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!

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 09/18/2020, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I love stories like this, Paul. It’s so easy to think of these guys as being all work and no play. It’s good to know they enjoyed their work.

  2. Lol! That was a fun read and neat to know Rod had a great sense of humor.

  3. Those are too funny! Shatner still has a sharp sense of humor despite all the negativity people online spew at him. Now I’m sorry Rod’s prank blew away! haha. But imagine the person who found that poster? I wonder if anyone ever found it and wrote about it?

    • Ha, I didn’t even think about that! What a keepsake. And imagine — whoever got it would have no idea it came from Rod Serling himself. 😧

  4. As Dan mentioned above, I love hearing how actors (or anyone else for that matter) like to mess around with each other! You just don’t always consider that kind of thing! I just gotta share one such incident I was involved in, years ago:

    When I was in USAF satellite training off-base back in 1985. We’d all get a break and take turns driving to a restaurant to eat. Well on Grave Shift one night I was volunteered to drive this time. I didn’t think anything of it. So we all head out to my truck—and it was gone! *WTH*, I’m scratching my head and doing all the “I KNOW I parked it right there!” kinda moves and everyone’s helping me look for it. Soon I say that, “Well, guess I better call the cops,” when everyone can’t hold it in any longer and bust out laughing. Then one of the guys, named Don, holds up my keys in front of my face! Well sunofa—

    And that was the last time I ever kept my keys in a jacket pocket!

    But I got even.

    A year or two later, after we transferred out to Schriever AFB, I’d heard that one of the AF Shift Commanders for the Security Police (SPs) was always up for a great gag. So, I called him. Asked him if he’d “hold up” Don E. and make his entry into the base…a “wee bit difficult.” Sure thing he said! So we made plans.

    A short time later, Don doesn’t show up on time for Shift Change, and I was his Crew Commander. Everyone’s wondering what happened to Don, so I told em. Some 15 or so minutes later in he STORMS. Man, I still laugh at this to this day, as I write this! Don’s a large guy, and he was absolutely fuming and cursing and I come over and say something like, “So, Don, what happened?” And he tells me how when he showed up to get inside the Restricted Area, the SPs began heavily scrutinizing his credentials and holding him up and getting all in his face. One or two extra SPs even started moseying on over, M16s at the ready and really gave him the business—with him holding up the line of folks trying to get into work! Then they pull him out of the line and started really shaking him down! And I can just see him fuming and trying to keep his cool and everything as a First Lieutenant with all these enlisted men and/or women with weapons giving him grief!

    Finally I bust out laughing and told him: “Hey, Don—how does it feel?!”

    The whole room bust out laughing, and let’s just say, Don was not immediately impressed with my shenanigans…but he never messed with me again. :-P Which was a bummer, because stuff like that was always a blast and took the edge off the job.

    Thanks for your post and hope you don’t mind me sharing that!

  5. In an interview (I believe in Twilight Zone Magazine in the 1980’s), Matheson says the story of Serling attempting to stick the gremlin poster on the plane window wasn’t true, that he and Serling never flew anywhere together as they never had any reason to.

    • I’ve heard that, yes, though I don’t have all the issues handy, so I can’t verify it at the moment. But if it’s a matter of whose recollection to trust, I’m going with Serling.

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