The Twilight Zone: Two Games of Pool

Tonight, we switched things up a little and enjoyed a small experiment. In the late 1980s, after CBS had cancelled the revived Twilight Zone, the production company decided to shoot thirty more half-hour episodes as cheaply as possible to make a syndication package. One of these was a remake of George Clayton Johnson’s “A Game of Pool.” We watched the original version of this, starring Jonathan Winters and Jack Klugman, a couple of years ago.

We started by talking about what it meant to the world of the past to have enough episodes for a syndication package. This was a huge problem for studios and production companies in the past, but it doesn’t mean anything anymore. On streaming services, it doesn’t matter if you have 65 or 100 episodes or just two. I don’t know whether CBS Access has ordered a third season of the modern version of Zone, but if they don’t, nobody’s going to shell out for six more episodes to beef the total to 26, are they?

“A Game of Pool” was remounted in 1988 with Esai Morales and Maury Chaykin in the roles of Jesse Cardiff and Fats Brown. I’m going to quibble about this Fats being dead for fifteen years with a late eighties haircut like that, but otherwise it was very interesting to see the choices the director and actors made. The original ran a couple of minutes longer, since TV had fewer ads in 1961, so the color version moves faster and loses some of the monologues. There are almost no two-shots, and far fewer closeups. I’d really recommend any aspiring filmmakers take an hour and watch this more closely than I did; I’m sure they will learn a huge amount about the choices made to present this story.

I’m also sure that, even with the possible presence of a shark to manipulate the tables when the camera is not on the actors, there is enough visual proof of all four actors sinking shots for me to know that I would have lost a game of pool against any of these four men.

The most interesting change about the remake is that they restored the ending of Johnson’s script. It was changed for the black and white run so that Cardiff wins the game, beats Fats, and gets to spend eternity being called down to pool halls from Sandusky to Statesboro to defend his name. In the color version, Cardiff loses, expects Fats to murder him or claim his soul or something, and Fats has a more spirit-crushing fate in mind. Either way, I think the lesson I take from “A Game of Pool” is that playing games to have fun with friends is probably going to be more fulfilling for me than playing against a legend’s reputation.

Our son was attentive but not really appreciative of this experiment. Rewatching the original was all he needed; doing it again felt like work. I confess I’m a little curious now to compare the original version of “The After Hours” to the 1986 one with Terry Farrell, but maybe I won’t make him sit through both of those with me!

This is our 2300th post! We haven’t run out of steam yet though; there are plenty more TV shows and movies to watch!

The Twilight Zone 5.1 – In Praise of Pip

Back to The Twilight Zone for eleven selections from its final season. To start with, I picked “In Praise of Pip,” which was written by Rod Serling. It’s Bill Mumy’s third appearance in the program, but it’s really worth watching for Jack Klugman’s amazing performance. Life kind of got in the way tonight and so I don’t have much to share, but I did want to make sure I praised Klugman as Pip’s dad, because he was just so good in this. That and our son was very confused by the jump in time before the final scene. Several weeks pass, but, especially since the scene takes place in the same location as the one before it, it looked to him like it was the following morning.

Also, remember those cigarette companies that used to sponsor this show? Well, they must have found some other kind of sponsor in season five, because Klugman smokes Morley in this one!

Morley King Size! The 555 of Cigarettes!

The Twilight Zone 4.6 – Death Ship

And so back to The Twilight Zone for its peculiar fourth season. I’ve picked just five installments from this year, which was held back as a midseason replacement and given instructions to expand from thirty minutes to an hour. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen any of the stories from this season. It may not have been in the syndicated package that we got in Atlanta in the early eighties, unless some wiseguy decided to break them into two-parters.

Richard Matheson’s “Death Ship” is really good, although amusingly dated in design. It’s set in the far-flung future of 1997, with humanity looking for colony planets. Oddly enough, I was thinking about how television in the sixties kept using the image of flying saucers as what Earth ships would look like, such as the Jupiter 2 in Lost in Space, which would begin production a couple of years after this story, and looked it up. Would you believe that show was also set in 1997? Did people then really think we’d be colonizing other worlds in flying saucers in just thirty years?

The crew, played by Jack Klugman, Ross Martin, and Fred Beir, find a crashed saucer on a distant planet, and learn to their horror that it is their own ship, and their dead bodies are in the control cabin. I think the hour-long format worked really well for this premise. I was thinking ahead of how they’d resolve this problem in time travel, fitting everything that I could into the expected Twilight Zone boxes, and was pleasantly surprised by new complications as they emerged, including a wild moment where Ross Martin’s character not only hallucinates that he’s back home with his wife, played by Mary Webster, but his body completely vanishes from the flying saucer.

We enjoyed talking with our son about the plot complications. He’s savvy enough with science fiction to have understood the problem probably better than some of the teevee audience in 1963, and we thought we had some good ideas for the characters to avoid their grisly fates. Then the script went and messed with our solutions, almost as though Richard Matheson wanted to make certain nobody was going to second-guess him!

The Twilight Zone 3.5 – A Game of Pool

Time once again to take a journey into The Twilight Zone. For season three, I’ve picked eleven episodes. These include my all-time favorite story from the series, a classic that I’ve never actually seen, and several, like this one, which have really great actors in them. George Clayton Johnson’s “A Game of Pool” may have been commissioned as a lower-priced entry to shore up the budget. It only has two sets, one fellow offscreen to make some of the trick pool shots, and two speaking parts.

The speaking parts, however, go to a pair of incredibly great actors: Jonathan Winters and Jack Klugman. Winters plays Fats Brown, who died fifteen years ago but has a legend that haunts Klugman’s Jesse Cardiff. The poor man is very good, but he’s chosen to live his life in Fats’s town, in Fats’s pool hall, where he can’t win anything without being compared to Fats. Because I’m stupid, I supposed he must really like the chili dogs in this pool hall, otherwise he could get out of Chicago and play someplace where they’ve never heard of Fats. It took me a second to realize that wouldn’t work. Somebody else’s legend would always precede him.

Our son probably started getting incredibly skeptical when he figured out that’s all this episode was going to be: one high-stakes game of pool between two tense men, one of them dead but with a long shadow. He was pretty restless, and he also didn’t understand the ending at all. I admired the end for its quite elegant simplicity; it didn’t need to hammer the point home, except perhaps to six year-olds, it was telegraphed ahead of time and the whole theme of living up to a legend made it an inevitable conclusion given the rules of this world and its depiction of an afterlife.

As for me, I was more satisfied by Winters’ excellent performance than by the script. I’m so used to seeing Winters in comic parts that the intelligent and nuanced character he played here was a real treat. A later production of The Twilight Zone remade this story in 1989, with Maury Chaykin (Nero Wolfe) as Fats. I wouldn’t mind seeing that.