Friday, March 15, 2024

"The Last Night of a Jockey"

Mickey Rooney as Grady

“The Last Night of a Jockey”

Season Five, Episode 125

Original Air Date: October 25, 1963


Cast:

Grady: Mickey Rooney

Crew:

Writer: Rod Serling

Director: Joseph M. Newman

Producer: William Froug

Director of Photography: George T. Clemens

Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson

Art Direction: George W. Davis & Malcolm Brown

Film Editor: Thomas W. Scott

Set Decoration: Henry Grace & Robert R. Benton

Assistant Director: Charles Bonniwell, Jr.

Casting: Patricia Rose

Music: stock

Sound: Franklin Milton & Joe Edmondson

Mr. Serling’s Wardrobe: Eagle Clothes

Filmed at MGM Studios

 And Now, Mr. Serling:

“Next on Twilight Zone, a gentleman of myriad talents and a story written especially for him. Mr. Mickey Rooney appears in ‘The Last Night of a Jockey.’ He plays the role of a diminutive little man screaming for help in the bottom of a barrel, and the help he receives is unexpected and quite incredible. On The Twilight Zone, a cast of one: Mr. Mickey Rooney. I hope you’ll be able to be with us.” 

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration: 

“The name is Grady, five-feet short in stockings and boots, a slightly distorted offshoot of a good breed of humans who race horses. He happens to be one of the rotten apples, bruised and yellowed by dealing in dirt, a short man with a short memory who’s forgotten that he’s worked for the sport of kings and helped turn it into a cesspool, used and misused by the two-legged animals who have hung around sporting events since the days of the Colosseum. So this is Grady on his last night as a jockey. Behind him are Hialeah, Hollywood Park and Saratoga. Rounding the far turn and coming up fast on the rail . . . is The Twilight Zone.” 

Summary: 

            In a small, squalid room, with newspapers strewn about the floor, we meet Grady, a man alone. The newspaper headlines tell the story. Grady, a jockey, has been banned from horse racing and his appeal to the racing comission has been struck down. Grady angrily tosses away a newspaper as the telephone rings. It’s a journalist calling to get a word from Grady, and Grady lets him have it, insulting the journalist and blaming him, and other journalists, for his ban from horse racing.

            Grady angrily hangs up the telephone and stumbles to a dresser mirror, gazing at his reflection. He doesn’t like the man who looks back at him and calls him a “chump.” Grady quietly admits that he fixed a couple of races, but he’s a chump because while the men who put him up to it got off rich and clean, the only thing Grady got for his trouble was a few lousy bucks and a ban from the only thing that gave his life meaning.

            Suddenly, Grady hears another voice in the room. He turns around, asking who’s there. The voice laughs at him. Grady checks the closet and the open window, thinking someone is playing a joke. The voice tells Grady that he resides in Grady’s head. Grady, not understanding, repeatedly slaps himself in the forehead, asking the voice if it’s comfortable in there. 

             Grady sees a disembodied image in the dresser mirror, beside that of his own reflection. It looks like him but cleaned-up. The other Grady in the mirror reveals that he knows all of Grady’s thoughts and bitter recollections. When Grady denies having any bitter recollections, his alter-ego reminds him. 1961: Hialeah, suspended for riding infractions. It wasn’t my fault, cries Grady. 1962: Six-month suspension for failing to report a bribe offer. I was framed, says Grady. Finally, a lifetime ban for race fixing and horse doping. I never doped any horses, screams Grady. He angrily smashes the mirror to pieces.

            Grady boasts that a telephone call to Mr. Hannichek will make everything right. His alter-ego urges him to call. Grady telephones and tells the man on the other end that he’s low on money and it’s time for Grady to get what he deserves. The man abruptly ends the call.

            Grady says that it doesn’t matter. He was a big man once and he’ll be a big man again. His alter-ego appears in the surface reflection of a kettle to remind Grady of a time not long ago when Grady had nice clothes and left big tips as compensation for his small size. Grady angrily throws the kettle across the room.

            His alter-ego makes Grady an offer. At this moment, Grady can have anything he wants, anything in the world. Grady says that he wants to be the biggest. He shouts that he wants to be BIG!  

            Later, Grady tries to sleep but is restless with a thunderstorm raging outside. Grady realizes something is wrong, something he can’t quite grasp. He looks down and sees his feet hanging off the end of the bed. Alarmed, Grady sits up and turns on a lamp. Now he knows what’s wrong. He has grown physically, and he has grown a great deal. Grady romps around the room, everything small to his perspective. He must be eight feet tall. His wish has been answered. He is BIG. 

            Grady wonders if he is dreaming. His alter-ego assures him that he is not dreaming. This is his new reality. Grady takes a celebratory drink and calls an old girlfriend, but is angered when she won’t give him the time of day.

            The telephone rings. Grady listens, speaks briefly, hangs up, and then tells his alter-ego that a lawyer from the racing commission is going to call him. His alter-ego tells Grady that people are capable of great heights and terrible lows, and he, the alter-ego, is the final bit of strength that pushes a person one way or the other. He asks Grady if it wouldn’t have been better to have wished to win the Kentucky Derby or to win a clean and honest race. Grady admits that would have been great.

            The telephone rings. The caller is Mr. Newman from the racing commission. He gives Grady good news and Grady is ecstatic, thankful. He hangs up the telephone and mocks his alter-ego. The racing commission has reinstated him, he brags. The laughter of his alter-ego booms with a flash of lighting and a peal of thunder. Grady is now ten feet tall. His head scrapes the ceiling of the room. 

            It hits home like a thunderbolt. Grady is too big to ever race again, too big, in fact, to live any sort of normal life. In a rage, Grady destroys the furniture and begs to be made small again. His alter-ego tells Grady that he’s always been small, and the only time he was big was when he was being honest and unselfish. Then the voice is silent as Grady weeps amid the tattered remains of his tiny room. 

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:

“The name is Grady, ten feet tall, a slightly distorted offshoot of a good breed of humans who race horses. Unfortunately for Mr. Grady, he learned too late that you don’t measure size with a ruler, you don’t figure height with a yardstick, and you never judge a man by how tall he looks in a mirror. The giant is as he does. You can make a pari-mutuel bet on this, win, place or show, in or out of The Twilight Zone.” 

Commentary: 

            “The Last Night of a Jockey” is the most minimal episode produced on the series. Besides the obligatory appearance and voice of series host Rod Serling, the episode features a single performer, a single voice, and a single set, though this last qualification is a half-truth, since the speculative element of the story required the use of three sets (two of which were almost entirely custom-made) over the three-day filming of the episode in order to display the process of Grady growing larger while everything around him grew smaller. In this way, the episode is a minor marvel of claustrophobic design and Mickey Rooney’s wildly energetic performance is amplified by the increasingly reduced space and elements.

The episode was originally intended to be slightly less minimal as it was to include another voice, that of prolific actor Vic Perrin (1916-1989), who was scripted as an unseen landlord who speaks to Grady through the door to Grady’s room. Although this scene was removed from the episode, Perrin remained on set for the duration of filming in order to provide Mickey Rooney with the lines for Grady’s alter-ego, before the lines were recorded by Rooney for the finished episode. Perrin was a prolific performer who was frequently in demand for his voice, providing narrations and voice work for radio, documentary films, and amusement park attractions. Perrin probably remains best-known for providing the Control Voice on The Outer Limits.

Many viewers of the series connect this episode with Rod Serling’s thematically and structurally similar first season episode, “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room.” Although not as minimal as “The Last Night of a Jockey,” the earlier episode concerns a man, Jackie Rhodes (Joe Mantell), trapped by his own fears in a single room with only a telephone to connect him to the outside world. Jackie Rhodes, like Grady in “The Last Night of a Jockey,” also finds himself confronted by his alter-ego, but “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room” is a redemptive episode, one in which the principal character undergoes a metaphysical transformation that strengthens and redeems him, whereas Grady is destroyed by his selfish impulses and by his inability to see beyond the scope of his own petty desires. Serling, who wrote “The Last Night of a Jockey” specifically for Mickey Rooney, may also have found inspiration for the episode in “Eddie,” an earlier television triumph for Rooney in which he played a fearful man alone in a room with only a telephone to connect him to the outside world. More on that in a moment.

The thematic changes were likely made simply to distinguish what is essentially a remake of the earlier episode as something different and fresh, though it may also give some insight into where Rod Serling was as a writer after a length of four continuously grueling seasons of the series. In interviews at the time, Serling reiterated that he felt burned out, that he felt like he was repeating himself while also losing perspective on what was good writing and what was bad writing. Serling was always his own harshest critic, and although a viewer can find many examples of Serling recycling ideas, themes, titles, and characters stretching all the way back to the beginning of his television writing career, this is in no way an indication of bad writing on Serling’s part. Earlier in the fifth season Serling wrote what is perhaps his finest script of the season, “In Praise of Pip,” a significant portion of which was recycled from an earlier television drama written by Serling for Kraft Television Theatre. Like all prolific writers, Serling revisited certain thematic ground, but he was such a talented storyteller that everything he wrote possessed some interesting features for the viewer. “The Last Night of a Jockey” is no different in this regard. Despite the somewhat ludicrous nature of the speculative element and the jokey nature of the punchline, Serling’s tightly scripted single character study and Rooney’s emotionally explosive performance lift the episode above the average offering on the series.

Rod Serling, as well as other writers on the series, experimented with minimalism (in terms of character, environment, and, in at least one example, dialogue) throughout the course of the series, often to great effect. This was likely a choice made as much out of financial necessity (The Twilight Zone was never an expensive series) as it was a creative one. Besides “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room,” interested viewers may wish to explore such Serling-penned episodes as “Where Is Everybody?” and “King Nine Will Not Return” for variations on the theme of a single character against the elements of The Twilight Zone.

“The Last Night of a Jockey” was not the first, last, or most significant pairing of Rod Serling and Mickey Rooney on television. Earlier, the two combined for a triumphant live production of Ernest Lehman’s “The Comedian” for Playhouse 90 on Valentine’s Day, 1957. Rooney gave a powerful performance as the brash, arrogant, and cruel vaudeville comedian Sammy Hogarth. The actor netted an Emmy Award nomination for his performance and the production earned Rod Serling a third Emmy Award for his outstanding adaptation of Lehman’s novelette from the January, 1952 issue of Cosmopolitan. The television production was such a success that Signet Books released that same year a paperback collection of Lehman’s works titled The Comedian and Other Stories.

Working together on “The Comedian” resulted in a close personal friendship between Rod Serling and Mickey Rooney, but the chance to work again with Serling was not the only draw for Rooney to The Twilight Zone. There was also the opportunity to reunite with producer William “Bill” Froug (1922-2013), recently hired as series producer on The Twilight Zone.

On November 17, 1958, Alcoa Goodyear Theater presented the aforementioned “Eddie,” in which Rooney portrayed a small-time hoodlum who has one night to raise $900 to pay his debts or else face a beating or worse. “Eddie” was a one-man showcase for Rooney, not dissimilar to “The Last Night of a Jockey,” and Rooney delivered what is essentially a monologue on a telephone as the eponymous character attempts to raise money to avoid the consequences of his debts. William Froug was a producer on the series who worked closely with the scriptwriters and the performers. He received the script, originally titled “Sammy,” and, after retitling it and cleansing the script of anti-Semitic elements, immediately thought of Rooney as perfect for the role, certain that Rooney would win an Emmy for his performance. As fate would have it, everyone involved in the production of “Eddie” won an Emmy except Mickey Rooney, who received a nomination but lost to Fred Astaire. Froug won an Emmy for producing, as did Jack Smight for directing, and Alfred Brenner and Ken Hughes for writing.

Froug told the story of his encounter with Rooney at the Emmy Awards ceremony that year. As Froug told it, Rooney was in full Grady mode, drunk in the men’s restroom and pounding on the mirror above the sink in anger at having lost to Fred Astaire. Also losing to Astaire that year was Rod Steiger for Rod Serling’s controversial Playhouse 90 production, “A Town Has Turned to Dust,” which Serling later reworked for the second season Twilight Zone episode, “Dust.” “A Town Has Turned to Dust” also featured future Twilight Zone performers William Shatner and James Gregory, as well as Fay Spain, who later worked with Serling and Rooney on an episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. More on that in a moment.

William Froug initially announced to the press that Mickey Rooney was being brought in to direct an episode of The Twilight Zone, one possibly featuring Rooney’s frequent costar Judy Garland. Rooney made his directorial debut in 1951 with My True Story for Columbia Pictures. He would not get the chance to direct an episode of The Twilight Zone however, nor would Judy Garland appear on the series. Rooney was instead given the star treatment with a tailor-made script by Rod Serling and as individual a showcase as the series could offer. “The Last Night of a Jockey” was the first aired of the episodes produced on the series by William Froug.

William Froug, who is likely best remembered today as a producer on Bewitched and Gilligan’s Island, as well as the author of several books on screenwriting, was brought in as producer on the series after the unexpected departure of producer Bert Granet after only thirteen episodes of the fifth season. Granet left the series for a larger CBS paycheck to rescue a floundering John Houseman series at the network. Froug was a talented producer and writer with a long and successful career in both radio and television who was, by most accounts, a highly likeable man who nevertheless did not seem the best fit for the series.

Froug made decisions which contributed to a downturn in the quality of content during the fifth season, none so consequential as jettisoning several scripts from the show’s regular writers in favor of new writers and new scripts, many of which proved well below the show’s creative standards. Among the scripts sold to Bert Granet to later get the axe from Froug were works by regular Twilight Zone writers Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and Jerry Sohl, as well as a script from veteran radio writer Arch Oboler of the influential Lights Out radio series. Matheson’s script, “The Doll,” was removed from the production schedule due to its nominal similarity to the now-classic episode “Living Doll,” written by Jerry Sohl under the name of Charles Beaumont. Matheson’s script was later printed in the June, 1982 issue of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, which may have led to it being produced in 1986 for the first season of Steven Spielberg’s Twilight Zone inspired television series Amazing Stories. The star of the episode, John Lithgow, won an Emmy Award for his performance. Jerry Sohl saw two of his scripts cancelled, “Who Am I?” and “Pattern for Doomsday,” both of which were included in Filet of Sohl: The Classic Scripts and Stories of Jerry Sohl, edited by Christopher Conlon and published by BearManor Media in 2003. Charles Beaumont’s unproduced script, “Gentlemen, Be Seated,” based on his story from the April, 1960 issue of Rogue, later appeared in The Twilight Zone Scripts of Charles Beaumont, Volume 1, edited by Roger Anker and published by Gauntlet Press in 2004.  

Froug even saw one of his own scripts, “Many, Many Monkeys,” rejected on the series, likely due to the gruesome nature of the story, which included layers of tissue growing over the eyes of afflicted people, blinding them. The script was later produced for the third season of the first Twilight Zone revival series in 1989.

Rod Serling and Mickey Rooney teamed again in 1972 for “Rare Objects,” a darkly comedic and entertaining offering on the third and final season of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. Written by Serling and directed by Jeannot Szwarc, “Rare Objects” tells the story of August “Augie” Kolodney, a gangster who comes increasing close to death with each passing attempt on his life by rival gangsters. Augie is also losing the trust of his closest companions, including a girlfriend played by the aforementioned Fay Spain. A backstreet doctor treating a bullet wound from the latest attempt on Augie’s life suggests to the gangster that he contact the mysterious Dr. Glendon, who can offer Augie a way out of his dangerous life.

Dr. Glendon, played by Raymond Massey, proves to be a wealthy and eccentric collector of unique and priceless items who also collects unique people and wishes to add Augie to his collection. Glendon is attracted to Augie since Augie is at the top of his profession, even if that profession is racketeering.

After drugging Augie’s wine, with a drug whose properties also extend Augie’s lifespan, Dr. Glendon leads Augie to a hidden wing of his large and secluded house which contains a row of lavish prison cells. Here, Dr. Glendon displays his collection of unique people, all of whom are thought lost or dead, and all of whom Dr. Glendon has kept alive and imprisoned for many years beyond their natural lifespans. These unique people include Princess Anastasia, Judge Joseph Crater, polar explorer Roald Amundsen, Amelia Earhart, and the prize of Dr. Glendon’s collection, Adolf Hitler, whom Dr. Glendon acquired at enormous costs in South America. 

Rooney as Augie Kolodney, imprisoned

Dr. Glendon, with the help of his trusted manservant Joseph, then places the drugged and weakened Augie into his own private cell to live for a very long time as a unique addition to the doctor’s collection. This is the fulfillment of Glendon’s promise to remove Augie from his dangerous life to live in secluded comfort behind a locked door.

Rod Serling adapted his script to prose as “Collector’s Items,” the original title of the teleplay, for Night Gallery 2 from Bantam Books (1972). Serling’s prose adaptations are always a treat since he typically expands on character and incident in interesting ways. “Collector’s Items” includes interesting variations concerning the unique people imprisoned by Dr. Glendon. For the story, Serling removes Princess Anastasia and Roald Amundsen and adds the infamous fugitive Nazi Martin Bormann as well as Michael Rockefeller.

“The Last Night of a Jockey” never reaches the heights of the best episodes of the series but remains a fascinating single-character portrait with some of Rod Serling’s best writing of the fifth season and an energetic and unforgettable performance by Mickey Rooney. Aided by clever and effective production design and special effects, the episode remains a largely satisfying entry in the uneven fifth season. For those interested, I previously wrote about “The Last Night of a Jockey” (along with several other episodes) in my post on The Twilight Zone’s connections to film noir and in another post on the integral part a telephone plays in many episodes. Thanks for reading!

Grade: B

Next Month: A in-depth look at the September/October, 1983 issue of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine, a special issue: Twilight Zone: The Movie. 

Grateful Acknowledgements:

-The Twilight Zone Companion (3rd ed.) by Marc Scott Zicree (Silman-James, 2018)

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

 -Inside The Twilight Zone by Marc Scott Zicree (CBS DVD/Image Entertainment, 1999)

 -A Critical History of Television’s The Twilight Zone, 1959-1964 by Don Presnell and Marty McGee (McFarland & Co., 1998)

-Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour by Scott Skelton and Jim Benson (Syracuse University Press, 1999)

 -Night Gallery 2 by Rod Serling (Bantam Pathfinder, 1972)

 -William Froug Interview (Part 1 of 2) (Archive of American Television (emmytvlegends.org))

 -The Internet Speculative Fiction Database (isfdb.org)

 -The Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) 

Notes: 

 --Joseph M. Newman also directed the fifth season episodes “In Praise of Pip,” “Black Leather Jackets,” and “The Bewitchin’ Pool.”

 --Mickey Rooney also appeared on the Playhouse 90 production of “The Comedian,” written by Rod Serling from the story by Ernest Lehman, broadcast on February 14, 1957. Rooney was also in the third season episode of Night Gallery titled “Rare Objects,” written by Rod Serling and directed by Jeannot Szwarc. Serling adapted his teleplay, as “Collector’s Items,” for Night Gallery 2 (Bantam Pathfinder, 1972).

--“The Last Night of a Jockey” was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Bruno Kirby.

 --Rod Serling’s teleplay for “The Last Night of a Jockey” was included in the tenth and final volume of As Timeless as Infinity: The Complete Twilight Zone Scripts of Rod Serling, edited by Tony Albarella (Gauntlet Press, 2012).

 --Although Grady’s first name is never spoken in the episode, it can be seen to be Michael on the decorative plaque in which his alter-ego appears.

 --In the first season episode “Walking Distance,” Martin Sloan (Gig Young) can be heard naming off the families who occupy the houses which line his childhood street, one of whom is named Rooney, a nod by Serling to his good friend.

 --In 1964, as The Twilight Zone was ending, Rod Serling began work on a new anthology series with the ABC network tentatively titled Witches, Warlocks and Werewolves. The project ultimately fell through as Serling and an ABC executive did not see eye-to-eye on the content of the series. The replacement series which ABC ordered was the short-lived sitcom Mickey, starring Mickey Rooney. Rod Serling’s Triple W: Witches, Warlocks and Werewolves was the title of a paperback anthology ghost-edited by science fiction writer Gordon R. Dickson and published by Bantam Books in 1963.

 -JP 

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