Serling and Shatner’s Jokes Behind the Scenes of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”
I’ve written before about what a great sense of humor Rod Serling had. But one thing I didn’t mention was how much he enjoyed practical jokes. Don’t let his serious expression fool you!
Here’s one of my favorite stories, courtesy of Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion. It occurred shortly after the first broadcast of one of the most iconic episodes of the whole series, Richard Matheson’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”. According to Serling:
Matheson and I were going to fly to San Francisco. It was like three or four weeks after the show was on the air, and I had spent three weeks in constant daily communication with Western Airlines preparing a given seat for him, having the stewardess close the [curtains] when he sat down, and I was going to say, ‘Dick, open it up.’ I had this huge, blown-up poster stuck on the [outside of the window] so that when he opened it, there would be this gremlin staring at him.
So what happened was, we get on the plane, there was the seat, he sits down, the curtains are closed, I lean over and I say, ‘Dick —’ at which point they start the engines and it blows the thing away. It was an old prop airplane… He never saw it. And I had spent hours in the planning of it. I would lie in bed thinking how we could do this.
Can you even imagine what Matheson’s reaction would have been? What a great gag. It’s too bad it backfired, though I’m sure he and Rod had a lot of laughs long after that day, just recalling the attempt.
But that wasn’t the only practical joke that someone involved with “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” tried to pull. And unlike Serling’s, this one worked perfectly.
Richard Donner, who directed the episode, tells the story in Martin Grams’s book “The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic”:
[William Shatner] was a great nut. We were always putting each other on and having the time of our lives. On that last day of shooting, he was visited on the set by Edd Byrnes, ‘Kookie’ from 77 Sunset Strip. We were all exhausted — it was quite late — and when my back was turned, Shatner and Byrnes decided to stage a fight. I happened to look up at the wing of the airplane and saw this fight going on. I started running over, of course, and just when I got there I saw Byrnes hit Shatner, who went over the wing of the airplane, down 40 feet to the [water] tank below!
What I didn’t know was that they had dressed a dummy in Shatner’s clothes. All I could think at the time was, screw Shatner, now I have to reshoot this whole thing!
But Shatner is a wonderful guy. I enjoyed working with him tremendously.
The atmosphere on-screen was anything but jovial, but I think the tremendous sense of fun behind these jokes helps explain why this episode is so incredibly entertaining. Wonder if anyone tried to give the gremlin a joy-buzzer handshake?
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!
Posted on 09/18/2020, in Twilight Zone and tagged Marc Scott Zicree, Nightmare at 20000 Feet, Richard Donner, Richard Matheson, Rod Serling, Twilight Zone, Twilight Zone Companion, William Shatner. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.