The Twilight Zone stars describe their memorable characters in their own words
When The Twilight Zone hit the airwaves, nobody had seen anything quite like it, and Hollywood was full of famous faces eager to become a part of it. In an interview with Archive of American Television, Russell Johnson described the buzz like this: “I was very proud to be in those. Of course, those days, everyone in Hollywood was doing a Twilight Zone, but that’s fine, because they were the best-written shows. They were wonderful, and they still are. They hold up, those stories.”
In his interview, Jack Klugman talked about how the writing on The Twilight Zone was one of those rare times as an actor that he simply enjoyed saying every scripted word. He insisted to Archive of American Television, “Every word was important. You didn’t change words as you did in other shows.”
This high bar that The Twilight Zone set for itself, hiring the best actors and the best writers, continued all the way to the original series conclusion. William Shatner, who memorably starred in the fifth season episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," said when it came to The Twilight Zone, it was, "An excellent show. Rod Serling surrounded himself with a lot of good people.”
The result of all this is that looking back, every guest star has a memory to share of working on this singular anthology series. Below, we share some of those stories, shining light on how some of The Twilight Zone's most unforgettable characters came to be.
Carol Burnett on Agnes Grepp ("Cavender Is Coming")
Rod Serling met Carol Burnett while parodying The Twilight Zone on The Gary Moore Show. Later, he asked her to star in the Neil Simon-penned episode "Cavender Is Coming," where she plays an awkward woman who perpetually gets fired. In an interview with Archive of American Television, Burnett said the hand signals used in this episode were from one of her very first jobs in the real world, as an usherette at a movie theater that indeed did fire her. Today, her star on the Walk of Fame is planted right in front of that very same theater.
“I played an usher in it and I took a bit of the routine from when I was actually a real usherette, when I was going to college.”
“I guess I might’ve told Rod about my ushering days, because we had a crazy manager who wouldn’t talk to us, but just did signals. I was called the spot girl because I was the tallest and had the loudest voice.”
"I was fired because I was on aisle two one night and Strangers on a Train was playing. That’s Alfred Hitchcock. This was before they had showings. People would just come in in the middle of the movie."
"So this couple came in and wanted to be seated, the last five minutes of a Hitchcock movie, Strangers on a Train. And I’m this movie buff and I said, ‘Oh please, can’t you just go get some popcorn or get a drink of water or something, because it’ll spoil it for you.’ … [my manager] came up and said, ‘What’s going on here?’ They said, ‘She won’t let us sit down.’"
Jack Klugman on Joey Crown ("A Passage for Trumpet")
Jack Klugman starred in four episodes of The Twilight Zone, which only Burgess Meredith ever equaled, but for his very first appearance, Rod Serling personally called him up and persuaded him to do it. Klugman was busy on Broadway, but he had two weeks downtime and Serling convinced him to use half of it to make "A Passage for Trumpet." He told Archive of American Television:
“I said, ‘What’s it about?’ and he said, ‘It’s about a trumpet player.’ I said, ‘OK.’”
“So I then worked with a trumpet player in the orchestra who taught me how to finger and I bought an old battered trumpet. And it was a wonderful experience. Of course, working with Rod was always a wonderful experience.”
“Every word was important. You didn’t change words as you did in other shows.”
Bill Mumy on Young Pip ("In Praise of Pip")
Young Bill Mumy was cast on three episodes of The Twilight Zone, including a memorable appearance across from Jack Klugman. Mumy told the Archive of American Television:
“I remember this so clearly. Jack Klugman came up to my father and my mother. He introduced himself to them, and he said, ‘I just want you to know, in this scene that we’re about to shoot, your son is my long-lost little boy, and I’m gonna grab him, and I’m gonna kiss him, and I’m gonna slobber on him, and I want you to know that it’s with all respect, and I just wanted you to know in advance that I’m gonna go for that.' … He didn’t have to do that, and the connection, I think, between father and son is really evident in that show, and I’m really proud of that little episode.”
Bill Mumy on Anthony Fremont (It's a Good Life)
Likely the most memorable episode starring Mumy was "It's a Good Life," and the actor recalled to Archive of American Television that it was the exact kind of role that got Mumy into acting at such a young age:
"‘It’s a Good Life,’ playing Anthony Fremont who has the ability to read everyone’s thoughts and if he’s displeased with those thoughts, he’d mess you up. He’d send you to the cornfield, or he’d turn you into a jack-in-the-box, just whatever he’d want, put you on fire or whatever he might do. Anthony Fremont was a character that I loved playing. Because even though he wasn’t Superman or Zorro, he wasn’t a caped superhero or anything like that, but he was the epitome of the most powerful superhero you can imagine. So, to me, even though it’s not a hero, to me at 7 years old, playing Anthony was just really kind of what I wanted to get into TV to do anyway.”
Bill Mumy on Billy Bales ("Long Distance Call")
Of course, the very first time we saw little Billy Mumy on The Twilight Zone was the emotionally scarring episode "Long Distance Call." In it, he played Billy Bales, a boy whose grandma gives him a toy phone he can always talk to her through, then abruptly passes away. Mumy told Archive of American Television he's grateful his mom let him do it:
“The story in a nutshell is this grandmother gives her 5-year-old grandson a toy telephone and says you can always talk to grandma. Then she goes and dies. And he starts talking to grandma, and he tries to kill himself throughout the episode because evidently grandma is trying to lure him to the other side. Well, my mother didn’t like, and I didn’t know this until later, but my mother didn’t like the ‘he tries to kill himself’ part of this bit, because he runs in front of a car, tries to drown himself in a pond, and I think there’s a third. … She almost pulled the plug on that. … but I’m really glad that she didn’t, because it was the beginning of these Twilight Zones, and they all hold up so well. Rod Serling was a visionary.”
Ron Howard on Wilcox Boy ("Walking Distance")
Ron Howard got in on The Twilight Zone at a young age, too. Coincidentally, his episode was called "Walking Distance" and he told Archive of American Television that's exactly how far away the studio where the episode was shot was from the child star's home. He talks about how The Twilight Zone jarred him out of the fuzzy stage of not watching the shows he was acting on as a kid:
“It was only one day of shooting and it was really close to home because it was shot on the lot in Burbank. … So I remember walking to work. But it was really easy. I just had one little scene.”
“I really liked The Twilight Zone. I was beginning to know I was actually on shows that I liked, which, of course, was fantastic when I started working on Dennis the Menace."
William Shatner on Bob Wilson ("Nightmare at 20,000 Feet)
Fans of his are grateful that William Shatner loves to talk about his work, but in his interview with Archive of American Television, Shatner is unusually sparse describing his experience working on The Twilight Zone. In hindsight, the perfectionist actor thinks he could've done more with the material. He also described how his famous character continues to haunt him today:
“I remember it being claustrophobic for the days that we shot. But the people in the production were excellent. An excellent show. Rod Serling surrounded himself with a lot of good people.”
“I get kidded about it even now, about ‘Do you see anything on the wing?’ on an airplane.”
George Takei on Arthur Takamori/Taro ("The Encounter)
George Takei featured in a famously controversial episode of The Twilight Zone that until recently had only aired one time, the first time. After that, it was pulled for decades. In an interview with Archive of American Television, Takei described his character and the controversay:
“The story was about a young Japanese-American gardener and a veteran of the second World War. I come to work on his yard on a lazy Saturday afternoon and his family seems to be away and he’s up in the attic rummaging through all the debris that collects in an attic. And he invites me up to share a beer with him, and we start talking.”
“Among his memorabilia is a Japanese samurai sword that he took off a Japanese soldier somewhere in the South Pacific. And from that, the story goes into the Twilight Zone, and he starts hallucinating or imagining his experience during the war and how he got that sword, and my character goes into his fantasy and imagines his father, who is also a Japanese American, who signaled the Japanese planes that bombed Pearl Harbor, and of course, nothing like that ever happened factually.”
June Foray on Talky Tina ("The Living Doll")
When Rod Serling decided to do "The Living Doll," he immediately called June Foray. Why? Because she had actually provided the voice for the popular Chatty Cathy toy that Talky Tina is based on. In an interview with Archive of American Television, Foray discussed her "very threatening" character:
“Mattel liked the way I said, ‘I love you. Please change my dress.’ And so I got a call to do The Twilight Zone with a Chatty Cathy called Talky Tina who kills Telly Savalas. But she was evil. You know, she was nice to the little girl, but she would always say, ‘My name is Talky Tina, and I’m going to kill you.’ “
Russell Johnson on Prof. Manion ("Execution")
Before he became The Professor on Gilligan's Island, Russell Johnson played a genius scientist on The Twilight Zone. He discussed his character with Archive of American Television:
“I played a scientist who had a time machine [and helps a guy] who … is about to be hung in the Old West. He’s a bad guy. My time machine takes him out of the noose and puts him in New York City. [He was] in 1850 or ’60, somewhere in there, that’s where he’s taken out of and brought into modern times. And he can’t handle that and he ends up killing me, and ends up back in the noose.”
See also: The titanic Twilight Zone quiz
A dimension not only of sight and sound but of… TV trivia! Take quiz.