four initial characters have presumably gone through stages of anger, confusion, and denial repeatedly for an undisclosed amount of time and have come to accept their reality. But for the Major the situation is new and the nihilistic attitudes of his cellmates are appalling. His despair is only highlighted by the Clown’s mockery of him. When he is placed back into the barrel at the end of the episode, having been exposed to the truth, one can assume that he too will now accept his fate and as more dolls arrive the process will be repeated over and over again. This episode also owes a debt to the works of Kafka and Jean-Paul Sartre, whose play No Exit (1944) features a similar plot in which three characters are trapped in a room for all of eternity.
What makes this such a remarkable episode is that every element is perfectly measured and executed. It is such a delicate plot that if any of the forces at work here were to falter then the entire episode would collapse. The audience is presented with a mystery as soon as the story begins so their attention is immediately drawn to its solution. But Serling’s dialogue is so engaging and the performances of the actors so compelling that the audience is distracted just long enough for the plot to unfold naturally. If the episode had been any longer or if any of the characters had been weak or uninteresting then this would not have worked and the audience would have solved the mystery prematurely.
            Director Lamont Johnson (1922 – 2010) proves himself an invaluable contributor to the show with this episode, which he considers his favorite of the eight he directed. Johnson was no stranger to the Theatre of the Absurd and had recently directed a string of Samuel Beckett plays for the UCLA theatre department. He plays into the bizarre nature of the story very well particularly at the beginning when the Major first meets the four other characters. Both the set and the plot are sparse so he has almost the entire episode to experiment with the camera. He makes great use of high contrast lighting, letting the shadows set the tone of the story. There is also an impressive low-angle shot of William Windom as he attempts to dig a tunnel in the ground. There were two barrels used while filming the episode, a vertical one used for the dialogue scenes and a horizontal one that could be tilted allowing the actors to stand on top of one another safely. The circular shape of the barrel proved to be a hassle for director of photography George T. Clemens as it made the scenes difficult to light. This is another reason for all the shadows. Johnson was nominated for eleven Primetime Emmy Awards during his career as a director, winning two for the films Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story (1985) and Lincoln (1988).
           The closing shot of the dolls is not a shot of the actors but of life-size mannequins made in their image. Before shooting began a cast was made of each actor’s face so their replica would look as realistic as possible. Although Tuttle gets the on-screen credit the masks were mostly designed by long-time friend and make-up legend Charles Schram (1911 – 2008), who constructed similar masks for season one’s “The After-Hours.”
            The performances of the three leading actors are all remarkable. Each is so effective in their roles it is hard to imagine anyone else playing them. Although their on-screen chemistry is totally believable, according to actor William Windom there was friction between himself and actress Susan Harrison (b. 1938) over who would receive top billing. At the time, Harrison was actually the bigger name, having landed leading roles in the 1957 film-noir The Sweet Smell of Success and the 1960 crime thriller Key Witness. She had also appeared on Bonanza and Alfred Hitchcock Presents—in Robert Bloch’s “The Gloating Place”—and had a successful stage career. Windom, who is clearly the lead, claims the two argued throughout the filming of the episode—a fight he apparently lost for Harrison indeed gets top billing. Ironically, she retired from acting not long after appearing in this episode.
            William Windom (1923 – 2012) began his career at the dawn of television in New York City. After spending a decade appearing in live dramas he moved to Hollywood to pursue a film career. This episode was one of the first jobs he was offered after he moved to California. Windom was at his best when playing likable characters in a state of panic or disillusionment such as his Army Major. He had an empathetic quality that allowed him to connect with audiences no matter how frantic the character. Windom would return to the show during season four in the Charles Beaumont classic “Miniature.” His other notable television appearances include the Star Trek episode “The Doomsday Machine” and two episodes of Night Gallery including Serling’s poignant season one finale “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” which was nominated for an Emmy Award. He starred alongside fellow Twilight Zone alumni Inger Stevens for three seasons in the ABC sitcom The Farmer’s Daughter (1963 – 1966) and won an Emmy for his role in the NBC series My World and Welcome to It (1969 – 1970). In 1962 he played the District Attorney in To Kill a Mockingbird. And in 1971 he played the President of the United States in Escape from the Planet of the Apes.

           If this episode has a hero then it is unquestionably Murray Matheson (1912 – 1985) who gives one of the best performances in the show’s history. Much like Shakespearean clowns, Matheson’s clown is witty and sarcastic but doesn’t hesitate to point out the reality of their situation. Serling gives him some of his wittiest dialogue and Matheson delivers it flawlessly every time. Matheson was an Australian stage actor who moved to the states after World War II. He made a decent career for himself in television but is mostly remembered for his performance in this episode. In 1983 he appeared in Twilight Zone: The Movie as Mr. Agee in the Steven Spielberg remake of “Kick of the Can,” originally directed by Lamont Johnson.
            Kelton Garwood (1928 – 1991) gives a reserved but solid performance here as the Hobo and his dazed expression and slowed mannerisms are completely convincing. A theatrically trained actor, Garwood had a limited career in Hollywood appearing mostly in westerns. Mona Houghton, the little girl who picks up the doll at the end of the episode, was Buck Houghton’s daughter.
            While many critics have expressed their distaste at the twist ending—which could seem a bit cheap after such a philosophically heavy set-up—and others have accused it of being a recycled version of Serling’s “The After Hours” from season one—which in some ways it is—“Five Characters is Search of an Exit” has still managed to become one of the most recognizable episodes of the show. Both CBS and the producers deserve credit for putting something so strange and original on television in 1961. It’s a weird, dark story, which doesn’t really have a happy ending, that the producers chose to run as the season’s Christmas episode. Its existential ramblings about Hell and the meaning of life no doubt puzzled viewers who expected a repeat of the previous season’s Christmas tale “The Night of the Meek.” This episode was a bold choice for the show but it proved to be worth the risk. It's as effective today as it was in 1961 and has justly earned its place in the archives of popular culture.

Grade: A

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following:

The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic by Martin Grams, Jr. (OTR Publishing, 2008)

The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree (Second Edition, 1989)

The Twilight Zone Definitive Edition DVD, Season Three (Image Entertainment, 2004)
--Lamont Johnson audio interview with Marc Scott Zicree
--William Windom audio commentary for “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”
--William Windom also appeared in the season four episode “Miniature.” In 1971 he appeared in Serling’s Emmy-nominated “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” for the finale of the first season of Night Gallery. The following year he appeared in the finale for season two in the segment “Little Girl Lost.”
--Murray Matheson also appeared in the third and final season of Night Gallery in the segment "The Doll of Death." In 1983 he played Mr.Agee in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) in Steven Spielberg’s remake of writer George Clayton Johnson’s “Kick the Can.” It was one of his final performances. He died in 1985 at the age of 72.
--Lamont Johnson directed eight episodes of the show including the fan favorites “Nothing in the Dark” and “Kick the Can.” In 2000, at the request of producer J. J. Abrams, Johnson directed an episode of the television series Felicity called “Help for the Lovelorn” for the show’s second season. The episode is Abrams’ love letter to The Twilight Zone and was filmed in black and white and features stock music from the show. There are Easter eggs hidden throughout the episode and the plot is a loose combination of the plots of “Five Characters…” and season one’s “The Chaser.” It was Johnson’s last work as a director.
--Listen to the Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Jason Alexander. 

--Brian Durant


  1. Good episode, and I'm glad it has fans, though for me it's always been a disappointment. Maybe it's the title; or the "obviousness" of the set-up. Even the first time around I knew there would be a Big Twist at the end, and this sort of ruined it for me for some reason. Fortunately, I find this is seldom the case with the Twilight Zone.

    Good work from you guys, as always.

    I just finished viewing the last season Stopover In A Quiet Town, which never gets old with me, and it still worked its charms. The story has more than a few things in common with Five Characters, but it plays out realistically, visually, while the earlier episode was maybe too theatrical and stylized to draw me in emotionally.

  2. Thanks, John. I think a lot of fans of the show feel the same way as you and we've discovered in the last couple years as we've connected with other fans of the show that "Five Characters" is not as well regarded as we initially thought. Ditto some of our other favorite episodes. I think I've watched the series so often for so many years that I'm now drawn more to alternative episodes than the well regarded classics of the series. Maybe it's over-familiarity or whatever but episodes like "Five Characters" and "Shadow Play" and "Person or Persons Unknown" or even "Once Upon a Time" seem to offer more grist of the critical mill these days than many of the better regarded episodes. This is likely due to the fact that episodes like "Time Enough at Last" and "A Stop at Willoughby" have been written about endlessly and there's really little left to say.

    I agree this episode is more theatrical than others and that's either going to be an element a viewer enjoys or doesn't. Though there are some truly surprising endings, the show often telegraphed episode endings and, in these cases, so much depended on what came before. An episode such as "The Masks," for instance, is one of my absolute favorites but that ending can be seen coming a mile away. I do think too much emphasis was placed on twist endings, both by the people who created the show and those who watch it. I think that focus often distracts from some of the other quality elements of an episode just as it can also mask some of the weaker qualities of other episodes. I don't really care one way or another for the ending of "Five Characters" and I don't come back to the episode because of the ending. I really like the design and the characterizations in this one.

    Thanks again for reading and the insight, John.

  3. Thanks for the thorough discussion of this interesting episode. While I would not put it in my top group, it is certainly memorable!

  4. There seems to be some kind of handle on the wall when the major throw his grappling hook. Was this for Windom’s safety? I don’t doubt there were devices of this sort behind the others when standing on one another’s shoulders, taking their weight instead of them. I hardly think Murray Matheson would have wanted other people’s weight on his shoulders aged 49; I don’t fancy it at MY age!

  5. Hey Stephen. I watched that particular scene again and I can't spot the handle on the wall but I could be missing it. They used two different set pieces for the cylinder. One was vertical and was used for the shots of the actors at the bottom of the cylinder. The other was smaller in size and could be mechanically tilted. This one was used for the shots of the actors climbing on one another's shoulders. I'm sure they used safety precautions for the sake of the actors but I never came across anything specific in my research. This one was always one of personal favorites from the show. Your thoughts on it?

  6. it's a shot featuring Windom from the bottom up, as it were. Look again just as he throws the grappling hook for the third time and you'll see it by his right elbow; Windom seems to be leaning on it during the first two attempts, which was obviously its function. It's there! And I love this one, of course.

  7. I think TZ has appeal for all ages. Just because you saw it at age 8 doesn't mean we can't enjoy it now.

  8. "Five Characters In Search Of An Exit" is Rod Serling's version (whether consciously or not) of Hans Christian Andersen's delightful tale "The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep", in which there is a four-way love story involving three Chinese porcelain figurines and a mahogany satyr, all of whom are art objects displayed in an elegant drawing room. The lovers climb down from the table top where they are displayed, go up the stove pipe (guided by a star that they can see through the pipe, their version of the ringing bell), and finally, after seeing the immensity of the wide world from the roof of the house, decide that life on the safe table top is better after all. As well read as he was, it's hard for me to believe that Serling didn't know this story.

  9. Amazing episode and great article.

    But it needs to be mentioned that the clown/Matheson later went on to perform another very memorable role: Batman's classic nemesis, the Joker, in TV series

    1. Eh? That was Cesar Romero! True Murray Matheson looks and laughs similarly here, but that's it.

  10. Since "Five Characters In Search Of An Exit" first appeared in 1961, and the Christmas TV classic "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" didn't arrive until 1964, it's the "Rudolph" writers who should have answered the question: did you borrow this TZ episode to create "The Island of Misfit Toys" in"Rudolph"?