The creators of Twilight Zone, Logan’s Run, and dozens more fantasy classics remember the West Coast writers’ group
by Christopher Conlon
Reprinted by permission of the author. Southern California Sorcerers originally appeared in:
- Cemetery Dance Publications’ 1999 anthology CALIFORNIA SORCERY, edited by William F. Nolan and William Schafer, and available direct from Cemetery Dance Publications.
- FILMFAX magazine, October 1999 – January 2000: a special Twilight Zone issue with other articles and some beautiful photos.
The stories are magical.
…A fireman rebels against a society which expects him not to put out fires, but to start them—by burning books.
…A traveller stops at a strange, remote castle one night and must decide whether the man imprisoned there is an innocent victim—or the Devil himself.
…A couple desperately struggles to survive in a youth-obsessed world in which people are automatically euthanized when they grow old—21 years old.
They have the power of fables: simple, direct, allegorical, they pull you in and hold you—but they teach you something too. They’re the kind of stories SF master Theodore Sturgeon called “wisdom fiction.” And while these particular tales are the work of completely different writers—Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451), Charles Beaumont (“The Howling Man”), William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson (Logan’s Run)—they almost seem as if they might all have been hatched from a single brilliant, fantastically inventive imagination.
This is no accident. For these men were, from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s, part of a close-knit brotherhood of writers centered in the Los Angeles area that came to dominate not only printed SF and fantasy, but movies and TV as well—scripting between them many of the period’s best-known films (including most of the Roger Corman / Edgar Allan Poe movies), along with classic segments of Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, One Step Beyond, and virtually every episode of The Twilight Zone. At its peak this association of creative artists also included, among others, Rod Serling, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Jerry Sohl, Ray Russell, and Harlan Ellison. These outstandingly gifted men were collectively referred to by several names, including “The Southern California School of Writers” and “The Green Hand” (after the Mafia’s “Black Hand”). But they were most commonly called, simply, “The Group.”
“It’s an astonishing story,” says Marc Zicree, author of The Twilight Zone Companion. “Many of these writers would not have been nearly as creative without each other. It was genuinely a gestalt that made these people deeper, better—made them stretch to places they never would have gotten to without each other.” Group member William F. Nolan, whose film credits include Burnt Offerings and Trilogy of Terror, explains: “We’d talk plot, read stories we’d finished for opinions, talk about markets and what was selling and who was buying, discuss character development and structure, and, yes, we’d argue, but in a constructive way. We all helped each other…and inter-connected on projects.”
“Sometimes, of an evening,” Ray Bradbury has written, “Richard Matheson would toss up there merest dustfleck of a notion, which would bounce off William F. Nolan, knock against George Clayton Johnson, glance off me, and land in [Charles Beaumont’s] lap. ..Sometimes we all loved an idea so much we had to assign it to the writer present who showed the widest grin, the brightest cheeks, the most fiery eyes.”
Direct collaborations between Group members were common. And no wonder. In those early days, most of them—particularly the “inner circle” of Nolan, Charles Beaumont, George Clayton Johnson, and novelist John Tomerlin—were men in their twenties who were just beginning their careers. They found strength, encouragement, and a sense of solidarity in the company of other struggling young writers. Because of the Group, says Nolan, “We were not alone; we had each other to fire us creatively, to bounce ideas around, to solve plot problems. It was the best kind of writing class that could ever be imagined.”
But the closeness of the Group members went beyond the writing. According to Johnson (scriptwriter for Twilight Zone and Star Trek): “We knew each others’ wives, we went to each others’ houses, we shared holidays together, we went to movies and other things together…[We] would go out on the town and zoom around from place to place, stay out all damned hours. We’d just do anything you can think of. We’d go to strip joints to watch the strippers strip and be embarrassed to be there, but nonetheless whistling and whooping it up and trying to act like college kids…We’d go to nice restaurants like Musso and Frank’s or we’d end up at Barney’s Beanery. Or someplace along the beach. It hardly mattered.” The central members were as open to a carnival as they were to an art-house film. More than any particular activity, the joy was in each others’ company.
And, most especially, the joy was in the company of one man—a lanky, charismatic young author of screenplays (The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao) and teleplays (Twilight Zone) as well as essays, short stories, and novels, who is described by Nolan as having been “the hub of the wheel,” the Group’s “electric center”: the vibrant, brilliant, and tragic Charles Beaumont.
The genesis of the Group dates back to the summer of 1946, when a 26-year-old professional writer happened to bump into a hyper-energetic 17-year-old in a Los Angeles book store. As the older man was later to write, the teenager “began babbling about his Terry and the Pirates comic collection, plus Tarzan, plus Prince Valiant, plus who-can-remember-now how many other truly amazing and life-enhancing subjects. It could only follow, out of such a passionate encounter, that a friendship developed.” It was a friendship that was to last the rest of the young boy’s life, some twenty more years. The professional writer’s name was Ray Bradbury. The teenager called himself Charles Beaumont.
Bradbury was by that time already a well-known name in the field of fantasy and horror. His stories, written at the feverish clip of one or more per week, had been selling for the past several years to the pulp magazines of the time—especially Weird Tales, to which he was a regular contributor. Within a year of meeting the young Beaumont, Bradbury would publish his first book (Dark Carnival, 1947) and sell several of his stories to William Spier, then the producer of an immensely popular radio series called Suspense, whose adaptations would help catapult Bradbury’s name onto the national stage. Soon thereafter Bradbury would find himself able to place his bizarre, poetic fictions not just in pulp magazines but also in prestigious national publications such as The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s. Movie work (It Came From Outer Space) and such powerhouse literary classics as The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 would soon follow. But on that summer day in 1946, Bradbury was still making only thirty or forty dollars a week selling short stories to the pulps.
The name Ray Bradbury was, however, quite well-known to the teenage Charles Beaumont. An avid reader of science fiction and fantasy, he had written letters—many of them published—to nearly every magazine in the field, and ran his own fanzine called Utopia. He had suffered, in Marc Zicree’s words, an “odd, dark beginning”; born Charles Nutt in Chicago in 1929, he had stayed with his parents until he was twelve, in a life he would later describe as “one big Charles Addams cartoon.” His mother, in particular, caused the young boy grief—dressing him in girl’s clothing and at least once killing one of his pets as a punishment. In part to get him away from this unstable woman, young Charles was sent—in the midst of a bout with spinal meningitis—to live with, as he later said, “five widowed aunts who ran a rooming house near a train depot in the state of Washington.” But if the hope was that the boy would enjoy a more normal life with his aunts, the experiment was a failure. “Each night,” Beaumont said, “we had the ritual of gathering about the stove and there I’d hear the stories about the strange deaths of their husbands.”
By 1946, the young man—who had aspirations to be an actor, an artist, a writer—had changed his name to Charles Beaumont, and had surfaced in Los Angeles. His wandering days were not over—he would soon, for instance, find himself in Mobile Alabama, working as a railroad clerk (where he would meet his future wife, Helen Broun). But he would return to California to stay shortly thereafter, taking a succession of jobs (disc jockey, usher, mimeograph operator) as he struggled to break into professional writing. Part of the attraction of Southern California to young Beaumont was the presence of the movie industry—he eventually got a job in the music department at Universal Studios—but another major element was surely the presence of the man who grew to be his professional mentor: Ray Bradbury.
“Chuck showed up at my house one night in the early fifties,” Bradbury later wrote, “with his first short story. He handed it over, his face flushed with excitement, and cried, ‘It’s good! Or—I think it is!'” Bradbury had promised Beaumont that if the young man would come to his house every Wednesday evening with a newly-written story, Bradbury would read it and comment. But though the established writer might have expected his eager apprentice to have some talent, he could not have suspected just how much. “When I read the first one,” he later said in an interview, “I said, ‘Yes. Very definitely. You are a writer.’ It showed immediately. Chuck’s talent was obvious from that very first story.” Bradbury showed him how to cut, how to make transitions, how to make his stories move faster, but the raw talent was all Beaumont’s. With Bradbury acting as “friendly agent” to help place the stories—Forrest Ackerman would later provide more official representation—Beaumont’s tales eventually began appearing in pulp magazines such as Amazing Stories, Orbit, and Fantasy and Science Fiction. The young man had begun a career.
In late 1952, over lunch at Universal, Bradbury introduced Beaumont to another young, yet-to-be-published writer friend of his, a native Missourian named William F. Nolan. At that time Nolan was living in San Francisco, writing stories and trying to find a job. But he “hated the cold and fog,” he says, and so, a few months after that initial meeting, he moved to the Los Angeles area and re-contacted Beaumont. “We became instant friends,” he remembers, in part because their life circumstances were so similar: “We both wanted to be fulltime writers, yet we had to hold down other jobs to pay our bills.” Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Nolan—who came to be known among his friends as “The Windmill” because of his tendency to flail his arms wildly in the air when enthused about something (which, according to Bradbury, happened “about two dozen times daily”)—secured a position in the credit department of a paper company. But, as with Beaumont, it would be a while before he could sell his writing consistently and easily.
Meanwhile the mercurial Beaumont had been making other friends. During a stint as a tracing clerk for California Motor Express he met John Tomerlin, a future novelist (Challenge the Wind), TV scenarist, race car enthusiast, and writing collaborator. Chad Oliver, called “Big Chad” by his friends (he was 6’3″ and weighed 200 pounds), was attending UCLA, working toward a degree in Anthropology while also writing science fiction novels for young adults and short stories for the pulp market. And then there was Richard Matheson, shortly to become one of the best-known fantasy writers in the country with such novels as I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man (filmed as The Incredible Shrinking Man, 1957).
Matheson and Beaumont met in 1951. The two men shared a close relationship for many years, acting as spurs to each other’s creativity—which is not surprising, considering the similarities in their work as well as their careers. They broke into professional writing at the same time, working the same markets; they also wrote TV and films simultaneously (and sometimes in collaboration, as in the TV series The D.A.’s Man and the film Burn, Witch, Burn). Predictably, there were feelings of competition; but, Matheson later said, “only of the friendliest sort. We were not jealous of each other but happy for each other’s success.”
And yet in terms of personality, the men were completely different. Matheson was as quiet, steady, and family-oriented as Beaumont was wild and impulsive. It was a difference that, while not affecting their friendship, would impact upon Matheson’s relationship with what was rapidly becoming a recognizable “Group.” For by 1954 an “inner core” was beginning to form, consisting of individuals ready to follow Beaumont on whatever new outing he had suddenly decided upon: a seedy night club, perhaps, or an all-night talking jag at a coffee house. “Then there was the evening,” says Nolan, “when Chuck phoned to say ‘Be at such-and-such hotel in Chicago at noon tomorrow. We’re spending the day with Ian Fleming!’ So that night I flew to Illinois. And I recall, a year later, when he told me we were going to Europe next weekend to attend the Grand Prix of Monte Carlo. And we did. Plus another whirlwind trip to Nassau in the Bahamas on 24-hours’ notice. All great times!” But Richard Matheson was too much the stable family man for such adventuring. While he remained very cordial with all the Group members, who would frequently arrive en masse at his house for talking and laughs (as they would at Bradbury’s), he left the restless wanderings to Beaumont and the others.
Thus, with Matheson as an anchoring influence and Bradbury as professional mentor and friend, a Group was born. Charles Beaumont, William F. Nolan, John Tomerlin, and Chad Oliver were set to conquer the world—or at least the worlds of publishing and filmmaking.
“It’s fascinating,” Marc Zicree remarks, “when you think of these guys driving around night after night, talking about stories, talking about the world. They had that enormous enthusiasm of youth and that sense of ‘The sky’s the limit.'”
Indeed, 1954 to 1958 were years of testing limits and undergoing transitions within the Group. All of the inner core began selling their writing: Nolan, for instance, saw his first publication in 1954 in If: Worlds of SF, a pulp of the time, while also working in collaboration with Beaumont for the Whitman comic book company, helping “to guide the destinies,” as Beaumont later remembered, “of such influential literary figures as Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Andy Panda.” Oliver and Tomerlin were also selling stories. Predictably, however, it was the meteoric Beaumont who was having the greatest success. His tale about a terminally-ill jazz musician, “Black Country,” was published in a then-new magazine out of Chicago called Playboy, whose fiction editor, Ray Russell (eventually to collaborate with Beaumont of the 1962 Roger Corman film The Premature Burial as well receive screenplay credit on Mr. Sardonicus and X—The Man With the X-Ray Eyes), was to become a welcome presence at Group get-togethers when he visited Los Angeles. Beaumont’s writing so impressed Russell that he placed the writer on a $500 monthly retainer for first refusal rights to all his stories. Beaumont had quit his job at Universal in 1953 to become a full-time writer, but it was only now that he truly had enough money to raise a family.
In 1955 the Group lost Big Chad Oliver, who had always been conflicted between his love of writing and his desire to teach Anthropology at the University level. When a job opened in Texas, Oliver’s home state, he and his wife packed their bags. He remained close to the other Group members, however, and saw them on visits to California—managing to keep together his dual life of author and professor for many years.
The inner quartet was now a trio, a situation that would not change until 1958. But the trio was wasting no time. In addition to ever-increasing sales of their writing, all three had become race-car enthusiasts. Nolan remembers, “Tomerlin raced his Porsche and Chuck, who began with an MG-TC, also had bought a Porsche Speedster, while I had a British Austin-Healey. We used to stage illegal races on abandoned roads, but John was actually competing in ‘real’ race events by then. The sport became a huge passion for [us], and we attended sports car races at various circuits around Southern California.” Nolan recalls with particular clarity watching a young movie star named James Dean racing his Porsche a few months before the actor’s untimely death in a highway crash.
It was around this time that a new face appeared in the Group, a young man from Wyoming with the sale of a film treatment (Ocean’s 11, which became a Sinatra cult classic) to his name and little else—he had been writing stories for five years without publication. A few years before, Ray Bradbury had been sought out as a mentor by Charles Beaumont. Now Charles Beaumont would be sought out in his turn by an apprentice writer named George Clayton Johnson.
Johnson had been a design draftsman who worked for companies in the Los Angeles Basin such as U.S. Steel, Lockheed, and Douglas Aircraft. But his real desire was to write. When his grocer informed him that one of his regular customers was a professional writer named Charles Beaumont, Johnson recognized the name from the pulps and obtained his telephone number, carrying it around with him for several days before getting up the nerve to dial. To his surprise, Beaumont suggested a meeting at a local coffee shop, and turned out to be friendly and supportive. Most importantly, says Johnson, “He took me seriously. Which was a compelling reason for me to want to spend as much time with him as he would allow.” In due course Johnson also encountered Nolan and Tomerlin, and tried to ingratiate himself with them: “I tried to sort of get in with them, through the help of Chuck Beaumont, who liked me. So when the three of them would get together sometimes I would be there, by invitation or just by happenstance. I’d be sitting with Beaumont in the evening and the other two would show up and then there’d be the four of us.”
Johnson was impressed with their personal and professional closeness, which by that point was expressing itself in a number of ways. Beaumont and Tomerlin had collaborated on a novel, Run From the Hunter, published under the pseudonym “Keith Grantland.” Beaumont and Nolan were co-editing a large book about auto racing entitled Omnibus of Speed. But it was not all fun and success, Johnson discovered—these men also had deep personal ties which allowed for an uncommon frankness in their lives together.
“What I learned from these guys,” Johnson says today, “was honest encounter. Let’s call it like it really is and not avoid the target by pretending to agree with each other when we really don’t. If we have a dispute, let’s have the dispute out, and whoever is right is right. Not who is oldest or who is richest or who is best connected or who is the most powerful and the most threatening. None of that stuff…We would end up encountering each other over things. Maybe even just a story: ‘No, I think it’s a piece of crap. Who would believe this, this, and this?’ We would tangle with each other over story points.”
But there was a personal side to these encounters as well.
“I remember once,” Johnson says, “on the way back from a road racing trip, Chuck and Helen Beaumont, John and Wilma Tomerlin, Bill Nolan and myself were talking and we got into an analytical mood where we were discussing somebody’s flaws. And Helen stopped us and said that it was like being taken to the beach for the purpose of being drowned. After that we started referring to it as ‘being taken to the beach.’ You’d be warned: ‘We’re going out. We’ve all decided to take you to the beach, George.’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, okay, fine.’ And you’d spend four or five hours driving up and down the beach or through town or wherever, while three guys told you what was wrong with you. But you have to understand, we weren’t setting out with an objective to destroy; we were setting out with an objective to heal.”
In an essay published in the late 1980s, Johnson eloquently remembered the very real terror of these encounters.
“For Chuck they were fun,” he wrote, “but for me those confrontations were often nightmares as I defended myself against self-satisfied challengers: John, who figured out how he should feel before becoming emotional, with visions of himself as a no-nonsense executive with a taste for the finer things in life; Bill [Nolan], who would kid his way out, the willing focus of Chuck’s jokes who never forgot or misplaced anything, happy when the heat wasn’t on him; and Chuck Beaumont, keeping things moving with his aggressive manner and willingness to go first, somehow knowing that he was bulletproof, that he was the master of verbal judo who was living a charmed life.”
In particular, the Group forced Johnson to look realistically at his writing career, challenging him to stop talking and begin making sales if he expected them to take his opinions seriously. Fortunately, there was a new television series on the horizon that would ultimately allow him to do just that—a series that, in addition to introducing a famous new member to the Group and becoming a national cultural touchstone, would become perhaps the clearest expression of the Southern California Group’s peculiar gestalt: Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone.
Serling had arrived in Hollywood in 1957, as the days of live television (usually broadcast from New York) were waning. He was at that time television’s most famous writer, with Emmy Awards for Patterns, Requiem for a Heavyweight, and The Comedian. He was also a controversial figure, constantly battling the sponsors over issues regarding censorship of his often politically-charged teleplays. But as his kind of hard-hitting, passionate drama began to disappear from the airwaves, he decided to head west toward the movies and the world of filmed television. After some failures and false starts, the distinguished Serling announced—seemingly out of the blue—that he would be producing and writing a series of half-hour fantasy stories called The Twilight Zone for CBS.
It was an announcement that sent shock waves through the industry; it was as if Ernest Hemingway had declared he would stop writing novels and instead concentrate on comic books. But of course, Serling had ulterior motives for moving into the world of imagination. He reasoned that if producers and sponsors were too timid to present real-life, contemporary issues of television, he might be able to mask the same concerns behind a veil of fantasy: remembering the troubles he had had with a Studio One presentation dealing with the U.S. Senate, for instance, he said: “I was not permitted to have my Senators discuss any current or pressing problem…To say a single thing germane to the current political scene was absolutely prohibited. In retrospect, I probably [should] have made it science fiction, put it in the year 2057, and people[d] the Senate with robots. This probably would have been more reasonable and no less dramatically incisive.” From this kind of reasoning it was an easy step into The Twilight Zone.
Serling was contractually obligated to provide 80% of the first season’s scripts himself. But, as executive producer, it was up to him to see that the remaining 20% would also be of high quality. To that end (after a disastrous open-call for scripts that yielded nothing useful), he invited a number of professional writers to talk, read some of his scripts, and decide if they thought they had what it took to enter The Twilight Zone. Among those who attended were Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, and Ray Bradbury.
“With great misgivings,” Beaumont later wrote, “and after a suitable period of grousing about outsiders and why didn’t the networks buy our shows, we…agreed to discuss the possibility of joining the program. I don’t know what we expected Serling to be like, but we were all surprised to find that he was a nice guy who happened to love good science fiction and fantasy and saw no reason that it shouldn’t be brought to the screen.” But Beaumont still had his doubts: “Nothing galls a science fiction pro more than to see an ‘outsider’ bumble into the field, rework a whiskered theme which, in his naiveté, he takes to be supremely original, and make either, or both, a fortune and a critical splash.” With these “poisonous thoughts” in his mind, Beaumont took Serling’s first nine Twilight Zone scripts home with him to read, “determined to hate them.” But the quality of Serling’s writing won him over. “At midnight,” he wrote, “when I’d finished reading the material, I knew that Serling was an ‘outsider’ only in terms of experience; in terms of instinct, he was a veteran. Bradbury and Matheson read the scripts also, and in very little time we all decided to join the Twilight Zone team.”
More than any other single program, film, or book of the time, The Twilight Zone expresses the heart and soul of the Southern California Group. Beaumont and Matheson became major contributors, penning such classic episodes as “The Howling Man” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” George Clayton Johnson broke through into professional writing on the show, first by providing story ideas to Serling (including “Execution” and “The Four of Us Are Dying”); then, in large part because of Beaumont’s encouragement, bulling his way into being allowed to write the teleplay for his story “A Penny for Your Thoughts” himself. He went on to several other scripts for the show, including the now-classic “Kick the Can” and “Nothing in the Dark” (the latter starring Robert Redford).
During this period many writers began to float into the Group orbit. They would not belong to the inner core—those most closely tied to Beaumont—but would nevertheless be greeted warmly when they appeared and might participate in the often vigorous debates about stories (sometimes their own). The casual, amorphous nature of the Group allowed in such disparate figures as Frank M. Robinson (editor of Rogue, a men’s magazine and important market for the Group) and OCee Ritch (best-known as an automotive writer), as well as Bill Idelson, Charles E. Fritch, and Jerry Sohl—all budding free-lance authors trying, like the others, to break into the TV, movies, and fiction worlds of the time. Several would ultimately work on Twilight Zone.
What Jerry Sohl—who met most of the inner core at a 1958 SF convention and who would go on to write for all three of the seminal SF series of the 1960s (Zone, Outer Limits, and Star Trek)—found most attractive about the Group was its lack of pretentiousness. “If any one of us was snooty,” he says, “and confessed to being the best writer east of the Pacific Ocean, we would have laughed. And if the person persisted in saying he alone knew the answer to everything we’d have let him stew in his own jejune flatulence.” This down-to-earth quality translated into down-to-earth success for its members, too. “When I joined the Group I was making maybe one or two thousand dollars’ advance for something that took me three months to write”—that is, a book. But through the Group’s influence—especially Beaumont’s—Sohl quickly broke into television. “The first television thing that came my way I did in one day and took in nearly $900. My thought was, I’d better stick with this Group! Which I did.”
Another attraction was the comic repartee of close pals Chuck Beaumont and Bill “The Windmill” Nolan. They were “a great comedy team,” remarks Sohl. “They would give each other straight lines. We roared with laughter at their antics. Bill had a mind like Beaumont’s in the sense that it was lightning fast.” George Clayton Johnson agrees. The two men had, he remembers, “the zaniest sense of humor. They could get really wacky with each other in a verbal kind of a way. It was fun to be around them because they could get really light-hearted and fanciful.” Johnson’s voice transforms into something like that of a drunken cowboy’s as he recalls Nolan saying sardonically to Beaumont, ‘Well, here we are, Beaumarg, about to encounter the highlights of Hollywood! Are you prepared for it? Into the cesspools we go!'” Sohl adds, “They were great innovators, very inventive. It made the rest of us look stolid.” Indeed, their wild senses of humor extended even into their writing, as in Nolan’s short story “The Lap of the Primitive,” an amusing tale featuring a certain crazed anthropologist by the name of “Boliver Chadwick.” For his part, Beaumont gleefully gave a murderous robot the name “Nolan” in his story “In His Image.”
By this point it was not only writers who were finding themselves attracted to this uniquely creative and witty affiliation. Composer Herman Stein often hung out with the Group, and several actors as well—including a young, little-known TV performer named William Shatner.
“I was allowed in,” Shatner told biographer Gordon Sander, “because I had done some Richard Matheson and George Clayton Johnson stuff. But the best of them was Beaumont. He was their mentor, and they met at his house. And he’d say ‘Let’s do this!’ and they’d all charge out into the night to do something or other.” Shatner recognized that, while most of them were working in television and in movies, none of them were major players in Hollywood. Only their mentor Bradbury had written a truly A-list film: John Huston’s Moby Dick. The rest were writing mostly B-movies. Matheson and Beaumont became involved with Roger Corman around this time, ultimately penning most of the low-budget producer’s Edgar Allan Poe films; Beaumont also adapted his mainstream novel about racism in the South, The Intruder, for Corman, and even played a small role in the film, which starred Shatner (Johnson and Nolan made cameo appearances). Even the Group’s TV work was largely on minor, now-forgotten programs. “These guys were on the fringes of success,” Shatner said. “If they had been more successful, they wouldn’t have been what they were. They were a rat pack on the fringes of the successful writers.”
But The Twilight Zone was different. It was a “prestige” production, never a ratings blockbuster in its initial run but nonetheless a show the network could be proud of—and which won for Serling two more Emmys for Outstanding Writing. The Zone’s main man was, however, quite well aware of the role of his supporting writers, whom he referred to as his “gremlins,” in the success of his show. When the second Emmy came along, in fact, Serling held up the award during his acceptance speech and, addressing his “gremlins,” said: “Come on over, fellas, and we’ll carve it up like a turkey!”
Twilight Zone was, indeed, virtually unique in the history of American TV in its respect for the written word. In an industry which routinely revises, rearranges, bowdlerizes and homogenizes the work of its writers, Zone—created and controlled by one of the finest writers in the history of the medium—stood by itself in honoring the creators’ intentions. Beaumont, for instance, reported his feelings of “amazement” at seeing his first teleplay for the series, “Perchance to Dream,” being filmed exactly as he had written it—“Nothing was changed. Not one line. Not one word.” In later years Matheson and Johnson have often expressed anger, even grief, over the industry’s callousness toward their words, but both inevitably cite Twilight Zone as one of the shining exceptions, considering it perhaps their happiest experience ever in Hollywood. Serling was smart enough to realize that when one hired masters in the field, it was best to let them control their own work—and as a result, with only a handful of exceptions in the program’s 156-episode run, the script accepted for production was exactly the script filmed. It is this “writers first” policy that allowed such unforgettable episodes as Beaumont’s “Long Live Walter Jameson” and “Shadow Play” and Matheson’s “The Invaders” and “Death Ship” to be broadcast in precisely the form their authors intended.
Serling himself became part of the casual alliance of writers who floated around the inner core of the Group, attending Beaumont’s parties and occasionally joining in with workshopping someone’s story. But the glamorous and now world-famous Serling never quite fit in with the rest, despite their affection for him. “He was just a different kind of guy,” Marc Zicree says. “Somewhat more vulgar. Serling was always a wonderful, sweet-hearted man, but he was of the Hollywood scene…a ‘guy’s guy,’ kind of in the Hemingway mold.” Nolan remembers Serling’s awkwardness in trying to fit in with the Group: off-balance at not being the center of attention (as he was in virtually any other situation at this point in his life), he often embarrassed himself by telling off-color jokes that landed with a thud. “Rod was making a big effort to be liked,” Nolan remembers. “He wanted people to like him and thought they would if he played it funny.”
One writer who had decided he didn’t much care for Serling’s sense of humor, or indeed anything else about the man, was Ray Bradbury. Despite the fact that at the onset of Twilight Zone Bradbury was listed as being a major contributor, he had only one teleplay (“I Sing the Body Electric”) produced for the series. Other scripts were rejected, and soon Bradbury was criticizing Serling and the series for ostensibly plagiarizing his work as well as that of other science fiction writers. “Bradbury got so angry about this kind of thing,” Nolan says, “that he broke off his friendship with Rod.” Serling had his defenders, however, who wondered if Bradbury’s irritation might not have been fueled at least in part by professional jealousy. But whatever the merit of Bradbury’s assertions—and they are debated by fans of both writers to this day—they did not keep Twilight Zone from continuing to rack up awards (including two Hugos) on its way to becoming a cherished television classic.
Meanwhile, adding to the confusion, Charles Beaumont had begun using ghost-writers—for Zone as well as magazine pieces—when he found himself overwhelmed with writing commitments. Newly successful and seemingly unable to say no to any good offer, Beaumont took to farming out many assignments to his less-established friends in the Group. One such “ghost” was George Clayton Johnson.
“When Beaumont would overwork himself,” Johnson says, “and had too much to do, and being faced with being exposed because he’s taken money, contracts have been drawn, he’s made agreements…he would take his problems” to the Group. The other writers would take on Beaumont’s overload, splitting the money with him 50-50, so that between his script and article assignments, Johnson says, “You’ve got people like Bill Idelson writing one, OCee Ritch writing one, Tomerlin writing one, Sohl writing one, me writing one.”
Jerry Sohl admits that Beaumont paid well for their services, but there turned out to be a catch with the TV work: “We forgot that he would get the residuals and we would get none of the rerun money.” During his life Beaumont was always careful to pay his ghosts their agreed-upon share, but tragic events would soon overtake this process and the writers found their residuals drying up. Sohl, who ghost-wrote such classic episodes of Twilight Zone as “The New Exhibit” and “Living Doll” for Beaumont, estimates that he lost at least $25,000 because of this. And yet it is a testament to the Group members’ love for their friend and mentor that no one pursued the matter later. “It would have been taking food out of the Beaumont children’s mouths,” Sohl comments. “None of us complained. Not a single one of us.”
In any event, the Zone made its writers highly visible in Hollywood, and most worked on other series at the same time. Beaumont received credit on Alcoa Goodyear Theater and One Step Beyond, while Matheson, Bradbury, and Beaumont all worked for the Alfred Hitchcock show—which also featured the work of a gregarious, humorous writer who had come to Hollywood in the late fifties in the wake of one of his novels being adapted into a film by Hitchcock. The film, released in 1960, was Psycho; the novel’s author, Robert Bloch, would often host the Group he referred to as the “Matheson Mafia” at his home. He went on to write many of the finest episodes of the Boris Karloff Thriller series, for which Beaumont, Matheson, and Tomerlin also contributed scripts.
As the Group prospered, a young writer named Harlan Ellison arrived in Hollywood fresh from a stint as co-editor of Chicago’s Rogue magazine, for which he had purchased the work of Johnson, Tomerlin, and other Group members. He was also friendly with Chad Oliver, whom he visited many times in Texas. But his greatest closeness was with Beaumont, whom he got to know when Beaumont would come to Chicago on business for Playboy or to auto race. In fact, Ellison says, “It was Chuck who got me into sports cars. I bought a gun-metal blue Austin-Healey… and almost got killed! Chuck always laughed at the way I raced. He called me a leadfoot.” Ellison’s career as a sports car racer was mercifully brief.
His friendship with Beaumont, however, proved more enduring. Although by the time he arrived in the Los Angeles area—on New Year’s Day, 1962—Ellison had already published several books in a variety of genres, he did not yet enjoy the major reputation that would come a few years later with such stories as “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” and ” ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” Indeed, he says, “When I got to Los Angeles all I had was, literally, ten cents in my pocket. That’s not hyperbole, that’s exactly how much I had. And I used that money to call Chuck.” The two men met at a local pool hall, and over a game Beaumont imparted two pieces of wisdom to Ellison about writing for Hollywood which the young apprentice was never to forget.
The first was to encourage Ellison to always continue writing books and stories and essays, no matter how much money Hollywood might throw at him. Why? “Because,” Ellison remembers Beaumont saying, “the industry does not understand where these things come from. They don’t understand how books and stories are made. If you do nothing but scripts and teleplays, very soon they will come to think of you as one of their bought whores. But if you keep writing books, they will look on you as a Prince From a Far Land.”
The other observation was more caustic. “Attaining success in Hollywood,” Beaumont told Ellison, “is like climbing a gigantic mountain of cow flop in order to pluck one perfect rose from the summit. And you find after you’ve made that hideous ascent—you’ve lost your sense of smell!”
Sadly, by this point in his life the overworked and harried Beaumont had begun to feel that he was losing his own “sense of smell.” Robert Bloch remembered the writer at this time as “a tired, driven man who, by his own account, was in the process of fleeing Hollywood for good.” He intended, he told Bloch, to go to Rome and finish a novel. But it soon became apparent to everyone that something other than simple exhaustion was affecting their friend and mentor, and that the novel would never be written. In fact, though few suspected it yet, Beaumont’s writing career was, even then, all but over.
Something awful was happening to Beaumont that was far beyond his feelings of burn-out in the film industry. Friends had begun to notice that he looked old, exhausted; his speech was sometimes slow or slurred; he seemed confused and forgetful. Indeed, by the latter half of 1963, he was no longer able to write. Though it was unknown to anyone at the time, the brilliant, irreplaceable Charles Beaumont—a mere 34 years old—was beginning to suffer the symptoms of the condition that would ultimately claim his life: Alzheimer’s disease.
“The saving grace to it,” John Tomerlin said in 1987, “if there is one to a disease like that, is he was not really aware, after the very beginning, that there was anything wrong with him. When he first began to show strong symptoms of it, he would have kind of momentary flashes of great concern, as though he saw something happening and couldn’t understand what it was. But it was a fairly gentle process.”
Gentle perhaps, but terrifyingly swift. In Ellison’s succinct phrase, “It was as if one of his own horror stories had attacked him”—aging him both physically and mentally with astonishing speed. William F. Nolan shares a particularly sad story; once, in the latter part of 1963, he was with Beaumont and Tomerlin at Musso and Frank’s Restaurant in Hollywood, with the intention of all of them taking in a movie later. But abruptly, Beaumont put his head in his hands and began to cry, saying, “I can’t go to the movies, guys. I can’t think about them. I can’t follow them. I love you guys, but I just can’t go to any more movies with you…”
Soon, however, as Tomerlin indicates, the tears would vanish and he would be entirely unaware of anything being wrong. He once announced to Nolan that he had just seen a film he liked very much, called King Kong. It had been one of Beaumont’s favorite films since childhood, but he talked of it then as if he had just seen it for the first time. Marc Zicree relates that once Beaumont was sitting at home when, apparently, he set the curtains on fire. He simply sat, staring obliviously at the flames, unaware of the danger, until a family member rescued him. He would occasionally try to write, but it was impossible. Ultimately Beaumont would be confined to a rest home where, according to his son Christopher, he would eventually take on the appearance of a 95-year-old man. Friends would visit, but as time passed he recognized them less and less frequently and became increasingly confused as to his surroundings. “I would go out to sit and talk with him,” Ellison remembers, “but after a while I just couldn’t do it anymore. It was just too goddamn painful.”
Meanwhile the Group tried to carry on, but with the hub of the wheel stripped away, the spokes flew off in different directions. Johnson remembers: “With Beaumont gone, it was much more distance between us. We wouldn’t see each other as frequently. We didn’t have common ground to pass back and forth over.” The men of the inner core worked at keeping the friendship together, seeing each other from time to time, making friendly overtures—Johnson remembers Tomerlin loaning him a car, for instance, and Johnson helped Tomerlin choose a new house. But as Bradbury has written, without Beaumont, “Our old group would meet less often, and then fall away. What was central to it, the binding force, the conversational fire, the great runner, jumper, and yeller, was gone. None of us felt up to taking his place. We wouldn’t have dared.”
Alzheimer’s disease is extremely rare in men of Beaumont’s age, but few of his close friends were surprised at his early demise. Nolan feels that his friend had, somewhere within him, the knowledge that he would die young. As for Johnson, he says he knew from early in their relationship that this Prince From a Far Land was not long for the world. He describes a fragility, a delicately fey quality that Beaumont possessed, that gave him the sense Beaumont was “more of a fawn than a human being. You got the feeling, ‘If he falls down, he’ll break.'”
Beaumont “fell” on February 21, 1967, aged thirty-eight. In Bradbury’s words, “It was, indeed, never the same after that.” The Group was at an end, though over the years its members continued to see each other and even collaborate—in the small world of Los Angeles-based SF writers, it would have been almost impossible not to. Perhaps the greatest fruit of these attempts to stay together was generated when Nolan and Johnson decided to collaborate on a novel called Logan’s Run, which would be published shortly after Beaumont’s death and go on to become a genuine cultural phenomenon of the ’60s and ’70s. It was made into a wildly popular MGM film in 1976 (which eventually spawned a television series), and there were Logan fan clubs all over the country. In many ways, Logan’s Run marked Nolan’s and Johnson’s emergence from the long shadow of their brilliant friend. But there was a sadness that Beaumont was not alive to share their success.
In addition, Matheson, Sohl, Johnson, and Theodore Sturgeon re-formed the Green Hand as an actual corporation in the mid-1960s, with the express intention of bringing quality SF to the small screen. Sadly, none of their proposals were actually produced, but all of these writers, as well as Ellison and Bloch, eventually worked on Star Trek (though some discovered that Gene Roddenberry did not share Rod Serling’s respect for the written word). Matheson and Bloch both worked on Serling’s early ’70s series Night Gallery. Nolan adapted Matheson’s stories for the acclaimed Trilogy of Terror TV-movie in 1975. Matheson adapted Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles for a TV mini-series in the late ’70s. Johnson and Matheson shared screenplay credit on Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1983, for which Bloch provided the novelization. Ellison served as Creative Consultant for the CBS revival of Twilight Zone in 1985, a series which featured episodes (remakes as well as original scripts) from the likes of Serling, Bradbury, Beaumont, Johnson, and Ellison himself. And in 1988 there appeared a massive fiction collection, Charles Beaumont: Selected Stories, which featured affectionate reminiscences from most members of the old Group. The interconnections have gone on and on, including even Johnson’s and Matheson’s helping place Rod Serling’s Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But after Beaumont, no one pretended that there was a Group.
“We just seemed to go our separate ways after Chuck died,” remarks Jerry Sohl. “I think Bill Nolan and Chuck are what held the thing together. We still talk to each other now and then on the phone, but that’s about all. Richard Matheson brought most of us together for a dinner early in 1990. We enjoyed it. But it was not fated to be repeated, I guess. Even today, when I run into Bill, he and I say we ought to get together, but we never do.”
Today many members of the Group remain active and working, but others, including Serling, Bloch, Oliver, and Ray Russell have passed on. And since the surviving members are no longer, in George Clayton Johnson’s words, “a bunch of excited kids” who need to lean on each other for support – most are now in their seventies – the passage of time has led to distance between some of these men. But the memories remain warm of time well-spent all those years ago. “We see each other at conventions now and then,” Johnson says. “We smile at one another. We talk about the good old days.”
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