Night Gallery 1.6 – They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar / The Last Laurel

For years and years, I’ve heard people say that “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” is one of Rod Serling’s greatest moments. I’ve looked forward to it for ages. On the visual level, it doesn’t disappoint at all. There’s a lot going on here, from Bert Convy’s brighter-than-the-old-guy clothes, to the older beat cop going flatfoot while younger officers get a car, to a downright amazing shot right at the end when William Windom, playing a 48 year-old has-been, stumbles through the gray dust of the construction site and the first two people we see in long shot are two women in mini-skirts, followed by a guy in a fire-engine red 1969 Mustang.

Otherwise, this episode annoyed me so much I wanted to tear down Tim Riley’s bar with this sad sack still in it. Windom is yet another soppy-mouthed Serling soliloquizer moaning on about the good old days. If his lachrymose wishes – Serling’s word, of course – to stop one more time at Willoughby weren’t bad enough, poor Diane Baker, who is far better than this script, gets the thankless role of the besotted woman from “Young Man’s Fancy” who has somehow fallen in love with her boss and spent years pining for him, when her boss is a pathetic alcoholic who lives in the past.

There’s nothing, nothing in this story that didn’t leave me furious with this character. Me, I’m 48, the same age as him, and I know a thing or two about nostalgia. My favorite place to be on a Saturday afternoon is a 102 year-old restaurant that’s still in family hands. I know so much about a chain of seafood restaurants that failed forty-five years ago that when I go to libraries to learn more, the staff brings me articles I already published. Heartaches and losses? Ask me about my older son sometime. I’ve hit what I thought was rock bottom five or six times and I got up. I was downsized from the best job in the entire world, spent years singularly failing to find a full-time non-profit position in this one-horse town before deciding to go make some damn money again instead, and exactly three of our friends in Atlanta or Nashville have bothered to come visit us since we landed here. You don’t see me taking three-hour three-martini lunches while moaning about nickel beers and Glenn Miller.

Yeah, life sucks sometimes and it hurts like daggers when it doesn’t, but if you can’t find one single tick in your win column in the eighteen years since your wife died, then you’re not going to convince me that your beautiful secretary has fallen in love with you, which is why I can’t believe this stupid story. Windom’s character is breathtakingly unsympathetic, the wish fulfillment in this story is obnoxious, and the ending is so phony that it screams of network intervention. Amazingly, it apparently wasn’t some dumb NBC directive, but it’s so absurd that even the incredibly talented director couldn’t make it feel like it flowed naturally from the story.

Dispirited and depressed, I perked up because the next story started and it said that it starred Jack Cassidy. I said that thank God Jack Cassidy is here because he’ll put a stop to all this. He’s always drunk and violent. And if you caught that reference, you’ll know the look on my face when I ejected this DVD. Okay, so nobody was singing “Paint Your Wagon,” but I wasn’t expecting astral projection either. Tomorrow will be better.

Night Gallery 1.5 – Pamela’s Voice / Lone Survivor / The Doll

I gave our son a heads up that he’d get to meet Phyllis Diller in the flesh in the opening installment of tonight’s episode. He knows her voice, and her caricature, from Mad Monster Party?, which we watch every Halloween. He didn’t offer up any “oh yeah, her” in response – nor did he offer any recognition of her co-star, John Astin – but he did say that the second segment, “Lone Survivor,” reminded him of a Twilight Zone that’s been lingering around in his head. He said that “Survivor” was a little like “Judgment Night,” and he’s right. He also predicted the revelation that the survivor that they picked up was from the Titanic, but the story had a couple more twists after that.

For me, the first two segments were in the way of the third. We paused after “Pamela’s Voice” to talk about horrible husbands and wives fighting because it’s yet another Serling depiction of a horribly miserable Lockhorns-style marriage that should have ended years earlier. Granted, nobody but Serling wrote marital fights that casually drop words like “ossuary,” “cacaphony,” and “bacchanalia” into the venom, and that makes it pretty entertaining, but the dude had issues with matrimony. Even for his generation of misery-pants marriages, the dude had issues. “Lone Survivor” felt a little longer than it needed to be, but I enjoyed John Colicos devouring all the scenery onscreen and everywhere else on the Universal lot.

“The Doll,” which wrapped up the episode, was tremendously entertaining. Nothing here was all that unpredictable – I mean, you’ve seen one living doll story, you get the idea – but I really enjoyed John Williams’ performance. He was living in Hollywood and on call whenever an upper-class Brit was needed on TV in the period. A couple of years later, he and Bernard Fox and Wilfrid Hyde-White were all playing supporting parts in one of my least favorite Columbos when Richard Basehart was pretending to be British. Yeah, I’ve mentioned it here before; it remains an annoyance.

Anyway, Williams, who is playing a character named Colonel Masters, figures out what’s going on with this strange doll that’s infiltrated his household even before Henry Silva, pretending to be Indian, shows up to gloat at him. It’s a great, sympathetic performance of a character who knows his fate and takes steps to see that the evil magic will return to its user. And the hideous doll is pure nightmare fuel. Our son allowed that it was really, really creepy.

I hate to spoil the end, but I absolutely love that this episode, which first aired on January 13 1971, ends with Colonel Masters ensuring the delivery of a big killer doll to his adversary. Four days previously, in the UK, Roger Delgado had been seen posing as a different “Colonel Masters,” delivering another big killer doll to his own adversary. No wonder everybody spent the seventies afraid their toys were going to come to life and kill them.

Night Gallery 1.4 – Make Me Laugh / Clean Kills and Other Trophies

The last time that we looked at a Night Gallery story, I noted that “Certain Shadows on the Wall” had a final-shot revelation worthy of a DC horror book. “Clean Kills and Other Trophies” has a similar, inevitable, grisly, and morbidly comic final revelation. It’s also the only thing about this installment that brought a smile. It stars Raymond Massey as a brutal and fanatic big game hunter who insists that his liberal good-for-nothing son shoot and kill a deer in order to inherit his estate.

The problem, in that Rod Serling way, is that Serling really enjoyed giving the evil man all the good lines. In fact, he gave him practically all the lines. It’s an endless harangue, enlivened by insults like “jellied consommé,” which nobody outside of a Rod Serling script ever employs. Enough becomes enough after three minutes of this. The characters are drawn, now give us more of a plot instead of underlining and re-underlining just how obnoxious the dad is, already.

Definitely had to have a talk with the kid after this one. It’s once again Serling who gives us a horrible breakdown in family, and the father in this was so overbearing that I felt compelled to assure him that while we’re certain to have rows and arguments when he becomes a teenager and gets sick of school, we were never going to talk to him that way, or demand he kill a deer to get whatever meager inheritance might come his way. Yeesh.

Well, I might end up calling him a “jellied consommé.” It’s so stupid it might could defuse a bad moment.

“Make Me Laugh,” which was the second and last Gallery that Steven Spielberg directed, wasn’t very much better, but it did have a really interesting scene that I enjoyed a lot. Godfrey Cambridge plays a standup whose career is on the rocks, and he’s just bombed in a lousy club with his remarkably lousy material. He’s commiserating with his agent, played by Tom Bosley – who was in Spielberg’s other Gallery – when the club manager, played by Al Lewis, cuts him loose from his engagement since the act was so bad.

I thought this was really riveting because it’s not played lightly and it’s not dismissed. By the nature of their profession, Cambridge, Bosley, and Lewis had all really been in crappy situations like that. They’d all been rejected, they’d all been passed over, they’d all been told they weren’t good enough. They were actors, that’s part of what they had to go through constantly for every role they did land. The story wasn’t anything we haven’t seen from Serling before – careful what you wish for! – but that scene hurt because those three actors had lived it and took it straight to the audience’s chest. Heck, I saw that comedian’s lousy act and I still wanted to give the poor guy a hug.

Night Gallery 1.3 – The House / Certain Shadows on the Wall

We resumed family teevee night this evening with a pair of creepy stories set in old houses. Our son let us know that he enjoyed these two tales more than any of the previous Gallery installments. I don’t agree at all, but I did find a thing or two to enjoy about “The House.” I occasionally get lost in my dreams, and dream that I have awakened when I’m still asleep, so the weird experiences of Joanna Pettet’s character, who finds her way to a large house hidden in a quiet valley that she has dreamed about for years, struck a chord. The episode was directed by the wonderful actor John Astin, and I see that we’ll be seeing him on the other side of the camera in a week or so.

“Certain Shadows on the Wall” reminded me of a few of Serling’s less pleasant Zone tales, especially “The Masks.” It’s centered around a family who really can’t stand each other and speak with very large vocabularies. These hateful three have returned to their childhood home for the long, long death of their eldest sister, played by Agnes Moorehead. I think this has become our son’s favorite installment because it’s very predictable, but not in an obnoxious way. It’s pitched perfectly for younger viewers, like something from a mainstream late sixties horror comic. The final shot would work just as well as the last panel in an issue of House of Mystery, with the horror host, Cain, wishing readers pleasant dreams.

I should probably find the kid some seventies DC horror books when I’m in Athens next. He’ll probably appreciate those more than superhero funnybooks…

Night Gallery 1.2 – Room With a View / The Little Black Bag / The Nature of the Enemy

From 1965-1971, the BBC produced an anthology program called Out of the Unknown. Strangely, like Rod Serling’s Zone and Gallery, the series followed a similar path from traditional SF into supernatural horror as it moved from black and white to color. Some writers contend it was at its best in the black and white years. If nothing else, Doctor Who fans can enjoy listening to many of the same sound effects and library music that the William Hartnell serials employed.

Like many British TV productions of its era, much of Unknown was destroyed, but a few years ago, the BFI put out a splendid DVD collection of all the existing episodes, including fragments, clips, and audio recordings of others. In 2018, Marie and I watched them. It’s a pretty uneven show. Most of the episodes were at least interesting. Some were terrible, and at least one, Frederik Pohl’s “Tunnel Under the World,” was amazing.

The most curious one for me was an adaptation of C.M. Kornbluth’s “The Little Black Bag.” Only about two-thirds of this 1969 production, starring Emrys Jones and Geraldine Moffat, survive. (for more details, see here.) I thought it was incredibly interesting, went online to read more about it, and saw that Night Gallery made their own adaptation the following year. I figured I could wait and see how Serling and team did it.

The Night Gallery adaptation is radically different. In Unknown, the disgraced doctor gets as far as reopening a small clinic. The Doctor Fall of this story, played by Burgess Meredith, only has the chance to use the bag a few times in one day before he is murdered by his associate to profit from it. Meredith is superhumanly good in the part, but his associate, played by Chill Willis, just aggravated me. Serling didn’t give the character a point of view other than “argue against all plans of protagonist” and I didn’t like Willis’s tone of voice, his mannerisms, anything.

Surrounding “Bag,” there are two short stories with quick payoffs: a mean-spirited black comedy of jealousy featuring Joseph Wiseman and Diane Keaton, and a more straightforward adventure tale with a very dopey twist ending starring Joseph Campanella. This one is so goofy that it must have been made for any kids who ran across the episode, because the revelation was the first Gallery moment that our kid found remotely entertaining.

And no, the kid did not recognize Burgess Meredith. Confounded child!

Night Gallery 1.1 – The Dead Man / The Housekeeper

After a successful pilot, NBC ordered a six episode first season of Night Gallery. They aired the episodes as part of the umbrella series Four in One starting in December 1970 and led with an hour that comprises two absolute turkeys. You can pretty much sum them up as “dated, sexist trash.” I found a thing or two to like about each installment, but nobody else in the house did.

Both installments were scripted by Douglas Heyes, a great, great writer who was responsible for some tremendously good episodes of Maverick. “The Dead Man” is an adaptation of a short story by Fritz Leiber, and maybe it would read better as a creepy little tale. Unfortunately, when you dramatize a story like this, you have to put the story’s lone female character front and center. Fickle and hungry for a younger lover, she’s ready to ditch her older husband, a doctor running a private clinic, for his hunky blond patient.

When the patient dies in an experiment, she loses her freaking mind, and turns hysterical in the way that fiction demands but real life never actually sees. It builds to a creepy crescendo that would tell magnificently around a campfire deep in the woods, but on television leaves the woman looking inhumanly stupid. At least her screams as she runs through the graveyard were sufficient to creep our kid out. It wasn’t the denouement, but the screams, so credit to the actress. (Interestingly, a screaming female villain at the end of a recently-watched Kolchak similarly had him wide-eyed.)

By any objective measure, “The Housekeeper” is even worse, but I got a kick out of Larry Hagman’s performance as the villain. I felt the need to point out to our son that he was the villain because I was afraid he might think that the protagonist was the hero, just a jerk of one! Hagman’s looking for a kind-hearted “old hag” to undergo a magical personality transplant with his younger, sexier, hateful and rich wife, who’s about to leave him and cut him off. Jeanette Nolan, under some heavy makeup and blacked-out teeth, is sweet enough to see his point of view, but maybe that’s not the only point of view that she sees. Again, unfortunately, actually giving the women in the story dialogue and body language underlines what a feeble, male fantasy concept this is. Hagman didn’t need a nice old lady with a kind heart; he needed Lady Macbeth, Norma Desmond, or Cruella de Vil. Better luck next time, you amateur.

Night Gallery (1969)

Many months ago, I figured that we would move from watching selections from The Twilight Zone into Rod Serling’s later series Night Gallery, which ran on NBC in fits and starts from 1969-1973, and later had a troubled, albeit very successful life in syndication. In its truncated thirty-minute form, Gallery was seen in what must have been every market in the country for many years, although the slapdash sausage grinding-style editing that was necessary to turn the original presentation – one 90-minute pilot, 28 hour episodes and 15 half-hour episodes – into 100 half-hours was brutal and obnoxious even for the teevee industry.

But I also remembered that Gallery was often a little more frightening than Zone, so I tabled it for quite some time, and told our son tonight that we would watch the pilot and, starting next week, the six hours from season one. If he enjoys them, I’ll pick up the second season. There is, at this stage, very little chance that will happen. Our son absolutely hated the three stories in the pilot, and the first of them scared the daylights out of him and he retreated upstairs, calling down to let him know when the second segment started.

The Night Gallery pilot was shown in November 1969 and features three stories written by our host, Rod Serling. I enjoyed the first of the three, “The Cemetery,” the most, despite an utterly unnecessary last-minute twist. “Eyes,” which of course everyone who plays team trivia knows was the first professional directorial assignment for Steven Spielberg, was also entertaining, but I thought “The Escape Route,” despite its engaging intensity, needed its supernatural element introduced a little sooner and it needed to be introduced as fact rather than as a desperate man’s fantasy.

“The Cemetery” features a battle of wits between an all-business butler played by Ossie Davis and a very unwelcome guest played by Roddy McDowell who has showed his face at a dying man’s estate to suck away the inheritance like a parasite. “Eyes” is kind of a reflection of the Zone tale “Time Enough at Last,” only the cruel and vindictive protagonist of this story, played by Joan Crawford, totally had her nasty twist coming. “The Escape Route” is about one of the Nazis who hid out in Argentina finally coming to the end of his days of freedom after authorities close in and one of the survivors of a concentration camp, played by Sam Jaffe, recognizes him. Richard Kiley plays the Nazi and he is all sweat and desperation. It’s an amazing performance, and I get the impression that it is most viewers’ favorite of the three, but I liked the battle of wits between Davis and McDowell in the first story even more.

As for what’s next, I’m not absolutely sure. Unlike Zone, I never read much of anything about this series and my memories of the show from when I watched several episodes, around age eleven, don’t come with any titles attached. So I really only know about two of the segments in the next six episodes, as I’ll mention as we get to them. I’m looking forward to them… even if our kid really isn’t!

Fickle finger of coincidence alert: This morning, we watched the final episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which was made about five years after these segments. The actor Tom Bosley appears in both “Eyes” and “The Sentry,” and so does a location. The elevator lobby of Joan Crawford’s building on Fifth Avenue in New York City was filmed in the same location that served as the lobby of the Merrymount Archive in Chicago. I’m about 99% certain it’s the lobby of Universal’s Black Tower office building in Burbank – it appeared in at least one other Kolchak, “The Energy Eater” – and I can’t help but love that we saw both an actor and a location in two different productions on the same day.