Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1969)

The years following THE TWILIGHT ZONE’s 1964 cancellation saw Rod Serling run the gamut from writing screenplays for Oscar-winning films (PLANET OF THE APES) to hosting game shows (THE LIAR’S CLUB). He returned to weekly television briefly as the creator of THE LONER, an interesting one-season western starring Lloyd Bridges, but the show more fondly remembered was his next: NIGHT GALLERY.

Though Serling unfortunately was much less involved in NIGHT GALLERY than he was on TWILIGHT ZONE, he introduced the segments and wrote several of them, including the astonishing “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar,” which was nominated for the Emmy as Outstanding Single Program. More importantly, he wrote the pilot that got NIGHT GALLERY on the air: a triptych of thrilling stories that not only convinced NBC to give the dramatic anthology a regular timeslot, but also gave 21-year-old Steven Spielberg his first job directing network television.

And what a job he did on “Eyes,” a boffo Serling segment with a wrenching twist ending straight out of TWILIGHT ZONE (or EC Comics) and one of Joan Crawford’s final performances. The Oscar winner (for MILDRED PIERCE) plays a nasty blind woman who buys the eyes of down-and-out gambler Tom Bosley (HAPPY DAYS), so she can see again, if only for a few hours. She blackmails doctor Barry Sullivan (THE IMMORTAL) into performing the surgery, but when her bandages come off...well, that would be telling.

Expertly directed by Spielberg, who got along with his temperamental star, “Eyes” is a delightful thriller, but it plays as a hammock between two other stories almost as good. Boris Sagal (THE OMEGA MAN) directs Serling’s “The Cemetary,” which casts Roddy McDowall (CLEOPATRA) as the greedy nephew of invalid George Macready (PEYTON PLACE). He murders Macready for his money, but finds himself haunted by the old man from beyond the grave. Barry Shear (ACROSS 110TH STREET) directs Richard Kiley (LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR) in Serling’s “The Escape Route” as a Nazi war criminal hiding in South America who bumps into elderly Jew Sam Jaffe (BEN CASEY), who was a prisoner in Kiley’s concentration camp 25 years earlier.

Serling introduces each tale from a dark art gallery surrounded by paintings created by Jaroslav Gebr, who ran Universal’s Scenic Arts department (Tom Wright, who later became a television director, painted the art used in the series). Though Serling hosted and wrote all three stories, production duties were handed to William Sackheim (THE IN-LAWS). Billy Goldenberg (COLUMBO) composed the varied score for all three segments, plus the theme. The NIGHT GALLERY series premiered over a year later as part of NBC’s FOUR-IN-ONE umbrella (with MCCLOUD, THE PSYCHIATRIST, and SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT) and went weekly in its second season.

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