On July 4, SyFy ran a Twilight Zone marathon. I recorded all the episodes I could and have been watching them when nothing much else is on. Twilight Zone is one of those great shows where many of the episodes have become famous cultural icons, often imitated or referenced in other shows. One famous episode is “It’s a Good Life” featuring a little kid who sends people “off to the cornfield” (his mother is played by Cloris Leachman, who became famous on the Mary Tyler Moore Show). Another is “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” an early role for William Shatner (who would become Captain Kirk a few years later), where he sees a gremlin on the wing tearing up the plane he is in.
It had to be difficult to make a show like this. You needed a different plot, a different cast, and different sets for every show. With TV seasons much longer back in those days, Rod Serling and the other writers had to come up with an awful lot of ideas, held in check by a pretty low budget and a 30-minute timeframe. Honestly, some episodes didn’t need the full 30 minutes. One famous show, “Eye of the Beholder,” was about a horribly ugly woman whose face has been treated to make her look normal, but spends almost the entire episode under bandages. Only at the end do they remove the wraps, and in horror discover that she still looks gorgeous by our standards (played by Donna Douglas, who would become Elly May Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies), but terrible by their standards since they are all ugly (explaining why we haven’t seen any characters’ faces the entire show). That was probably a 5-minute idea stretched out to a whole show.
There have been remakes and revivals of the series, including in the 1980’s and 2000’s, as well as a movie. In the movie they remade “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” this time with John Lithgow. He was already a known actor, but would go on to star in the comedy Third Rock From the Sun where he was the leader of some aliens trying to fit in on earth. In some episodes he would be visited by his boss, played by William Shatner, and in one episode, Lithgow tells Shatner he was in a plane and saw something chewing up the wing. “That happened to me, too!” says Shatner.
So I have been watching episodes and then reading about them on Wikipedia. There are articles on every episode, some with more information than others. That is how I found out the 2003 revival series did a sequel to “It’s a Good Life,” and brought back the same actor who played the kid (Bill Mumy, who went on to star in Lost in Space) as well as Cloris Leachman. And now the little kid is grown and has a daughter, who was played by Mumy’s actual daughter. How great is that? I was able to watch it on YouTube.That revival only lasted one season though.
Like with a lot of shows, the ones people remember aren’t necessarily the best ones, just the ones with the most memorable twist or plot device. They certainly weren’t all gems either, but there is usually either some good element to them or a famous actor at least. And a lot of the acting is great. A character has to be established quickly and is often under some kind of severe stress, so these were meaty roles. Agnes Moorehead, who would get regular work as Samantha’s mother on Bewitched a few years later, was in one episode where she plays a peasant woman in a cabin fighting off tiny alien invaders (so obviously little toys) who have crashed onto her roof. One set, one actress, and the cheapest effects ever, all without dialogue. So it was something where she had to get everything across nonverbally. Any actor would love a chance at something like that. Episodes like that live on forever as classics, but for the actors it was just a week’s work.