Monday, October 8, 2018

"He's Alive"

Peter Vollmer (Dennis Hopper; center) and his Neo-Nazi goons.

“He’s Alive”
Season Four, Episode 106
Original Air Date: January 24, 1963

Peter Vollmer: Dennis Hopper
Ernst Ganz: Ludwig Donath
Adolf Hitler: Curt Conway
Frank: Paul Mazursky
Nick: Howard Caine
Stanley: Barnaby Hale
Gibbons: Jay Adler
Proprietor: Wolfe Barzell
Heckler: Bernard Fein
Policeman: Robert McCord

Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Producer: Herbert Hirschman
Associate Producer: Murray Golden
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Assistant to the Producer: John Conwell
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Edward Carfagno
Set Decoration: Henry Grace and Don Greenwood, Jr.
Assistant Director: Ray De Camp
Editor: Richard W. Farrell
Sound: Franklin Milton and Joe Edmondson
Music: Stock
Optical Effects: Pacific Title
Rod Serling’s Wardrobe provided by Eagle Clothes
Filmed at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios

And Now, Mr. Serling:

“We move next on Twilight Zone into a shadowy area that treads a very thin line between flesh and fantasy. You’ll see a performance by Dennis Hopper that even from my rather very close-end perspective strikes me as an exceptional one. Our story is called ‘He’s Alive’ and if this doesn’t get you where you live, you’ll find it close by in the suburbs.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration: 

 “Portrait of a bush-league fuehrer named Peter Vollmer, a sparse little man who feeds off his self-delusions and finds himself perpetually hungry for want of greatness in his diet. And like some goose-stepping predecessors, he searches for something to explain his hunger, and to rationalize why a world passes him by without saluting. That something he looks for and finds is in a sewer. In his own twisted and distorted lexicon he calls it faith, strength, truth. But in just a moment Peter Vollmer will ply his trade on another kind of corner, a strange intersection in a shadow land called…The Twilight Zone.


            Peter Vollmer is an angry and confused young man who channels his frustrations through prejudice and hatred which he peddles on lonely street corners. He has few followers, only other despondent young men like himself, who trust in him with the loyalty of whipped dogs. Vollmer’s only family is an elderly man named Ernst who rescued Vollmer from a toxic home environment when Vollmer was a child. Ernst—an immigrant and concentration camp survivor—is aware of Vollmer’s role as the neighborhood bigot. He tells his young friend that the people who sent him to Dachau during the war were a lot like him. Angry. Bitter. Lonely. Content to take their rage out on those weaker than themselves. After chastising the young man Ernst tells Vollmer he can stay the night.
            Later that night, Vollmer senses something outside his window. He opens it and sees a shadowy figure in the street below. This mysterious stranger calls out to Vollmer, saying that he is sympathetic to Vollmer’s cause. He gives Vollmer advice on how to control an audience. Empathize with them, he says. Make their fears his own. Give them a cause for their anger, something or someone to blame for their suffering. Vollmer considers this and decides to heed the stranger’s advice.
            Weeks later, Vollmer stands before a packed meeting hall selling hatred to an anxious crowd. They listen with hopeful enthusiasm as the young man at the pulpit promises them solutions to their problems. Vollmer’s movement has finally gained an audience. The mysterious stranger’s advice has worked. Later, the stranger appears again and tells Vollmer that he needs a martyr, someone to die for his cause. Vollmer reluctantly chooses his friend Nick as the sacrifice. He tells the others in his group that Nick is a traitor and arranges for him to be murdered. Afterwards, he blames the opposition for the murder.
Ernst loses all sympathy for Vollmer and walks onto the stage during a rally. He tells the audience that Vollmer is nothing more than a frightened child who needs attention. Vollmer slaps the older man across the face. After the rally is over the stranger appears again and reveals himself to be Adolf Hitler. He tells Vollmer that he must kill Ernst. Vollmer, now nothing more than a puppet, follows orders and races to Ernst’s apartment. Vollmer shoots the old man, killing his lifelong father figure.
The police arrive shortly afterwards to arrest Vollmer for Nick’s murder. Vollmer flees into the streets but is fatally shot by officers. On the wall behind him the shadow of Adolf Hitler quietly slips away to another place.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:

“Where will he go next, this phantom of another time, this resurrected ghost of a previous nightmare? Chicago? Los Angeles? Miami, Florida? Vincennes, Indiana? Syracuse, New York? Any place, every place, where there’s hate, where’s there’s prejudice, where there’s bigotry, he’s alive. He’s alive so long as these evils exist. Remember that when he comes to your town. Remember it when you hear his voice speaking out through others. Remember it when you hear a name called, a minority attacked, any blind, unreasoning assault on a people or any human being. He’s alive because through these things we keep him alive.”


            Rod Serling’s second script for the fourth season concerns a naïve and frustrated young man who peddles hate and prejudice as the leader of a small political organization in 1963. Serling’s disdain for any and all forms of bigotry and racism is well-documented and features prominently in many of his scripts for The Twilight Zone, notably the first season episodes "Judgment Night" and "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," the second season episode "The Shelter," and the third season episode "Deaths-Head Revisited." Perhaps Serling's most powerful exploration of the theme is the final segment of the Night Gallery pilot film (1969), "The Escape Route," which finds a Nazi war criminal living under an assumed identity in South America. When a concentration camp survivor recognizes the Nazi, it sends the villain spinning into a terrifying world of supernatural justice. Serling adapted his own novella for the segment, taken from his 1967 collection The Season to Be Wary (Little, Brown). That collection also included another powerful tale of bigotry, "Color Scheme," inspired by an anecdote from Sammy Davis, Jr. It is also worth noting here that the first segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), commonly referred to as "Time Out," written and directed by John Landis, contains many of the same powerful themes as Rod Serling at his most acerbic. Unfortunately, that segment is best known today for the horrific accidental deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two small children during a botched special effects sequence of the production.
            Serling explored fascism and the Third Reich numerous times, but the conflict typically took place in a world far removed from that of the average American television viewer. In “He’s Alive” Serling explores the threat of a neo-fascist movement in contemporary America, organized and perpetrated by Americans. While this premise is certainly daring and unusual for its time, certain unconvincing aspects of the script and production, including a poorly disguised Curt Conway as the ghost of Adolf Hitler, render this episode flat and underwhelming in places.
            As previous writers have noted, “He’s Alive” was met with immediate controversy upon its initial broadcast. As Hal Erikson recounts in his article “All the Little Hitlers" (Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, Aug, 1986), CBS was flooded with letters from every perspective, including viewers angry at having to endure the hateful rhetoric spouted by Peter Vollmer and prominent hate groups praising the episode for the same reason. The Indianapolis Star accused Serling of focusing on out-of-touch, irrelevant issues like Nazis and fascism when communism was clearly a bigger threat to American society. Serling wrote an angry response to the editor of the paper causing the editor to backtrack and claim the article was meant to be satirical. 

           Serling anticipated an intense response even before the episode went into production. Neo-fascism was not a new concept in 1963 but it had very rarely been seen on network television (perhaps some of our readers more knowledgeable about television history can tell us if this is the first appearance of the subject matter in the medium). After submitting his script to network censors, CBS informed Serling and producer Herbert Hirschman that several changes needed to be made before the episode would be allowed to air. Vollmer’s group could not be mentioned by name nor could they be recognizably tied to any existing political organizations. Although Vollmer's group displays many of the tactics and ideals of the former National Socialist Party, they could not refer to themselves, or be referred to, as Nazis. Nazi propaganda, including swastikas, were visibly limited in the episode. Serling was forced to substitute a burning torch held at arms for the Nazi swastika in the episode. The only time Vollmer's group is referred to as Nazis is in the scene in which Nick’s body is found pinned with a note which reads “good little Nazi" (see image above). In the scene where Vollmer first meets Hitler, swastikas can briefly be seen in Vollmer’s eyes moments before he approaches the window, an unsubtle hint of the mysterious stranger’s identity. Also, Serling changed his protagonist’s last name from Collier to Vollmer due to the fact that there were prominent Nazis and neo-fascists with that name.
            Serling was apparently quite fond of the script for “He’s Alive” and initially had high hopes for the production. Upset that a scene was edited (for time) in which Vollmer, moments after Hitler’s big reveal, flees the ghostly figure in panic, running wildly through the streets only to be repeatedly stopped by a series of symbolic omens—swastika shadows on a building, a copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf in a bookstore window, Nazi propaganda posters—Serling approached producer Herbert Hirschman about possibly expanding his unexpurgated script into a feature-length film. Serling had been attempting to get a feature-length Twilight Zone film off the ground as early as the show’s second season. This longer version would keep Vollmer as its antihero but would also feature an FBI investigator as the protagonist. Bound by the pressures of an already tight production budget, Hirschman passed on the idea of expanding the production to feature-length.
            As previously mentioned, Serling dedicated much of his writing career to fighting bigotry and intolerance in all forms. A principal reason Serling created Twilight Zone was to circumvent the network watchdogs who repeatedly censored his scripts which dealt with controversial cultural and socio-political issues. As a Jewish-American veteran of WW II, Serling possessed a particular disdain for Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. By setting the conflict with Nazis in a contemporary American city Serling gave the episode an uncomfortable familiarity to American audiences. Like “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” or “The Shelter,” Serling was sending a clear message to viewers: This could happen in your town. This was a fresh approach to a theme that had been utilized many times throughout the show’s first three seasons.
While Serling provides a compelling premise, certain aspects of the plot are less believable. The most unlikely element is the fact that Vollmer, a child who was taken in and raised by a Jewish immigrant and concentration camp survivor, would grow up to idolize Adolf Hitler and other fascist leaders. The viewer is given little indication of the seeds from which Vollmer's racial hatred grew. It is also hard to believe that Vollmer would not immediately recognize Hitler’s highly documented methods for manipulating a crowd and thus early on realize the nature of his manipulator. Interesting enough, in the Twilight Zone Radio Drama adaptation of the episode, Vollmer recognizes Hitler as soon as he meets him, though the Nazi leader's name is kept from the listener until the end of the play.
         The character of Peter Vollmer was possibly inspired by George Lincoln Rockwell, a decorated WWII veteran who rose to prominence as the founder and commander of the American Nazi Party in 1959. Later, Rockwell served as the leader of the World Union of National Socialists. Rockwell, a highly impressionable religious zealot who drove a Volkswagen "Hate Bus" decorated with white supremacist symbols to disrupt civil rights gatherings, was fatally shot by a former member of his party in 1967. 

        Peter Vollmer is portrayed by American actor Dennis Hopper (1936-2010), one of the more notable performers in the Twilight Zone's galaxy of "before they were stars." Hopper was an actor, writer, director, photographer, activist, counter-cultural icon, and one of the most eclectic and beloved artists in American popular culture. His career spanned nearly six decades and saw him at the center of numerous artistic and social movements during the latter half of the twentieth century. Stubbornly unconventional and at times professionally handicapped by substance abuse issues and a tumultuous personal life, Hopper managed to stay culturally relevant all of his life.
            While still in his teens, Hopper was put under contract to Warner Bros where he first met James Dean, an actor whom Hopper greatly admired. He appeared in two films with Dean, Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956). Afterwards, Hopper moved to New York where he continued to appear in films and on television. Hopper came out of the method school of acting in New York. He trained under Stella Adler and Lee Strassberg at the Actor’s Studio. He was also an admirer of Montgomery Clift, who is considered a model of 20th century method acting. When Hopper appeared in "He's Alive," he was suffering under a blacklisting in Hollywood after getting into a fight with director Henry Hathaway on the set of From Hell to Texas (1958). He was subsequently dropped from his Warner Bros contract. Ironically, Hopper experienced a comeback after being asked to appear in Hathaway’s film The Sons of Katie Elder (1965).
            In 1957 Hopper appeared in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and also played Napoleon Bonaparte in Irwin Allen’s The Story of Mankind. Hopper first met actor Vincent Price while making the latter film. The two actors formed a close friendship that lasted until Price’s death in 1993.
            The 1960’s saw Hopper’s film career fade into virtual nonexistence for much of the decade. He managed to land small parts in big budget films like the aforementioned The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) and Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke (1967). He kept afloat by accepting roles on television. In 1963 Twilight Zone producer Herbert Hirschman made the inspired choice of hiring Hopper to play Vollmer, the naive young man who becomes the victim of his own twisted ideology. While Hopper's performance can come across as over-the-top there is little dispute that it remains one of the more powerful performances in a show filled with such performances.
            As the 1960’s pushed on Hopper became increasingly more involved in the counter-culture movement. He became friends with activists and celebrities and spoke out against the conflict in Vietnam. He became friends with director Roger Corman and appeared in Corman’s LSD-inspired cult film The Trip in 1967. The film starred Peter Fonda and was written by Jack Nicholson. Hopper became close friends with both actors and in 1969, he and Fonda co-wrote a screenplay with Dr. Strangelove screenwriter Terry Southern. The resultant film, Easy Rider, is about two cocaine-dealing twenty-somethings (Fonda and Hopper) on a motorcycle trek across America. Hopper made his directorial debut with the film which also featured Nicholson in a career-making performance. Hopper and Fonda financed much of the film from their own pockets. Many historians consider the film, which boldly saw all three of its free-spirited heroes murdered before the conclusion, to be a symbolic representation of the rise and fall of the counter-culture movement of the 1960’s. Whether it was a conscious decision by the screenwriters or just opportune timing, the film was one of a handful of cultural events that signified the idealism of the counter-culture was over. It won numerous awards and spear-headed the independent film movement of the 1970’s.
            After the success of Easy Rider and a role in the acclaimed western True Grit (1969), Hopper’s film career appeared to be back on track, although he would appear mainly in independent films throughout the next decade. In 1979, at the height of a highly publicized cocaine addiction, Hopper played a neurotic Vietnam War photojournalist living in a tribal Cambodian prison under the rule of a mentally unsound military colonel in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Hopper worked with Coppola again in 1983 when he played actor Matt Dillon’s father in Rumble Fish. 1986 was perhaps Hopper’s defining year as an actor as he appeared in a whopping seven films and delivered several of his most well-known performances. With Hopper newly sober, director David Lynch cast him as gas-huffing psychopath Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. This is considered by many to be his finest performance. He also appeared in the basketball film Hoosiers alongside Gene Hackman, a performance which earned Hopper an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Hopper also played chainsaw-wielding Lieutenant ‘Lefty’ Enright in Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 that same year. Other notable roles followed. In 1992 Hopper appeared in Tony Scott’s True Romance, which was screenwriter Quentin Tarantino’s first professional sale. In 1994 Hopper played explosives expert Howard Payne who terrorizes Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in the action thriller Speed.
            Hopper directed a total of seven feature films during his career, most of them in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. His most directorial effort, other than Easy Rider, is the 1988 drama Colors about gang violence in East Los Angeles.
Hopper was also an accomplished photographer. He primarily shot portraits, usually of celebrity friends and various public figures, but he was also known for shooting images of contemporary popular culture as well. He was a regular contributor to several magazines including Vogue and he also published several collections of his photographic work. Hopper continued acting almost until the end, appearing mostly on television. Cancer claimed his life in May of 2010. He was 74.

Ludwig Donath
Ludwig Donath (1900-1967), who portrayed the sympathetic and tragic character Ernst Ganz, was an Austrian-born Jew who was ironically, and repeatedly, cast as a Nazi throughout his career. He portrayed Adolf Hitler on film several times. Donath perfected his craft on the Berlin stage but returned to his native Vienna when Hitler rose to power. He made his American film debut in 1942 and was destined to repeatedly play a German “heavy” during his prolific film and television career. He died of cancer in 1967. 

Despite its relatively minor flaws of narrative logic and convincing production, it is clear that Rod Serling was more than willing to forego a concentration on these traditional aspects to focus on the important and urgent message he wished to convey. Serling's powerful words combined with Dennis Hopper's striking performance ensure that "He's Alive" is an episode few, if any, viewers will come away from unaffected. In light of certain recent events in such American cities as Charleston, SC and Charlottesville, VA, it unfortunately remains an episode with a potent relevancy today. For this reason, “He’s Alive” must be rated above the average offering on Twilight Zone. 

Grade: B

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, Second Edition, by Marc Scott Zicree (Silman-James Press, 1992)

--“All the Little Hitlers” by Hal Erickson, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine Vol. 6, No. 3 (August, 1986). Editor: Michael Blaine

--“He’s Alive” original teleplay by Rod Serling published in two parts in Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, August & October, 1986 issues (vol. 6, no. 3 & vol. 6, no. 4), Editor: Michael Blane

--Hollywood Hellraisers: The Wild Lives and Fast Times of Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty, and Jack Nicholson by Robert Sellers (Skyhorse Publishing, 2010).

--Dennis Hopper: Create (or Die) directed by Henning Lohner and Ariane Rlecker for Hot Spots (ARTE TV, 2003)

--The Twilight Zone Museum (

--The Internet Movie Database (


Curt Conway as Adolf Hitler
--Stuart Rosenberg also directed the first season episode “I Shot an Arrow into the Air” and the fourth season episode “Mute.” He also directed the fifth season Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes "Dead Weight," scripted by TZ writer Jerry Sohl from a story by Herb Golden, and "Backward, Turn Backward," scripted by TZ writer Charles Beaumont from a story by Dorothy Salisbury Davis.
--Paul Mazursky also appeared in the first season episode “The Purple Testament” and the third season episode “The Gift.”
--Jay Adler also appeared in the third season episode "The Jungle."
--Bernard Fein also appeared in the first season episode "The Four of Us Are Dying."
--Curt Conway also appeared in Serling’s short-lived western series The Loner in the episode “The Trial in Paradise.”
--“He’s Alive” was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Marshall Allman.
--"He's Alive" was examined by author/editor Chris Alexander in The Terror Tube column of Fangoria issue #296 (Sept, 2010). 

--BD & JP


  1. Great article! I never realized Hopper was in so much. I always just thought he was a nut.

    1. Thanks, Jack! I've always enjoyed Hopper as an actor but he was definitely an eccentric guy. I didn't realize how much so until I researched his career for this episode. Certainly an interesting and sometimes complicated guy. His performance in this one is stellar.

  2. Am I allowed to mention that this is the source of the Infamous Twilight Zone Blooper?
    Rod Serling is reading the opening narration, when he snags on the name 'Peter Vollmer'.
    And when that happens, Rod makes a face which has since become a favorite screen grab (or so I've heard …).

  3. This episode lends itself to repeated viewings because of its moral lesson. He's Alive is a powerful and moving episode more in line with Alfred Hitchcock Presentst rather than the traditional twist ending Rod Serling and his co-writers were known for, however; I would rate this episode a a B+. Dennis Hopper really steals the show. Peter Volmer, as the character Ernest Ganst admonishes to Peter, is a scared little boy who was never shown any love by his father and was even abused, and while that is not a credible excuse, explains some of the hate expressed by the young Peter Volmer. I do like the photography of the outdoor scenes with the makeshift stage and the flaming torches during the night scenes and how Peter's little group of Nazi disciples starts to grow stronger at first. As the commentary goes on to explain, the makings according to Peter's unrevealed mentor preaches to him, the movement requires a martyr and one of the group's initial supporters is gunned down in support of the overall cause along with the rhetoric that the Nazi's used during the early 1930's such as playing on the populace's fears of outsiders (i.e Them vs Us) and placing blame for one's economic lack of success or security on racial or religious groups. Peter Volmer wants it to have it both ways it seems. He wants to still be emotionally nurtured by the character, Ernest Ganst, but wants to appear as "made of steel" as he repeatedly exclaims throughout the episode. Later in the episode, Peter resents Ernest calling him to task in front of the makeshift crowd in the room and ends up shooting him. By this time, the crowd starts to disperse and when the police arrive and collar Peter, he tries to flee only to be gunned down. His last words to the cop is he cannot die because he is made of steel! Rod Serling's parting narration goes on to state that Hitler will always live as long as there is racial and religious bigotry in the hearts of men/women.

  4. Great review. This is one of those episodes that really stuck with me over the years, even though it isn't as good as some of the others this season (or even some of the others that dealt with similar topics). The mysterious benefactor's message as he steps out of the shadows should have been hammy, but it somehow managed to become chilling:

    "I was making speeches before you could read them! I was fighting battles when your only struggle was to climb out of a womb! I was taking over the world when your universe was a crib! And as for being in 'darkness', Mr. Vollmer -- I invented darkness"!