“One For The Angels”: Serling’s Sentimental Side
The Twilight Zone has made such an indelible mark on our culture that people still use the show’s title 50 years later as a shorthand way of describing just about any weird situation.
Notice something strange? Disorienting? Out of the ordinary? It’s like I’m in the … you know.
But the show also had a strong sentimental side, which surfaced early in its five-year run. “One for the Angels,” the second episode, is a genial fantasy about a little girl who is critically wounded, and an old man who is determined to save her.
Sounds like a standard drama. And it might have been simply that if, say, the old man was a doctor researching a difficult cure. Or if the two of them were stranded in some remote area, far from modern medicine. (Not that either one of those scenarios would make a bad story.)
But this is The Twilight Zone. So the old man, Lou Bookman, is a pitchman – someone who sells odds and ends from a suitcase on the sidewalk. And he’s locked in mortal combat with … Mr. Death.
That grim conductor to the other side shows up one day to inform Lou that it’s his time to go. The intended victim naturally protests.
Lou: “Now just a minute. I don’t want to go!” Mr. Death: “No, they never do.”
Sorry, Lou is told, extensions are rare. The only one he might qualify for is “unfinished business of a major nature.” He explains that he’s never made a really big pitch – you know, “one for the angels.” Mr. Death finally relents, whereupon Lou, thinking that he’s literally cheated death, tells him he’ll be waiting a long time.
However, Mr. Death isn’t thwarted for long. When Maggie, one of the neighborhood children who dotes on Lou, is hit by a car, Lou realizes that she’s meant to take his place. Now he’s got to make his big pitch in a desperate attempt to keep Mr. Death from claiming Maggie. The outcome is never in doubt, but it’s still a pleasure to see it all play out.
Casting is key to any successful show, and “One for the Angels” boasts some real pros: Murray Hamilton (later to play a part in Night Gallery) as Mr. Death, and Ed Wynn as Lou Bookman. Wynn was already a Serling alum, having played the part of Army in the 1956 live teleplay “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (for which Serling won his second Emmy).
Indeed, Wynn’s natural charm helps us overlook the fact that he’s not the kind of fast talker you’d expect in a pitchman. His sales talk isn’t particularly smooth (though he’s got all the talking points down pat). But he’s so likeable that you can imagine buying something from him simply because he’s such a nice guy.
Some gentle humor runs throughout the episode. Nothing of a loud or “jokey” nature, just some nicely amusing moments – like the way Mr. Death gets unexpectedly swept up in Lou’s sales patter. As with “Night of the Meek,” the funny moments don’t seem forced or overdone. A notable one occurs as Lou tries to flee down the stairs of his apartment building, trying to get away from Mr. Death, only to find the latter waiting for him at each landing.
In the end, Lou, assured that he’s destined to go “up there,” goes happily to his eternal reward. (“Up there, Mr. Bookman. You made it.”) And then we have Serling’s closing narration:
Louis J. Bookman, age sixtyish. Occupation: pitchman. Formerly a fixture of the summer, formerly a rather minor component to a hot July. But throughout his life, a man beloved by the children, and therefore a most important man. Couldn’t happen, you say? Probably not in most places. But it did happen … in the Twilight Zone.
The most important phrase – the one that, for me, really makes Serling marvelously unique – is “and therefore a most important man.” All in all, a sweet, serene and satisfying episode.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!