Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight”: A Knock-Out
When we think of The Twilight Zone, we naturally picture alien contact, time travel and other mind-bending occurrences. But if TZ offered little more than weirdness, would it have become such a classic? Would we be eagerly watching marathons decades later?
I don’t think so. A crucial element beats beneath its supernatural surface, one that helped make it a legend: a heartfelt concern for the little people.
Think of Henry Bemis, the mild-mannered bank teller who just wants time to read. Or Al Denton, the alcoholic gunslinger tormented by memories of a lethal shootout. Or Henry Corwin, the sad-sack Santa who longs to help the people in his poverty-stricken neighborhood.
The list goes on, but they all started with a man who made his debut on Playhouse 90 on October 11, 1956: Harlan “Mountain” McClintock.
Mountain takes center stage in “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” a live TV play that earned Rod Serling his second Emmy. “Patterns” had turned him into the proverbial overnight success, but a few middling follow-up dramas left some critics wondering if he was a flash in the pan. “Requiem” proved he was no one-hit wonder.
“A play of overwhelming force and tenderness,” Jack Gould called it in his next-day review in The New York Times. “It was an artistic triumph that featured a performance of indescribable poignancy by Jack Palance in the part of the inarticulate has-been of the prize ring.”
When Serling was asked in a 1975 interview what works he wanted to be remembered for, he named three. “Requiem for a Heavyweight” was one of them.
Don’t like boxing? Don’t let that deter you from watching “Requiem.” It’s not a black-and-white “Rocky.” Not by a long shot. It doesn’t feature even one scene inside the ring, in fact.
That’s because it’s not about boxing. It’s about what happens to the champions in any sport who get chewed up, spit out and left by the side of the road — used and discarded by impatient fans, unscrupulous managers and other exploiters determined to make a quick buck by any means necessary.
We meet Mountain at the end of what’s been a successful career in the ring. But he’s been battered so badly in his latest match that he can barely stand. It takes the ring doctor, though, to deliver the final blow. One more fight, he says, could leave Mountain blind — or dead.
He’s finished. Washed up. So what does he do now? Boxing is all he knows. That’s the struggle that Serling — himself a successful boxer when he was in the Army — wants to explore.
Will Mountain yield to his manager’s demands and take up wrestling, even though he’s horrified at the thought of donning a costume and taking part in staged fights? Or will he listen to Grace, the sympathetic woman at the unemployment office and head back home to find more dignified work?
Actress Kim Hunter (the future Zira in “Planet of the Apes”!) plays Grace, and she does a terrific job. Keenan Wynn, who would later star on The Twilight Zone as a playwright with a tape recorder who can bring characters to life, takes the part of Maish, the manager.
But it’s Palance who makes the show so memorable. The pathos he pours into the role is remarkable. You can hardly believe you’re watching a man act. He’s that good.
It’s a measure of how outstanding “Requiem” is that it features another performance that’s almost as strong: Keenan Wynn’s father, Ed, as Army, Mountain’s “second,” or ringside assistant. He provides a much-needed voice of conscience, chiding Maish for trying to farm Mountain out as a wrestler simply to settle the debts he racked up voting against his own boxer. (TZ fans know Wynn best as the pitchman battling Death in “One for the Angels.”)
The elder Wynn’s performance is so sure-footed, especially for a vaudeville comic making his dramatic debut, that it’s hard to believe how close he came to being replaced. His initial rehearsals were reportedly so shaky that many people, including his own son, were worried that he’d flub the role badly, right in front of a live nationwide audience.
But something told Martin Manulis, the producer, to stick with Wynn. So the other cast members kept trying to hone his performance. They clearly succeeded. Some of the most memorable moments are due to his heartfelt turn as Army, who is determined to look out for Mountain and help him maintain some dignity.
“Requiem” was later turned into a 1962 movie with a completely different cast. It’s a fine production, but it’s not the same as the original teleplay. If you’re a Serling fan, you owe it to yourself to check it out. It’s on Criterion’s “The Golden Age of Television” DVD set (which also contains Serling’s “Patterns” and some other excellent teleplays), but it’s usually on YouTube as well:
“Its basic premise was that every man can and must search for his own personal dignity,” Serling later wrote. “I thought there was particular poignance in having an ex-fighter begin this kind of quest because his background provided him with the least possible chance.”
It’s ironic that Mountain’s toughest fight came only when he left the boxing ring. Good thing he had Serling in his corner.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!