“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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

***

Photos courtesy of Wendy Brydge. For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on TwitterFacebook or Pinterest. You can also get email notifications of future posts by entering your address under “Follow S&S Via Email” on the upper left-hand side of this post. WordPress followers, just hit “follow” at the top of the page.

Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

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About Paul

Hard-working, hard-playing fan of all pop culture, especially the Twilight Zone. Which led to a Twitter page. And then to a blog. And then to ... stay tuned. Yes, that's a picture of Rod Serling, not me. You can find the real me under the "Your Host" tab on my blog, along with biographical details that, while 100 percent accurate, sound kind of boastful and braggy. Sorry.

Posted on 07/19/2011, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. I love this episode. What saves it from being overly sentimental is Ed Wynn’s acting. He doesn’t come of preachy or angelic. He simply plays the character as a regular guy doing what is right. And that’s what makes his sacrifice at the end so satisfying to me because it’s reassuring about human nature.

    • Good point! I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but you’ve just shown how Wynn’s way of acting, far from detracting from the show, actually adds to it. We’re more likely to want to pull for a “regular guy” triumphing than for someone who’s a natural pitchman. Well said!

  2. At the risk of being branded a TZ heretic, this one I wouldn’t mind seeing remade with an actor who really could handle the role of Bookman. Ed Wynn is a giant and a legend, of course, but as a fast-talking, sharp-witted pitchman,he’s just not convincing. But the premise is a winner. I could imagine someone like Robin Williams in his prime pulling it off – who I’d cast as Bookman today, I don’t know, but surely some comic out there could handle it.

    Still, enjoyed your post about it very much!

    • Hey, you’re talking to a man who’s written a post saying he doesn’t really like the ending to “Time Enough at Last”. I welcome “TZ heretics” of all stripes around here!

      You may be right about someone else playing it more convincingly in a remake, but I know Serling wrote this story with Wynn in mind, and — taking into account what the commenter above you just said — I wonder if a remake with a more skilled actor really would be better. Hard to say!

      In any event, I’m glad you liked the post!

      • How uncanny that you would choose today to reply to my comment from last year, in which I mentioned “Robin Williams in his prime.” So sad. But I do still think he could have pulled off this role in spectacular fashion in a modern update. I wonder who could do it now, in his absence? I am not up on currently “hot” comedians. If Steven Colbert were willing to break his character for another one not himself (as, presumably, he will be when he moves to CBS), he might be good. He is capable of great earnestnes as well as hilarity, and that’s what Bookman should be.

        Thanks for the reply! And I always like your posts, even if I am not always ready with a comment!

      • Yes, I noticed that too! But I didn’t want to mention anything about him specifically. Partly because it’s so sad, but also because I didn’t want to emphasize how ludicrously late I am with some of my replies.

        I used to be TERRIBLE about it. I’m much better now. I reply to comments on my new posts far quicker. I’ve also been going back through my old posts and bringing THEM up to date as well. Hence today’s reply!

        I’m generally leery of remakes, but yes, an actor who’s skilled at both comedy AND drama might do a nice job here. Colbert, sure. Maybe Will Ferrell? You never know.

        So glad you always like the posts, comment or no!

  3. This is definitely not one of my top TZ episodes. However, there is something remarkably endearing about it. The story, the way it’s executed, and most importantly, how it concludes so sweetly.

    You did a beautiful job capturing all of that here in your post. Very nice. :)

    • It’s not in my top TZ episodes either, but I agree. I think it appeals so much because it illustrates so well Serling’s deeply human touch — a touch that makes TZ far more than just a collection of off-the-wall stories. Odd things happened, to be sure, but for a higher purpose. And here, the purpose is indeed a sweet one, as you say.

      I’m very glad the post appealed to you so greatly. :)

  4. I was trying to figure out how I missed this until I realized that it wasn’t July 19th last month :). Thanks to Gal Friday for tweeting this as her pick of the week. This is one of the episodes that, when it shows up in the marathon line-up, I figure i’ll go do something else. Somehow, I always end up watching it. This reminds me of the O’Henry story The Last Lea (or something like that).

    • Yes, the date display I chose doesn’t show the year for some reason! But I prefer to have the month written out, not just the number. Oh, well. Glad you got to read this post, regardless. :) And yes, funny how some TZs that don’t look like grabbers at first glance have a way of pulling you in!

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