Identity Crisis: Figuring Out the End of Twilight Zone’s “A World of Difference”

There are times when watching The Twilight Zone is something of a Twilight Zone experience itself.

Actually, it’s not the watching that does that. For me, it’s apt to happen when I’m discussing an episode with other fans, and I find that their explanation of an episode differs completely from mine.

Take Season 1’s “A World of Difference”, which stars Howard Duff. I recently took note on my Twitter page of its March 11 anniversary. As always, I gave a brief synopsis: “An actor whose real life is a mess decides that the idyllic role he’s playing is reality.”

I’m used to hearing people say they like or don’t like an episode. But this time, I also got reactions like this:

  • “Wait, he’s the actor? I thought the real guy just fell into the Zone and had to get out.”
  • “I still don’t know how to interpret the ending.”
  • “It always made me unsure which was real and which wasn’t, but I suppose he was only playing the role he believed to be his real life.”
  • “Wait…for real?! He was really the actor all along? I’m so confused!”

At this point, they weren’t the only ones! It honestly never occurred to me before that the episode could be viewed in any other way.

This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. Remember Season 4’s “The New Exhibit“, with Martin Balsam playing the curator of a “murderers’ row” at a creepy wax museum? (And if you don’t remember, check it out on Hulu or on DVD/Blu-ray ASAP. It’s excellent.) When new homicides take place, Martin (his character’s first name as well) is convinced the figures are guilty.

I, however, was certain that he was the murderer. He was only imagining in his unbalanced mind that the figures were at fault. But quite a few fans insist it’s the other way around: the figures are somehow coming to life to commit the crimes. Martin is just their patsy.

This debate led me to conduct a poll, and sure enough, a majority said the figures were responsible for the murders. I will admit that, the more I thought about it, the more I could see their point. I mean, it’s The Twilight Zone. Maybe the weirdest explanation is the right one!

For me, the explanation behind “The New Exhibit” could go either way. I think I blamed Martin because this episode makes me think of “Psycho” (thanks in part to Balsam starring in both, no doubt). In Hitchcock’s classic chiller, you have a murderer who is convinced someone else is responsible for the crime. I thought that was happening here.

I’m more convinced, though, that I’m right when it comes to “A World of Difference”. I’m not saying the other explanation is untenable. I guess Arthur Curtis could be the real person, a man who somehow fell through an inter-dimensional wormhole and found himself in this alternate identity as Gerald Reagan. I just think the other explanation makes more sense.

That’s partly because the writer is Richard Matheson. Matheson had a terrific imagination, but his stories usually weren’t that complicated. Indeed, part of his genius is how he could take a simple, wild idea and drop it into an otherwise realistic scenario — as in “Nick of Time” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, among others — and turn it into an unforgettable story.

That, in my eyes, is what we get in “A World of Difference”. An actor whose real life was too much to take snapped, and he assumed the identity of the character he was playing on film — whose life was near-perfect.

And because this is the fifth dimension, he got his wish. It worked.

Of course, he could be rocking away in a mental ward somewhere, and what we saw of him happily walking off with his film wife only happened in his mind. But either way, the real-life Gerald Reagan became Arthur Curtis.

Besides, doesn’t that slot in better with other Twilight Zone episodes, like “A Stop at Willoughby”, where someone whose life is too stressful finds a way to escape?

Naturally, I’m curious to hear what you think. Who was the real person, Reagan or Curtis? Feel free to sound off below.


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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 03/20/2020, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 32 Comments.

  1. What confused me is the airplane vanishing at the end of “World of Difference”. What did that mean?! Because the episode opened on the role rather than the actor, I always assumed the “role” was real.

    And “Third From the Sun”. Is that a happy ending, that they’re escaping nuclear holocaust to go to Earth — or is it a wicked ending, because they’ll be no better off on Earth during the cold war?

    • I think the plane was just a filler shot (it’s stock footage, after all) to illustrate his flight from reality. Because it’s in his mind, and not an actual plane, they gave it that vanishing effect. A nice touch, to be sure. As for the episode opening on the actor, that’s an interesting point. But I think it was simply to fake us out.

      As for “Third From The Sun”, it’s an ironic ending — we’ve assumed all along that it’s Earth, and they’re escaping OUR Cold War, but no — it’s another planet in the same predicament … and they don’t realize they’re about to find themselves in the same situation on OUR planet.

  2. I’m in your camp! Paul. Had never thought about the alternate perspective.

  3. “It’s a floor wax!”
    “No, it’s a dessert topping!”
    “No, it’s a floor wax!”
    “Hold on, you two–it’s BOTH a floor wax AND a dessert topping!”

    I quote this dialogue from one of the earliest Saturday Night Live “fake” commercials with Chevy Chase to make my point about “World of Difference,” one of my Top 10 bedrock Twilight Zone episodes, and one of the most metaphysically defining episodes of the series, because it posited the essential, existential questions: Are we living in a benevolent universe, where we have free will, or a malevolent, pre-destined universe, where we’re acting out a pre-written “script” of our lives? What is reality? Is life “but a dream,” as the nursery rhyme goes?

    All of the preceding is found in the terse 25 minutes of Matheson’s “World of Difference.” Because we’re presented with 2 distinct realities coexisting at once, like Schrodinger’s Cat: Arthur Regan, happily married, successful businessman, and Arthur Regan, unhappily divorced, alcoholic actor. Matheson plays it perfectly, walking the audience along a taut tightrope, trying to decide which is the “true” reality.

    By returning to the movie studio after Regan “disappears,” Matheson gives equal weight to whether the movie crew’s reality of Regan, as much as Regan’s “happy” life, is the “real” reality.

    • I’m glad to see a serious treatment of this seminal episode. I rate it very highly as well, and feel that it tends to be overlooked. It’s so well-written, acted, and directed, with quality touches like the theremin on the soundtrack — all of which is the icing on the cake of an episode that, as you note, clearly gives us a lot of think about.

      And yet when I conducted a poll a couple years ago, asking fans to pick their favorite Matheson-penned episode, this one was the only one to not get a single vote. I couldn’t believe it. That means someone picked, for example, “Young Man’s Fancy” over this. And “Mute”. Astonishing.

      Loved the quote from that classic SNL bit, btw. “It’s delicious!” … “And just look at that shine!”

      • Paul, don’t get me started on why TZ fans like or don’t like certain episodes! Episodes in my bottom-156 are in other’s Top 10s–and vice-versa! fyi, here’s what i wrote about the episode last year when I gave my 60th Anniversary of the TZ VisuaLecture:

        Matheson’s first-season “A World of Difference” is another ur-Twilight Zone episode, because it asks the metaphysical query, “How thin a line separates that which we assume to be real with that manufactured inside of a mind?,” raising age-old philosophical questions about destiny versus pre-destiny, whether man has free will in a benevolent or malevolent universe, while presaging the later-Sixties psychedelic reaction to life being like a movie.

        Actor Howard Duff gives another one of those stark-ravingly believable Twilight Zone performances, as either, 1. a businessman whose life has suddenly become a movie set (paging Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show), or 2. an actor who, to a movie crew filming him, has gone crazy and believes he is actually the businessman he’s playing; Matheson leaves it up to the audience to decide which is the “true” reality.

        A couple of other episode highlights: watch actress Eileen Ryan ripping Duff’s actor character, and the scenery, to shreds, and you’ll know where the intensity in her actor son, Sean Penn, comes from; the original soundtrack by Van Cleave, with a classic Twilight Zone-esque hook; and the noirish photography by one-off D.P. Harkness Smith.

      • So true — when it comes to fan reactions to episodes, I’ve heard it all. Classics get trashed, while “turkeys” (as Serling put it) get praised. It’s crazy.

        Thanks for sharing your write-up of AWOD, Arlen. I enjoyed your presentation at Serling Fest last year. That metaphysical query puts me in mind of other Zone favorites as well, such as “Shadow Play”. Interesting to see how the writers would handle this in different ways depending on the story at hand. This episode, obviously, makes us wonder how much free will we actually have, and yet in “Nick of Time”, Matheson seems to suggest we ARE, in fact, in charge of our fate — that if we’re not, it’s an illusion. Like the couple we see at the end, our apparent imprisonment is actually a choice.

        And yes, Ryan does a fantastic job ladling on the nastiness. Puts her in the TZ bad-wife pantheon with Mrs. Bemis and Mrs. Williams.

  4. Reminds me of the varying explanations of the end of the movie (and novel), Shutter Island.

    • Yes, loved Shutter Island! Though that one seemed to me to have a settled real explanation as well. But man, who knows anymore? xP

      • Yes, I thought it was a pretty definitive ending, too…ditto for the novel, but I’ve heard that some viewers/readers have come to a different conclusion.

  5. Okay, so which Rod Serling is real? The writer who wrote all the TZ episodes, or the one that narrates and is IN the actual Twilight Zone, as in “A World of His Own”?

    Quit asking the tough questions, Paul, or I’m gonna have to toss your tape…. ;-)

  6. I agree with you on this one, Paul. Escape is a common (and one of my favorites) theme. My favorite escape also occurred in Season Four – Miniature.

  7. I admit I didn’t understand this episode and am still kind of confused by it. I think that the actor’s life was real and he was imagining becoming the character he played? But how did he BECOME the character in the end? That’s what I don’t get. Or am I just not understanding this at all.

    • I think you’re right—the actor’s life was miserable, so he assumed the identity of the character he was playing. As to how it happened, hey, it’s the Twilight Zone!

      • That’s how I saw it. Glad you agree. You’re right, that’s a reasonable explanation for everything! Haha.

  8. @arlenschumer Thanks for that cool trivia on Sean Penn’s artistic lineage– never knew he’s actress Eileen Ryan’s son. Did you know Sally Field is the daughter of the actress who played the wife in “The New Exhibit?” I was present at a book tour lecture, where she mentioned it.

    • Nice! Hope you got a chance to meet her.

      Another interesting TZ-related lineage that you probably saw me mention on Twitter: “A Stop at Willoughby” star James Daly is the father of Tyne and Tim Daly.

      • I did, and she was very warm and friendly. Yes, knew about James Daly– another very talented family.

      • And all three Dalys had TV series on CBS Monday nights at 10pm/9pm CT: James Daly on Medical Center, Tyne Daly on Cagney & Lacey and Tim Daly on the short-lived Almost Grown.

      • Interesting! C&L is the only one that rings a bell.

      • Yikes, am I the only one that had to google Schrodingers cat reference?😣 Learn something new everyday on here! But now that I’ve educated myself, I see how it can apply.👍😊

      • Oh, I’m sure others need to look it up too, so don’t feel bad! I know only the basics myself. 😛

  9. Well I just watched the episode for the first time. My assumption is that the intent was to balance the two dimensions/lives so that it wasn’t defined which was real. If that wasn’t desired it could have been resolved in a clear way. True we see more of Gerry Reagan than Arthur Curtis’ dimension, but we open and close in what seems to be Curtis’ (yes, the ending is ambiguously so). I hold to the two dimensions theory after first viewing, although in a realistic/psychological approach either could be a dream/delusion, that theory does tend to put more weight on the troubled Reagan wanting to escape into the world of his movie role Curtis, though it’s also defensible to think that the plausible work-a-holic Curtis might have office-afternoon dreams of being a Hollywood star, only to find them nightmarish.

    One interesting choice: Curtis stuck in Reagan’s world never tries to “play along” in order to get what he wants or to escape to more calmly access the situation. On balance that testifies for the deluded/fanaticizing Reagan rather than the interdimensional and rational Curtis stuck in Reagan’s dimension, but the acting in other TZ episodes and the constraints of the short playing time could be another reason for the somewhat hysterical tone: to heighten drama and don’t touch that dial audience engagement.

    Quantum mysticists would love this episode I’d think. Who knows, that pine box mentioned in the ending narration could have held a cat.

    I did laugh when we learn that the actor’s name is Gerald Reagan, which is a less than actionable sound-much-like to Ronald Reagan. IMDB and perhaps the quickly-spelled name during the write the check scene say it isn’t spelled Reagan. Anyway, I could only think of the 20th century bumper-sticker/campaign button thing that said only “Jane Wyman was right”.

    • Good to hear from someone who only recently watched this episode. Some interesting thoughts here, Frank. You know what camp I’m in when it comes to what’s “really” going on here (to the extent we can ever know), but the idea of twin dimensions is an intriguing one, and one that would slot in quite comfortably with other episodes, from “Mirror Image” to “The Parallel”.

      That’s part of what makes TZ so much fun to fan over: the more you watch it, the more you find to chew on. I haven’t combed through all my posts to check, but I’m 99% certain this is the first time anyone’s mentioned Schrödinger’s cat!

      • Yikes, am I the only one that had to google Schrodingers cat reference?😣 Learn something new everyday on here! But now that I’ve educated myself, I see how it can apply.👍😊

  10. Tim Daly was also in sitcom I used to like, called “Wings”

    • I know “Wings” well! Watched it when it was new (being a fan of anything in a Cheers/Frasier vein), and rewatched the whole series from start to finish on disc a couple years ago. Fun stuff!

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