This day, 60 years ago, October 2, 1959 saw the debut of a television show so brilliant in its writing, direction and acting that the show was a 5-season hit and has played in syndication for all these 60 years since, spawned feature films, and reboots of the series, and the merchandise for this series is now bigger than ever, with toys and action figures, books, games, of every type.
The iconic title design is immediately recognizable. The theme music so memorable that it has become a conversational sound effect to indicate an unusual detail in a chat. The plot staple of ironic twist endings, of supernatural (mostly), science fiction (some) and straight thriller stories (three) has been endless imitated, never equaled. It won several Emmy's, for writing of course, but also for cinematography. What that show could do with the seasoned MGM crew, mostly holdovers from Hollywood's heyday, in three days - the production time of each 30-minute episode - was more than most independent movie crews could do in six months; some episodes make any experienced director or cinematographer breathless with exhaustion just watching the homage to Hollywood-style crane shots: up, down, in, out, twist around, turn, hit the mark as the actors hit theirs, one after another after another. An astounding show of versatility - crane shots take time to get right. they need to be plotted and rehearsed so everything falls together naturally on-screen, following the actors who need to remain in-character without having to find their mark as they watch the camera hit its mark. No wonder it grabbed the Emmys.
Fledgling independent movie makes, working with equipment off the store shelf unthinkably sophisticated compared to the huge, bulky machines of more than half a century ago have no excuses when it comes to not making magnificent movies. Standing in the background in-control and center stage as the episode's opening and closing host was Rod Serling, already at that time a well-respected name to be reckoned with while still in his early thirties. A modest man who never took deep bows despite his fierce devotion to the principles and ideals of which he so passionately wrote; the dangers of communism, the evils of racism, the sentimental foibles as well as the malicious, scheming capabilities of men and an obvious deep devotion to God. He had an ability to write confrontational dialogue with the very finest who ever pounded the keys of a typewriter. Indeed, almost all his scripts are highly confrontational. His ability to create brilliant structure for the 30-minute anthology format remains unmatched. Even the many CBS TV Twilight Zone "reboots" after Serling's death are weak, trite nonsense which ride with undeserved grandiosity on the back of a classic name. The show is more than any other aspect, well-regarded for its story ideas. Serling has been heralded as a genius whose ideas stood out from the pack for 60 years. However, is he really the moistly-singular brain behind those ideas? Alas, no. This writer/producer/director inadvertently stumbled on the source material of Rod Serling's supposed original ideas. Our jobs in this business can often be tedious excursions in life highlighted by explosive breaks which make it all worth while. It was while working on some visual effects - sometimes slow and ponderous - and rather tired of the usual thing we all do - listen to music - I started listening to old supernatural radio shows from the 1930's through the late 1940's to pass the time a bit easier. And I happened upon one called "Quiet Please".
Quite Please was written by a former great Hollywood screenwriter, Willis Cooper, later Wyllis Cooper. Cooper scripted, among others, the classic "Son Of Frankenstein", giving a human human thread to the characters which the wildly imaginative first two Frankenstein features lacked (though the second, The Bride of Frankenstein is universally hailed as a true classic), Sitting and working while listening to the original source of many a Twilight Zone idea after Twilight Zone idea much to my jaw-dropping astonishment and admitted somewhat profound disappointment, it was apparent that a huge hole had been left in the history of this show. To wit, where is Willis Cooper's acknowledgement?.
This kind of thing happens all the time in the entertainment business, frankly. Otto Mesmer got paid almost nothing for creating and animating the gigantically popular Felix the Cat for John Bray Studios in the 1920's and Disney's knock-off of Felix., Micky Mouse, was the foundation of an empire. Disney also took credit for creating the first animated feature film and the creation of the multi-plane animation camera, both pioneered by motion picture's first Dame of animation, Lotte Reiniger and her husband, (again in the 1920's, this time in Germany), the feature being The Adventures of Prince Achmed, an absolutely enthralling piece of work by a single animator. The auteur genius and my childhood hero and eventual pal Ray Harryhausen did get his due for his "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" being the inspiration for Godzilla, but not the hundreds of millions of dollars Toho made from the latter. I'm sensitive to this subject because I was badly ripped by Hollywood myself. Watch Universal Soldier, sometime. If they want to sue me for saying that in print, I look forward with exuberant anticipation to the discovery process. I understand Ray's eventual anger for that reason - the passing of years has only intensified the sting.
Rod Serling lifted not just ideas, but practically entire scripts from Cooper's radio show.
I must say not all is negative and I particularly admire Serling because in a world where it has become, in some twisted aberration, currently fashionable to mock Christians as supposedly unsophisticated and uneducated, Serling made endless dialogue references to God in meaningful ways - and of course Act III of the Twilight Zone episode The Obsolete Man is practically almost all quotes from scripture, a screenplay that is Serling's but derives from Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. This happy fact rather proves along with Bradbury and others that men of deep faith are not uneducated, bigoted, shallow or any number of other currently growing horrific stereotypes, mostly put forth by big-government socialists and communists of the type Serlings' The Obsolete Man warned about. For the record, Cooper's scripts were often even more faith-based and anti-communist than that.
But the fact is that some of the radio shows Serling was obviously listening to as he spent his formative years in Ithaca New York, tuning in to the radio dramas out of New York City were not merely inspirations. Here are a few examples of Cooper's work really - I must say it - ripped off by Rod Serling:
1. The person who is more or less haunted by themselves as a child, a story with a twist ending.
2. The person who escapes unhappiness by going back into time, an imaginary world or their own past. (Serling bled this one to death and one of the TZ writers, Richard Matheson, practically made a sub-career of revisiting that same theme endlessly, over and over, including the feature film "Somewhere In Time"). A story with a twist ending.
4. The nerdy computer genius geek whose computer has a romantic crush on him. A story with a twist ending.
5. The history teacher who is 2,000 years old and is found out by virtue of his vivid descriptions of the past. (not written by Serling but I bet anything that that was an assignment treatment given to Matheson, I think, to be written as a screenplay) A story with a twist ending.
6. Dead Man's Shoes is in concept and partial execution a TV version of Cooper's Quiet please radio episode, Wear The Dead Man's Coat. A story with a twist ending.
Since this is Twilight Zone's 60th Anniversary, this writer won't accumulate an unseemly catalog of apparent plagiarisms of "Quiet Please", What some may see in this article as taking from Rod Serling is actually giving what is due to Willis Cooper, whose radio shows are sometimes spellbinding because of the strength of the writing. Indeed, many radio historians regard Willis Cooper's Quiet Please as the finest radio anthology drama ever done, surpassing even the very famous "Suspense" I am not a radio historian, but I do know good writing, and I agree.
This writer does not believe that Serling was possessed of that for which people give him the most credit; imaginative IDEAS. On everything else he had the power of a king at the typewriter. This is why, I believe, his later NBC supernatural anthology "Night Gallery" essentially failed. The type of story he was lifting from - already "old fashioned" 20 years before the Twilight Zone - were hopelessly out-of-vogue by the late 1960's and he had nothing appropriate from which to borrow.
What Serling did was give us was, at its best, probably the best dramatic TV show, in this person's opinion, that has ever been made. Many critics agree and that is an enormous, historic accomplishment. But no man is a mountain. Every creative lacks some element of absolute and total auteurship that when discovered, takes a bit of the sheen off the dramatists' heroic armor. Rod Serling was a human genius of the highest caliber, but still human and I am sure many of his scripts were born from his own imagination. But he did not do it alone.
The ghost of Willis Cooper is still waiting for his appreciation. It's 60 years past time he got it.