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Touching Back: 5 Great Performances from Night Gallery

Fifty years ago last month, the pilot episode of Rod Serling’s new venture into the weird and outré debuted as an NBC World Premiere Movie to a host of expectant home viewers. Night Gallery was in the same mold as Serling’s earlier, career-defining series The Twilight Zone, an anthology fitted with the trappings of genre. The pilot was Serling and producer William Sackheim earnestly fought-for attempt to revive interest and legitimacy in the anthology as a serious dramatic form. Though they contended with much heel-dragging from the suits at Universal Studios for well over a year, their efforts were eventually celebrated when the aired pilot met with a hearty reception of high ratings and laudatory reviews. The success was enough for Universal to greenlight the proposal of turning Night Gallery into a weekly series to be aired through their NBC television arm.

While Serling was delighted with the turn of events, he made it a point to remove himself from the executive producer’s chair, recalling the back-breaking days of having devoted the better part of his life and his mind to making The Twilight Zone. In his place came Jack Laird, an Emmy Award-winning writer and producer of distinguished talent and eccentric personality. Though Serling had the benefit of getting his name on the marquee—the series’ full Christian name is Rod Serling’s Night Gallery—the relinquishment of creative control came back to bite him when it became obvious that he and Laird were interested in creating two very different shows.

While Serling pined for a program more in line with the consistency and general heft of The Twilight Zone, Laird was keener on experimentation, leaving individual artistic choices such as cinematography and even runtime to each segment’s respective creative team. On top of all this, Laird also began incorporating a series of comedic spookshow-meets-vaudeville “blackout” scenes in between the longer dramatic works that left Night Gallery feeling like a true cinematic equivalent of the paperback anthologies from which so many of its stories were culled, for better or worse.

This difference of approaches left viewers with a program that was frequently unpredictable, if not downright schizophrenic. It comes as little surprise that with so much embattlement occurring behind the scenes between Serling, Laird, and NBC that Night Gallery would come stamped with an expiration date. From the premiere of the pilot episode on November 8, 1969 to the third season’s final episode on May 27, 1973, Night Gallery’s legacy only accounts for about three and a half years all told.

But as the anthology is always eager to show us, length matters very little when compared to power of effect. Despite the program’s blip of existence in the records of televisual history, it has nonetheless gone on to inspire, embolden, and even terrify an entire museum’s worth of fans, a rabble of oddball curators and collectors to which I am proud to call myself a member.

My affair with Night Gallery began as a fleeting rumor of a “horror series” by Serling glimpsed on a GeoCities fan page, igniting an ardent search for any available means of watching the show that led to my stumbling upon the reruns that aired on Encore’s Mystery channel. (This would have been right around the time that Michael J. Gallegos’ documentary retrospective Art of Darkness was screened on same.) Nearly twenty years later and I remain enamored with it still, in some ways even more attracted to its morbid and macabre flavor than I am even to The Twilight Zone, a series that in no small way changed my life. 

On the occasion of its golden anniversary, I wanted to give a shoutout to an aspect of Night Gallery that all too frequently gets passed over when discussing anthology series—the performances. For all its creative woes and identity crises, Night Gallery was never short on top-bill talent in front of the camera, featuring appearances from special guest stars and regular character actors alike that were by turns heart-warming, blood-chilling, and all-around engrossing. 

The five entries on this list, one for each decade passed since the pilot’s debut, are by no means the be-all, end-all of Night Gallery’s thespian highlights. Once finished with the list below, seek out and indulge in the glory of Roddy McDowall (“The Cemetery”), Burgess Meredith (“The Little Black Bag”), William Windom (“They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” and “Little Girl Lost”), Vincent Price (“Class of ‘99” and “Return of the Sorcerer”), Patrick O’Neal and Kim Stanley (“A Fear of Spiders”), Leslie Nielsen (“A Question of Fear”), Barbara Rush (“Cool Air”), Rene Auberjonois and Ross Martin (“Camera Obscura”), Cameron Mitchell and Elsa Lanchester, (“Green Fingers”), Cornel Wilde (“Deliveries in the Rear”), and the dozens of other performances that populate this delightful, one-of-a-kind series. 

Don’t think I haven’t noticed that the lion’s share of the listed performances come from teleplays scripted by Serling. Yes, I have a bias, and yes, say what you will about the watch-setting dynamics of his narratives, but the man knew how to sketch characters with clear, assured strokes and fit them with gripping, musical dialogue that was wholly addictive to the ear. And while we’re taking the time to talk in asides, now seems an appropriate time to urge anyone with an interest in this program to immediately seek out Scott Skelton and Jim Benson’s seminal and authoritative work, Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour.)

As always, we invite readers to submit their own selections for approval in the comments below. But for now let us join the dapper man in the dark suit on his after-hours tour through portraits of fantasy and terror. And heed his warning about touching the exhibits, for all the performances described herein are definitely ones that will touch back. 

Richard Kiley, “The Escape Route”

Pilot

Aired November 8, 1969

Directed by Barry Shear

Written by Rod Serling

Having cut his teeth on the anthology programs of the Golden Age of television including Serling’s big breakthrough hit, “Patterns,” for Kraft Television Theatre, Kiley went on to give one of the standout performances of Night Gallery’s pilot. The fruity and ruthless villains played by Roddy McDowall and Joan Crawford in the first two segments are generally the fan favorites, but Kiley’s performance is the one that possesses the most interesting dimensions. 

As ex-Nazi general Helmut Arndt nee Josef Strobe on the run from Israeli authorities in Buenos Aires, Kiley is called on to tackle a most difficult challenge: to have the audience sympathize with a monster. Conversely, the performance acts as a challenge to the viewer, as it forces them to reckon with the fact that they may share some of the same feelings as this monster, and in that reckoning the dread figure of the Nazi moves several degrees further away from solely being a monster and closer to becoming a monstrous person. A distinction of semantics, perhaps, but an important one. The approach marks a change of pace for Serling, who had previously written his Aryan mongers from The Twilight Zone as either smug bastards (Oscar Beregi, Jr. in “Deaths-Head Revisited”) or consumed fanatics (Dennis Hopper in “He’s Alive”), allowing viewers to more easily align themselves against the black-hearted fascists.  

Arndt/Strobe proves to be no less vicious and arrogant than those two, but Serling takes a different tact here, showing us that even extermination camp officers dream of peace and freedom. Arndt’s love for the idyllic fisherman painting that he spies in an art museum whilst eluding the law is made palpable through Kiley’s physicality, his large frame and deep baritone trembling with need when considering the possibility of a final escape accomplished through complete immersion into the painting itself. When Kiley rails against the gaiety of the Spanish music filling a tavern and drunkenly breaks out in a song praising the glories of Deutschland, the viewer can almost feel sorry for him, this lost soul longing for a home. What later transpires between Arndt and a former concentration camp prisoner reminds us though of what the gruppenfuhrer is capable of, of how he views the rest of humanity from the vantage point of a raised boot.

And yet Kiley’s desperation remains hard to ignore, so much so that when the war criminal receives his just desserts after praying to any listening god to deliver him from his torment—a position that hundreds of his former prisoners were undoubtedly brought to—the immediate reaction is to both smile in victory and sigh in despair. For him and for all of us.  

Joanna Pettet, “The House”

Season One, Episode 3 (Segment 1)

Aired December 30, 1970

Directed by John Astin

Teleplay by Rod Serling, based on the short story by André Maurois 

This one is a bit of a cheat. No doubt fans of the show will be puzzled as to this performance’s appearance in place of any one of the others mentioned in the introduction. Some additional context may be needed. When I first happened upon the reruns of Night Gallery on the Encore Mystery channel, it was this episode that first met my fevered gaze. I couldn’t believe it—I had finally found Night Gallery! And “The House” was the one to break me in.

But my attraction to Pettet went beyond the rapture of discovery and the actress’ ethereal beauty. There was some quality about her performance as recently-released psychiatric patient Elaine Latimer that I found, and still find, genuinely bewitching. Though she went on to guest star for the show an additional three times (“Keep in Touch—We’ll Think of Something” with future husband Alex Cord and “The Caterpillar” in season two, followed by “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes” in season three), earning the unofficial title of “Miss Night Gallery,” this is the segment, with its blend of European art film reverie and California hippie magic, that feels the most suited to her unique presence.

Pettet’s performance feels effortless, her natural charisma bleeding through every whispery phrase and graceful movement. She herself feels part and parcel of the recurring dream her character keeps having in the story, a vision stepped whole and breathing from the land of slumber. It’s not the kind of “great performance” one normally associates with discussion of the acting craft; like my initial exposure to the episode, it’s like a hallucination stumbled upon by accident rather than an exhibition being put on for our entertainment.

It seems both strange and entirely fitting that Pettet never made her mark in the entertainment world. She had a deadly combo of sexual magnetism and a refined manner, in addition to a confident, worldly air that made it seem as if she could have done anything. She could have been a Charlie’s Angel or a Bond girl (the closest she got was a role as “Mata Bond” in the 007 spoof, Casino Royale [1967]), or a Gothic maiden on Dark Shadows or even gone on to become a treasured genre queen of the same order as Barbara Steele, capturing the hearts of thousands in the sheen of her sparkling eyes.

But none of that happened. Her acting career fizzled out following her divorce from Cord in 1989, further extinguished later by the untimely death of their son. For her modest collection of fans she has become as she was in “The House,” a vibrant memory, a haunting dream. Pettet is the ghost that haunts my mind. I suspect she always will.

Edward G. Robinson, “The Messiah on Mott Street”

Season Two, Episode 19 (Segment 1)

Aired December 15, 1971

Directed by Don Taylor

Written by Rod Serling

Forty years after he took the world by storm as the eponymous dour-faced gangster in Little Caesar (1931), Robinson traded in the tommy guns for tomato soup for his performance as Abraham Goldman in Serling’s jubilant Yuletide special. With the imminent threat of pneumonia and the rehoming of his beloved grandson weighing heavy on his mind, Goldman is gradually being crushed by elemental forces. He is not without hope though: not only does he pray that his brother Sam will repay the substantial loan he had given him decades before, but he tells his grandson Mikey that the Messiah is close at hand, ready to deliver their people to their long-awaited reward just in time for the holidays. 

Robinson’s performance as a man grasping at life is given special resonance by the fact that the episode was filmed two years shy of the actor’s death. When Goldman rages against the Angel of Death as it hovers as a shadow over his bed, it’s a beautiful and impassioned cry for the need to live, a demand to exist on one’s own terms, be they however painful or compromised. Both the actor’s age and pre-cinematic aspirations of becoming a rabbi serve him well; when he speaks of Levvitical folklore and the vagaries of growing old it all comes with the patina of experience. It’s hard to imagine Melvyn Douglas, Universal’s perplexing first choice for the role, bringing half the authenticity that Robinson does. 

Even though his character remains confined to a bed for the whole of the episode, Robinson remains just as “big” as ever, emanating a strength and a warmth that fills one up like a cup of wine. Goldman’s devotion to his grandson shines through his performance, stirring even the stoniest heart and calling to this viewer’s mind the many fond days passed in the embraces and company of my own two grandfathers. With so much loving feeling to be had, Serling’s seasonal parable could be viewed as pure sentimental pap, but the efforts of Robinson and the terrific ensemble cast of Tony Randall, Yaphet Kotto, and even child actor Rickey Powell as young Mikey help to ground the drama, allowing it to feel lived-in and true rather than existing as some cardboard Christmas pageant. 

Watching Robinson work his magic here, one wishes that for this holiday season that everyone may be gifted with the power to live as long and kick as much ass as he did. 

Geraldine Page, “The Sins of the Fathers” 

Season Two, Episode 27 (Segment 1)

Aired February 23, 1972

Directed by Jeannot Szwarc

Teleplay by Halsted Welles, based on the short story by Christianna Brand

Rare is the performance in a work of horror that has the power to genuinely unsettle the viewer; rarer still for such a performance to come from the realm of television. No role, though, regardless of genre, could be better served than by having no less than Geraldine Page taking it on. A treasured thespian of the stage and screen who collected accolades and award nominations like Christmas cards, Page was one of the biggest aces in Night Gallery’s deck, appearing in three of the show’s segments altogether: “Stop Killing Me” and “The Sins of the Fathers” from season two and “Something in the Woodwork” from season three. In both the former and latter episodes, Page remains eminently watchable even when the material itself is not always up to her caliber. Her portrayals of a frazzled, suspicious housewife and a ghost-teasing boozehound draw the viewers’ attention and keep it there for the entire show.

The irony here is that Page is proportionately on the screen for significantly less time in “The Sins of the Fathers” than the other two segments. But what use she makes of that time! Halsted Welles (3:10 to Yuma), an old hand at television writing with multiple credits from Suspense, Danger, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents among others, crafts a gripping narrative from Christianna Brand’s short story that establishes Page’s character, Mrs. Evans, in the second scene before delivering on the payoff in the grim finale. 

Page barely looks recognizable under Bill Jobe’s costuming, a nun of the moors garbed in a heap of filthy rags that shows only the pale moon of her face. Virtually everything that she communicates to the audience is rendered through expression, most powerfully through her eyes. When Michael Dunn arrives at the Evans cottage to request the service of a sin-eater and uses the promise of an exquisite banquet to coax out the famine-stricken family, Page’s eyes light up with unfettered hunger; the actress actually sheds real tears as her mouth works and salivates listening to the servant’s delicious pitch. The ensuing moment between her and her son Ian (Richard Thomas) is a master class in dialogue delivery. We can see the gears turning in Mrs. Evans’ head as she attempts to circumnavigate via conversation every obstacle that Ian throws her way, intimating all the while that there is more on her mind than what’s being said. There’s an end game here, but as of yet we can’t know what. Once again, Page has us hooked.

The part when the skin starts to crawl is when Ian returns home from taking his father’s place as a sin-eater at the table of a corpse. Exhausted and traumatized by his experience, Ian discovers that the worst of his trials are right at home. Mrs. Evans’ gears start to crank again, but through Page’s conviction in her character we come to understand her motives and see the deadly logic at play, realize that this was the only natural conclusion to the pattern established by the story’s society. Without any elaborate makeup or special assistance, Page brings to Night Gallery one of its most haunting visages when she looks upon her boy’s good work and gives the camera a beautifully terrible smile just before the fadeout. 

What a woman.

Laurence Harvey, “The Caterpillar”

Season Two, Episode 28 (Segment 1)

Aired March 1, 1972

Directed by Jeannot Szwarc

Teleplay by Rod Serling, based on the short story by Oscar Cook

In many ways “The Caterpillar” can be seen as Night Gallery’s crowning achievement. It is a culmination of creative powers at their peak: Serling’s adaptation of Cook’s admittedly ridiculous story cuts away the exploitative fat to get to chilling bone of the narrative, director Jeannot Szwarc returns from helming some of the series’ most memorable segments to masterfully conduct a concentrated study in tension, and composer Eddie Sauer delivers a richly textured score of Javanese instrumentation that paints a vivid picture of the story’s Borneo backdrop while perfectly complementing each dramatic movement. This is to say nothing of the episode’s esteemed cast, headlined by returning thespians Joanna Pettet and John Williams (previously of season one’s excellent “The Doll”) and bolstered by very strong character turns from Tom Helmore (Vertigo) and Don Knight (Swamp Thing). 

But we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Laurence Harvey.

An actor for whom brooding intensity seemed to be a constant, natural mode of existence, Harvey was born to play the role of Steven Macy in the same way that it seemed predestined that he should star in films like The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Room at the Top (1959). From the second he steps onto the theatrical, gorgeously authentic set designed by Joseph Alves Jr., Harvey comes on like a tiger in heat, a Shere Kahn with patently carnal hungers. His lust for Pettet’s character, the young Rhona wedded to the not-so-young Warwick, is made manifest in every stealthy move, his eyes cast in a perpetual slit of desire that cinematographer Gerald Finnerman highlights throughout with a bolt of light that recalls the hypnotic gazes of Bela Lugosi. 

Like Kiley before him, Macy is a beast whose inner pangs are still keenly felt. Even as he signs his rival’s death warrant, Macy’s rationalization is translated completely through Harvey’s actions, the way he deliberates before handing over his blood money, as if telling himself that Warwick’s fate will be nothing more than an abstract discomfort for all involved to suffer before complete bliss can be achieved. But, as Macy soon finds out from the fatal error that arises from his pact, there is nothing abstract about an earwig invading one’s skull. 

Though it lasts for all of two to three minutes of the episode’s total runtime, the scene of Macy undergoing the torture of the earwig travelling through his head is so potent in tactile horror that it remains utterly unforgettable. Harvey, who by this time was being treated for the stomach cancer that would take his life the year following the episode’s premiere, reportedly stopped taking the painkillers that had been prescribed to him in order to more realistically convey Macy’s agony. It adds a level of poignancy to the actor’s dedication to his craft, but whether it was instigated entirely by his disease, his talent, or a combination of the two, it cannot be denied that the end result is entirely effective. 

With only a few flourishes of makeup, including the ghastly inclusion of some scratch marks along the cheeks to communicate the self-mutilating madness of Macy’s plight, Harvey truly comes across as one who has reached the end of their rope. Face haggard, voice constricted to a whisper, hands trussed to the bedposts, and each turn of the head seeming to prompt some new fresh level of Hell, he is the very portrait of suffering. For all their raw screams and enthusiastic bloodletting, no horror film of the “torture porn” variety and very few films of other stripes besides have ever lashed this viewer’s eyes with a vision of perfect pain like Harvey does in “The Caterpillar”. 

To think that the episode actually goes beyond this moment to show us a scarred albeit unhumbled Macy seems chancy. Most tales of terror would end right when the villain fell prey to his own dark plotting but… ahh, too much has already been said. Suffice to say that Harvey navigates these final moments magnificently, his deluded pride never wavering once until the final diagnosis is delivered. And then, just as Sauer’s score kicks in, Macy finally gets to use the full power of his regained voice to do what he couldn’t do before: scream. 

About Jose Cruz

Jose Cruz is an author who lives in southwest Florida with his wife, their very furry child, and nearly not enough shelves for their books and DVDs. He has written for Rue Morgue, bare•bones e-zine, and Turn to Ash, among others, and his fiction has appeared in Nightscript and Year's Best Hardcore Horror.

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