Serling’s Re-Zoning Efforts: “The Four of Us Are Dying”

Ever assume, when you first watched The Twilight Zone as a kid, that Rod Serling wrote every episode?

I’ve had a number of people tell me they thought that, and let’s face it: It is a logical assumption. He personally introduces each tale, and they all conclude with his distinctive voice wrapping up the proceedings with a memorably wry comment or two.


But no, other fine writers contributed some terrific stories. Still, Serling wrote a staggering 92 of the 156 episodes, or nearly two out of every three. No wonder he admitted to feeling burned out as the series entered its home stretch.

Not every Serling script was an original, however. Sometimes he adapted the works of other writers. He’d pay for the rights to a story, then turn it into a Twilight Zone.

This might sound like relatively easy work, but it wasn’t. In many cases, he took the basic idea and turned it into a script that barely resembled its ancestor.

Such was the case when Serling turned George Clayton Johnson’s story “All of Us Are Dying” into “The Four of Us Are Dying” for Twilight Zone‘s first season.


Johnson would go on to script some classic TZs himself, including “A Penny For Your Thoughts”, “Nothing in the Dark”, “Kick the Can” and “A Game of Pool“. Many more TV and movie credits would follow. But for now, he was an unknown writer who’d penned the tale of a man with a miraculous ability to disguise himself.

His agent had renamed the story “Rubber Face”. And Serling thought it had potential.

It’s easy to see why. The idea of a man who could change his face instantly to resemble almost anyone, only to have it backfire on him in the end, is very intriguing. As an irony-laden fantasy, it fit right into the Serling-verse.

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But it needed quite a bit of work before it could become a Twilight Zone. Commented Johnson:

I was enchanted with what Rod Serling did. I was amazed at the detail and richness he added. He used my little short story as an armature for his statue. I knew my story very, very well, and I watched the way that Rod Serling had sort of taken the windshield wiper off of my car and stuck a new car under it. I think he did an admirable job, and I know I learned a lot about adapting short stories for television by watching what he did with my story.

So what did Serling do? For starters, he gave the main character motivation. In Johnson’s story, he goes from person to person, each one recognizing him as someone else, but he seems to be doing it simply because he can. Serling has him check into a hotel with “some newspaper clippings, an odd talent, and a master plan to destroy some lives.”

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In the story, he doesn’t appear to have much control over the changes, let alone a plan. It’s almost as if drawing close to a particular person causes him to magically morph into someone who has some importance to him or her. That’s interesting, but Serling’s take is more sinister. It also makes the ending seem more like a case of poetic justice than mere bad luck.

And in a touch that could only come in literature, we don’t know that he’s changing his face until more than halfway through the story. There’s a bit of a “huh?” factor for the reader as each person he meets addresses him by some other name. For TV, of course, this wouldn’t fly. In Serling’s adaptation, we know what he can do from the beginning.

Virgil Sterig, the hood who confronts the crime boss who had him killed? All Serling. The main character in the story does meet a woman who carries a torch for him, but their meeting isn’t nearly as touching as when the trumpet-playing Johnny Foster reunites with poor, lovestruck Maggie.

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Perhaps the most telling change comes at the end. In each case, he’s killed. In the story, it’s because he pulls into a gas station and the attendant recognizes him as a man he vowed revenge on years earlier. Why, exactly, we don’t know, but he proceeds to bludgeon the man with the pump handle.

It’s a grisly little twist to be sure, and filled with Hitchcockian irony. But it lacks the pathos of Serling’s dénouement, as an outraged father guns down his son, a boxer named Andy Marshak, for what must be some incredibly bad family history.


As we watch his face change from identity to identity, Serling concludes:

He was Arch Hammer, a cheap little man who just checked in. He was Johnny Foster, who played a trumpet and was loved beyond words. He was Virgil Sterig, with money in his pocket. He was Andy Marshak, who got some of his agony back on a sidewalk in front of a cheap hotel. Hammer, Foster, Sterig, Marshak — and all four of them were dying.

But Johnson, now $500 richer, had seen his story brought to life. And a TZ classic was born.

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

About Paul

Fanning about the work of Rod Serling all over social media. If you enjoy pics, quotes, facts and blog posts about The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Serling's other projects, you've come to the right place.

Posted on 03/31/2014, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Classic – I loved this episode. The first time I saw it, I don’t think I understood what had happened. Of course that was before VCR/DVRs so there was no good way of knowing.

    • I know what you mean. Almost every TZ benefits from a re-viewing or two, and “The Four of Us Are Dying” is no exception. Great episode.

  2. Sounds good to me, Boss! “Third From The Sun” is such an interesting episode. I’d very much enjoy seeing how it started out. :)

  3. I’ve seen this one recently and just yesterday I’d thought how dark the ending was, even for a Twilight Zone. Death is no stranger to TZ, Robert Redford even played Death himself.

    But here, the father guns down his own son in cold blood. For sort of vague reasons we’re just itching to know the answers to. I wonder if there were any reviews at the time about it?

    Nice post, and I enjoyed learning about the original story. Some of my favorite writers have penned scripts for TZ, Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury – and I’m just reading now the bit of bad blood between Serling and Bradbury over the episodes.

    To me, they were all 3 fantastic writers with very similar themes I love.

    • Oh, yes — it’s definitely a dark episode. Talk about bad family history. Interesting question about the contemporaneous reviews — I don’t know, and now I’m curious. Perhaps if I find something out that’s of interest, I’ll share it in a future post.

      As for the writers, Serling certainly had the right idea — work with the best, and you can’t go wrong. Though as you indicate, in the case of Bradbury, things certainly DID go wrong. It’s a shame, but sometimes when two intensely talented people meet, sparks fly. I’ve been planning a post about the Serling-Bradbury “bad blood,” but I don’t know how soon it will emerge — it’s a tough subject to tackle. Anyway, stay tuned.

  4. One of my personal, fondest, TZ (and film noir) – related memories took place at a Film Noir festival I attended in Palm Springs years ago.
    After the original “D.O.A.” was shown to the theater audience, one of the hosts interviewed the magnificent Beverly Garland on the stage. Somehow, the conversation drifted to “The Four of Us Are Dying,” and, while Ms. Garland was musing about the episode, she drew a blank when she tried to think of the name of the actor she played against.
    Since I was seated in the front row, I had the privilege of reminding her that the actor she was thinking of was Ross Martin. Needless to say, she flashed a vintage, ”movie star smile” when she thanked me.
    Later that night, I checked into my hotel with a big smile, an odd feeling, and a master plan to repeat this story whenever possible.

    • What a great memory! I wish I could say that I’d met Garland or any of the other TZ stars. Nice closing line, btw. :)

  5. Steve Chung

    The morphing out of control reminds me of the Ray Bradbury Martian Chronicles story where a Martian is cornered by a crowd and dies from becoming different things to different people at the same time.

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