This week’s Retro Set is dedicated to the late Rod Taylor, who passed away yesterday at the age of 84. The dashing, handsome Australian actor is best known for his work in such classics as The Time Machine and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, but had a long and varied career that tested his mettle as a truly fine actor—from The Glass Bottom Boat to Inglorious Basterds. Taylor was also a fixture on TV of the late 1950s and into the 60s, guest starring in such shows as Playhouse 90, Westinghouse, and, of course, that legendary anthology show which hosted so many a fine actor, The Twilight Zone. Today we take a look at Taylor’s stint on The Twilight Zone in honor of his life and in gratitude for the many memories that he gave us. He will be missed, but his memory lives on thanks to film, and in this case, television.
RIP, Rod. You gorgeous thing, you.
“And When The Sky Opened Up”
The Twilight Zone, Season 1, Episode 11
Air Date: December 11, 1959
Starring: Rod Taylor, Jim Hutton (under James Hutton), and Charles Aidman
From Bernard Hermann’s unforgettable opening score to the quiet gravity of Rod Serling’s narration, the groundbreaking anthology series The Twilight Zone is a series like no other. The episodes rarely fall squarely within the “horror” genre, as some may assume, but rather they mainly rely on the slow-burn torture of psychological terror. Rarely is anyone eaten alive by monsters or zombies– the real devil to be found is often the devil within, and death is often the result of the cruel unraveling of sanity. It is a picture postcard of Cold War America; paranoid, skittish, fascinated by the future while crippled by the reality of its horror.
“And When the Sky Opened Up” is an episode from the show’s first season, which in itself is a banner season procuring such classic TV staples as “Time Enough at Last” (starring Burgess Meredith as a people-hating book lover) and the critically acclaimed “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” (a sobering study on mob mentality). Starring a fantastic, strapping Rod Taylor and a baby-faced Jim Hutton (in one of his first ever screen roles) the episode is a simple space-age tale, with all the earmarks that came to define the Twilight Zone’s subtle brand of terror.
Taylor is Colonel Forbes, an astronaut whose life is, quite literally, disappearing right in front of his eyes. He is a member of a three member crew who recently returned from a pioneering journey into space: the problem is that during the flight the crew blacked out, their radar went offline for 24 hours, and they awoke in a hospital after having crash landed in the middle of the desert with no recollection of what happened. Nevertheless, the three are hailed as heroes, their images plastered on all the papers. The story takes off when Taylor and fellow crew member Colonel Harrington (Charles Aidman) pay a visit to their third Musketeer, Major Gart (Jim Hutton) in a hospital ward. Gart, like Forbes and Harrington, was injured in the landing and is still waiting to be discharged. Forbes and Harrington laugh about their experience and poke fun at the young Gart, eventually leaving him to have a drink at a nearby bar.
The happy-go-lucky Harrington, however, starts to have something of a meltdown at the bar. A curious shadow has crossed his face, and he begins to feel a horrifying sensation that something simply isn’t right. “It’s as if I don’t belong here anymore,” he tells Forbes, who simply assumes his friend has had one too many drinks. But Harrington’s premonitions only compound and he rushes to the phone box, on a sudden impulse to call his parents. Harrington becomes frantic when his mother and father claim they have no son. Forbes is still trying to calm Harrington down when, in the blink of an eye, Harrington is gone. And along with him, all recollection of his existence. The newspaper now shows two men instead of three.
Forbes’ sanity quickly unravels as everyone—from his wife to young Gart himself, insist that a man named Harrington never existed. Refusing to believe he’s imagining it, Forbes is hit with the horrifying truth. “Someone, or something, made a mistake … someone let us get through when we shouldn’t have gotten through … and now they’re coming to get us.” Soon enough, Forbes experiences the same foreboding feeling of imminent danger. Gart looks on in horror as Forbes looses his control and runs down the hospital corridor screaming that he doesn’t want his life to end like this.
Gart summons a nurse to run after Forbes, fearing that his friend will do something harmful to himself. The nurse stares at him blankly. “Who?” Gart is immediately struck with the realization of what is happening. The newspaper now shows only one astronaut hero. “Oh dear God, no,” he cries, trembling, as the nurse tries to comfort him. “Oh dear god, no.”
And sure enough, in classic Serling fashion, the story ends with a cut to the same blank-faced nurse who is inspecting a now empty hospital room; the men who once occupied it aren’t even a memory. Serling closes, “they used to exist but don’t any longer. someone or something took them somewhere at least they are no longer a part of the memory of man … if any of you have any questions, speak softly of them, and only in the Twilight Zone.”
Taylor is strong and sincerely believable in this role, as he was in all of his roles. One always believed Taylor, no matter the material: whether he was playing a Victorian time traveler or Winston Churchill himself, he was dependable, sturdy, and acted the hell out of everything he was given. Taylor’s masculine good looks had a tendency to usurp his genuine gift as a solid actor but his talent is on full display in all of his work, all you have to do is look– and it is definitely the case here, in this quiet little addition to the Twilight Zone anthology. (It’s also fun to hear the Australian Taylor, who did a terrific American accent, slip every now and them with one or two Aussie twangs. Love it.)
“And When the Sky Opened” up is classic Twilight Zone because it is classic Cold War paranoia. What awaits us in the future, 50s America asks. The Answer: oblivion.