July 9, 2013
Richard Matheson was already an established writer in 1959, the year he started contributing to The Twilight Zone. But it took him a while. Over the course of the 1950s he rose from pitching sci-fi magazines on his off hours as a mailman, to adapting his own material to screens large and small. He sold his first story, “Born of Man and Woman”, to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1950. After a couple of suspense novels fizzled, he garnered notice with his post-apocalyptic survival staple, I Am Legend (1954). It was his follow-up, The Shrinking Man (1956), that cemented his place in popular consciousness. He ingeniously sold himself as screenwriter as part of the film rights deal to Universal, and he would be a prolific writer for film and TV for decades to come (alongside his novels and short stories). As part of our week-long tribute to Matheson, following his death last month at the age of 87, I’ll be looking at the Twilight Zone episodes he declared to be his favorite, Steel and Night Call, both from Season 5. They present fantastical premises with procedural detail, as he also did with I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man, bringing the spectacular down to earth.
After the success of The Shrinking Man and its movie adaptation (which added Incredible to the title), Matheson moved to television writing, often with collaborator with Charles Beaumont. They were close friends, part of a circle of fantasy writers that included Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison. Matheson recalled that, “When we joined this agency [Adams, Jay and Rosenberg] it was such a strange new world out there that we decided to work together.” Beaumont and Matheson worked on cop shows and Westerns like Bourbon Street Beat and Have Gun — Will Travel.
Their most long-lasting contribution was to The Twilight Zone, which they both began contributing to, separately, in ’59. Rod Serling was a fellow traveler in the speculative arts, and provided an invaluable platform for the kind of material they wanted to write, even with showbiz compromises. Their material, as Matheson notes, “never made any social commentary”. They were detail men, interested in fleshing out their imagined worlds rather than allegorizing the existing one.
In Twilight And Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson, the writer declares that “Steel” is his favorite episode of the ones he wrote. He adapted the teleplay from his own short story, of a “sports item, circa 1976″, in which boxing was outlawed and replaced by bouts between lifelike robots. Lee Marvin plays the “Steel” of the title, a former pug turned down-at-heel manager, too poor to upgrade his rickety “Battling Maxo” bot, which mechanic Pole (Joe Mantell) keeps running through some spit and a prayer. Maxo is so old even his parts are outdated, and is only booked when a newer model is destroyed in a car accident. Steel needs Maxo to put up a fight so he can pocket the take and make some upgrades. Matheson’s small-scale story was later inflated into the 2011 blockbuster Real Steel.
Directed by auteur-fave Don Weis (I Love Melvin), this TV assignment replaces Weis’ usual ebullient charm for sweaty close-ups and grimy hallways, a portrait of broken American dreams as tactile as 70s fight films like Fat City. Lee Marvin shows he can ease up his ramrod military posture and ease into a slouching ignominy. A fast talking salesman like Peter Falk in Marbles, his pitches have lost their sheen, routines without conviction. Only when faced with annihilation does Steel show some backbone, replacing Maxo in the bout when the android pops some essential springs. Facing certain defeat, and possible death, Steel takes his shots and his money, ready to fight another day.
As in I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man, Steel is concerned about the grungy details of these everyday futures, whether it is how to scrounge for food, evade a giant spider or make a low-tech living in a high-tech future. Night Call (Season 5, episode 139, 1964), is another of these daily grinds, which Matheson adapted from his short story “Long Distance Call.” Old spinster Elva Keene (Gladys Cooper) is living out her days in an empty home, her only company a harried maid. But every evening she receives cryptic phone calls from a moaning loner, which she first assumes to be a prank, but soon realizes is something far more disturbing.
Matheson claims he “talked them into hiring [Jacques] Tourneur” to direct the episode, despite the producers’ concern that a movie director would take forever to shoot an episode. Matheson recalls that Tourneur, “shot the shortest Twilight Zone schedule that anyone has ever done. It was like twenty-eight hours or something.” He was a fan of Tourneur’s work with Val Lewton (The Leopard Man, I Walked With a Zombie), and was thrilled to have him direct one of his scripts. It turned out to be one of the last projects Tourneur would work on.
It takes place almost entirely in two rooms of Elva’s house, her living room and bedroom. In frequent medium shots, Tourneur establishes her as the queen of an emptied out domain. It was the third of Cooper’s appearances on The Twilight Zone, and this after 60+ years of performing, having made her stage debut in 1905 in the musical Bluebell in Fairyland. She plays Elva as a shut-in battle-ax, jittery at any intrusions in her protective shell. The calls make her imperious exterior crumble, and you can see the regrets of the past rush through her softened features.
Richard Matheson wrote 14 teleplays for The Twilight Zone, and had two of his short stories adapted by others. Compromised as they are by commercial forces (“Steel” was the first episode sponsored by Proctor & Gamble), they offer variations on Matheson’s theme of process, how characters rationally deal with the unreality that is thrust upon them. Some trundle onward with brittle hope like Steel, or crumble in regret like Elva, but what Matheson is most interested in is the jagged path that leads there.