There is Nothing Wrong With Your Television Set…

50 yearsouter limits2

… Do not attempt to adjust the picture.

We are controlling transmission.

These were the ominous words of The Control Voice.  They were delivered with the authority and cold austerity of an Orwellian manipulator or Soviet Gulag director.  You did not dare touch the TV and defy The Control Voice.  The monsters and terrors encountered during the coming “great adventure” were intended for you and you alone.

Some people have Star Trek.  Others have The Twilight Zone, Dr. Who, or The X Files.  For me, the most intriguing science fiction and/or horror show ever on U.S. television was the original run of THE OUTER LIMITS.

THE OUTER LIMITS was a black-and-white, hour-long show that ran for two seasons on ABC in 1963-65.  It returned sporadically for syndicated reruns, and was resurrected (disappointingly) in 1995 as a totally new, colorized series.  Because September 16 is the 50th anniversary of the airing of the pilot of the series (“The Galaxy Being” starring Cliff Robertson), I’d like to pay homage to this offbeat but very influential TV show.

What was happening in September 1963?  Well, John F. Kennedy was U.S. president.  Nikita Khrushchev was Soviet Communist secretary.  Civilization was only 18 years from WWII, Nazism, and the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The U.S. had fought a war in Korea, undergone McCarthyism, and was jacking up a military presence in Vietnam.  The superpowers were also beginning to explore the frontiers of space.  Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin had completed the first orbit of the Earth in 1961.  A year later, President Kennedy promised that America would beat the Soviets to the moon “in this decade.”

So while there was heady excitement over the space race in 1963, there was also concern about the nuclear arms race.  The U.S. and Soviet Union were at the height of their Cold War, with the Cuban Missile Crisis only narrowly averted in ’62.  It was against this backdrop that creator Leslie Stevens and producer/writer Joseph Stefano unveiled THE OUTER LIMITS.

galaxy being

The Galaxy Being

Stevens, a one-time night attendant at a mental hospital, had been writing for theatre and the screen since 1954.  He envisioned a show that had the acuteness of “The Twilight Zone,” but darker, with less plot-twisting and a larger dose of science-fiction, horror, and social commentary. He wanted to explore issues like warfare, atomic energy, totalitarianism, mind control, space exploration, etc. in the guise of a small morality play.  Like “The Twilight Zone,” THE OUTER LIMITS would be an anthology, and with alternating writers, directors, and actors for each show.

Stefano had written the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s infamous film “Psycho,” so he knew horror.  He led a cast of scriptwriters that included sci-fi novelist Harlan Ellison and Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne (“Chinatown”).  The other key ingredients were Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad Hall, who specialized in the shadowy camera techniques of film noir, and composer Dominic Frontiere, whose creative music scores provided bold dramatic coloring (his music has since been released on CD; AllMusic critic Bruce Eder called it “the best music ever written for television”).

A number of young actors used THE OUTER LIMITS as a launching pad.  They included future stars Martin Landau, Martin Sheen, Bruce Dern, Robert Duvall, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Culp, Sally Kellerman, Ed Asner, etc.

Martin Landau as Andro in "The Man Who was Never Born"

Martin Landau as Andro in “The Man Who was Never Born”

Others had been major stage and film stars and were on a career downswing, such as 1930s-40s star Miriam Hopkins, B-movie queen Gloria Grahame, and venerable actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke, whose last role was in the episode “The Forms of Things Unknown.” The big attraction for an impressionable kid like me was the monsters.  Although the costumes and makeup were primitive by today’s standards, some of these creatures could be literally nightmarish.  In fact, the monster created for one episode, “The Architects of Fear,” was considered so frightening by some ABC affiliates that they blackened it out!  Stevens and Stefano deliberately utilized these creatures, which they collectively called “the bear,” to create atmosphere and as a springboard for plot development.

A total of 49 episodes were created over the show’s two-year span, with the best airing during the first season.  After this, ABC in its infinite wisdom decided the show was too opaque and cynical for audiences, so they dumbed it down with simpler plots, more low-tech sci-fi and less true horror.  They also replaced Frontiere’s majestic scores with more mundane music and added a gimmicky Theremin sound device.  Producer Stefano, not surprisingly, resigned in disgust.  There are a few second-season shows that stand out, however, notably the Ellison-written “Demon with a Glass Hand,” the space-themed “The Invisible Enemy” (with Adam West), and “The Duplicate Man,” which features a good “bear” in the alien creature the Megasoid.

Here are a few of my favorite episodes (all from the first season):

Nightmare (starring Martin Sheen): a coalition of international astronauts lands on the black planet Ebon, hoping to rescue an earlier flight crew with whom Earth lost contact.  eboniteThey immediately become imprisoned by frightening Ebonites, and start behaving very strangely.  Are they truly prisoners of the Ebonites?  Or are they guinea pigs for sadistic torture experiments guided by their own leaders?  Does Dick Cheney know the answer?

The Guests (starring Luana Anders and Gloria Grahame): a drifter stumbles into an old house where the inhabitants never age.  Upstairs lives a massive alien blob that searches their brains for the “missing part of the equation.”  guestsWhat is the missing part?  Will the drifter and his new love – Tess – escape from the house?  Or will they forever be playing cornhole in darkened hallways?

The Zanti Misfits (starring Bruce Dern): a runaway criminal and his moll tumble upon a spaceship in the middle of the desert.  The craft is filled with hideous insect creatures, prisoners shipped from the planet Zanti, who escape and go on a rampage.  Is Zanti using Earth as its own little penal colony?  zantis2How should a society deal with the problem of overcrowded prisons?  Has Zanti ever considered decriminalizing soft drugs like marijuana?

Note: TV Guide selected this episode as one of its 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time.

The Sixth Finger (starring David McCallum): a scientist creates a machine to speed up human evolution.  A dim-witted coalminer becomes his first test case, and evolves into an arrogant creature that has the ability to read people’s minds.  sixth fingerHow far should science go before man is playing God?  If the human hand does eventually develop a sixth finger, what new gesture will we use when someone cuts us off in traffic?

We now return control of your television set to you… until next week at the same time, when The Control Voice will take you to…

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The Girl With the Novocaine Lip

When I was a kid in the ‘60s there was a science-fiction horror show called THE OUTER LIMITS (Stephen King has since called it “the best show of its kind ever on TV”).  One of the episodes was entitled “The Guests.”  It was about a drifter who stumbles into an old Victorian house where the residents never grow old.  If they try to leave, they age rapidly and turn to dust.  One of the “guests” is a Norma Desmond-like silent film actress who pathetically clings to the idea she’s still a star.  In one particular scene, she slithers over to the drifter, gives him a peck on the lips, and says, “I had to do that.  It was my madcap heart.”  There’s a slight pause.  Then, “’My Madcap Heart’ was the name of my first bad picture.  Did you think I was sincere?”  At that moment I became smitten with Gloria Grahame.

Going back a few more years, to the late ‘40s and ‘50s: a style of film emerged in Hollywood that is today called “film noir” (“noir” being French for “dark”).  These films were much more downbeat and cynical than the buoyant adventures, musicals, and romances that proliferated until the end of WW2.  They were B&W crime pictures that usually featured a hard-boiled detective and a tough, sassy “dame.”  The cameras made heavy use of shadows, cigarette smoke, rain-soaked city streets, and train yards.  Most film noirs were low-budget ‘B’ movies featuring actors generally unrecognized today except by hardcore film buffs.  A few ‘A’ movies included DOUBLE INDEMNITY (Barbara Stanwyck), THE BIG SLEEP (Bogart and Bacall), and TOUCH OF EVIL (Orson Welles).  If you’ve ever seen Leslie Nielsen in the hilarious NAKED GUN series, well, film noir is what those comedies are spoofing.

Mention the name Gloria Grahame to any male film noir buff and he’ll hyperventilate and gush “Ahhh yes…the girl with the novocaine lip!”  Grahame is today considered one of the queens of film noir.  She only made about eight noirs, but they are some of the best and most beloved of the genre.  Grahame was somewhat ahead of her time.  Her looks and acting had a sleaziness closer to today’s femme fatales.  There was always a hint of the forbidden about her.  I’ll put it bluntly: she oozed sex.

She also made a number of movies outside of film noir.  Her most visible roles were as town flirt Violet Bick in the Christmas classic IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE starring Jimmy Stewart; and as plucky Ado Annie Carnes in the film version of OKLAHOMA!  The last-named was made in 1955 and is responsible for driving Grahame’s movie career to a halt.  Not so much because she was tone deaf, couldn’t sing, and was miscast in a family musical, but because her truculent behavior (she crushed the cowboy hat of a co-star) pissed off everyone on the set.  The word went out that Grahame was “difficult,” and producers and directors stayed away.

But there were a couple other reasons her career dried up.  One was her boisterous private life.  She had four stormy marriages and divorces.  She is also rumored to have slept with her 14-year-old stepson (they later married and had two kids – after he turned 21!).  She also had a series of surgeries on her mouth and chin to make herself look sexier – long before plastic surgery became fashionable.  During one operation in Germany, the doctor accidentally severed a nerve, rendering her upper lip immobile and earning her the sobriquet that titles this essay.  Needless to say, Hollywood distanced itself even further from her.

In the ‘60s and early ‘70s Grahame popped up occasionally on popular television shows – like THE OUTER LIMITS – usually portraying a washed-up actress or conniving stepmother.  She had some cameo film roles in the ‘70s, as well as leading roles in drive-in exploitation trash with titles like MAMA’S DIRTY GIRLS and MANSION OF THE DOOMED.  She also did a lot of stage work (her first love).  Grahame died in 1981 from complications due to breast cancer.

November 28 (tomorrow) is her birthday, and Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is honoring her by showing a bunch of her movies.  So those of you unfamiliar with Gloria Grahame, and who can access TCM, can see why longitudes is making such a fuss.  If you can only see a few movies, on TCM or elsewhere, I recommend CROSSFIRE (Robert Mitchum), IN A LONELY PLACE (Humphrey Bogart), and THE BIG HEAT (Glenn Ford and Lee Marvin).  All three are not only excellent examples of film noir, but my girlfriend Gloria is at her absolute best.  I’ll allow you to feast your eyes for a while.  Just don’t get too close.