Earl Hamner, Jr. may have moved on to become King of the (Walton) Mountain, but his contributions to one of the most influential television series of all time are occasionally lost in the Twilight Zone.
by Tony Albarella (copyright 2000)
Reprinted by permission of the author. Earl Hamner: The Forgotten Twilight Zone Writer originally appeared in: FILMFAX magazine, December 2000 – January 2001.
Earl Hamner, Jr. may have moved on to become King of the (Walton) Mountain, but his contributions to one of the most influential television series of all time are occasionally lost in the Twilight Zone.
Ask the casual science fiction and fantasy fan to name the most prolific Twilight Zone writers, those that have made multiple contributions to the original show. You’ll hear of Rod Serling, certainly, and the names Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont are sure to pop up simultaneously. George Clayton Johnson will come to mind without too much hesitation. No, Ray Bradbury only wrote one episode so he cannot be included.
Beyond that the names may only come from hardcore Twilight Zone fans or dedicated trivia buffs, and the above list would be incomplete. Yes, there are other lesser-known writers with multiple Twilight Zone scripts to their credit, but one in particular is at the same time both famous and oft-overlooked. To paraphrase Mr. Serling, “There is a fifth dramatist, beyond that which is known to man.”
Earl Hamner, Jr. wrote eight episodes of the seminal series. That places him fourth in terms of production behind Serling, Beaumont and Matheson, respectively. His name, however, is rarely associated with The Twilight Zone. Perhaps Mr. Hamner’s earlier work is overshadowed by his success as writer, creator and narrator of “The Waltons”, arguably the best-loved family series in television history. Maybe it’s the fact that he gained fame in a different genre that stifles Hamner’s recognition in the science fiction/fantasy field.
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that Hamner wrote his share of gems for the series. Examples include “Jess-Belle,” a timeless tale of love and witchcraft, “You Drive,” a possessed automobile story that easily predates Steven King’s “Christine,” and the pre-X-Files alien abduction classic “Stopover in a Quiet Town.”
Earl Hamner Jr. was born in Schuyler, Virginia in 1923. His writing career began at the tender age of six with a poem published in the local newspaper. Hamner’s novels include “Fifty Roads to Town”, “You Can’t Get There From Here” and the best seller, “Spencer’s Mountain”, which was made into a film starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara.
Hamner broke into television writing on “The Twilight Zone” and “CBS Playhouse”. Film credits followed, such as “Where the Lillies Bloom”, “Palm Springs Weekend” and “Charlotte’s Web”.
In 1970, Earl wrote a television special based on his novel, “The Homecoming”. The success of that special lead to the production of “The Waltons”, which ran for eight seasons on CBS and for another year on NBC. Ever active during this period, Earl wrote and produced the television series “Apple’s Way”, “Thorpe”, “Boone”, “The Young Pioneers”, “The Long Hot Summer” and “Morning Star-Evening Star”. He went on to create another successful and long-lived television series in “Falcon Crest”, which ran on CBS for eight seasons.
Hamner’s work has been awarded an Emmy as well as the Peabody Award for Distinguished Journalism. He currently lives in California with his wife, Jane. The couple has raised two children. Scott Hamner is a writer and his sister, Caroline, is a family therapist.
I recently spoke with Mr. Hamner about writing, Rod Serling and life in The Twilight Zone.
TA: What was it like writing for live TV during the “Golden Age of Television?”
HAMNER: Writing for TV during the “Golden Age” was a challenge. There were no rules so the medium had to be invented as we went along. There was a perception that television drama could simply be a televised stage play but dramatists quickly discovered that the medium was far more up-close and intimate. Some of the early productions were crude and clumsily produced but a cadre of talented writers and directors emerged who pioneered the medium into a short lived period called the “Golden Age”, when television was live and exciting as it has seldom been since.
TA: In 1949 both you and Rod Serling were winners in a Dr. Christian radio writing contest. Did that early meeting with Serling lead to your contributions to The Twilight Zone?
HAMNER: Yes. In the late 1940’s there was a show, which billed itself as “the only show on radio where the audience writes the scripts.” That was literally the truth because the Dr. Christian show invited script submissions from listeners and awarded prizes for those scripts they accepted. I won one of these prizes and was invited by Dorothy McCann of the advertising agency to New York to accept the check. It was there that I met Rod Serling and his wife, Carol, for the first time when we were presented with our prizes on the show by actor Jean Hersholt.
Rod and I were both students at the same time and it was not until I moved to Hollywood in 1962 that we were to see each other again. My first impression of Rod was of a young man in a hurry. He almost levitated in his drive to get going and while he was not a tall man he willed himself to height and to an intense presence. He presented a somewhat “tough guy” image of himself, accenting his experiences as a paratrooper and a prizefighter.
Some years later our paths did cross again. I had been working as a radio writer at Radio Station WLW in Cincinnati, Ohio. I resigned from the job to devote full time to writing my novel “Spencer’s Mountain.” Rod by then had graduated from college and he took the job I had vacated. Years later when he introduced me to friends in Hollywood he would say, “I want you to meet the man who gave me my first job.”
TA: Prior to your Twilight Zone work, did your resume contain any science fiction or fantasy writing credits?
HAMNER: No, none. However I was a great admirer of the work of Ray Bradbury who must be considered along with Edgar Allen Poe as one of the greatest American fantasy writers of all time.
TA: Of the eight scripts written by you for The Twilight Zone, which ones were your favorites?
HAMNER: I can’t say that I have any special favorite of the scripts I wrote for The Twilight Zone. I do feel that one or two of them stand out for one reason or another. I thought that “Stopover in a Quiet Town” had some interesting effects and a nice surprise ending when you learn that the couple has become pets on some alien planet. I liked “The Bewitchin’ Pool” because I thought it made a valid comment in an original way about the effects of divorce on children. And the first one I wrote, “The Hunt,” has some elements that I am still proud of, most notably the summation, “A man will walk into Hell with both eyes open, but even the Devil can’t fool a dog.” It struck a certain folkish note in the manner of early American humorists I have always admired. I was grateful to Rod and to Producer Buck Houghton for accepting such an unlikely story for The Twilight Zone.
TA: And that was your first television credit.
HAMNER: Yes, that first assignment on Rod’s show came at an important period in my life. When most television production in New York had moved to Los Angeles, I reluctantly moved west too. My agent was a fine man named Ben Benjamin and Ben sent me around to see a number of people. And I ran into a roadblock. I had never written film! I was reminded of that over and over by producers who seem to feel that you could only write film if you have breathed in the knack with the smog and my lungs had not been in Los Angeles long enough for me to qualify.
Finally I remembered my earlier meeting with Rod and sent him two suggested story lines. I received a note from him thanking me and saying that the stories were chosen by a committee and that he had submitted them to the group. I thought it was at least courteous of him to acknowledge the stories and did not expect to hear anything more from them.
I was surprised a week or so later to receive a call from Buck Houghton saying they liked both stories, wanted to buy them, but that they had heard I did not write film. “Would I like to write them up like little plays?” I thanked Buck and told him I would write them up like little films, which I did. Armed with those two film credits I no longer had to fight producers to convince them that I was a film writer. To this day I owe Rod a debt of gratitude for opening that door.
After that initial assignment, when I would deliver a script to Rod, he would ask, “What would you like to do next?” And I would suggest a story line or two, he would encourage me to write one or the other, and I would go home and write it.
TA: Do you have any anecdotes from the filming of the series?
HAMNER: I was not often on the set where the show was filmed but I have one production story that amused me. In “Jess-Belle” I had written in a cougar. Turning into such a “wild cat” was the price Jess-Belle had to pay for Billy-Ben’s love. Cougars are indigenous to the area I was writing about and I thought it would have been easy to find such a trained animal. However, Herb Hirshman, who was producing at the time, called to say that he had auditioned several cougars and that they were all bad tempered and unreliable. What would I think of a black leopard? They had one that was docile and well trained. I thought it was a fine idea. After all, it was The Twilight Zone and the idea of a black leopard in the hills of Virginia was innovative, dramatic and shockingly right.
TA: Your tenure on The Twilight Zone saw the departure of Producer Buck Houghton and the transition of several other producers. How was your working relationship with the producers, cast and crew?
HAMNER: Each of Rod’s producers was extremely capable and talented people and I enjoyed a good rapport with each one I worked with, which included Bill Froug and Bert Granet. Buck Houghton and I remained friends until his death last year. Many years later I hired Herb Hirshman to direct some episodes of my series “Falcon Crest”.
TA: Your involvement came in the latter stages of the series’ five season run. This is a period in which Rod Serling’s creative energies were supposedly running dry. Certainly his battles on the network and sponsor fronts were taking a toll on him and his participation in the series waned. Do you feel that the final season of The Twilight Zone lacked a bit of Serling’s creative stamp.
HAMNER: I don’t really remember the entire final season well enough to make any kind of judgement about whether it lacked Rod’s creative stamp or not.
TA: Did you produce any scripts or story ideas for the original series that went unproduced?
HAMNER: I do not recall any story ideas I presented that were not produced. As time has gone by I have thought of many, many stories I would have liked to have done, but there is no market for this type of story today. Some years ago there was a revival of The Twilight Zone at CBS.
TA: It was made in the mid-eighties. It didn’t perform to the level of the original series.
HAMNER: Yes. I ran into one of the young editors on the show who had been a trainee on The Waltons and I said, “I know a nice old guy who would love to write an episode for you.” Rocky said, “I’ll speak to my boss.” A few days later he called and apologized and said, “I’m embarrassed to say this, but they don’t want any of the old writers on the new show.” I was sorry to be rejected, but in view of the lackluster revival they could have used some of us “old hands.”
TA: Maybe you should consider yourself lucky. They did film one new script by a Twilight Zone veteran, Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button.” Matheson felt the production was botched and far from his original intent, so much so that he had his name removed from the credits!
HAMNER: It was terribly obvious that they had no concept of what constituted a Twilight Zone story.
TA: Several of your Twilight Zone scripts contain characters cut from the “folksy” and “homespun” mold which would become your trademark as a writer. Was The Twilight Zone a proving ground for characters that you later developed for The Waltons?
HAMNER: It is true that several of my episodes had a folkish or homespun flavor. I was raised on folk songs and folk stories and I suppose it was inevitable that this kind of material work its way into my writing. Several times I was able to use folk material in my Twilight Zone episodes and I thought it courageous of Rod to accept this “off beat” kind of story telling. Looking back I realize that if I made any unique contribution to the series it was to introduce an American folklore element to it.
TA: Certainly, which perfectly counterbalanced the work of the other Twilight Zone writers. The story formula of a Twilight Zone is unique in that characters are often ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Did this style of writing come naturally to you or did you have to adapt to it?
HAMNER: I have always had a vivid imagination and I suspect that helped me in telling these kind of stories. I suppose most writers look at even the most ordinary situations and imagine “what if?”
TA: Many Twilight Zone episodes can be described as “morality plays” – entertainment with a message in the tradition of classic story telling. Do you feel it important to convey that sense of “right and wrong” in the construction of your stories?
HAMNER: Quite honestly I have never consciously set out to convey a message in a single piece of writing. After The Waltons had been on for a while someone complimented me on “the lessons I had taught” in the series. I was surprised because teaching lessons had been the furthest thing from my mind. In The Waltons, at least I was dealing with people of strong religious and moral convictions and it was only natural that they would solve their problems according to those beliefs.
TA: Rod Serling had a reputation for his ability to pick his talent and then inspire them to do their best work without interference. Were any major changes or revisions made to your scripts?
HAMNER: I do not recall any major changes being made by production personnel in any of my scripts. Once in a while Rod would modify the opening or closing I had written for him but he kept the sense of what I had written. I understood the need for this when I later did The Waltons. I did the opening and closing narrations on that show and writers would make a stab at writing my narration, but most of the time I had to adapt it to my individual delivery and style.
TA: Speaking of narrations, the commentary for The Waltons was voiced off-screen. Rod achieved a high degree of fame as a television writer early in his career, but it was his on-screen narration in The Twilight Zone that vaulted Serling to the status of cultural icon. Did you ever find yourself publicly recognized for your voice-over work on The Waltons?
HAMNER: Since I was rarely on camera I did not achieve the same degree of fame for my narration on The Waltons as Rod did on The Twilight Zone. However I have had people recognize me from my voice. It happens more often than not in England where the series is still very popular even today.
TA: Was it your choice to perform the narration?
HAMNER: I became the narrator in an odd way. When we were producing “The Homecoming,” a special that was the forerunner of the series, we auditioned just about every professional narrator in town. Finally, Fielder Cook, the director, said “We need somebody who sounds as homespun as Earl.” He thrust a microphone in front of my face, told me to read the copy. It was a particularly moving segment about my feelings for my family and I felt very deeply about what I was reading. When I looked over at Fielder I could see that he was moved and that I had the job!
TA: And a star is born! Earl, as writer and creator of The Waltons you were often present on the set and involved in the filming. Did this occur during any of your other television work?
HAMNER: This does not happen often to writers and that is deplorable and cuts off a voice that could be meaningful and enriching to a production. The only time this has happened to me, other than on The Waltons, was when we were filming “The Homecoming.” To my astonishment and joy it was not unusual of Director Fielder Cook to call me over and have me look at the shot he was just about to take and ask me if that was how I envisioned it. Fielder is such a consummate director that I seldom had anything to add except admiration. Still, it was courteous and professional and gentlemanly to a degree I have seldom encountered in this industry.
TA: It’s no secret that writing is a consuming profession. There are constant deadlines to meet and frequent demands placed upon your time. That has to be tough on everyone around you at certain times.
HAMNER: It is, beyond a doubt. To be “the writer’s wife” is a thankless job, especially for the “little woman” who sits in the shadows while her prominent husband is stroked, caressed and endlessly rewarded for his work. As Rod himself once said, “My God, how we honor each other!”
Recently I saw a television documentary on Rod’s career and it featured fairly familiar reminiscences about the man and the writer. What I found disturbing were the revelations the producers of the program chose to make about Rod the husband. This so-called documentary used an inordinate amount of its footage to demean Carol Serling. If Carol found the reward dinners, the puffery, and the shallowness of the industry not to her liking, it was her choice and it was her business.
TA: I’m familiar with the show you are referring to. It was produced by a cable network infamous for pandering to the cravings of the gossip crowd. The crew even filmed interviews with Rod’s friends and family, only to twist the responses in editing to achieve the maximum negative slant.
HAMNER: If Rod had seen that documentary on his life I am sure that he would have been deeply offended by the leering and negative way in which his wife was portrayed. She deserved more respect.
TA: That only proves the old adage that you can’t believe everything you see on TV.
HAMNER: How true.
TA: “Jess-Belle” is generally considered your finest work on The Twilight Zone and a highlight of the hour-long fourth season. Yet you wrote the entire script in under a week, one act per day. Was it common for you to write with this kind of speed?
HAMNER: That came about when Herb Hirshman called to ask if I had any hour-long unsold scripts that could be quickly adapted, that he needed such a script in a week.
I told him I didn’t have one but I would write one for him, did he have any special requirements? He said, “You seem to go for that down home stuff. Have you got any ideas?” I called him back the next day with the general idea for “Jess-Belle.” He gave me the go-ahead and I wrote an act a day, including the “folk” song that introduces each act. It is risky to make such a promise and I suspect I pulled it off because I was very much at home in the milieu, knew the very special way the people talked and how they might behave in the situations they faced.
TA: He certainly must have been impressed. Your latest book, “The Avocado Drive Zoo,” lovingly details the adventures of your family’s adoption of a large and varied menagerie of animals. A respect for nature and a love of animals seems to be a running theme in all of your work. The Twilight Zone episode “The Hunt” features a beloved family dog that leads his master from the brink of Hell to the gates of Heaven. Is it a conscious decision on your part to include your passions in your work, or do they simply flow into your stories as an extension of your personality?
HAMNER: It is a conscious decision on my part to write about what I feel passion for. One of the best rules a writer can follow is to write what you have passionate feelings for. For if you have no passion for the subject the piece will be flat and lifeless.
TA: The plot of “The Hunt” is woven around the basic premise of a main character going about his business while completely oblivious to the fact that he is dead. This general theme has had many incarnations over the years, from the writing of Ambrose Bierce to Lucille Fletcher’s radio play “The Hitch-Hiker” and on to Serling’s Twilight Zone version of the same. Further examples range from the 1962 cult film “Carnival of Souls” to last year’s sleeper blockbuster “The Sixth Sense.” Do you feel that well written speculative fiction has a certain timeless quality, hence the occasional resurgence of this type of story?
HAMNER: As you state, some themes are universal in literature and have been used by any number of writers past and present. I think this particular theme is used over and over because it gives writers an opportunity to play the ultimate “what if” game. It also has to do with life and death options and those are always interesting to play with, and it also offers the ultimate “twist” ending to a story when the character learns that he is dead!
TA: While on the subject of “The Hunt”, it should be stated that writer George Clayton Johnson considers that episode to be one of the best of the entire series.
HAMNER: My thanks to George Clayton Johnson for considering “The Hunt” to be worthy of praise. George has been a loyal supporter of my work and he even went so far as to call me with an idea for a television series using my knowledge of and enthusiasm for folk material. Thank you for the opportunity to thank him in print. As E.B. White said in “Charlotte’s Web,” “It is rare for a person to be a good writer and a good friend.” George is both.
TA: In “The Bewitchin’ Pool,” country living is depicted as tranquil and idyllic whereas city life is hectic, unrewarding and destructive to the family unit. Was this script an embodiment of the observations you made while during the transition from Virginia and Ohio to New York and Hollywood?
HAMNER: I admit that this is true and must lay the blame on some awful provincial thinking on my part. I am from a people who lived and died with the land and along with an appreciation of country life I somehow gained a prejudice against city life. Yet, I have lived most of my life in cities and have visited and loved many of the great cities of the world.
TA: An automobile that comes to life to torment its owner could easily be viewed as the protagonist of any tale. Yet, in “You Drive,” the opposite becomes apparent. The possessed car shows greater compassion and a more refined sense of ethics than does its owner, a man who has run down a local boy and framed a co-worker for the deed. Do you recall the inspiration or genesis of this episode?
HAMNER: I believe the genesis of this story came from reading about a child who had been killed by a hit-and-run driver. I guess it was an expression of my anger and a way for me, in fantasy, to bring the guilty party to justice.
TA: Interestingly enough that’s the same motivation that Rod used in many of his scripts, particularly in dealing with Nazis or bigots. A number of your Twilight Zone characters possess traits far different than the surface image they initially project. “Jess-Belle” is a witch and the “heavy” of the piece, but not by choice; her downfall is caused by love and the tragic implications of obsession. “A Piano in the House” reveals secret ambitions and desires that display the flip side of the personalities involved. In “Ring-A-Ding Girl,” a seemingly selfish and self absorbed film star plans a hometown gathering that appears to be little more than an ego boost. The assembly proves to be an event that saved the entire town at the expense of the actresses’ own life. Do you actively strive to create characters that defy stereotypes as well as expectations?
|Maggie McNamara in Ring-A-Ding Girl|
HAMNER: It’s true, some of my characters seem to have contradictory character traits. “Jess-Belle” is a witch, but she is also possessed by love. The “Ring-A-Ding Girl” seems selfish, yet she gives her life to save many of her friends and neighbors. I guess I am interested in characters who have many facets to their personalities just as in life people seem to be more interesting the richer their life experiences are.
TA: Earl, E.B. White personally selected you to write the film adaptation of his beloved children’s fantasy classic, “Charlotte’s Web.” Do you find it a particular challenge to adapt another writer’s work?
HAMNER: I have adapted several works by other writers. I am always guided by the oath that doctors take, “First, do no harm.” And it is important to me to keep the integrity of the original writer.
TA: After The Waltons you created another highly successful series, Falcon Crest. This saga of a rich and callous family is a striking change of pace when compared to your previously gentle family fare. Was the desire to do something different after nine years of The Waltons a motivating factor in writing Falcon Crest?
HAMNER: Falcon Crest may seem a startling change of pace from The Waltons, but in many ways the Giobertti family of Falcon Crest were The Waltons of today. The matriarch of the family, played by Jane Wyman, was proud of her family and while she often was underhanded in doing so she did everything she could to nurture the rituals, history and customs of her family. She was proud of her land, valued the continuity of it and I suspect would have gone to any lengths to protect it. Come to think of it that would make a good episode!
TA: Ah, a writer’s mind never sleeps! Over the ensuing years, Earl, you have not been instantaneously associated with The Twilight Zone, at least not to the degree of some of the show’s other writers. Perhaps the reason is the powerful link between your name and The Waltons in popular culture. Do you have any theories on this?
HAMNER: I think there is an easy explanation. In this dreadful town writers, directors, and actors are all pigeonholed, stereotyped and categorized. Since my first writing credits were on The Twilight Zone I became known as a “fantasy”-type writer.
TA: But you broke out of that mold…
HAMNER: Yes, for a while I was a “Twilight Zone” writer, but my career took a different turn and I started writing more homespun, family oriented entertainment. I also became that dreaded thing – a “soft writer!” Most of those writers frequently mentioned as having contributed to The Twilight Zone remained in the field of fantasy fiction and kept their identity as Twilight Zone writers while I shed that category for another kind of writing.
TA: In recent years both Richard Matheson and George Clayton Johnson have published compilations of their respective Twilight Zone scripts. Does the future hold any promise of a similar work by Earl Hamner, Jr.?
HAMNER: You know, the idea had not occurred to me until you mentioned it. However Cumberland House, which published “The Avocado Drive Zoo,” is publishing five of my scripts which I consider classics. I have selected them from the CBS Playhouse, a pilot script, an adaptation, one children’s show, and “Jess-Belle” from The Twilight Zone.
TA: That’s certainly good news and something to look forward to. Earl, The Twilight Zone debuted more than 40 years ago. Are you at all surprised by the ongoing interest in the series after all these years?
HAMNER: I am not surprised by the ongoing interest after all this time because the series falls in the “classic” category – which in my mind can be defined as a work that has a universal message and is written with style and has a literary sensibility.