Rod Serling’s “Walking Distance” is as powerful today as it was in 1959. And to a certain extent, the story was autobiographical.
by Paul Mandell
“A man can think a lot of thoughts and walk a lot of pavements between afternoon and night. And to a man like Martin Sloan, to whom memory has suddenly become reality, a resolve can come just as clearly and inexorably as stars in the summer night. Martin Sloan is now back in time. And his resolve is to put in a claim. To the past.”
â€œThere’s nothing quite as good as summer and being a kid,” Martin Sloan smiled in the hot July sun of Homewood, USA. He hadn’t been back in twenty-five years. The calliope, the merry-go-round, the cotton candy the park. Bittersweet sounds, scents, images. Nothing quite as good, ever. And nothing had changed. This wasn’t just a Sunday drive for Martin Sloan. Perhaps he didn’t know it at the time, but it was an exodus. Somewhere up the road, he was looking for sanity And somewhere up the road, he found something else.
It’s been three decades [Ed: six, as of 2019] since he made that journey but the experience still tingles the flesh and waters the eye. This was “Walking Distance,â€ Episode Five of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. Originally aired on October 30, 1959, it was the most personal story Serling ever wrote, and easily the most sensitive dramatic fantasy in the history of television. The yearning to recapture one’s youth is an inescapable part of the human condition, and to discover, in the end, that the past is irrevocably behind you can be heartbreaking and sobering. With mesmerizing performances by Gig Young and Frank Overton, Serling played out this theme of ice cream and irony, of band concerts and broken dreams, and allowed us to take a better look at ourselves in the process. Devoid of the gimmickry that pervaded other episodes, “Walking Distance” stands alone in its simplicity and maturity. It captured the essence of Serling’s poignant pen. Moreover, it’s a fine example of how inventive cinematography and inspired direction could propel a half-hour teleplay forwardâ€”a rarity in the “golden days” of harried, grind-’em-out production schedules.
That the show was made at all is something of a miracle. Despite its brilliant creative forces, The Twilight Zone was a rough sell in 1959. In a medium already condemned by Newton Minnow as “a vast wasteland;” about the only stylish programs that year were the cool Peter Gunn, the offbeat Dobie Gillis, the dapper Have Gun Will Travel, and the gritty-noir The Untouchables. Westerns and cop shows were easily embraced by the suits at CBS; a fantasy think-piece ‘was a different number. John Newland had no problem hawking One Step Beyond on ABC, under the banner of Alcoa Presents, using a “believe it or not” premise as a gimmick. But Rod Serling, a biting, beady-eyed genius, was aiming for something more literate. Convincing a major network to thrust mature audiences into “the dimension of imagination” on a weekly basis became an ordeal. With an Emmy for Patterns, and another for Requiem for a Heavyweight (broadcast five on Playhouse 90 in 1956), Serling’s credentials were not in question, but a Steven Spielberg he was not. There seemed to be no precedence for the kind of show he wanted.
Actually, there was. On November 24, 1958, “The Time Element” was aired on Desilu Playhouse. It was a script that producer Bert Granet had bought from Serling in order to add prestige to a typically pedestrian series. Directed by Allen Reisner, with bread & butter photography by Nick Musuraca, ASC, (no resemblance to his magnificent leasing of Val Lewton’s Cat People and The Seventh Victim), “The Time Element” starred William Bendix as a man plagued by what would become a staple of Serling’s writingâ€”a detailed, recurrent nightmare. He dreams that he is in Honolulu on the day before the siege at Pearl Harbor. His psychiatrist (Martin Balsam) writes him off as a victim of a overworked imagination. When Bendix falls asleep on the couch, his dream picks up on December 7, 1941. He tries in vain to warn the Army of the impending holocaust. A crumbling room seals his fate.
Alone in his office, the doctor raises his head with a start. Something seems out of kilter. Entering a bar, he orders a drink and sees a photograph of Bendix on the wall. The face looks vaguely familiar. “Who’s the guy in the picture?” he asks. “Oh, that’s Pete Jensen,” cracks the bartender. “He used to tend bar here. He’s dead. He was killed at Pearl Harbor”
“The Time Element’s” ambiguous ending so rattled the sponsor, host Desi Arnaz was forced to tag the show with a “rational explanation.” Viewer mail was voluminous, and Serling had gotten what he wantedâ€”a thinking audience. As far as CBS was concerned, Serling was in. The seed of The Twilight Zone had germinated.
In the spring of 1959, network boss William Dozier assigned actor-turned-corporate exec William Self to oversee the Twilight Zone pilot. For this, Serling wrote a script sarcastically called “The Happy Place;” about a futuristic society in which senior citizens are routed to camps and ultimately eliminated.
Serling liked “The Happy Place”; Dozier and Self were appalled. Rather than create a situation, he promptly returned to his typewriter and banged out “Where Is Everybody?;” a gripping yarn about an amnesiac who inexplicably finds himself in a town rife with working appliances but completely devoid of people. At the point of mental breakdown, a voice booms over a speaker to retrieve him. The loner turns out to be a fledgling astronaut who had been locked in an isolation chamber five-feet square for two and a half weeks.
Reality? A simulated moon flight devised by less-than-compassionate Air Force personnel. The town? A hallucination, dredged up in his solitude. “Up there,” wrote Serling, “up there in the vastness of space, in the void that is ski, up there is an enemy known as isolation. It sits there in the stars waiting, waiting with the patience of eons, forever waiting, in the Twilight Zone.”
To hammer the pilot into existence, Dozier and Self assembled the best production talent available. Robert Stevens was hired to direct. A veteran of Playhouse 90 and forty-plus episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Stevens was known for his offbeat camera setups and moody melodramas. He did the second Hitchcock show with Cloris Leachman and George MacCready, which he remembers well. “I did a fireplace shot, with the camera behind the flames. Even Hitch took exception to this, but he finally gave in.”
Stevens won an Emmy for “The Glass Eye” on Hitchcock Presents. He was directing an episode of Climax starring Gig Young and Elizabeth Montgomery when Dozier called him to do “Where is Everybody?”
Manning the camera was Joseph LaShelle, ASC, whose credits included the mystical Laura, the mood-drenched Hangover Square, and The Naked and the Dead. Earl Holliman deftly played the amnesiac. Serling narrated his own coda (an eleventh hour decision, when Westbrook Van Voorhis sounded too pompous and Orson Welles proved too expensive), and executive-produced under the banner of Cayuga Productions (after Cayuga Lake, the family’s vacation spot in upstate New York.)
Another important consideration was the music, and the genius behind that was Bernard Herrmann. The composer of Hangover Square, Citizen Kane, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and the Alfred Hitchcock/ Ray Harryhausen films, had been writing incidental cues for the CBS library (used copiously in Have Gun, Will Travel), when Lud Gluskin, the network’s music director, prevailed upon him to score the Twilight Zone pilot. The situation was serendipitous, since Herrmann had already scored a number of pictures photographed by LaShelle. Haunting winds, tumultuous brass, and an ethereal vibraphoneâ€” all part of the Herrmann signatureâ€”enhanced the episode immeasurably.
In addition, Herrman was asked to write the theme behind the opening metaphysical artwork and closing credits. For this he composed a mesmerizing, kaleidoscopic passage for harp, strings, clarinets and flute which practically defies description, plus an alternate theme which was never used. (Sadly Herrmann’s piece was scrapped in 1960 for Marius Constant’s guitar-and-bongo rhythm, now a painful clichÃ©.)
“Where is Everybody?” was filmed at Universal. It hit the airways on Friday night, October 2, 1959, to the delight and awe of unsuspecting viewers. Television was never the same afterwards.
With the pilot sold and 26 episodes ordered up, William Self handed supervision over to Buck Houghton, a no-nonsense former MGM story editor with solid television experience. (Meet McGraw, Wire Service, and Yancy Derringer were some of his shows.) Houghton worked closely with Serling and shaped the series with laser-beam skill.
His first move was to rent studio space at MGM and hire a new production team. Among its vital constituents was cinematographer George T. Clemens, ASC, a self-proclaimed relative of Mark Twain, who became a member of the ASC in 1933, and whose credits as an operator read like a film history book: the early DeMille productions, Blood and Sand, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, The Great Dictator; High Noon. Clemens helped define a new look for television cinematography and, along with Serling, won an Emmy for The Twilight Zone in 1961.
Though Serling had given “Where Is Everybody?” his best shot, he wasn’t in love with it. Despite its spooky simplicity and the inspired Herrmann score, the ending seemed hokey, and James Gregory’s hammy performance as an Air Force general bordered on camp. “Rod said he didn’t want any explanation at the end whatsoever,” Stevens explained. “He wanted to leave it in the Twilight Zone! I thought the reality ending worked well.” Most people would agree, but the follow-up script had to be different. Serling yearned for something richer and more intimate.
The result was “Walking Distance;’ a bittersweet fantasy that brought him back to his childhood in Binghamton, New York. “My major hang-up is nostalgia,” Serling once said. “I hunger to go back to knickers and nickel ice cream cones. One time, I went walking in a recreational park in my home town called ‘Recreation Park: There’s a merry-go-round in it which I spent one given night staring at.” Later, when The Twilight Zone was sold, he strolled through a standing set at MGM and was hit by the similarity to his home town. “It struck me that all of us have a deep feeling to go backâ€”as we remember it. It was from this simple incident that I wove the story”
Despite its lyricism, the idea of “Walking Distance” courted disaster in the mind of boss William Dozier, who took Serling to task for its lack of credibility. “Where Is Everybody?;” he figured, could happen. A man locked in a box could hallucinate. But time travel was impossible. Dozier was a very able executive, but he challenged the writer’s sensibilities. If anything, “Walking Distance” was a crucial show from the standpoint of management feeling out the strength of Serling’s convictions.
The script was sitting on Dozier’s desk after y the pilot had been shot. His critique was rather coarse and unfeelingâ€”he feared that audiences wouldn’t w buy it. Serling and Houghton spent hours in a smoke-filled room with Dozier, defining the show’s outre framework.
According to Buck Houghton, “Bill took the stand that nobody’s going to understand this. And Rod said, ‘Look: we’re asking audiences to suspend their disbelief for half an hour and enjoy themselves. People are going to walk out of a door in the twentieth century and walk into the eighteenth century. That’s what The Twilight Zone is all about.’
“Many times, I myself told Rod Serling, ‘This won’t work.’ When he stuck with it, I knew I was wrong. If he had weakened, then I’d have known I was right and it was a weakly-held position. That was what Bill Dozier was doing. He was going to challenge Rod. Quite often executives will do that. I’ve done it. But if someone is challenged, and he sticks with it and proves that he thought it out, I let him have his hand.”
Dozier relented. From then on he was totally supportive and never interfered. “Walking Distance”, he would later admit, was the heartbeat of The Twilight Zone. His initial concern, though, was a sign of the times.
Once again, Bernard Herrmann would score and Robert Stevens would direct. “Your first challenge when you come on a series is to do as well as you did with the pilot, because the pilot sold,” Houghton pointed out. “‘Where Is Everybody?’ was so well done, I became very interested in the director, whom I didn’t know prior to that. It was management, l think, who suggested that we honor Stevens’ work with an immediate assignment.”
That assignment was “Walking Distance.”
Exteriors on MGM’s Lot 3, built in 1944 for the Judy Garland vehicle Meet Me in St. Louis, became the houses of Homewood. A back lot carousel recalling Hitchcock’s Strangers on n Train awaited Stevens’ setups. Despite long hours, there was a heady sort of magic in the air during the shoot. It was a house show; but it was special. Serling knew it. So did the crew:
Gig Young plays Martin Sloan, a weary ad exec who drives upstate to escape the rat race of Madison Avenue, not realizing that the town he grew up in lies just a mile and a half up the road. He had to get out of New York City: “One more telephone call or board meeting and I would’ve jumped out the window” Leaving his sports car at a gas station, he walks up the road and returns to Homewood.
Time has not touched the malt shopâ€”an ice cream soda with three scoops is still a dime. “You look familiar to me,” Martin tells the man behind the fountain. “I have that kind of face,” he beams back warmly How Martin yearns to see Old Man Wilson once again, unaware that the deceased proprietor is resting comfortably in an upstairs chair.
Summer in the park. Hot dogs, cotton candy, kids delirious with joy Exactly as he remembered it. From a distance, he sees a boy’ carving his name on a post near the bandstand. The name is his. “Martin Sloan. You’re Martin Sloan? But of course you are. That’s the way I looked!” He chases the boy and loses him. Coincidence, he figures. Gingerly, he approaches the porch of his old house and rings the bell. Through the screen he sees his parents, who write him off as a lunatic. “Mom, Dad. You’re both here. How could you be here?” The door is slammed in his face.
Martin beats the pavement at night. Logic no longer has substance. Wandering into his backyard, he stumbles on his catcher’s mitt. From the shadows emerges his father. “Back again, huh?”
“I had to, Pop. This is my glove. You gave it to me on my eleventh birthday. And the baseball autographed by Lou Gehrig… I belong here. Understand that? I belong here!”
The father is sympathetic. “Look, you’re probably sick. You’re having delusions. I don’t want to hurt you. Won’t want you to get into trouble. But if you hang around hereâ€”there may be trouble.”
The bewildered mother appears on the porch. Martin runs to her, teary-eyed. “Mom, look at me! You have a son named Martin, haven’t you? He goes to Emerson Public School? The month of August he spends on his aunt’s farm near Buffalo? A couple of summers you’ve gone to Saratoga Lake. Rented a cottage there. I once had a sister. She died when I was a year old…” From his vest pocket he produces his wallet. “My cards! They’ll tell you who I am. Go on, look at them, Look at them!”
Hysterical, she slaps his face. The moment is devastating, maternal rejection being Everyman’s nightmare.
The slap still stinging, Martin hears the distant sound of a calliope. My Godâ€”to catch young Martin Sloan and talk to him, to tell him how precious time is. In desperation, he literally chases himself on the carousel. The boy falls, his leg mangled by the machinery. Martin the elder howls in pain. Ironically, inevitably, he has caused his own disability.
The carousel stops and the children file into the night, ephemeral ghosts of Sloan’s past. The boy is carried off. Martin sobs against a leering wooden horse.
“I only wanted to tell you that this is a wonderful time of life for you. Don’t let any of it go by without enjoying it. That’s all, Martin. That’s all I wanted to tell you. God help me…”
The father slinks in from the shadows and tells him that the boy will survive. “Doc says he’ll limp some, but he’ll be all right.” Having inspected the wallet dropped on the porch, he knows the identity of this tormented man. It is his son, but he knows not how or why. In a heart-rending speech exquisitely penned by Serling, Sloan Sr. reaches a woeful resolve:
“Martin. You have to leave here. There’s no room, there’s no place. Do you understand that?”
“I see that now, Pop, but I don’t understand. Why not?”
“I guess it’s because we only get one chance. Maybe there’s only one summer to every customer. That little boy, the one I knowâ€”the one who belongs hereâ€”this is his summer, just as it was yours once. Don’t make him share it.”
Their faces shine like two half-moons in a black void. Pop asks Martin if his time, his place, is so bad. “I thought so, Pop. I’ve been living in a dead run and I was tired. And one day I knew I had to come back here. I had to get on the merry-go-round and listen to a band concert. I had to stop and breathe, and close my eyes and smell, and listen.”
“I guess we all want that,” says Sloan the elder. “Maybe when you go back, you’ll find there are merry-go-rounds and band concerts where you are… You’ve been looking behind you, Martin. Try looking ahead.”
Sobered, Martin bids his father farewell. He had tried to grab his past by the tail, only to disable himself forever. Magically, the carousel revolves on its own. He hops on for the last time and is whisked back to the malt shop.
Gone is the bespectacled fountaineer, the candy bins, the bittersweet remnants of his youth. Rock & rollers dance to a 1959 juke box. “Get that [limp] during the war?” asks the high school soda jerk. “No,” Martin winces. “Got it falling off a merry-go-round as a kid. Here. Kind of a freak thing…” “Oh, merry-go-round,” the teenager beams. “Hey, l remember. They tore that down a few years ago. Condemned it.’
The details are vague now. Was Homewood Revisited a delusion, or did it happen? Did he really go back in time, or was it all a fantasy hatched in his mind before he had even reached the town? He’s not quite sure. He can’t get a bead on it.
“A little late, I guess.” “Huh?” asks Martin. “A little late for you, I mean.” “Yeah,” he laments. “Very late for me.”
Sloan returns to his car, his limp painfully evident, and gazes at the Homewood road sign for the last time. With a wistful smile, he starts the engine. A bit wiser, perhaps. A bit more down to earth. He departs forever in a cloud of dust.
The emotional impact of Rod Serling’s “Walking Distance” is as powerful today as it was in October 1959. To a certain extent, the story was autobiographical. His longing to reconnect with his father, who (like Serling) died prematurely of a heart attack, was intense. “Going back was something he really would have liked to have done,” Anne Serling affirmed. “He was very close to his father. He always used to say to me, ‘I wish you had known your grandfather.”‘
His brother Robert put a lucid perspective on the show “I think where Rod got the great love for the small town was in the Arms; when he was overseas. It was the ‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas’ syndrome. Everything he had taken for granted as a child had suddenly become preciously dear to him. He thought he’d never see it again. This was true, too, when he got into the hectic world of television. Yellow Springs and Antioch [where he attended and taught school] were the same kind of small villageâ€”ivory tower existence, where everything was peaceful. The [Homewood] thing ran through much of his writing.”
Some of the shoot flowed directly off Serling’s typewriter. “I thought it would be terribly interesting to see the mother and father through the screen door,” he said, “because they were in a sense ethereal. So I wrote, ‘Shoot through the mother and father, almost as if he were seeing ghosts.’ This was the writer suggesting something to the director that was visual.” Yet for all the story’s passion, he griped about its illogic. “The problem was, I was too smart for myself. I gave the man such incredible trauma, and yet suggested that as. of the moment he lives through this trauma, he will nonetheless function properly and in a totally rational way And that’s not possible.”
The casting was right on the money. A more convincing Martin Sloan than Gig Young is difficult to imagine, and we will dismiss the factâ€”for the sake of this pieceâ€”that Young took his own life two decades later. He portrays Sloan not as a wimp crying in his beer over a squandered life, but rather as a lost soul whose secret yearning to grab the brass ring again has come to the fore. Young knew how to register a “thinking man’s” despair; every close-up every turn of his head is letter perfect.
Supporting players are credible and honest, right down to the smallest of bits. Byron Foulger, the familiar lab assistant/squeamish bank clerk of countless B movies, made his Homewood fountaineer extremely warm and likable. Moonfaced Frank Overton (whom Robert Stevens had directed in Steve McQueen’s first picture, Never Lone a Stranger) invested the father role with more compassion and sincerity than Serling had hoped for. The gooseflesh encounter between Young and Overton in the blackness of the night is so perfectly played out that most other TV father/son exchanges seem like sappy contrivances by comparison. Experiencing their interplay is like going to church. Watch Overton’s facial movements and eye tremors as he tells Martin to go back, then wonder how his performanceâ€”and especially Young’sâ€”could have been ignored for the Emmys of 1960.
“Actors responded to Rod,” Buck Houghton attests. “I got actors who had never worked in the medium. I used to get ‘Gee thanks, Buck, but I don’t do television.’ Then they’d read Rod’s stuff and say ‘I’ve got to do that! Lead me to it!’ On account of that, we got performances that were in their very best path.
“Gig Young took the show seriously He was a thorough professional. You never saw him suffering, like James Daly in ‘A Stop at Willoughby’ Daly’s character was eaten away, suffocated by bear cats and a clawing wife. Gig’s character was painted more wistfully I can’t t take credit for the casting, other than having given the stamp of approval. Millie Gusse was in charge of that. My impression of her was that she met every train and plane that arrived in Los Angeles,” Houghton said.
Director Robert Stevens got tremendous mileage out of a relatively simple teleplay. With George Clemens at his side, eccentric lighting effects and camera positions were carefully thought out. Stevens reprised the pilot’s use of oblique angles to suggest an excursion into unreality with subtlety and logic. (The name of Ralph Nelson is inscribed on the gas station shingle, a sly nod to Serling’s production manager.) To initiate Martin’s trek down the road, the camera dollies into the mirror of a cigarette machine for a “through the looking glass” effect. A beat later, when Gig Young enters the malt shop, a crane-mounted camera pulls away from his reflection in a wall mirror, closing the circle.
“I have a thing about mirrors,” Stevens admits. “When Earl Holliman crashes into the mirror in ‘Where Is Everybody?; people gasp.” In the malt shop, however, the effect is entirely subliminal. Even when the pull-out occurs, the trick is absorbed by the narrative. For fifties television, these visual considerations were quite extraordinary.
The lighting scheme made “Walking Distance” a visual stunner. Shooting at night on the MGM back lot, Clemens followed the director’s setups faithfully. Stark sidelighting is used on Overton and Young. By obscuring half their faces, a ghostly ambience was maintained throughout. Obviously, the way to light actors in shadow is to do it minimally. But in this case, dramatic emphasis was put on the lighting to exact visually the emotional values suggested by the story Father and son are complements. Each is “one half” the other; each exists in different hemispheres, brought together in a fantastical situation. To model them further, backlight was used to create a subtle aura around their hair.
A remarkable shot follows the mother’s slap. Young hears the calliope, turns his head slowly, and looks searchingly into the night. To capture the tragic portrait, Clemens made an uncanny use of backlight and subtle fills on Young’s face. His flesh seems to glisten; the effect is hypnotic. If one scene could be singled out as the essence of “Walking Distance”, it is this.
The climactic chase is a director/cameraman’s tour de force. Stevens tilts his camera on the carousel for the duration of the sequence, each shot requiring a separate setup. “I was doing tilt shots on the Hitchcock shows and started doing them for The Twilight Zone, Stevens explained. “It’s to heighten whatever the moment is, I felt, to exaggerate the fantasy and the craziness.” For one brief cut, he went so far as to shoot the merry-go-round downward from a tortured crane position. Finally, all light diminishes on the phantom children as they trail off, leaving Martin’s face illuminated in sorrow. A follow spot is used as he recedes. Only when the father reappears does the camera angle return to normalcy. It’s a superb piece of theater, and more haunting on each viewing.
“I did that on Broadway” the director said. “It works well in suspending reality A lot of what was done on ‘Walking Distance’ came intuitively as it went along, without intellectualizing. That happens when you’re on the right emotional beam.”
Clemens remembered the carousel sequence. “The setups were cumbersome, but we were well acquainted on how to handle it. Fortunately I had two top-notch operators, Jack Swain and Chuck Wheeler. I hadn’t known Jack before, but I insisted on bringing Chuck to MGM.
“This was the first opportunity I had to put all the lights on dimmers, with a manual control unit that went back to the generator. The whole set was on dimmers, except for one hot line I had for the light on Gig’s face. I had always worked with lighting effects, but this was the first time I was able to remote-control them. All of the overhead lighting was on an MGM dimmer. That was a great godsend to me.”
The presence of Wheeler and Swain allowed Clemens to have two cameras going throughout the show. Many of the reverses of Gig Young and Frank Overton were shot simultaneously.
“Robert Stevens was very knowledgeable about cameras,” he added. “He was pushed, and I was kicked in the ass a lot by Buck and CBS to get things going. But Rod was right behind me. He told me to do anything that was right. Nobody was better to work with than Rod. He was a guy you could go to and lay your problems on, and he’d solve them.”
None of it came easy. The first-season Twilight Zones were generally shot in three days on $46,000 budgets. Rarely did they go into a fourth day. If “Walking Distance” looked good, it was largely due to Robert Stevens’ penchant for detail and excellence all across the board. Inevitably, the usual producer-director squabbles erupted. Stevens knew what he wanted, but it took long, hard hours. Night shots were expensive, and the air was cold. Clemens had his own camera crane for the malt shop interior, but a larger one had to be rented for the carousel downshot. Many takes were done, and redone.
Consequently, “Walking Distance” took a week to shoot. Buck Houghton found himself in a bind with CBS.
Retired from movies and television, Stevens recalled the situation from his residence on the upper East side of New York. “I was slow, but not deliberately. I always did many takes. On the Hitchcock shows, Hitch told producer Joan Harrison to leave me alone. So I had my way with Hitch. The Twilight Zone was different. My beef with the production company was that they tried to do it in such a way that we’d lose quality. I had to argue with Buck about it. I said, ‘If you had that quality that you are trying not to have, you wouldn’t have had a pilot to begin with.’ I think we shot three-quarters of a day [on the pilot] before they realized that there was no film in the camera! But we got through it all, and everyone was pleased. I didn’t want to do another show unless I could do one that I thought I could do as well.”
Houghton, still very active as a producer, offered his viewpoint. “‘Walking Distance’ went way over budget, which was bad for an early show: And it was bad for me, because I wasn’t supposed to do that. Bob fought for the quality he wanted, but being the producer, it was the same old contest of making a compromise between the excellence you have and the money that is laid out before you. Stevens was extravagant, and we had to work well into the night. I would say that it’s entirely possible that when we were in a position of making a decision about further direction by Bob, I could very well have said ‘I don’t know: It may be that management had said, ‘Well, that show is absolutely exquisite, but we can’t afford to do this again.”‘
As a result, “Walking Distance” was Stevens’ swan song to The Twilight Zone. Stevens directed the last Defenders episode and several PBS productions, but was never again given an imaginative script. For that reason, he was unable to fan the embers of his most inspired work.
“There was a lot of loving care put into Walking Distance: I still get letters about it. I never realized at the time that it would touch so many people. I wish I could have done more shows for Rod.”
Actually “Walking Distance” owes much to the tradition set down by David O. Selznick’s Portrait of Jennie. Eban Adams (Joseph Cotton) is a New York artist obsessed by a girl who appears from nowhere and seems to defy the laws of time. In the tumultuous climax, she reappears near a lighthouse during a storm. Like Martin Sloan truing to seize his youthful self, Adams struggles for her hand to bridge the time gap as the encroaching tides become violent. And like Martin Sloan, he fails to make the connection.
Portrait of Jennie was photographed by Joseph August, ASC, Lee Garmes, ASC and Paul Eagler, ASC, using chiaroscuro lighting throughout, much of which George Clemens seemingly drew on. Soft strains of Debussy, a great influence on Bernard Herrmann’s music, were incorporated into Dimitri Tiomkin’s score. Herrmann, in fact, was Selznick’s first choice for Jennie, but the cinematography lagged on for so long, he was unable to finish the job.
Perhaps it was fate, then, that paved the way for Herrmann to score “Walking Distance”. It was his most sensitive work. Much of it recalled the fragility of Jane Eyre and the glistening harp glissandos of Journey to the Center of the Earth; some of it telegraphed the rich sonorities of Fahrenheit 451, which he composed in 1966.
A melancholy theme for harp and strings underscores the sights and sounds Martin Sloan once knewâ€”a theme that yearns for the past. 1t almost sings, “I want to go home, where I belong.” The nostalgia of the park inspired Herrmann to dovetail a German lullaby with a Benny Goodman band number, creating an ersatz calliope waltz. When Martin first approaches his old house, dissonant violin harmonics mimic the sound of a squeezebox accordionâ€”a primitive wail buried in the recesses of Everyman’s mind. The boy’s fall from the carousel is punctuated with rough cellos and dark, unresolved viola chords, similar to what Herrmann would use under the closing shots of Psycho. For the scene of Martin gliding past the ghost-like kids, a harp rips the air, violins cry out “Oh-my-God” in resignation, and repose into a see-saw of strings resembling chamber musicâ€”a lament for all that is untenable. Plaintive murmurs under the final father/son sequence bring to mind the haunting serenity of Grant Williams walking Christ-like toward the basement window at the end of The Incredible Shrinking Man. (Herrmann’s title music and his score for “Walking Distance” are available on the Varese Saraband records, The Twilight Zone, Vols. One and Two.
Buck Houghton agreed: ‘When you have a good rough cut, a musician does a better job than he would with a less distinguished picture. Bernie responded very strongly to things that he thought were good. ‘Walking Distance’ is a great score.”
The years roll by in sinister silence. More quickly, it seems, as each calendar page falls into the basket. To some, memories of those halcyon days beckon like a warm, inviting spectre. And to some, a resolve to bite into that candy apple again can become overwhelming.
Preachlessly, what Serling’s teleplay suggests to die-hard sentimentalists is this: If you must, go back to that summer camp you reveled in years ago. Return to the neighborhood where you once built a snowman in the garden. Jump on that carousel in the park. It might only be walking distance. Then leave it behind and realize that there is indeed only one summer to every customer.
“From the start, there was a feeling that this show was something special,” Buck Houghton reminisced. “There was a fortunate conspiracy of arts and crafts that came to bear on that picture: the good fortunes of casting, the good fortunes of direction. Gig Young was just superb. The sets were absolutely magnificent for a half-hour show. There were a lot of good vibes coming out of the material as you encountered it, all the way up and down the line. It’s a beauty.”
If you feel inclined to wax your nostalgia on a gleaming surface, see Somewhere in Time, A Trip to Bountiful, and Peggy Sue Got Married. Watch the elusive sled in Citizen Kane going up in smoke. Then go back to Homewood on your VCR and tingle to Rod Serling’s masterwork, and his epilogue:
“Martin Sloan, age 36, vice president in charge of media. Successful at most things, but not at the one effort that most men try at some time in their livesâ€”trying to go home again. And also, like all men, perhaps there will be an occasionâ€”maybe a summer night sometimeâ€”when he’ll look up at what he’s doing and listen to the distant music of a calliope, and hear the voices and the laughter of the people and the places of his past. And perhaps across his mind there’ll flit a little errant wishâ€”that a man might not have to become oldâ€”never outgrow the parks and the merry-go-rounds of his youth. And he’ll smile then, too, because he’ll know it is just an errant wish. Some wisp of memory, not too important, really. Some laughing ghost that could cross a man’s mindâ€”that are a part of The Twilight Zone.”
Telecast October 30,1959; directed by Robert Stevens; produced by Buck Houghton; executive producer for Cayuga Productions, Rod Serling; written by Rod Serling; director of photography George T. Clemens, ASC; camera operators, Charles Wheeler, ASC, and Jack Swain, ASC; music composed and conducted by Bernard Herrmann; music supervision, Lud Gluskin; production manager Ralph W Nelson; art directors, George W. Davis and William Ferrari; film editor, Joseph Gluck, ACE; assistant director, Ed ward Dennault; set decorators, Henry Grace and Rudy Butler; costing, Mildred Gusse; sound editors, Frank Milton and Jean Valentino; title music Bernard Herrmann; animated title, UPA.
Martin Sloan, Gig Young; Martin’s father, Frank Overton; Martin’s mother, Irene Tedrow; Martin as a boy, Michael Montgomery; Charlie, Byron Foulger; Soda jerk, Joseph Corey; Wilcox boy, Ronnie Howard; Mr. Wilson, Pat O’Mallev; Mr. Wilcox, Bill Erwin; teenager, Buzz Martin; woman, Nan Peterson; gas station attendant, Sheridan Comerate.
The author extends his thanks to Marc Scott Zicree (author of The Twilight Zone Companion) for background material; and to Buck Houghton, Robert Stevens, George T. Clemens, ASC, and the Serling family for their input.
All teleplay quotes copyright Rod Serling.