By John C. Alsedek:
Through its various permutations over the years, The Twilight Zone has been blessed with some terrific hosts. The current version? Jordan Peele. The 2000's UPN take? Forrest Whitaker. The Radio Dramas? Stacy Keach. The 1980's TV and film reboots? Original TZ alums Charles Aidman and Burgess Meredith, respectively. And then of course there's the original host, the icon, the one all the others are measured against: Rod Serling.
Just one problem. He wasn't the original host.
Okay, okay. If you're a purist who believes that The Twilight Zone began on October 2nd, 1959 when Episode #1 ("Where Is Everybody?") premiered, then of course Rod Serling is the show's first host. He did Season One as the off-camera narrator and then started doing on-camera intros at the beginning of Season Two. But if you stretch the parameters a bit, you could make the case for someone else. For though it wasn't an official TZ episode, The Twilight Zone had a pilot that aired on November 24th, 1958 on the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse.
That's right. The very first host of The Twilight Zone was none other than Desi Arnaz.
The pilot for The Twilight Zone was an hour-long story titled "The Time Element," starring William Bendix and Martin Balsam. And the story of how it got written and then aired is an interesting one . . .
In the latter half of the 1950's, Rod Serling was one of the brightest lights of the still-new medium of television. Gripping teleplays like "Patterns" and "Requiem for a Heavyweight" had already netted him multiple Emmys, but he was growing frustrated with issues of censorship by both networks and show sponsors. At first it was petty items—such as having the Chrysler Building left out of a picture of the New York City skyline because the show's sponsor was the Ford Motor Company. But it really came to a head in 1956, when Serling wrote "Noon on Doomsday" for The United States Steel Hour.
What he'd meant as a hard-hitting commentary on the then-recent lynching murder of Emmett Till—a seminal moment in the Civil Rights Movement—was diluted to near-meaninglessness by sponsor demands. Serling was already experienced/jaded enough to know that a story too closely patterned on the Emmett Till case would never get on network television, so he made the victim an old Jewish pawnbroker instead of a black teen and the killer a psychopathic malcontent instead of a vicious racist. And it might have gotten on the air if not for one reply to a reporter's comment about the plot; when the reporter noted that the story sounded a lot like the Till case, Serling answered "If the shoe fits . . ."
That was all it took. News services began referring to "Noon on Doomsday" as "the Emmett Till story." White Citizens Councils in the South immediately threatened boycotts, and the show's sponsors caved in. The victim could no longer even be Jewish, but simply an unnamed foreigner. The killer could no longer be a psychopath, but merely a good American boy who made a mistake. Anything that even remotely suggested that the setting was in the South was removed. And the word "lynch" was not to be used. AT ALL.
This was the final straw for Serling, a strong proponent of free speech and civil rights. Since he was never going to win by going directly against the network and sponsor censors, Serling decided to try an end-around. In 1957, he pitched a pilot script for a new series to CBS, an anthology focused on science fiction and fantasy stories rather than dramas. His reasoning was that by substituting Martians or robots for minorities and setting his stories in the future, he could slip compelling social commentary past the censors. Unfortunately, the pilot was rejected and ended up gathering dust. That is, until Bert Granet came along . . .
Bert Granet was the producer for the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, a new hour-long anthology series that premiered in November of 1958. In search of high-quality material for the alternating weeks (the show did a Lucy-Desi comedy one week, a drama the next), Granet came across Serling’s script and decided to produce it. And so it was that "The Time Element" made it on the air.
"The Time Element" told the story of Peter Jenson (William Bendix) as he tells psychoanalyst Dr. Gillespie (Martin Balsam) about his recurring dream of waking up in Honolulu the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Only Jenson is convinced that it’s not a dream: somehow, he really is traveling through time. In his dream, he desperately tries to warn people about the attack, but no one will listen—that is, until Japanese planes are filling the skies.
Pretty typical time travel tale, right? Ah, but I left out the Serling twist: While still on the couch, Jenson falls asleep and is killed by a strafing Japanese plane in his dream. But back in the office, Jenson is gone. And not just gone, but there is no trace that Jenson was ever even there. Stunned, Dr. Gillespie heads down to a local bar and finds a photo of Jenson on the wall. Turns out that Pete Jenson used to be a bartender there but was killed . . . at Pearl Harbor!
"The Time Element" was a huge hit with viewers and critics alike and was enough to convince CBS that maybe, just maybe, there was an audience for a science fiction/fantasy anthology series after all. So they gave Serling’s series pitch the green light, and The Twilight Zone premiered less than a year later (fun fact: Bert Granet would later go on to be the producer for The Twilight Zone later in its run).
And so, that’s the story of how Desi Arnaz was the first host of The Twilight Zone. But Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball, and Desilu Productions had another, even bigger role to play in the development of science fiction/fantasy on television. We’ll trek into that topic next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!