By John C. Alsedek:
Since our last two journeys into radio & television’s past have delved into old anthology shows, a fun (at least for me) exercise came to mind: creating the ultimate anthology series! Now, some folks might say some variation of “We already have the ultimate anthology series—it’s called The Twilight Zone!” But hey, just go with me here.
So here are the parameters I worked from in running this exercise:
I’m drawing from a total of 75 genre ("genre" in this case meaning horror/science fiction/fantasy/suspense) anthology shows produced between 1946 and the present day. The bulk of them are U.S. productions, though there are some British programs included and a few Canadian ones as well.
These 75 shows begin with 1946’s Lights Out (the TV adaptation of the popular radio series) and end with 2022’s Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities.
Decisions will be based on a mix of total cast/crew credits and the number of different shows an individual worked on, plus the individual’s overall TV/film resume, as relevant.
The results are most likely going to be somewhat skewed toward the pre-1980 programs. Part of that is my greater familiarity with the moldy oldies, but it’s also related to program durability. For example, Black Mirror is an outstanding show that’s now been on for five seasons, but there are only 22 total episodes. So, there’s a pretty good chance it’s not going to turn up in this exercise.
In order that a few legendary programs don’t dominate the proceedings, I’m going to try to spread the wealth around as much as reasonably possible.
So where do we start? With the name of our hypothetical show, of course! The word "the" appears in fifteen of the 75 show titles, along with "of" and "tales," each of which appears in eight different show titles. "Night" has the next highest number of appearances with seven, while no other word pops up more than four times. Which gives us:
Series Title: Tales of the Night
Okay, so maybe Tales of the Night comes across as a little generic. But having a big-name executive producer attached would certainly make up for it when it came to luring in sponsors. There are some great options here, including of course Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone), George Romero (Tales from the Darkside), and Guillermo del Toro (Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities). But it’s almost impossible to top Alfred Hitchcock. Not only is Hitch one of the most influential figures in cinematic history with over 50 feature films to his credit, but he also was the executive producer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, which combined for 361 episodes and consistently high Nielsen ratings (including #6 overall for 1956–1957).
Executive Producer: Alfred Hitchcock
Having that marquee executive producer attached is a great start, but we also need someone to actually run the show, a producer who knows how to get things done. My first thought was Buck Houghton of The Twilight Zone, who produced the first three seasons of the classic series. Another was Collier Young, who produced the 96-episode run of One Step Beyond, as well as the 25 episodes of its follow-up, The Next Step Beyond. But the option that makes the most sense to me is the team of Joan Harrison and Norman Lloyd. The duo produced the full runs of both Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, which means they would have a good working relationship with Hitch. Harrison and Lloyd also teamed up on the Hammer Films series Journey to the Unknown, while Lloyd produced the U.S. episodes of the Roald Dahl show Tales of the Unexpected.
Producers: Joan Harrison & Norman Lloyd
Next up, we need to select the "face" of Tales of the Night. Boy, this was a tough one because there are so many great options. Even removing Hitchcock from the running, there’s still the likes of Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery), John Newland (One Step Beyond, The Next Step Beyond), and The Cryptkeeper himself, John Kassir (Tales from the Crypt, Tales from the Cryptkeeper). But ultimately, the obvious choice to me is Boris Karloff. He hosted three different anthologies (Thriller, The Veil, and Starring Boris Karloff), which alone would put him in the running. But beyond that, Karloff’s unparalleled filmography makes Boris the "King of Horror." Besides, executive producer Alfred Hitchcock owes him one for getting NBC to cancel Thriller!
Host: Boris Karloff
We’ve got a great creative team so far, but if the writing is subpar then Tales of the Night is doomed. Fortunately, we once again have some remarkable options. Charles Beaumont (who died far too young and yet still penned some of the twentieth century’s best horror short stories) came to mind immediately as a prime candidate. After all, Beaumont wrote 22 episodes of The Twilight Zone, as well as scripts for both Alfred Hitchcock series, One Step Beyond, Thriller, and Journey to the Unknown. The great British writer Roald Dahl would also be an option, having had two series of his own in Tales of the Unexpected and Way Out. But truth be told, this was Rod Serling’s job all the way. The man wrote 92 episodes of The Twilight Zone and 30 more for Night Gallery, as well as being the owner of six Primetime Emmys. Hard to beat that!
Screenwriter: Rod Serling
Now we need someone to provide memorable music for what will hopefully be a memorable series. The composers who immediately came to mind were Bernard Herrmann (The Twilight Zone), Dominic Frontiere (The Outer Limits), John Williams (Kraft Suspense Theatre), and Harry Lubin (One Step Beyond). But as I thought about it a little more, I ruled all three out simply because they didn’t have the body of work in TV anthologies that others had. In terms of volume, I think Jeff Fisher’s 48 episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark? might be the leader, but there were two names that truly stood out for me. The runner-up for the job was Mark Snow, best known for The X-Files but also a composer for anthologies such as The Next Step Beyond, Perversions of Science, and the 2002–2003 iteration of The Twilight Zone. Still, for me Jerry Goldsmith seemed the obvious choice. Nominated for 18 Oscars, it’s astonishing to me that he won only once, because his motion picture scores are the stuff of legends (he also took home five Emmys). As for his TV anthology palmarès, Goldsmith scored 18 episodes of Thriller, eight for The Twilight Zone, as well as for Kraft Mystery Theater and Amazing Stories.
Composer: Jerry Goldsmith
So, who’s going to be our director? This one did not turn out the way I had anticipated! I was hoping against hope that one of my faves, Ida Lupino, would be in the running; unfortunately, she just didn’t have enough of a directorial track record in genre anthologies to make the final cut, even if she did do an outstanding job on Thriller and The Twilight Zone. Neill Fearnley was a pleasant surprise, with 26 episodes of R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour to his credit, along with nine eps of the 90’s Outer Limits and an episode of Friday the 13th: The Series. But the guy I was fully expecting to run away with this category was One Step Beyond’s John Newland, who directed 96 episodes of that show plus 18 eps of The Next Step Beyond, four each of Thriller and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and one Night Gallery. Imagine my surprise when I realized that he’d been topped quite substantially by Robert Stevens, whose resume included 44 Alfred Hitchcock Presents, five Alfred Hitchcock Hours, two Twilight Zones, two Journey to the Unknowns, an Amazing Story . . . and 145 episodes of the TV version of the radio classic Suspense! As much as I love Newland’s directorial style, Stevens is the clear winner here. Plus he’s another Emmy winner!
Director: Robert Stevens
Finally, we need a cinematographer to lens this sucker and give it just the right look. Michael Balfry (76 episodes of R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour) and Dale Deverman (82 eps of One Step Beyond, 11 eps of Alfred Hitchcock Presents) were early frontrunners, but it eventually came down to a trio of industry legends. George T. Clemens did 117 episodes of The Twilight Zone and has a Primetime Emmy to his credit. John L. Russell has just about as many total shows lensed (96 Alfred Hitchcock Presents/Hour, 10 Thriller, 9 Kraft Suspense Theatre), more diversity in programs but no Emmy. Lionel Linden lags behind Clemens and Russell in total episodes (72 total) but did five different shows (Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Hour, Thriller, Kraft Suspense Theatre, and Night Gallery) and has one Oscar and three Primetime Emmys on his mantle. Any one of them would be a great choice, but I ultimately leaned towards Linden.
Cinematographer: Lionel Linden
That just leaves us to cast the pilot episode of Tales of the Night, and once again things didn’t go quite like I’d anticipated. I was kind of expecting William Shatner to lead the way on the men’s side, and either Anne Francis or Elizabeth Montgomery on the women’s, but that’s not how it worked out at all. The Shat seemed like an obvious choice because he’s the only person I can think of to star in episodes of the early 1960’s "Big Five": The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Thriller, One Step Beyond, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. And he did indeed end up with more than a dozen lead roles in genre anthology shows, but that was barely half the number racked up by the runaway winner: Mr. Leslie Nielsen. Leslie Nielsen?? Yep! Long, long before reinventing himself as a comedy actor, Nielsen had done Thriller, Night Gallery, both Alfred Hitchcock shows, Kraft Suspense Theatre, and more than a dozen episodes of the very early genre anthology shows such as Suspense, Lights Out, and Tales of Tomorrow. So, there’s our leading man for the pilot, with William Shatner cast in a strong supporting role.
As for the ladies, it would have been oh-so-appropriate to have Nielsen’s co-star in the 1956 sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet, Anne Francis, as his co-star here. And she did get awfully close, but she was edged out by another dramatic performer-turned-comedy star: Cloris Leachman! I’d seen her on The Twilight Zone (both the original and the 2002–2003 version), Thriller, and One Step Beyond, but Leachman had also done Night Gallery (once in the original run, plus one when The Sixth Sense was incorporated into Night Gallery for syndication), Kraft Suspense Theatre, the ubiquitous Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and some episodes of Suspense and Tales of Tomorrow. Add Francis in a substantial supporting role, and that’s one heck of a pilot episode cast!
Pilot Cast: Leslie Nielsen, Cloris Leachman, Anne Francis, William Shatner
And with that, we have the cast and crew for our "dream" anthology show. Looking at the results, I’m a little bit surprised at how heavily weighted it is toward pre-1965 shows; I mean, I was expecting it to a certain extent, but not quite this much. The longevity of shows (and therefore the number of episodes produced) like The Twilight Zone, Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and others really left no air in the room for more recent shows that only ran for a season or two. I might need to redo this exercise in the future, but with the focus on programs produced from 1970 to the present.
I’m also a little bit surprised that The Outer Limits was completely shut out! Although, as I think about it now, it’s not totally unexpected, as Leslie Stevens and Joseph Stefano had their own little universe in their production company, Daystar. But next time, we’ll be looking at an outsider who joined them at mid-stream: composer Harry Lubin. Until next time, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.