Casting a Kanamit: Finding the Voice for a TZ Classic
No list of iconic Twilight Zones is complete without “To Serve Man”. Even people who have only a passing familiarity with the series know what Michael Chambers found out when the book that gives the episode its title was translated.
Among the elements that stand out — besides that legendary twist ending, of course — are how the Kanamits look, and how they sound. Regal. Benevolent. Trustworthy.
Getting the right voice was crucial. Richard Kiel, who was filmed in such a way that he could play every Kanamit, had a chance to do it. But like David Prowse, the actor who played Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy, Kiel was destined to be only seen and not heard.
“They had it in the contract that they could use someone else’s voice,” Kiel said, “but I was given a chance at it. I remember being very tired after hours and hours of makeup and filming, and I guess I didn’t do that great a job at it.”
In his place, they used Joseph Ruskin:
That job came up from out of the blue. They called me because they knew me from ‘The Man in the Bottle’. I had no idea what the part was about. I wasn’t involved in the filming, and I hadn’t seen any shooting. I simply went in cold and read it, recorded the lines. As soon as it aired, people said to me, ‘It was marvelous’, and I said, ‘What was marvelous?’ I hadn’t seen it! It took me five years to get around to seeing it.
Ruskin was an inspired choice. His voice had a marvelously theatrical timbre. More importantly, it “worked” both before and after the shocking reveal at the end. Initially, he projects quiet authority that is (seemingly) tinged with care and concern. Once Chambers knows the secret, though, Ruskin colors it with sinister sarcasm and a bemused villainy. It’s a terrific acting job.
Yet the man responsible for it didn’t get a chance to enjoy it for several years. What a contrast to how easy we have it today. We can pull up just about any movie or TV show online, and enjoy it when and where we please. But Mr. Ruskin couldn’t do that in 1962. Besides, he was just doing a job.
That mindset comes up remarkably often, I’ve found, among the actors and actresses who starred on The Twilight Zone. Sure, many will admit that they knew the material was special and that it brought out their A-game. But they also express at least mild amazement that the work endured and became so beloved the world over.
Television was treated more like a disposable commodity then. Much of it was cranked out — something to be enjoyed in the moment, not preserved as a cultural touchstone. The idea that any show, even one written by Rod Serling, would live well into the 21st century would have surprised even his greatest fans.
“It was the age of Santa Claus,” Mr. Chambers tells us in “To Serve Man”. And the marvelously entertaining and edifying Twilight Zone was perhaps the best gift of all.
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