Sunday, February 26, 2017

"Kick the Can"

Mr. Charles Whitley (Ernest Truex) remembering a life forgotten.

“Kick the Can”
Season Three, Episode 86
Original Air Date: February 9, 1962

Charles Whitley: Ernest Truex
Ben Conroy: Russell Collins
Mr. Cox: John Marley
Frietag: Hank Patterson
Mr. Agee: Earl Hodges
Mrs. Summers: Marjorie Bennett
Mrs. Densley: Lenore Shanewise
Mrs. Wister: Anne O’Neal
Mr. Carlson: Burt Mustin
David Whitley: Barry Truex
Nurse: Eve McVeagh
Boy #1: Gregory McCabe
Boy #2: Marc Stevens

Writer: George Clayton Johnson (original teleplay)
Director: Lamont Johnson
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Phil Barber
Set Decoration: George R. Nelson
Assistant Director: E. Darrell Hallenbeck
Casting: Stalmaster-Lister
Editor: Bill Mosher
Story Consultant: Richard McDonagh
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Music: stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“For all of us, even the most young at heart, I suppose there’s a little kernel of want having to do with reliving childhood, that grand and glorious moment in time when the biggest guy around is the patrol boy. Next week on the Twilight Zone this moment is recaptured in George Clayton Johnson’s exceptionally sensitive story called ‘Kick the Can.’ It co-stars Mr. Ernest Truex and Mr. Russell Collins.

“If the tobaccos in a cigarette are good enough, they alone will give mellow richness and satisfactory mildness. Try Chesterfields and you’ll discover twenty-one great tobaccos make twenty wonderful smokes.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“Sunnyvale Rest: a home for the aged. A dying place. And a common children’s game called kick the can that will shortly become a refuge for a man who knows he will die in this world if he doesn’t escape…into the Twilight Zone.”

            Charles Whitley is an elderly man who resides at a small retirement home called Sunnyvale Rest. He and the other residents spend their days knitting or watching television, talking about things that do not matter, and looking for anything that may remind them that their life is not yet over. Whitley announces one afternoon that he is leaving Sunnyvale and going to live with his son. His announcement is met with skepticism. His son arrives and tells him that he will not be able to house him and that he must stay at the rest home. Whitley walks through the vacant lot next to the facility. He sees a group of boys playing a game of kick the can and sits beneath a tree and watches for a while.
            Later, in his room, Whitley tells one of the other residents, Ben, that he misses his youth. He misses playing games like kick the can. He wonders if there is a secret to staying young. Ben dismisses this as wishful thinking and tells Whitley that he should accept his age and be thankful that he has lived a long life.
           That night, Whitley wakes up all of the residents and asks them if they want to play kick the can. Perhaps youth is only an idea, he says, and maybe acting youthful will somehow keep them young. He convinces them to sneak past the night nurse and venture outside.
            Alarmed that his friend may be suffering a mental breakdown, Ben wakes the head caregiver and informs him that Whitley and the others have broken curfew by going outside. When they arrive outside, however, they find only children. Ben spots a boy playing tag and realizes that it is Whitley. He begs Whitley to take him with them, to make him young again. But the boy only stares back at him silently and then runs off into the woods with the others. The old man picks up the can and walks quietly back into the empty rest home.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Sunnyvale Rest. A dying place for ancient people who have forgotten the fragile magic of youth. A dying place for those who have forgotten that childhood, maturity, and old age are curiously intertwined and not separate. A dying place for those who have grown too stiff in their thinking to visit…the Twilight Zone.”

            “Kick the Can” is the fourth original teleplay from writer George Clayton Johnson. Unfortunately, it would also be his last. Before coming to write for The Twilight Zone Johnson had little experience writing professionally and had never written for television. Still, he hit a creative stride on the show that was unprecedented for even a seasoned veteran. His scripts were thoughtful and mature and they drew the audience in and convinced them to care about the characters, even ones like Jesse Cardiff and Ben Conroy. But his time with the show was more or less over. His work would appear on the program one last time during the fifth season but the experience would be a bitter one.
           At the end of the fourth season Johnson submitted a story to producer Bert Granet called “The Grandfather Clock” about an elderly man who is emotionally dependent upon a wind-up grandfather clock. He believes that if the clock stops ticking he will die. His loved ones watch helplessly as he sinks further and further into his obsession. At the end of the story he dies after the clock falls on top of him and stops ticking. The moment the clock is repaired and begins to tick again the old man’s granddaughter gives birth. Granet liked the idea and told him to flesh it out into a teleplay. By the time he submitted it to the show, however, William Froug had taken over as producer. Convinced it wouldn’t work as an episode, Froug gave it to writer Richard DeRoy to adapt. DeRoy kept Johnson’s concept but changed the ending so that the old man realizes that he no longer needs the clock and is permitted to live. Johnson was so dissatisfied with the episode that he removed his name from it—the only person to ever do so during the show’s five year run—and used the pseudonym “Johnson Smith” instead. The episode remains enjoyable, thanks largely to a great cast and a very moving musical score from Bernard Herman, but it lacks the emotional resonance found in his earlier episodes. After four teleplays of his own and four adaptations of his work, this was how George Clayton Johnson departed The Twilight Zone.
            Before we go any further let’s talk about “Dreamflight.” At some point between selling “Kick the Can” in 1962 and the show’s cancellation in 1964, Johnson co-wrote an original teleplay with friend and frequent collaborator William F. Nolan called “Dreamflight," about a woman living with a recurring nightmare in which she is a passenger on an airplane that gradually begins to shut down before falling out of the sky. Several days later she boards a real airplane and notices the exact same sequence of events from her dream starting to unfold there. She begins to panic. The man sitting next to her does his best to distract her from her thoughts and they develop a connection. By the end of the flight she has forgotten the nightmare and is finally ready to move forward with her life. The plane lands safely and the story ends. The fantasy element here is ambiguous much like the supernatural abilities of the Mystic Seer in “Nick of Time.” The protagonist chooses not to fall victim to her own mind and is willing to take steps to prevent this from happening much like William Shatner in the earlier episode.
            There appears to be some confusion as to when “Dreamflight” was sold to the show. The dates given by past researchers vary considerably, as do the reasons for why it was never made into an episode. Many, including Nolan, say that it was submitted to the show near the end of season three. This meant that Buck Houghton would have been the one to decide its fate. No definitive reason as to why this one never made it past the writing phase has ever really been given although many believe that the script was not completed in time to be included in the third season and was abandoned altogether once the show went off the air at the end of the season. However, when asked about this project in interviews Johnson recalled selling it to producer William Froug during the fifth season. Like the first scenario, the timing was not in their favor and the show went off the air for good before the script could be filmed. Another reason the producers may have been reluctant to jump into production on the script was the show’s ever-growing catalog of episodes dealing with airplanes or air travel, particularly Serling’s “Twenty-Two” and Matheson’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” both of which bear a resemblance to “Dreamflight.” On an interesting side note, Johnson said that he wrote the first draft of "Kick the Can" while he and Nolan were driving back to Los Angeles from Missouri where the filming of Roger Corman's The Intruder (1962) had just wrapped. The film was adapted by Beaumont from his novel and featured Nolan and Johnson in bit roles. Read more about "Dreamflight" in our interview with William F. Nolan here.
            At the same time that he was penning episodes of The Twilight Zone, Johnson’s work was also appearing on shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents ("I'll Take Care of You," also featuring Russell Collins), Route 66, The Law and Mr. Jones, and several others. In 1960 the original Ocean's 11 film starring Frank Sinatra finally premiered in theaters. Johnson co-wrote the initial draft of the
Logan's Run, 1967
screenplay with Jack Golden Russell five years earlier. The film was a huge success and Johnson and Russell—along with Harry Brown and Charles Lederer who were brought in for screenplay revisions—were nominated for a Writer’s Guild of America Award. In 1962 he collaborated with friend and mentor Ray Bradbury on an animated short film based on Bradbury’s story “Icarus Montgolfier Wright” which was nominated for an Academy Award. He also saw several of his short stories appear in magazines like Rogue and Gamma. In 1966 he wrote the premiere episode of Star Trek called “The Man Trap.” In 1967 Johnson collaborated with William F. Nolan once again on the landmark science fiction novel Logan's Run (Dial Press) about a dystopian society where people are euthanized at the age of twenty-one. The book was a huge success which spawned two sequels written by Nolan, a 1976 feature film directed by Michael Anderson, a short-lived television series in 1977, and several graphic adaptations.
            Johnson found himself roaming the fifth dimension throughout much of the 1980’s starting with the publication of a small collection of stories and essays called Writing for the Twilight Zone in 1980. In 1981 Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine began an impressive eight year run with author T.E.D. Klein as its first editor. The magazine published several of Johnson’s essays and short stories during its reign including his story “Sea Change,” in which the protagonist loses his hand only to have another one grow back in its place. Serling bought the story for the original series in 1960 but had to sell it back to Johnson amid concerns that the sponsors would find it too violent. The 1980’s revival series remade “A Game of Pool” using Johnson’s original ending during its final season.
            Most notable, of course, is the remake of “Kick the Can” for Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1983. In 1982 Warner Brothers contacted Johnson wanting to purchase the screen rights to the story. Johnson was hesitant at first but after learning of Carol Serling’s involvement and that Richard Matheson would write the screenplay he agreed to let them adapt his story. But before he did so he met with Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy of Amblin Entertainment and gave them a short, three page outline which contained a new ending to his story. Johnson felt that his original teleplay was a bit irresponsible in that it failed to portray the reality of the situation. These kids were now on their own with no one to take care of them. The outline featured an additional sequence which began where the original story ended, with the kids running off into the woods. It follows the kids on their adventure through the woods, laughing and playing, lost in the exhilaration of youth. As the excitement fades they grow tired and hungry and scared. The consequences of their actions become a reality. They stumble upon the rest home, unfamiliar to them now, and climb into the warm beds where they are transformed back into their older selves. Matheson kept Johnson’s idea but condensed it for time, eliminating the scenes of the children in the woods. This earned Johnson screen credit as well as story credit for his original teleplay. After Matheson submitted his final script to Warner Brothers, however, director/producer Steven Spielberg gave it to screenwriter Mellissa Mathison for revision. Spielberg had just worked with Mathison on E.T. earlier that year and felt that she could give the story a softer, whimsical quality. The result is a syrupy-sweet disaster with unnecessary special effects which bears little resemblance to the original episode.
"Kick the Can" segment in
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
directed by Steven Spielberg
           In Spielberg’s version the residents don’t discover the magic of playing kick the can for themselves. Instead a traveling gypsy-like character named Mr. Bloom, played by Scatman Crothers, provides the magic for them. This places all of the importance on Bloom instead of on the residents and their spiritual enlightenment which is the foundation of the story. It also removes the relationship between Whitley and Conroy which is another important element of the original episode. Aside from this the segment is filled with formulaic characters, atrocious dialogue, a badly miscast leading man, and a significant emotional scene that depends almost exclusively on the performances of small children, a risky choice that proved to be a bad one. Despite a talented director and three very talented writers this version is almost unwatchable and is generally considered the worst segment of the film.
Robert Bloch’s official novelization of the film is quite different from Spielberg’s version. As we mentioned in our review of the book, Bloch was given an early draft of the screenplay. His version features a humorous opening scene in which Bloom is checking into Sunnyvale and a dream montage which occurs before all of the residents go outside to play kick the can. It is also void of the overbearing visual effects, hideous set designs, and awkward dialogue that saturate the film. Those who were disappointed with the movie may find Bloch’s laid-back approach more enjoyable.
When George Clayton Johnson wrote this teleplay he was 32 years old. Three of his Twilight Zone episodes, “Nothing in the Dark,”  “Ninety Years Without Slumbering,” and “Kick the Can” all concern growing old, facing death, and losing one’s self to fear and time. It is interesting that a young writer would be able to create accurate and compelling characters that are significantly older than he is. Johnson does not judge or exploit his characters and gives them sympathetic personalities that are easily approachable. In fact, most of the show’s regular writers were in their thirties at the time yet most wrote about the aging process frequently. Matheson wrote “Night Call” and “Spur of the Moment,” both rather bleak episodes about aging. Beaumont wrote “Static” and “Long Live Walter Jameson,” both stories about escaping old age. He also wrote “Passage on the Lady Anne” to the opposite effect. Serling wrote a handful of episodes about aging most notably “The Changing of the Guard,” “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine,” and “The Trade Ins.” He also adapted “Of Late I think of Cliffordville” from a Malcolm Jameson short story and “A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain” from a story by Lou Holtz.
Johnson said he got the idea for this episode while trying to remember the rules to kick the can, a game he played frequently as a kid, and discovering that he could not. This loss of memory caused Johnson to think that maybe he had lost his youth to time and old age. After realizing that old age is not as black and white as it is often depicted as being, Johnson came up with the idea for “Kick the Can.” Ironically, his decision to approach the movie version with a more mature philosophy directly contradicts the message of the original episode.
Director Lamont Johnson, who added an immeasurable depth to George Clayton Johnson’s previous episode “Nothing in the Dark,” lends his distinctive personality to “Kick the Can” as well. This was his fifth episode of the show, all of which were made within a few short months, and by this time Johnson had a definite understanding of the show’s personality. He knew, almost instinctively it seems, what type of direction was suitable for an episode simply based on the script. Many of his episodes, like “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” “The Shelter,” and “Passage on the Lady Anne” are heavily stylized and feature unconventional lighting and camera angles which give them an immediately noticeable quality. His direction here is a bit more reserved but he still manages to use the camera to his benefit in several places.
“Kick the Can” is one of the best episodes The Twilight Zone produced during its five year run and has become a classic piece of American television. Writing about characters so far removed from himself could have been a risky decision for George Clayton Johnson. But he delivers a brilliant story that is equal parts sentimental and haunting. Even when the action appears to be taking a turn for the hokey he and director Lamont Johnson manage to keep it grounded in rationality. It is entertaining but still accomplishes what every piece of superior art strives for which is to show its audience a part of themselves that they were unaware of. With a great cast, two fantastic leading performances, amazing direction and a wonderful script “Kick the Can” can easily stand as an example of why The Twilight Zone remains one of the best television programs of all time.

George Clayton Johnson
1929 - 2015

Grade: A

Grateful acknowledgement to:

Archive of American Television:

The Twilight Zone Definitive Edition DVD, Season Five (Image Entertainment, 2004)
--Video Interview with George Clayton Johnson

Twilight Zone Scripts and Stories by George Clayton Johnson (Streamline Pictures, 1996)

All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories by George Clayton Johnson (Subterranean Press, 1999)

Dimensions Behind the Twilight Zone by Stewart Stanyard (ECW Press, 2007)

Forgotten Gems from the Twilight Zone: Volume 2 edited by Andrew Ramage (BearManor Media, 2005)

More Giants of the Genre by Michael McCarty (Wildside Press, 2005)

Internet Speculative Fiction Database

--Ernest Truex also appears in Serling’s adaptation of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore’s “What You Need” in the first season.
--John Marley also appears in Serling’s adaptation of Henry Slesar’s story “The Old Man” (as “The Old Man in the Cave”) during the fifth season.
--Marjorie Bennett also appears in season one’s “The Chaser” adapted by Robert Presnell, Jr. from the story by John Collier and in Serling’s season four episode “No Time Like the Past.” She also appeared in a season two segment of Night Gallery called “Deliveries in the Rear” which was written by Serling.
--Hank Peterson also appears in the fifth season episodes “Ring-a-Ding Girl” and “Come Wander with Me.” He also has a role in an episode of The Loner called “The Sherriff of Fetterman’s Crossing.”
--Burt Muslin also appears in “Night of the Meek” during the second season.
--The role of Charles Whitley’s son David Whitley is played by Ernest Truex’s son, actor Barry Truex, although he receives no screen credit.
-- Eve McVeagh also appears in the season five episode “I Am the Night—Color Me Black.”
--Lamont Johnson directed eight episodes of the show including “The Shelter,” “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” “Nothing in the Dark” and “Four O’Clock” for season three and “A Passage on the Lady Anne” for season four.
--George Clayton Johnson wrote four original teleplays for the show: “A Penny for Your Thoughts” for season two and “A Game of Pool,” “Nothing in the Dark” and “Kick the Can” for season three. His stories “All of Us Are Dying” (“The Four of Us Are Dying”) and “Execution” were adapted by Serling for the first season and Charles Beaumont adapted his story “The Prime Mover” for the second season. As mentioned, his fifth season episode “Ninety Years Without Slumbering” was re-written by Richard DeRoy as per producer William Froug which prompted Johnson to use the pseudonym Johnson Smith as his by-line.
--“Kick the Can” was famously made into the second segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie by Steven Spielberg in 1983. Johnson received story credit and shared screenplay credit with Richard Matheson and Mellissa Mathison (writing as Josh Rogan). This segment was also adapted into prose form by Robert Bloch in his official novelization of the film, released by Warner Books.
--"Dreamflight" was finally published in Forgotten Gems from the Twilight Zone: Volume 2 edited by Andrew Ramage (BearManor Media, 2005).
--Listen to the Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Shelley Berman and Stan Freberg.


Monday, February 20, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Another Day, Another Twilight Zone Tribute

Award-winning author Christopher Conlon returns to the Vortex with a review of a new Twilight Zone book hitting shelves at the end of February. Chris is the author of numerous novels and short stories as well as an accomplished editor. As an editor he's gifted Zone fans with Filet of Sohl: The Classic Scripts and Stories of Jerry Sohl, The Twilight Zone Scripts of Jerry Sohl, and He Is Legend: An Anthology Celebrating Richard Matheson. Chris has also written "Southern California Sorcerers," the definitive account of "The Group," the Southern California based writers who wrote so many influential novels, short stories, films, and television programs during the 1950s and 1960s, including the bulk of Twilight Zone episodes. Chris's most recent book  is Rossum's Universal Replicas: Karel Capek's "R.U.R." Reimagined, a fresh take on a pioneering work of artificial intelligence and the fate of humankind. Chris can be found at his homepage.


Dawidziak, Mark. Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2017.

Of all the series from the early black-and-white era of American television, few have been more popular—not to mention analyzed, memorialized, and tributized—than The Twilight Zone. As author Mark Dawidziak points out in his new book, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone, Serling’s seminal program keeps “making the jump” from generation to generation in a way that only a single other series from that period, I Love Lucy, has done. “My students no longer know bus driver Ralph Kramden, deputy Barney Fife, or comedy writer Rob Petrie,” states Dawidziak. “But they still have spent some time with the Ricardos and in Serling’s ‘middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition.’” The continuing relevance of Rod Serling’s brainchild has led to a seemingly endless outpouring of tributes of all kinds, from books to movies to TV shows, a radio series, comic books, websites, blogs…somehow Twilight Zone just goes on and on, and pretty much everybody, it sometimes seems, wants to tell us all about it.

Into this crowded field of TZ tributes now comes Mark Dawidziak’s tome, subtitled “A Fifth-Dimension Guide to Life.” Taking its approach from the world of self-help books, the idea is to discuss various TZ episodes through the “life lessons” they teach, thus guiding us in our daily lives (“Submitted for Your Improvement,” in Dawidziak’s clever phrase). The tone throughout the book is light—clearly we’re not to take these lessons too seriously—and overall the effect is of a kind of easy breeziness. It’s not difficult to keep turning the pages, though for a lightweight project like this, 300+ pages seems a good deal more than anyone could possibly need.

Initially the book is rather fun. It’s divided into fifty distinct “Lessons,” and it’s entertaining to try to figure out from the Table of Contents which episodes the author might connect to which lessons. (The episodes are identified only within the text itself.) See if you can guess which episode(s) these “lessons” refer to (answers appear at the end of this review).

          a)-When nobody else believes in you, keep believing in yourself
      b)-That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
      c)- Share with others
      d)- Nobody said life was fair
      e)-Divided we fall (two episodes)

Despite this relatively promising start, though, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone quickly begins to run out of steam upon arrival at the actual episode discussions. The problem is perhaps inimical to the nature of this project: all the author can do in each lesson is reiterate what is already clear from the title of the lesson itself. Thus in “Beauty truly is in…” we are treated to a summary “Eye of the Beholder,” a few brief quotes from actress Donna Douglas, and a couple of pages explaining how the story fits the “Beauty truly is in…” homily—which must surely be obvious to anyone who has simply watched the episode. It’s certainly true, as Dawidziak argues, that “lurking in almost every episode of The Twilight Zone is at least one guiding rule, one life lesson, one stirring reminder of a basic right or wrong taught to us as children,” but when it comes to Serling’s approach to these “lessons,” few have ever accused him of subtlety. As a result, Dawidziak’s discussions tend to merely rehash and belabor the obvious.

Reading through these many pages it’s possible to wonder who the intended audience is for this book. One might guess it’s for relative newcomers to the series, given the shallowness of the analyses, but no: plot-reveals abound here, as the author acknowledges in his early chapter, “One Giant Spoiler Alert.” A TZ neophyte, then, would only be annoyed by these spoiler-rich discussions. Yet for knowledgeable fans of the show, this book has little to recommend it.

Editing is lax here, as well. Most of these discussions would be better at half their present length, and even the homilies are too wordy: surely “When nobody believes in you, keep believing in yourself” should read simply “Believe in yourself,” while another lesson, “You’re only truly old when you decide you’re old” should certainly read “You’re as old as you feel.” The occasional odd misinterpretation also hinders this book, as when, discussing the ending of “Kick the Can,” Dawidziak claims: “[I]t’s too late for Ben, at least for this night and this summer. Maybe, if the screams of playing children become a lure rather than an annoyance to Ben, there will be another chance to grab the magic…another chance to play kick the can.” But nothing in the episode supports this. Everything we see leads to the conclusion that, while the newly-young Charlie and his friends will play Kick the Can in their youthful heaven forever, Ben has missed his chance; while the magical children are now immortal, he will die old, bitter, and alone. It’s Ben’s fate that lends “Kick the Can” its painful poignancy; Dawidziak’s odd misreading only robs the episode of its meaning.

Finally, a word about the celebrity names attached to this book. On the back cover the publisher has proudly proclaimed the presence within the text of what are billed as “mini-essays” from the likes of Robert Redford and others, but if readers hope for a serious reflection from Mr. Redford on his episode (“Nothing in the Dark”)—memories of the shoot, say, thoughts about the story itself, how the episode affected his career—they are doomed to disappointment. The star’s “mini-essay” is exactly one sentence long. Even then, Redford beats out George Clayton Johnson, whose mini-essay is precisely five words long, and the words don’t even comprise a complete sentence. The ultimate prize for “mini,” however, is taken by writer James Grady, whose “essay” runs exactly one word. (In the interest of avoiding spoilers, that word shall not be revealed here.)

Alas, despite Dawidziak’s obvious love of TZ, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone serves only as evidence that the possibilities of TZ tributes are now most likely exhausted.

ANSWERS: a) “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”; b) “Steel”; c) “I Shot an Arrow Into the Air”; d) “Time Enough at Last”; e) “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” and “The Shelter.”

Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone by Mark Dawidziak is available on February 28, 2017.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

"Showdown with Rance McGrew"

Larry Blyden as Rance McGrew
“Showdown with Rance McGrew”
Season Three, Episode 85
Original Air Date: February 2, 1962

Rance McGrew: Larry Blyden
Jesse James: Arch Johnson
TV Director: Robert Cornthwaite
TV Bartender: Robert J. Stevenson
TV Property Man: William McLean
Cowboy #1: Troy Melton
Cowboy #2: Jay Overholts
Old Man: Hal K. Dawson
TV Jesse James: Robert Kline
TV Stunt Double: Jim Turley
Man in Saloon #1: Chalky Williams (no credit)
Man in Saloon #2: Robert McCord (no credit)
Man on Stool: Alvy Moore (no credit)

Writer: Rod Serling (based upon an idea by Frederic L. Fox)
Director: Christian Nyby
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
Casting: Stalmaster-Lister
Editor: Bill Mosher
Story Consultant: Richard McDonagh
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Music: stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week we offer you a Hollywood television cowboy who takes in several bills a week for killing bad men. Mr. Larry Blyden portrays one of these phony-baloneys who always wins in the end. But in this little item, he draws from the hip and realizes his opponent is smack dab out of this world. We invite your attention to ‘Showdown with Rance McGrew,’ next week’s stage coach sojourn in The Twilight Zone.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration: 

“Some one hundred-odd years ago, a motley collection of tough moustaches galloped across the West and left behind a raft of legends and legerdemains. And it seems a reasonable conjecture that if there are any television sets up in cowboy heaven and any of these rough and wooly nail-eaters could see with what careless abandon their names and exploits are being bandied about, they’re very likely turning over in their graves; or worse, getting out of them. Which gives you a clue as to the proceedings that will begin in just a moment when one Mr. Rance McGrew, a three thousand buck a week phony-baloney, discovers that this week’s current edition of make-believe is being shot on location, and that location is The Twilight Zone.”


            Rance McGrew is a pampered television actor currently starring in a historically inaccurate Western program in which he portrays a tough local Marshall that routinely brings down famous outlaws. Rance has been spoiled by his success as an actor and thus rebels against any aspect of the production which he doesn’t like. He forces his director to rewrite and reshoot scenes. He consistently requires the use of a stunt double to shoot any physically demanding scene. He challenges the patience of each and every member of the cast and crew with his whiny, tardy, spoiled nature.
            Rance gets the surprise of his life when he is transported to the real Old West, conjured up by the spirit of the famous outlaw Jesse James, who has been viewing Rance’s television exploits with less than pleasing results. James immediately establishes that Rance is a fake and a coward that cannot perform even the most perfunctory actions of a cowboy, such as roll a cigarette or draw a six-shooter from a hip holster. James aims to make an example out of Rance and punish him for all the damage that Rance has done to the good names of James and his outlaw friends.
            When James challenges Rance to a duel in the street, Rance is unable to draw his pistol and falls to his knees and begs for mercy. James shows mercy but warns Rance that from now on his old way of playing a cowboy on television is finished. Rance finds himself transported back to the modern day television set. No sooner has he arrived back than he finds himself with a new agent, none other than Jesse James, who is going to follow from one acting assignment to the next to ensure that Rance gets more than his share of comeuppance.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:

“The evolution of the so-called ‘adult’ Western, and the metamorphosis of one Rance McGrew, formerly phony-baloney, now upright citizen with a preoccupation with all things involving tradition, truth, and cowpoke predecessors. It’s the way the cookie crumbles and the six-gun shoots in The Twilight Zone.”


"While nothing is certain except death and taxes - and even these may be somewhat variable - it seems reasonable to conjecture that the range riders up in Cowboy Heaven felt appeased. Jesse James used his mandate well, and from that moment on, Rance McGrew, a former phony-baloney, became an upright citizen with a preoccupation with all things involving tradition, truth, and cowboy predecessors." 
              -"Showdown with Rance McGrew," New Stories from the Twilight Zone 

            It is not unusual to view "Showdown with Rance McGrew" as Rod Serling's manifesto on the nature of the television drama in the early 1960's, albeit filtered through the lens of a comedy, when considering the fact that Serling's next television project after the end of The Twilight Zone was to create the unusual Western series, The Loner (more on that later). Like most of Serling's work, the episode functions on two levels. The first is as a marginally successful comedy using the tried and true method of a timeslip story, perhaps the most oft-used plot device in the entire series. The more complex level, full of interpretive possibilities, is that "Showdown with Rance McGrew" is Rod Serling holding a mirror up to the current state of the television drama, especially the television Western, which had long ceased to resemble any type of historically accurate reality (if it ever had in the first place).
            Marc Scott Zicree, author The Twilight Zone Companion, dashes the possibility of the latter interpretation when considering that the "reality" presented in the episode is just as fake as Rance McGrew's television show. Zicree also provides us with an interesting perspective into how the story germinated in the mind of Rod Serling. Even before Frederic Louis Fox (a prolific writer of television Westerns in the 1950's-1960's) related to Serling the story idea which developed into "Showdown with Rance McGrew," Serling contemplated the idea of a television actor slipping into the past to confront real history (or a real historical figure). More specifically, Serling was inspired by watching the endless war films of actor John Wayne. Serling, who saw the horrors of war up close as a WWII paratrooper, was uncomfortable with the idea of an actor repeatedly portraying a war hero when that actor had never experienced real combat.
            Martin Grams, Jr., author of The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic (ORT, 2008), uncovers correspondence between Rod Serling and Frederic L. Fox which shines further light on how the story idea came to be. Fox related to Serling a story idea about a deceased outlaw climbing out of his grave (it is unclear whether this was meant literally or figuratively) to confront the actor that portrays him on television. Although Serling credited Fox with the timeslip element of the story in an earlier interview (included in Zicree's Companion) this does not appear to be the case. Serling combined his idea inspired by John Wayne war movies and married it with Fox's Western idea of an outlaw and a television actor. Also of note is a rather well-regarded narrative poem by the Scottish poet Robert W. Service titled "The Shooting of Dan McGrew." The poem does not occur in the American West but rather in the Yukon Territory of Canada (Service relocated to Canada as a young man) and concerns a mysterious stranger that arrives in a saloon to seek vengeance against the tough prospector Dan McGrew for an undisclosed slight. It is unknown whether this poem was an influence on either Fox or Serling but it does have an interesting parallel to "Showdown with Rance McGrew" in the idea of the past coming back to right a wrong. The poem was enormously influential and has seen adaptation several times.* Read "The Shooting of Dan McGrew."
            Another interesting aspect is that Serling likely did not need to credit Fox with the story idea for "Showdown with Rance McGrew" considering the alterations Serling placed on the story. Serling was very cautious of charges of plagiarism, something that had dogged him since his launch of the Twilight Zone, largely stemming from an ill-advised attempt to accept unsolicited story ideas. It is unlikely that Fox would have levied such charges against Serling. However, Fox was grateful for the credit and was encouraged to submit another story treatment, "Mister Tibbs and the Flying Saucer," which went before Twilight Zone cameras as "Hocus Pocus and Frisby" later in the third season.
            By the time Serling came to write "Showdown with Rance McGrew," he had developed an affinity for (or at least a fascination with) the Western genre, and one could hardly blame him since the Western was arguably the dominate television genre of the 1950's. Of the many Western episodes of The Twilight Zone, all but one were written by Rod Serling.** In fact, "Showdown with Rance McGrew" functions perfectly well as a reverse (both in terms of plot and theme) of an earlier Serling episode which is also both a Western and a timeslip story, "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim."*** In the earlier episode, Serling juxtaposed the harsh reality of pre-Civil War westward expansion with the relative comfort achieved by Americans in the middle of the twentieth century. Serling likely opted for the comedic approach with "Showdown with Rance McGrew" to avoid the essential grisliness of the reverse of that story, in which a pampered television star suddenly finds himself in the violent West and unable to defend himself. Comedy allowed Serling to say what he wanted about the absurd nature of the television Western without repeating himself or sacrificing the fantasy construct of the series.
            It is perhaps wise to view the episode as Serling's reaction to both the over-saturation of the television Western as well as the tenuous relationship between these western programs and the real history upon which they were based. He took the morsel of a story told to him by Frederic L. Fox and from it crafted a humorous take on what would happen if a historical figure were able to view how they were portrayed on American television.
            As all educated adults know, the West was a rough and violent place, and though the Western film had fully matured as an art form by the mid-1950's with films such as The Searchers (1956) and The Left-Handed Gun (1958), as well as Serling's own attempt at the mature form, Saddle the Wind (1958). the television Western was woefully immature as an art form. The television Western refused to grow up, and the programs being broadcast to Americans in the early 1960's were little different than the programs of a decade before, especially in terms of character, setting, and historical accuracy. These television programs were not challenging character archetypes or addressing modern social issues as were Western films. Some programs, The Lone Ranger, The Roy Rogers Show, and The Gene Autry Show, were clearly marketing the inherently violent genre to children. It is easy to imagine Serling's dissatisfaction with the vast majority of the television output of Westerns.
Lloyd Bridges as The Loner
            One of the major problems Serling seems to have had with the television Western is the clear delineation of good guys and bad guys as portrayed on television. Serling well understood that everybody has the capacity for both good and ill within them and used this theme in many of his Twilight Zone scripts. In "Showdown with Rance McGrew," the audience is clearly intended to identify with Jesse James, a known thief and murderer, rather than with petulant television actor Rance McGrew. This fascination with the duality of character would lead Serling to develop a series featuring a single recurring character (the only show of that type Serling created). That series was the unusual television Western The Loner, which ran for a single season of 26 episodes before being pulled by CBS. Serling developed the idea for a different take on the Western as early as the first season of The Twilight Zone but CBS turned it down. It was not until Serling was finished with the Zone that his old producing partner William Self ("Where is Everybody?") pushed Serling's Western into production without even so much as a pilot film in the can. The Loner starred Lloyd Bridges as William Colton, a Union cavalry soldier who roams post-Civil War America searching for meaning in life during a time of crisis. Serling aimed to do for the Western drama what he did for the fantasy drama with The Twilight Zone, namely to explore the human condition though character study and philosophical insight with recognizable genre trapping serving as both a marketing tool and a buffer against censorship. The fact that The Loner was short on shoot-em-up action (not to mention filled with highly controversial and confrontational parallels to current social issues) was a constant point of contention between Serling and the network brass. As a result, the show, despite modest ratings, was never destined to survive. Tony Albarella, editor of the multi-volume Twilight Zone Scripts of Rod Serling, wrote a thorough and fascinating history of the series for the December, 2000/January, 2001 issue of Filmfax magazine. The article can be read here courtesy of the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation.
            "Showdown with Rance McGrew" was directed by Christian Nyby, who made his name in the film industry as the editor of director Howard Hawks's To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Red River (1948), and The Big Sky (1952). Nyby moved into directing television programs by the mid-1950's and found a niche at the helm of the numerous Western programs of the era, including The Adventures of Jim Bowie, Zane Grey Theater, Tombstone Territory, Wagon Train, Rawhide, and Gunsmoke, making him a natural to helm "Showdown with Rance McGrew." Nyby is best known today for directing the 1951 science fiction classic The Thing from Another World. For years Nyby battled (mostly unsuccessfully) the idea that Howard Hawks, the writer and producer of that film, was in fact the director of the film as well. The common argument for Hawks as director, besides the stylistic similarities to Hawks's other films, is that he placed his editor at the helm to avoid the embarrassment of having his name attached to a science fiction film, a derided genre at the time. Nyby ardently denied that Hawks was the director and chalked up the similarities to Hawks enormous stylistic influence on Nyby's own work. An interesting article on Nyby's involvement with The Thing from Another World can be found here. Robert Cornthwaite, who portrays the ever-patient television director in "Showdown with Rance McGrew," also appeared in The Thing from Another World as Dr. Carrington. Nyby would direct another episode of The Twilight Zone but unfortunately it was the unappealing third season comedy "Cavender Is Coming." He died in California in 1993, aged 80.
Pathfinder ed.
            "Showdown with Rance McGrew" was also adapted into prose by Rod Serling for New Stories from the Twilight Zone (Bantam, 1962). That collection included four adaptations from the second season and one other from the third season. "Showdown with Rance McGrew" was the latest episode broadcast to see an adaptation in any of the Twilight Zone story collections. After the third season, Bantam Books bowed out of the Serling Zone books, although Bantam would go through more than a dozen printings of the three Serling Zone books and partner again with Serling in the early 1970s for two similar story collections from his Zone follow-up series Night Gallery (Night Gallery (1971) and Night Gallery 2 (1972)).**** Serling, suffering from creative and physical exhaustion after the third season of the Zone, struck a deal with Grosset & Dunlap publishers and veteran pulp author Walter B. Gibson (known for his more than 300 Shadow novels under the publishers Street & Smith house name Maxwell Grant) to develop new Zone story collections, Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (1963) and Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Revisited (1964). Only a portion of these latter two collections were adaptations of Zone episodes and the majority of the contents were standard pulp supernatural fare. Though it remains unclear whether the story ideas originated with Serling, all of the original stories and adaptations were written by Gibson, and of the adaptations, all were of Rod Serling-penned episodes from the first and second seasons. These include: "Judgment Night" and "Back There" for Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone, and "The Purple Testament," "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim" (as "Beyond the Rim"), "The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine" (as "The 16-Millimeter Shrine"), "The Man in the Bottle," and "Mirror Image" (as "The Mirror Image") for Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Revisited.
            The Grosset & Dunlap volumes were aimed directly to the emerging young
Pathfinder ed.
adult readers market. The volumes were issued in hardcover, were illustrated, and Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone proclaimed on the cover: "13 new stories from the supernatural especially written for young people." When the books appeared in paperback (in 1965 and 1967) they were released under the Tempo Books banner, a paperback line created to appeal to young adults. Bantam Books took the cue with their own Zone books, releasing all three titles with new covers as Bantam Pathfinder editions between 1964 and 1965. The Pathfinder editions were similarly designed to appeal to young adults and included selections from both fiction and non-fiction fields. Zone writer Ray Bradbury saw some of his own titles reissued as Pathfinder editions, including R Is for Rocket (1962; Pathfinder ed. 1966), S Is for Space (1966; Pathfinder ed. 1972), and his anthology Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow (1952; Pathfinder ed. 1972). The appeal of The Twilight Zone to a younger audience, especially once the series began its endless existence in television syndication, was immediately apparent from a marketing perspective. A Twilight Zone comic series aimed at younger readers was already in existence since 1961 and would endure, in its first form, until 1982.*****  
Pathfinder ed.
            One interesting aspect of the adaptation of "Showdown with Rance McGrew" is that it is the only adaptation of any of the Zone episodes for the story collections to originate from another writer's work (in this case, Frederic L. Fox), further indicating that Serling's credit to Fox for the story was professional courtesy more than any debt to originality. The adaptation offers little in the way of alterations to the broadcast version. There are subtle additions of dialogue and changes to props and setting (Rance drives a red jaguar in the short story and experiences his initial confrontation with Jesse James outside the saloon) but no added scenes or radical changes.
            The adaptation does provide the reader with an alternate version of Rod Serling's opening narration. The story version is as follows: "It might be parenthetically noted here that there was a point in history when there actually were top guns. They were a motley collection of tough mustaches who galloped and gunned their way across the then new West. They left behind them a raft of legends and legerdemains. But heroics or hambone--it can be stated quite definitively that they were a rough and woolly breed of nail-eaters who in matters of the gun were as efficient as they were dedicated. It does seem a reasonable guess, however, that if there were any television sets up in Cowboy Heaven, so that these worthies could see with what careless abandon their names and exploits were being bandied about--not to mention the fact that each week they were killed off afresh by Jaguar-drawn Hollywood tigers who couldn't distinguish between a holster and hoof and mouth disease--they were very likely turning over in their graves or, more drastically, getting out of them."
            "Showdown with Rance McGrew" is an episode which is only marginally successful as a comedy but serves as a fascinating window into Rod Serling's thoughts on contemporary television drama. On the surface it's another failed attempt at comedy on a series with many such failed attempts and, worse yet, another timeslip story, further exploring an already tired theme on the series. It should not be completely dismissed on these terms, however, since it offers much to the analytical among viewers and does not overreach the simple boundaries of the narrative it sets up for itself. Larry Blyden is fun to watch (see our review of "A Nice Place to Visit" for more on the actor) and Arch Johnson, though asked to play a ridiculous and highly inaccurate Jesse James, commends himself well to the role. In all, "Showdown with Rance McGrew" is an interesting bit of Twilight Zone silliness with a serious complexity beneath the surface. It is not likely to remain long with the viewer but it is worth a second look.

Grade: C

*William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson list "Dangerous Dan McGrew" on the lengthy dedication pages of their classic 1967 dystopian novel Logan's Run.
**The one not written by Serling is Montgomery Pittman's "The Grave." It is interesting to note that some of the other core writers of The Twilight Zone (Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and John Tomerlin) never wrote a Western episode despite writing for Western television programs, including Have Gun-Will Travel and Wanted: Dead or Alive. 

***It's interesting how many Western episodes are also time travel episodes. Along with the two aforementioned episodes, you can add "Execution" to the lot. 

****Bantam continued their relationship with Serling during 1963 by publishing Serling's anthology Rod Serling's Triple W: Witches, Warlocks, and Werewolves, a volume ghost-edited by science fiction writer Gordon R. Dickson. Dickson edited another volume for Serling and Bantam in 1967 titled Rod Serling's Devils and Demons.

*****NOW Comics brought The Twilight Zone back to four-color form from 1991-1993. In 2014, Dynamite Entertainment brought a new series to comic shops, though this latter series only occasionally made use of the anthology format which worked so well for the Zone brand of publications, preferring to tell over-arching stories across several issues. 

Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following:

-Albarella, Tony. “Cowboy with a Conscience.” Filmfax, December, 2000/January, 2001.

-Fuhrmann, Henry. “A ‘Thing’ to His Credit.” Los Angeles Times, May 25, 1997.

-Grams, Martin. The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic. OTR, 2008.

-The Internet Movie Database (

-The Internet Speculative Fiction Database (

-Serling, Rod. New Stories from the Twilight, Bantam Books, May, 1962.

-Service, Robert W. The Shooting of Dan McGrew

-Zicree, Marc Scott. The Twilight Zone Companion. 2nd edition, Bantam, 1989.

-Christian Nyby also directed the third season episode “Cavender is Coming.”
-Larry Blyden also appeared in the first season episode “A Nice Place to Visit.”
-Arch Johnson also appeared the second season episodes “Static” and (uncredited) “Long Distance Call.”
-Robert Cornthwaite also appeared in the fourth season episode “No Time Like the Past.”
-Robert J. Stevenson also appeared (uncredited) as the radio announcer in the third season episode “The Midnight Sun.”
-James Turley also appeared in uncredited roles in the first season episode “The Lonely,” the second season episodes “Long Distance Call” and “The Silence,” and the third season episode “To Serve Man.”
-Twilight Zone regulars Robert (Bob) McCord and Jay Overholts also make appearances.
-“Showdown with Rance McGrew” was adapted into prose for New Stories from the Twilight Zone by Rod Serling.
-“Showdown with Rance McGrew” was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Christopher McDonald.
-Director Christian Nyby has somewhat of a cameo in the episode as a funeral parlor sign comes into view and displays "C. Nyby" as the funeral director.
-It is ironic that Rod Serling takes a shot at Rance McGrew for using a stunt double for scenes which require physicality since The Twilight Zone used the same practice, most evident in the second season episode "Mr. Dingle, the Strong" in which Burgess Meredith is obviously replaced by a much stouter man in order to effect lifting Don Rickles's character above his head. Check the photograph in our coverage of the episode.
-Rod Serling's western film, Saddle the Wind (1958), was directed by Robert Parrish, who worked with Serling on the first season of The Twilight Zone, directing the episodes "One for the Angels," "A Stop at Willoughby," and "The Mighty Casey."
-Serling took another shot at the television industry in much the same way with the fourth season episode, "The Bard."