Tony Albarella reminisces about Twilight Zone alumni who died in 2010-11…
For a person who writes extensively about The Twilight Zone and Rod Serling’s early career, losing friends and contacts made along the way is sort of an occupational hazard. After all, Serling began his television career in the early Fifties, and The Twilight Zone, which debuted at the tail end of the Golden Age of Television, recently celebrated its golden anniversary. The math is inescapable; many of the people who made important contributions to The Twilight Zone were in their thirties and forties at the time, and the show itself is currently celebrating its fifth decade.
I’ve been fortunate enough, in the last ten to fifteen years, to “talk TZ” with over one hundred actors, writers, producers, and directors who contributed to the original Twilight Zone series. Most were simply kind folks who responded to my letters, emails, and phone calls, and took the time to reminisce for me, to share their anecdotes and opinions. I enjoyed an interview or two with them and had conversations that were productive to my writing projects and exciting to me on a personal level.
After all, I grew up watching the work of these artists in television and film, hearing their voices, observing their mannerisms; to interact in person with them, after all those years of vicarious exposure to the characters they brought to life, was always a surreal experience. I couldn’t possibly capture in words the thrill of meeting Cliff Robertson for a chat at the 21 Club in New York, or watching Jack Klugman perform a stage play and then visiting him in his hotel room for an extended conversation, or discussing writing technique with Richard Matheson, or picking up the phone to hear Carol Burnett…asking to speak to me. These are stars and cultural icons; for them to even acknowledge my existence was remarkable enough. To find out that they are warm, personable, regular people was nothing short of astonishing.
It is, however, a different kind of experience I wish to comment on today, a different kind of relationship than the standard interview opportunity. Sometimes – when the stars are properly aligned, I suppose – I really hit it off with an interview subject, and the association blossoms into extended contact. I hesitate to call this true friendship; with few exceptions (one being Earl Hamner, who has all but adopted me and my family as an extension of his own) I rarely get to know someone on a truly personal level. But some level of informal rapport is formed, and these recurrent contacts become almost like distant uncles and aunts, always ready to be called upon to share their wisdom, relate their stories, or just shoot the breeze.
The loss of these fine folks is something I’ve learned to expect and grudgingly accept over the years. My “little black book” is rife with crossed-out addresses and disconnected telephone numbers; my email list is chock full of addresses that have either been disconnected or would simply broadcast messages out into the ether, never to be answered again. But the latter half of 2010 and the young year of 2011 have been distinctly brutal, and in the last four months alone, six people who have been particularly generous and helpful to me have passed away.
I won’t go into the minutia of their extensive careers (plenty of information about their contributions to television and film can easily be located, should you choose to investigate); instead, since I’ve been blessed with a brief glimpse at the people behind the famous faces and names, I hope I honor these artists by sharing with you what they so graciously shared with me: warm memories.
February 15, 1914 – September 11, 2010
A star since appearing in DEATH OF A SALESMAN in 1951 and an iconic figure in genre film from the moment he tried to foil the INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS in 1956, McCarthy was an accomplished star of stage and screen for over seventy years. I traded a pair of emails and some letters with Kevin in early 2001 and first met him in person at the 2002 “Stars of the Zone” Twilight Zone convention in Los Angeles.
I had previously asked him to participate in the actor panel I was hosting that afternoon and he enthusiastically accepted the invitation. When my wife and I went to his table to meet him and confirm his presence on the panel, he handed me a free signed and inscribed photo, already made out in advance. He later regaled the audience with details about the “Long Live Walter Jameson” shoot.
At the end of the very long day – Kevin was one of the first to show and the last to leave – I helped him pack his wares into his car. We continued to correspond, and a couple of years later my daughters also got a chance to meet Kevin when we caught up with him at a show he was attending in New Jersey. Kevin was kind enough to write an introduction and sign (again, free of charge) for Volume Six of the limited edition book series I edit, AS TIMELESS AS INFINITY: THE COMPLETE TWILIGHT ZONE SCRIPTS OF ROD SERLING.
I grew up watching McCarthy’s movies and television appearances, and have many distinct images of him to remember. But for some reason, the vision I most strongly recall when pondering Kevin’s passing is of him on that late, warm afternoon in 2002, waving goodbye to me and my wife as he drove off alone into the waning California sunshine.
September 30, 1922 – October 24, 2010
A winner of multiple Emmy awards, director Lamont Johnson was a latecomer to the Twilight Zone series. His debut – the third-season stunner “The Shelter” – came in late 1961, but his style meshed so well with Serling’s that Johnson went on to direct seven other Twilight Zone episodes before the series ran its course, including classics like “Nothing in the Dark,” “Kick the Can,” and “Five Characters in Search of an Exit.”
His last directorial effort was an episode of J.J. Abrams’s Felicity series that paid direct homage to “Five Characters in Search of an Exit.” An extended video interview with Johnson can be found at the website of the Archive for American Television, found online here:
Beyond a letter or two, a single telephone conversation represents the only interaction I had with Mr. Johnson. But what a conversation it was. Lamont gave me the detailed scoop on his Twilight Zone days and much, much more, frequently veering off into unrelated but enjoyably colorful anecdotes about his Hollywood experiences. This was a man who truly enjoyed television’s golden age and relished his participation in it. I’ll miss Lamont’s unbridled enthusiasm.
June 21, 1921 – November 15, 2010
Bill Self was a series-launcher, a man responsible for getting pilots made and shows up and running. Sometimes he raised the children he delivered, overseeing production for the entire run of a series. Other times he birthed them into the world then handed them off to able parents. His credits as a producer and production manager include shows like Twelve O’Clock High, Batman, The Green Hornet. Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Land of the Giants, Daniel Boone, Peyton Place, and, of course, The Twilight Zone.
Self knew the television landscape and was courageous enough to stand his ground defending his convictions. He was instrumental in getting Twilight Zone on the air when he turned down Serling’s initial pilot script (a dystopian piece about parental euthanasia titled “The Happy Place”), identifying it as a good teleplay but one that would have been too dark and depressing to sell a series. “I told him, ‘Rod, you’re going into a commercial venture,’” Self related. “‘You’ll be pitching for advertisers with this pilot, and I don’t think any advertiser will touch a show where you kill off a bunch of nice old people.’”
This forced Serling to come up with an alternate script that would introduce viewers (as well as conservative network execs and controversy-adverse sponsors) to The Twilight Zone without frightening them away from its outré concept. “Where is Everybody?” struck just the right balance.
Bill was as friendly to me as he was useful, sharing stories about Twilight Zone’s pilot, his input into the development of the series, his hiring of Producer Buck Houghton, and his insights into Serling’s character. He also came through for me when I was researching Serling’s sole continuing-character series, The Loner, a Western that followed in Twilight Zone’s wake. Bill provided essential background on an obscure program and was always available when I had a question or needed to confirm material obtained from other sources. He was a trustworthy and valuable resource.
December 2, 1914 – December 29, 2010
Active in television from 1948 to 2006, Bill Erwin was a familiar face in hundreds of television shows. A prolific character actor, Bill appeared in nearly every major television series of the Fifties and Sixties, including his three Twilight Zone roles (and a fourth, as Martin Sloan’s neighbor Mr. Wilcox in “Walking Distance,” which ended up on the cutting-room floor). In later years, he enjoyed a career resurgence playing grandfatherly types (a notable exception to which was his Emmy-nominated performance as the irascible Sid Fields in two episodes of Seinfeld).
Bill filled important niches in both classic television (as an actor who could reliably handle any sort of secondary role) and modern television (as a lovable or crotchety senior citizen). He was well-known for playing a kindly, befuddled old man, yet only the kindly adjective belonged to this sharp and witty raconteur in real life. Bill wrote, produced, and starred in a long-running, one-man stage show, Twisted Twain, and his resemblance to Mark Twain included both his visage and his love for a well-turned phrase. “There is a vast generational gap between my mind and my body,” Erwin often quipped. “My body has a long, white beard, but my mind hasn’t started shaving.”
Performance-wise, I’ll always remember Bill from SOMEWHERE IN TIME, the wonderfully-realized film version of Richard Matheson’s novel BID TIME RETURN. Personally, I’ll miss his quirky conversational style, and will always remember a surreal dinner experience from the second “Stars of the Zone” convention in 2004. My wife and I sat at a table between Bill and Kevin McCarthy, gloriously transfixed by their stories of the golden days, of the people and circumstances that formed the bygone era of Hollywood. We prepared and served them plates from the buffet; they thought we were simply being considerate to two older gentlemen, and we were, but our primary goal was to keep them fueled and present at the table so that the tales would continue to flow. Now both of them have left us.
September 16, 1930 – January 2, 2011
She starred in movies like BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, and FUNNY GIRL, graced the small screen from the Forties through the Nineties, struck a blow for woman in the Sixties as the sexy and formidable Honey West, and will forever be remembered for her role as Altaira in the 1956 classic FORBIDDEN PLANET. Behind the scenes, Anne Francis was an independent and deeply spiritual person, and, in 1970, became the first single woman in California to adopt a baby.
This loss is deeply felt, even by those of us whose lives Anne touched only in brief and peripheral ways. She was such a friendly, down-to-earth person and a real joy to chat with; Anne not only spoke about her own life and experiences when we talked, but also seemed genuinely interested in hearing updates about me and my family. She sat in on the 2002 “Stars of the Zone” actor panel, right next to her “Jess-Belle” co-star, James Best, and later that evening at the convention dinner, my wife and I had the privilege of being seated with Anne (and “Jess-Belle” writer Earl Hamner and his lovely wife, Jane). We were privy to a day of warm reunions and lively conversation.
That day, in fact, led to a series of occasional conversations that I shared with Anne, at times discussing her courageous and successful battle with lung cancer, which afflicted her in 2007. She had a profound sense of her place in the world and expressed it in the most eloquent of terms. Anne even sent us an annual Christmas card…with the exception of last year, and now we know why. Again she was busy battling in the closing rounds of a valiant fight, this time against the pancreatic cancer that took her life. Anne Francis was a beautiful person, inside and out. She’ll be making what is now, sadly, a posthumous introduction appearance in AS TIMELESS AS INFINITY, Volume Ten.
April 13, 1924 – January 8, 2011
Soft-spoken and friendly, Del served at various times as both president and vice-president of the Writers Guild of America, West, and was a veteran of the Golden Age of Television. In his capacity as story editor on Playhouse 90 and as associate producer on The Twilight Zone, Del worked closely with Rod Serling and was a treasure trove of valuable information and lively anecdotes. I found Del, who was active until his death with his beloved Writer’s Guild, to be one of the most sincere and personable folks I’ve ever run into.
I first interviewed Del over twelve years ago and he rapidly turned into a source I’d frequently tap. His easy manner and remarkable memory were invaluable in my research. Del readily and happily accepted, without appointment, my calls to his office, and we’d end up getting into extended conversations that strayed far from my reason for calling. He also graciously agreed to appear (alongside Director Ted Post) on a Twilight Zone Production panel I hosted at the 2004 “Stars of the Zone” convention.
Del’s first-rate knowledge of television history has been preserved in an interview for the Archive of American Television; I urge anyone interested in vintage television to watch the twelve-part video series at their leisure. Read it here.
Del’s unsung accomplishments in the industry led me to write a feature on him that was published as the cover article in a 2008 issue of FilmfaxPlus (ironically, the same issue also included an interview, written by another author, with Anne Francis). I hope the piece, available at the link below, in some small way repays Del for all he’s done for me.
I didn’t really earn the right to address these wonderful people as friends, but I’ll use the term of endearment this one time, because nothing else really seems appropriate: Thank you, friends, for the personal and communal memories, and rest in peace.