“Light and Shadow”: A Look at Twilight Zone’s Directors
“The Twilight Zone will be directed, written, produced, and acted by television’s elite.” —Serling before TZ premiered
I focus heavily here on the writing of Rod Serling and other talented authors — and rightly so. Their imaginative scripts were the launching pad for some of the most memorable and timeless television ever filmed.
But you need more than that to create a Twilight Zone episode. To truly bring the fifth dimension to life, you need first-rate actors in front of the camera, and a top-notch crew behind it.
I couldn’t help reflecting on the crucial role played by the head of that crew, the director, when I heard that James Sheldon had died on March 12. His many credits include six TZ episodes, three of which are bona fide fan favorites: “A Penny For Your Thoughts”, “Long Distance Call” and “It’s a Good Life“.*
Consider how vividly Sheldon framed the world of tiny tyrant Anthony Fremont. He heightens the tension of Serling’s script by focusing on the anxiety-ridden faces of his actors, bringing us every nervous glance and tight-lipped stare.
And when Anthony finally turns Dan Hollister into a jack-in-the-box, Sheldon contributes one of the most well-remembered sequences of the entire series, alternating between shots of Dan in close-up and silhouette as the other party guests look on in horror.
Billy Mumy, who played Anthony in the second of three roles on The Twilight Zone, recalled the director working with him to develop that menacing glare when he sent someone to the cornfield. So in a sense, whenever one of us does an impression of his trademark “You’re a bad man!” scene, we’re paying tribute to Sheldon.
Other talented directors brought a sharp visual style to the Zone. Try to imagine “The Howling Man” without the transformation-between-the-pillars scene that Douglas Heyes insisted on. “The Dummy” without the tilted camera angles that Abner Biberman used in the alley sequence when Willie is tormenting poor Jerry. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” without the directorial flare of Richard Donner. And so on. Almost every TZ was expertly helmed by a true professional.
This situation was no happy accident. It was the direct result of Serling’s determination to hire the best people, then turn them loose to do what they did best. As Heyes later said, “Rod encouraged you to do whatever you thought would be imaginative with his scripts.”
Fortunately for us, “television’s elite” were up to the challenge. Good thing, too. If it were up to Anthony, we’d have nothing but dinosaurs to watch every night.
*The other episodes: “The Whole Truth”, “Still Valley”, and “I Sing the Body Electric”.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!
Posted on 03/31/2016, in Twilight Zone and tagged A Penny For Your Thoughts, It's a Good Life, James Sheldon, Long Distance Call, Nightmare at 20000 Feet, Rod Serling, The Dummy, The Howling Man, Twilight Zone. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.