If Rod Serling was the Twilight Zone’s social conscience … then Charles Beaumont was its chief storyteller. Charles Beaumont’s son discusses his father’s life and tragic death, his motivations and muses.
By William P. Simmons
Previously published in Cemetery Dance magazine, reprinted by author’s permission
A writer whose inner conflict, impressive depth of imagination, and mature understanding of the human condition allowed him to approach subjects of subversive terror, whimsical fantasy, and cynical speculative fiction with an honesty and evocative sense of imagery rare in any field, Charles Beaumont was a writer’s writer, weaving words like a primal Shaman to better make sense of a world that often eluded understanding. That he did so with wit and intelligence is evident by even a cursory reading of some of his short stories of the supernatural. That he did so with intense emotion, heart, and a love of his characters (both human and otherwise) is best seen in the evocative, highly stylized, and stunningly original scripts which he wrote for Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone during that show’s five year run.
While the stories that Serling often contributed to his series where stamped with his own undeniable love of humanity and talent, they were just as often recognizable by their political emphasis and social conscience. If Rod Serling, the father of the Twilight Zone, was its social conscience, crafting moral allegories, fables, and fantasies with clearly formed messages often delivered and stressed in the dialogue of characters, than Charles Beaumont was its chief storyteller, more concerned with crafting an entertaining provocative story for its own sake than with putting fourth political dissertations. While there is no lack of cultural urgency, contextual meaning, or social commentary in Beaumont’s scathing and suspenseful forays into the Twilight Zone, even those episodes with the most pronounced possible leanings value characterization, pacing, and story structure over crass moralization.
Credited with writing 22 episodes of the Twilight Zone during his all too short and tragic life, Charles Beaumont is responsible for several fine moments of fantasy and terror. His outsiders, loners, and men fighting against shadows both of the supernatural and the worst part of themselves often challenged the perceptions of viewers, the standard boundaries of genre, and people’s pre-conceived perceptions of the world – perfect for a series whose primary power laid in its ability to attract writers capable of subverting reality and questioning the appearances of logic, science, and superstition. Beaumont’s scripts – leanly written with convincing dialogue, quick pacing, and the feeling of dark modern myth – went one step further. Questioning not only the nature of, and difference between, reality and fantasy but, in addition, the very dependability of perception – that tool by which human beings define both themselves and the possible worlds of flesh and spirit around them – his scripts seemed to specialize in cultural outsiders whose internal and external differences, purposely or inadvertently forced them at odds with a malign universe, each other, or themselves.
Beaumont’s life was as odd as his fiction. Born Charles Nutt in Chicago (1929), he lived with his parents until age twelve, and by all counts the strangeness and isolation of this part of his life led to the development of his adventurous, somewhat eccentric personality and interest in the fantastic. Becoming a young man of great ambitions, Beaumont longed to become an actor, an artist, and a writer. Thankfully he also had more than just a smidgen of talent, and when he appeared in Los Angeles he began the struggle to break into print. Working a variety of jobs, and married to Helen Broun, it was here, amidst the struggle and wonder of the movie industry that he would meet Ray Bradbury and begin a relationship of several years. It was also here that he soon fell in with other influential authors of what would become known as The Southern California Group, which consisted of such genre legends as Richard Matheson, William F. Nolan, Jerry Sohl, and various other writers who would shape fantasy fiction.
Publishing short stories, novels, and other pieces in increasingly better (if not always well paying) markets, Beaumont and Richard Matheson joined forces when breaking into the television market, scripting together shows for the Golden Age Of Television, including work on such iconic pieces as “Have Gun, Will Travel” before being called in by Rod Serling to contribute to his new fantasy series, which the gentleman did separately. When folks are asked to name writers whose work they most enjoyed on that series, Bueamont and Matheson come second only to Serling. Although George Clayton Johnson and Jerry Sohl wrote some of the scripts credited to Beaumont, including “Living Doll,” which was for years unknown to have been Sohl’s work, Beaumont’s legacy stands tall, and his contribution to the language and excellence of the fantastic unquestionable. Writing 22 episodes of the series, Beaumont’s are widely acknowledged as the Zone’s most terrifying, artfully deceitful, and archetypical visitations into the supernatural and occult, with the rich symbolism and world timeliness of “The Howling Man” and the dark humor of “Printer’s Devil,” based on his own short stories (something he and Matheson often did), leading the pack. Preoccupied with such complex issues as alienation and self identification, Beaumont’s scripts attacked expectations. There is no way of not reacting to the profound terror and joy of such classic scripts as “In His Image” or “A Nice Place To Visit.” No possible way to casually ignore the existential terror of “Elegy,” “Perchance To Dream,” or the joyful, unrepentant oddness of “The Prime Mover.”
The worlds of television, film, and literature lost much of their elegance and immediacy of emotion when he passed away on February 21, 1967 of Alzheimer’s. Outside his short stories, the Twilight Zone scripts remain some of his beloved works. Works that for the first time ever will be collected by editor Roger Anker for the two volume THE TWILIGHT ZONE SCRIPTS OF CHARLES BEAUMONT, published by Gauntlet. We were lucky enough to speak with Chris Beaumont, a fine writer in his own right, speak about his father’s work and the Twilight Zone scripts that will preserve the visions of one of fantasy literature’s greatest practitioners.
* * *
WS: Gauntlet Press will be publishing, in two volumes, The Twilight Zone Scripts of Charles Beaumont in the next few years, edited by Roger Ankers. Why did you give your permission for this undertaking?
CB: I gave my permission for these Twilight Zone scripts to be published because I think my father would be thrilled to know that there’s still interest after all these years. Anything that keeps his work alive is okay by me, as long as the work is presented in an appropriate venue.
WS: What are your hopes for these books?
CB: My hope is that these books will remind people of a time when television took the kind of chances that Twilight Zone represents. It will also, I hope, introduce a new generation to the stories that appeared on the show.
WS: Your father is credited with writing 22 episodes of the Twilight Zone, and is considered one of the major writers for the series, next to Richard Matheson. What role did the Twilight Zone play in your father’s life? Your family in general? What pressures or pleasures has it exerted in your own?
CB: I remember my father referring to the Twilight Zone as a gift. I think he knew how fortunate he, and Rod, and Rich Matheson were to have found a place that so suited their style of writing. Those years were quite magical around our house. I remember the excitement that built each week, whether it was one of dad’s or Rich’s, or whomever. I think they all felt a part of something wonderful.
WS: What appealed to your father about the medium of television? What did its structure and imagery allow him to express not available in other creative formats?
CB: I think my father’s feelings about the medium of television were ambivalent at best. He had some success before The Twilight Zone, but even back then, in the late fifties, there were network executives to deal with and my father was used to have a pretty free hand with his work. I think it’s one of the reasons he appreciated The Twilight Zone so much. It was a relatively new area for television and so Rod had quite a bit of power to protect his writers. As far as the structure and imagery of television, I think that, in addition to tapping into some really terrific writing, Rod also put together a fantastic crew of directors, production design and art directors that created a very distinctive look for the show. My memory is that all the writers were pretty pleased with what they saw on the screen.
WS: Charles and Richard Matheson collaborated on several television and film projects, including the television series “Buckskin,” “Have Gun Will Travel,” and “Wanted Dead Or Alive” before working separately on their retrospective Twilight Zone episodes. How do you feel they worked together?
CB: Rich Matheson and my father had a wonderful, rare friendship that included collaboration, healthy competition, as well as mutual support for each other throughout their years together. They not only complimented each other style-wise, I think they inspired each other to do their best work. Even though I was very young at the time, I remember many nights at our home when Rich, as well as Bill Nolan, John Tomerlin, Chad Oliver, and many others would read each other’s work aloud and offer suggestions. It was a rare time and I think Rich and my dad decided to work separately on their Twilight Zone scripts because so many of them came from short stories that they had each written on their own.
WS: What would you say were the major differences in your father and Matheson’s work?
CB: I think the main difference between my father’s work and Rich’s is that Rich is always had a keen interest in the metaphysical that was only of peripheral interest to my father. Not that my father didn’t use it as a device to illuminate a character or plot, but I don’t remember him having the kind of interest that Rich has had throughout his career.
WS: What are your earliest memories of your father? Your last?
CB: My earliest memories of my father are of his incredible energy, his passion, and his love for telling stories and investigating all the dark, and not so dark, corners of what it is to be human. My last memories of my father are, sadly, are of the slow, painful diminution of that life force.
WS: On another personal note, could you share with us some of the fondest memories you have of your father? Likewise, can you offer us one of the saddest?
CB: My fondest memories of my father include the raw excitement that possessed his being when he had an idea that he wanted to share with the family; some trip he planned in the last five minutes and for which we should prepare to leave in the next fifteen. The saddest memory is watching the light in his eyes begin to slowly dim as he disappeared into Alzheimer’s.
WS: How – if at all – was Charles Beaumont the writer different from Charles Beaumont the man?
CB: I don’t think there was much difference between Charles Beaumont the writer and Charles Beaumont the man. His stories came from his heart and soul. They were crafted, and labored over, but the genesis of all of them was his view of the world and the passion he brought to it.
WS: What would you like people to know about your father as an artist? As a man?
CB: I hope people remember my father as an artist who had a keen interest in his fellow man and a rare ability to reveal hidden parts of our common experience, and to do it with humor as well as compassion. As a man, I think Charles Beaumont will be remembered by those who knew him as someone with enormous energy, a generous heart and tremendous courage.
WS: What did Charles Beaumont contribute to the arts? To the fiction of fantasy?
CB: Charles Beaumont was an integral part of a group of writers who were pushing, against tremendous odds, to make fantasy and science fiction a part of mainstream literature. When he, and Matheson, and others were starting out, it was incredibly difficult to get legit publishers to take them seriously, artistically or financially. But by putting out the kind of quality work they did, and with some help from magazines like Playboy, they were able to create a base of fans who, years later, made Stephen King a multimillionaire. But nobody knew that was the way things would go, and still these guys continued to write from their hearts.
WS: Charles wrote around 22 scripts for the Twilight Zone. What particular merits or characteristics do you believe his scripts had that make him unquestionably his?
CB: When I think of a Charles Beaumont Twilight Zone script, I think of the questions he posed. Where Rod was such a master of the twist ending, I think my father saw the show as an opportunity to ask profound, philosophical questions in the guise of a good yarn. What is the nature of evil and does the evil really exist? (“Howling Man”) If a robot experiences emotion, is he still nothing more than a robot? (“In His Image”) So many of his scripts asked questions that need to be asked, and then left the viewer to come up with his own answer.
WS: Did the furious work pace of your father ever clash with family life? Why do you feel he wrote so excessively and quickly, as though he was in race with himself?
CB: My father did indeed write a pace that seemed to come from some foreknowledge of his early death. The only discipline problem he had was his frequent inability to turn down work that he couldn’t possibly finish on time (hence his “farming out” assignments to friends). And, of course, his work schedule did conflict with his family life. I have a fantasy that, had my father lived, he might have slowed down a bit and spent more time with his four children. But what he gave his family was so full of love, and passion, that we all seem to have managed to put together our lives quite well.
WS: Charles created some of the best loved, most memorable segments of the Twilight Zone, including “In His Image,” “Perchance To Dream,” “Passage On The Lady Anne,” and “Miniature.” A) Which do you believe are his most powerful works?
CB: My personal favorite of my father’s scripts is “Passage On The Lady Anne.” I’m not sure if it’s the best crafted or the most brilliant of all his work, but I was present at it’s inspiration and so it has always had a place in my heart. The idea was born on a trip to Europe that we took as a family. I was only seven years old at the time and I was the only child on board. My parents were, as in the episode, younger by decades than most of the other passengers, and I remember my father, at dinner, wondering out loud whether we had accidentally wandered onto a “farewell tour” of an old and stately ship.
WS: His most confessional or personal?
CB: Unfortunately, my father didn’t live long enough for me to ask him such questions. My guess would be that “Miniature” was an expression of his own insecurities, his own feelings of being an outsider in this world, trying, like most writers, to create a better one with his pen.
WS: How closely did your father’s art imitate his life, and his life imitate his art?
CB: It’s uncanny how Twilight Zone-esque my father’s life turned out. In “Long Live Walter Jamison” we see a man age before our very eyes. And, sadly, that’s exactly what my family, as well as my father’s friends, had to watch as the effects of his disease inflicted a sort of “fountain of youth” in reverse.
WS: Which aspects of his work and imagination called to you, and continue to entertain and speak most deeply to you?
CB: As I mentioned before, my father’s ability to pose the most interesting philosophical, and sometimes theological, questions in a wonderfully entertaining story.
WS: What was your father afraid of? What did he love? And was writing at all therapeutic for him?
CB: My guess is that my father was afraid of boredom. Luckily he never experienced it. His loves were numerous enough that Ray Bradbury referred to his mind as a “Pomegranate, bursting with ideas.”
WS: Describe how you are involved in the arts and entertainment as well? What traits of your father do you see in yourself?
CB: My father died when I was sixteen years old. My mother dies three years after that. With three children to support I did the one thing one should never do for the money; I became an actor. Somehow I was able to earn enough to give us all a fairly nice life until my youngest brother came of age and left the house. After that, I turned to writing and have made a living as a television writer ever since (although science fiction has never interested me, other than as a reader).
WS: Tragically short-lived, unjustly forgotten, yet remarkably talented, how would you say that the literary vision and distinct voice of Charles Beaumont still influences fans and professionals? How did his work in fiction, television, and screen-writing effect his peers?
CB: The kinds of questions posed and the kinds of stories told by my father will never go out of style. We will always need to ask ourselves; what is the nature of good and evil, or temptation and surrender. What does it mean to be human?
WS: The art of story telling in general?
CB: I can’t tell you how many of my father’s friends get misty when they speak of him. He was the “hub” to a wheel of creative men who remember those days as the best in their lives.WS: And to be more specific, the genres of horror, fantasy, and science fiction?
CB: I think my father’s style of writing was, and is, a unique blend of humor and the deadly serious. I know that Stephen King, as well as other current writers have cited my father, as Rich, as major influences on their style.
WS: How would you say his spirit and character, his personal life, affected or influenced those around him? Loved ones and fellow writers? Can you offer any specific examples where Beaumont’s work or personality assisted another?
CB: Harlan Ellison just called me a few months ago to share a story of his first days in L.A. Someone had given him my father’s phone number and he called with literally one dime in his pocket. My father dropped what he was doing, took him out for a round of pool, a meal, and set him up with some contacts that got Harlan started in town. Harlan just wanted me to know, all these years later, what that meant to him. There are dozens of stories like that.
WS: As the story goes, Ray Bradbury was Beaumont’s writing teacher, inviting him to his home every Wednesday night to critique a story. Some critics suggest that Bradbury’s influence is easily detectable in Beaumont’s fiction? Is this true? How important was Bradbury to your father?
CB: I think Bradbury and Beaumont, while their styles are, in my opinion, quite different, share an incredible joy of discovery, and a fearlessness about looking in all the corners to find a twist or a turn in a story.
WS: Speaking of the Twilight Zone, how did your father relate to, feel about, Rod Serling? The Twilight Zone itself?
CB: I think that my father felt warmly towards Rod. He was a dinner guest on several occasions and I’m pretty sure most of the writers appreciated the freedom they had on the show and Rod’s part in securing that.
WS: Beaumont’s scripts and stories charted the secret geography of nightmare and dream, merging the realistic with the fantastic, often blurring the lines between each. Would you agree? If so, for what personal or artistic reasons?
CB: I know from friends that many of his stories were transcriptions of episodes that visited his dreams. Even before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he suffered terribly from headaches and insomnia.
WS: What can you tell us about your father’s childhood? How influential was it on his craft and growth?
CB: My father’s childhood was a mix of joy and horror, much like the elements found in his work. He was raised, in large part, by four aunts whose idea of fun was to fake their own death to see his reaction. He seems to have turned this macabre treatment into a style of writing and a body of work. I guess he got the last laugh after all.
WS: Beaumont’s fiction and the Twilight Zone scripts often merged the beautiful with the nightmarish, illustrating the paradoxical relationship between both. In which stories do you most see this?
CB: All of them.
WS: A concern for humanity, interest in character, and love of the fantastic is apparent in “Perchance To Dream,” “A Nice Place To Visit,” “The Howling Man,” “In His Image” and various other Twilight Zone scripts. What do you feel were his primary goals when writing for the Twilight Zone? For writing in general?
CB: As you say, a concern for humanity, an interest in character, and a love of the fantastic. I would also add to this list, a lack of patience with exclusion, and a loathing of hypocrisy.
WS: Your father appeared to favor stories that suggested borderlands of experience – slips, if you will – between realms of normalcy and the imaginary, such as the arguments between realism and the imagination, logic and desire, in such scripts as “Perchance to Dream” and “Miniature.” Why?
CB: It’s impossible to answer, and perhaps even more impossible not to ask whether or not my father’s stories didn’t come from, at least in part, an altered state of mind that was the beginnings of the disease that finally took him. Would he have written the stories he wrote, and written them at such a furious pace, if he didn’t somewhere know his time was short? I don’t know. Personally I would like to think they came from the man, not the disease.