Monday, November 4, 2019

Lost in the Fifth Dimension: Jerry Sohl's Legacy in the Twilight Zone

Jerry Sohl

In 1982 writer Marc Scott Zicree published the first edition of The Twilight Zone Companion, his exhaustively researched retrospective of Rod Serling’s celebrated fantasy series. The first book-length study of the show and its influence on the culture, The Companion shed a light on many aspects of the show that had gone largely unknown for nearly two decades. One of the more significant revelations was that science fiction writer Jerry Sohl had ghost-written three episodes of the show which, at the time of their original broadcasts, were all credited to frequent Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont. One episode in particular, season five’s “Living Doll,” had since become one of the most recognizable episodes of the series. He had also sold two additional scripts to the show during its fifth season that were never produced. Why then had his involvement with the show been all but erased from its history? The most significant reason is that he wrote them as a favor to his friend Charles Beaumont, who had begun experiencing symptoms of an undiagnosed neurological disorder that would eventually claim his life, in an agreement that they split the profit and that Beaumont receive the onscreen credit. Unfortunately, this violates guidelines set in place by the Writer’s Guild of America so even after the Twilight Zone went off the air, Sohl was hesitant to speak publicly about his involvement with the show. After the publication of Zicree’s book Sohl was finally able to take credit for his contribution to the show. But Jerry Sohl’s career as a professional writer was a prolific one, both on the page and the screen, and his place in the history of speculative fiction is worth exploring.

Gerald Allan Sohl was born on December 2, 1913 and was raised in Chicago, Illinois. Sohl became an avid reader at a young age, spending hours at the local library soaking in the early science fiction periodicals of the time. He eventually became a writer for The Chicago Daily News and several other local papers until he was drafted into the Army Air Corps where he served three years in the Airways Communications division. While serving he met and married his wife Jean with whom he would have three children. After returning from service he and Jean settled in Bloomington, Illinois where he became the music and literature critic for The Daily Pantagraph, a job he would keep until 1958 when he left Illinois for Los Angeles to try his luck at writing for television.

But Sohl began his career as a prose writer years earlier when his story “The 7th Order” appeared in the March, 1952 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. The story was later adapted into a radio play for the NBC series X Minus One in 1956. Sohl was inspired to begin writing science fiction after interviewing Hugo Award-winning author Wilson Bob Tucker for the Pantagraph in 1950. As a lifelong admirer of the genre, Sohl dove headfirst into writing science fiction and by 1952 he had sold his first novel, The Haploids, to Rinehart & Company. Over the next decade he would average around a novel a year—The Transcendent Man and Costigan’s Needle in 1953, The Altered Ego in 1954, Point Ultimate in 1955, The Mars Monopoly in 1956, The Time Dissolver and Prelude to Peril—a mystery novel—in 1957, One Against Herculum and The Odious Ones in 1959. He was also publishing numerous short stories during this time in science fiction magazines like Galaxy, If, and Infinity.

In 1958, at the age of forty-five, Sohl quit his job at The Pantagraph and moved to Los Angeles to become a screenwriter. He had already established himself as a novelist in the science fiction community and he hoped that this small bit of notoriety would get him a foot in the door in Hollywood. After arriving in Los Angeles, Sohl attended the World Science Fiction Convention where he first met Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and George Clayton Johnson. Sohl would eventually form close friendships with each of them and would become a prominent figure in their extended circle of creative friends often referred to as the Southern California School of Writers, or simply the Group. Although significantly older than his new friends, Sohl’s work ethic and laid back personality seemed an immediate fit and their encouragement and influence was a prominent factor in his success.

Sohl sold his first teleplay to the NBC detective series M Squad in 1959. “The Upset” aired in December of the show’s third season. That same year he was hired as a staff writer for Alfred Hitchcock Presents polishing scripts and adapting short stories by Henry Slesar and others into fully formed teleplays. According to Sohl, many of his scripts for the show went unproduced but he did eventually see four of his teleplays make it to air. He wrote three episodes of the ABC series The New Breed and contributed two stories to the iconic anthology series The Outer Limits, adapting his short stories “The Invisible Enemy” and “Counterweight” for the show's second season. He also wrote two episodes of the Larry Cohen-created ABC series The Invaders. His first episode for the series, “The Watchers,” was a reworking of a script by fellow Twilight Zone alumni Earl Hamner.

Aside from his work on The Twilight Zone, Sohl is probably best remembered today for the three teleplays he wrote for the original Star Trek series. His first teleplay for the show, “The Corbomite Maneuver” was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and is considered an important episode in the show’s chronology as it was originally intended to be the first episode broadcast and introduces key elements of the show. Sohl wrote two more teleplays for the show, “This Side of Paradise” for the show’s first season—for which he received story credit under the pseudonym Nathan Butler after he removed his name from the project due to changes made to his script by Gene Rodenberry and writer D.C. Fontana—and “Whom Gods Destroy” for the show’s third season.

In the late 1960s, Sohl, Matheson, Clayton Johnson, and science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon formed The Green Hand, a legal corporation designed to pitch quality fantasy and science fiction projects to television networks and production companies. They were hired by Herbert F. Solow, then Vice President in charge of television production at MGM, and they set up an office on the MGM lot. George Clayton Johnston served as president and the four of them spent several years trying to get a wide variety of shows on the air including a series called Hunter, about a police detective with ESP, E.T, about an extraterrestrial's difficulty adapting to humanoid culture on Earth, and a Twilight Zone-like anthology series called A Touch of the Strange. Ultimately though, none of their ideas managed to catch the attention of network executives and they eventually dissolved the corporation.

After the Green Hand, Sohl begrudgingly continued to write for television for several more years but after a bad experience submitting a teleplay to the NBC series Man from Atlantis in 1977 he decided to call it quits and concentrate exclusively on writing novels and short fiction. His last script to ever be produced was a teleplay for The Next Step Beyond the following year called “Portrait of the Mind.”

Although Sohl concentrated his efforts mostly on writing for series television he did see several feature-length scripts make it to the big screen. In 1960 he adapted Richard Stern’s story “Set Up for Murder” into a feature length film directed by Edward L. Cahn called Twelve Hours to Kill. He also scripted two films for American International Pictures, both of which starred Boris Karloff and were adaptations of stories by H.P. Lovecraft. Monster of Terror (aka Die, Monster, Die, 1965) was an adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” and The Crimson Cult (1968) was an uncredited adaptation of Lovecraft’s story “The Dreams in the Witch House.” Sohl stated in several interviews that he admired Lovecraft’s work a great deal. A few years before either of these films he co-wrote a feature-length adaptation of Lovecraft’s story “The Dunwich Horror” with Charles Beaumont that was, unfortunately, never produced. Aside from his own scripts he also wrote the plot synopsis to the 1965 Japanese film Frankenstein Conquers the World and he saw his novel Night Slaves (1965) adapted into an NBC Movie of the Week in 1970 which was directed by Twilight Zone veteran Ted Post.

Sohl was also indirectly involved in the inspiration for another television classic. An avid golfer, Sohl was golfing with Richard Matheson the day President Kennedy was assassinated. After hearing the news, the two packed up their clubs and decided to call it a day. On the drive home, they encountered a large eighteen-wheeler driving dangerously close behind them. Even after increasing their speed in an attempt to put some distance between themselves and the driver the truck remained just as close as before. They were now driving at a dangerously fast speed through steep hills with nowhere to pull over. Finally, they came upon an area wide enough to pull off onto and let the gigantic truck pass them by. This encounter stayed with Matheson for many years and he eventually turned it into the novella “Duel” which he adapted into the screenplay for the famous made-for-television film directed by Stephen Spielberg in 1971.

Collaboration was common within the Group and Sohl spent the first few years of his career as a screenwriter co-writing scripts and other projects with various members of the Group’s inner circle. Second to Richard Matheson, Sohl would become Charles Beaumont’s most frequent collaborator, although for most of the projects he worked on with Beaumont he was less of a collaborator than a ghostwriter as Beaumont would often receive sole credit for the assignment. In addition to the aforementioned script for "The Dunwich Horror" Sohl and Beaumont collaborated on a handful of projects. He co-wrote an episode of The Naked City with Beaumont and William F. Nolan called “Down the Long Night” and he co-wrote an episode of Route 66 called “The Quick and the Dead” with Beaumont and John Tomerlin. He and Beaumont also collaborated on two articles for Playboy, “Requiem for the Holidays” (June, 1963) and “Lament for the High Iron” (October, 1963). Beaumont received sole credit for these. Both articles later appeared in Beaumont’s nonfiction collection Remember, Remember (1963) which he dedicated to Sohl and fellow collaborator OCee Ritch.

The majority of these collaborations were written in early 1963 when Charles Beaumont’s health first began to deteriorate. These experiences working with Sohl are likely the reason the busy writer trusted him with his material for The Twilight Zone when he found it difficult to reach production deadlines during the show's fourth and fifth seasons. Sohl wrote a total of five scripts for the show, three under Beaumont's byline: “The New Exhibit” for season four and “Living Doll” and “Queen of the Nile” for season five. He also wrote two additional scripts,* “Pattern for Doomsday” and “Who Am I?” which were originally bought by producer Bert Granet at the beginning of the fifth season but were later cut from the production schedule by Granet’s replacement William Froug who also axed another Beaumont script, “Gentlemen, Be Seated” and Richard Matheson’s “The Doll” among others. Beaumont had varying degrees of participation in the writing of these scripts ranging from fully thought out story treatments to virtually no involvement at all. But all of the finalized scripts that were handed to the show's producers were written by Sohl.

In the early 1960’s Sohl took an extended hiatus from writing novels and short stories to concentrate on his new career as a screenwriter. By the end of the decade, however, he had returned to the format and was now writing far outside the genre of science fiction. Starting with the publication of his novel The Lemon Eaters by Simon and Schuster in 1967 Sohl’s fiction began to take on more of a mainstream dramatic aesthetic aimed at a wider audience. He published several novels through the prominent publishing house including The Spun Sugar Hole (1971) and The Resurrection of Frank Borchard (1973). Sohl put a tremendous amount of creative effort into these novels and it earned him a great deal of critical acclaim. Unfortunately, the sales were moderate at best and by the 1980s Sohl had more or less abandoned the mainstream market. Throughout the late 70s and 80s Sohl published novels in a variety of different genres including several horror novels, two historical romances under the name Roberta Jean Mountjoy, a series of romantic suspense novels under the name Nathan Butler, and a novelization of the Japanese film SuperManChu: Master of Kung Fu under the name Sean Mei Sullivan in 1974. A renaissance man of many talents, Sohl also released two semi-satirical instructional books on Bridge, Underahanded Bridge, and chess, Underhanded Chess, both published by Penguin Books in 1973.

Although Sohl published several dozen short stories during his career, he never saw a collection of his short fiction published during his lifetime. He attempted to publish a collection of stories in 1959 under the title Filet of Sohl but it never materialized. In 2003 BearManor Media finally published Filet of Sohl as a career retrospective of Sohl’s work featuring his original introduction to the 1959 edition, new and old works of short fiction, and his two unproduced Twilight Zone teleplays. In 2004 they published The Twilight Zone Scripts of Jerry Sohl featuring his three scripts that were made into episodes of the show (“The New Exhibit” “Living Doll” and “Queen of the Nile”). Both volumes were edited by frequent Southern California School of Writers biographer Christopher Conlon and feature tributes to Sohl from George Clayton Johnson, William F. Nolan, and Richard Matheson, as well as Sohl’s children.

Sohl passed away on November 4, 2002 in Thousand Oaks, California. He was 88.

Jerry Sohl

Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following publications:

Filet of Sohl edited by Christopher Conlon (BearManor Media, 2003)

The Twilight Zone Scripts of Jerry Sohl edited by Christopher Conlon (BearManor Media, 2004)

“Jerry Sohl” interview with Sohl by Edward Gross in Starlog (October and November issues, 1988)

"Sohl Man: From the Twilight Zone to the Outer Limits and Beyond" interview with Sohl by Mathew R. Bradley Filmfax #75/76 (October, 1999)

California Sorcery edited by William F. Nolan and William Schafer (Cemetery Dance, 1999)

The Work of Charles Beaumont: An Annotated Bibliography and Guide compiled by William F. Nolan (Bibliographies of Modern Authors series, Borgo Press, 1986)

The Twilight Zone Companion, 2nd edition by Marc Scott Zicree (Silman-James Press, 1992)

Jerry Sohl at

Jerry Sohl at

Jerry Sohl at

*Both scripts were eventually adapted into episodes of The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas by author Dennis Etchison. "Pattern for Doomsday" features a full cast including Henry Rollins and Mike Starr and "Who Am I?" features Sean Astin. The scripts can also be found in Filet of Sohl (2003) edited by Christopher Conlon.


From the jacket of The Spun Sugar Hole (1971)