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.



  1. That was a great article. Who doesn't love "Kick the Can"? I love Russell Collins, here and in his many Hitchcock TV roles. He's just such a great, cranky old man.

    1. Thanks, Jack. Collins is fantastic in this episode. I have to admit that I am largely unfamiliar with him outside of "Kick the Can," a few Hitchcock episodes, and his Outer Limits episode but I am interested in watching more of his work. If you have a recommended Hitchcock performance from him definitely let me know!

  2. Regarding "Johnson Smith", George Clayton Johnson's pseudonym for the "Grandfather Clock" story:
    Back in the day there was Johnson Smith & Co., which manufactured cheap novelties and tricks, the kind you'd find advertised in the back pages of comic books; they also put out a mail-order catalog which was hugely popular among several generations of kids.
    The Writer's Guild allows screenwriters to register pseudonyms, to guarantee their payments and royalties, while at the same time signaling to their friends that the script in question had been tampered with at the production level.
    I don't know this as a certainty, but Mr. Johnson might just have used "Johnson Smith" as such a signal to his friends about "Ninety Years Without Slumbering".

    While I'm here:
    That's Hank Patterson as one of the oldsters.
    His best known gig was on Green Acres, as Farmer Fred Ziffel, custodial 'parent' to Arnold the pig.

    Russell Collins had a showy role in the 1963 feature Fail-Safe, as one of the officials at SAC Headquarters who had to contend with the airborne SNAFU.

    1. Hey thanks, Mike. I corrected the misspelling but thanks for bringing it to our attention. You are absolutely correct about Johnson's source for his pseudonym for "Ninety Years..." As he explains in his Archive of American Television interview he took the name Johnson Smith from Johnson Smith Company, a toy company out of Chicago. The name was registered with the Writer's Guild. He felt it was close enough to his real name that friends and associates would know it was him but that "Smith" left just vague enough.

      And Fail-Safe has been on my list of films to see for a while now. The cast is pretty incredible. Thanks for the comment!

    2. Mention of Fail Safe reminds me of "A Little Peace and Quiet," the second episode of the 80s Twilight Zone, when the nuclear bomb is frozen in the sky and you can see the marquee at the movie theater, the two movies being shown are Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe.

  3. Those Archive interviews are great, if a little dry, and loaded with info like the origin of the Johnson Smith pseudonym. For those interested, Matheson and Hamner also provided interviews and spoke at length about their work on the Zone. All available on YouTube.

    It's a shame so many scripts from the great Zone writers were scrapped in the final season. Besides the Johnson scripts, you had Matheson's "The Doll," Jerry Sohl's "Pattern for Doomsday" and "Who Am I?", Beaumont's "Gentlemen Be Seated," the Arch Oboler script and on and on. All passed on. It should have been a time for bringing in those talented writers associated with The Group like William F. Nolan, Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison, and Theodore Sturgeon, but instead producer William Froug decided to bring in his own group of writers and, frankly, it killed the show.

  4. I hate to be the skunk at the church picnic, but, lifelong "Twilight Zone" lover that I am, I can't stand "Kick the Can". Fantasy, to really work, has to illustrate an aspect of human life that is, in itself, real ("Nick of Time", by dramatizing how pitifully insecure even so-called "go-getters" can secretly be, does that to perfection). "Kick the Can" not only doesn't do that; it runs directly counter to it. I am 64 years old myself, and, over the years, I have had the privilege of learning a great deal from men and women who were far wiser, and much older, than myself -- people as diverse as a splendid husband-wife acting team, a veteran of the early years of the American occupation of Berlin, and a leader of the anti-Nazi resistance in Vienna who saved 600 lives. None of these people, in their old age, ever fantasized about, or longed for, a return to their childhoods. They certainly wished that they could be rid of the pains and ailments that accompanied old age, and that they could be more physically active as they used to be; but the experiences that they had passed through over the years (and not only the good ones, by any means) were the crown jewels of their existences. They all HAD stayed young (as I flatter myself that I have) in the most important way: by never losing the ability to appreciate a good joke, or be awestruck by the beauty of art and nature, or to still be able to enjoy so-called "kid stuff" like comic books (and "The Twilight Zone"!) into their 80s and 90s. When the (wonderful) lady in my life turned 75 in December 2018, I gave an elaborate party for her, and asked "Do you mind if your friends know WHICH birthday this is?" "Certainly not. I regard each and every one of those years as an accomplishment." For me, "Kick the Can", by proposing to treat the lives of its characters as if they were Etch-A-Sketches, to be blithely erased and rewritten, isn't an exercise in wish-fulfillment: it's a fantasy version of Alzheimer's disease. Take away all of those years of striving, and failing, and succeeding, and loving -- and you have destroyed the person. No thanks.