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Sunday, October 3, 1999

Twilight Zone, First Person
Warm Memories of TV's Chilling Tales
By JOEL GREENBERG, Times Science/medicine Editor


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At a time when most boys my age were ogling Ann-Margret, my favorite actress was Ida Lupino. In today's world this would be the equivalent of a 12-year-old boy idolizing Glenn Close rather than Sarah Michelle Gellar (a.k.a. Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
    I admit it was weird, but weird is the operative word here. Ida Lupino and her actor-husband, Howard Duff (whom I liked as well), were staples on the TV science-fiction/mystery circuit, notably "The Twilight Zone."
     Duff was the anti-hero star of one of the most memorable "Zone" shows in 1960. Titled "A World of Difference," the episode in many ways captures the magic of Rod Serling. The chain-smoking Serling wasn't big on monsters or violence; instead, it was his way of mentally mutilating one's safe, serene world that drove the viewer into a state of thoughtful terror.
     Sitting serenely at his desk, Duff is ecstatic after his secretary delivers his plane tickets for an upcoming vacation. He tells the secretary happily that he is leaving work early so he and his (apparently perfect) wife can pack their bags.
     Suddenly a disembodied voice yells, "Cut," shattering Duff's ideal world. The voice belongs to a director, who scolds Duff for forgetting his lines. Duff soon realizes that his life is literally a movie; the only problem is he has no recollection of any other life. That single word "Cut," delivered at that precise moment, is vintage Serling. It sends chills up the spine, forcing us to contemplate a "what if" that probably never crossed our minds. What if our reality is not reality at all?
     Another bone-chilling moment comes in the "Mirror Image" episode, also in 1960, in which mild-mannered Martin Milner encounters a malicious version of himself in a bus station. That scene is still one of the most graphic, Kafka-esque depictions of confronting one's darker side that's ever been on television.
     No special effects. Simply Serling's mind turned loose on an unsuspecting public.
     With "The Twilight Zone" relegated to the Sci-Fi Channel, which my cable company does not offer (are you listening, Charter!!?), I have tried to pass on the spirit of the show to my daughter and son through bedtime stories.
     The problem is I'm not the storyteller Serling was (maybe it's the lack of the constant cigarette), and lately I've taken to falling asleep during my own stories--never a good sign. As they move toward adolescence, I fear my children are growing bored with my efforts and are becoming too, well, normal (they like Buffy, not Glenn).
     I think I'll try to recapture some sense of Serling tonight by retelling the Howard Duff tale to my 11-year-old son (my 13-year-old daughter has already replaced most of my storytelling efforts with a telephone). In the episode, Duff ends up racing back to the movie set before the crew dismantles it, and vanishes, presumably becoming the happily married character in the script.
     But before I finish, I half expect my son to yell, "Cut."

Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved

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