On January 12th, 1955, Rod Serling was a lesser-known television writer, a man who had toiled in relatively obscurity for a number of years churning out script after script (many of them rejected) for anthology radio and television programs.
On January 13th, 1955, Rod Serling was an in-demand sensation, a man whose “phone just started ringing and wouldn’t stop for years!” Serling went literally overnight from being virtually unknown to being one of the most celebrated and lauded screenwriters of television’s golden age and beyond after the anthology series Kraft Television Theatre aired one of his productions titled “Patterns.”
According to Wikipedia, Jack Gould, critic for the New York Times, called “Patterns” “one of the high points in the TV medium’s evolution.” And Robert Lewis Shayon wrote in the Saturday Review, “in the years I have been watching television I do not recall being so engaged by a drama, nor so stimulated to challenge the haunting conclusions of an hour’s entertainment.”
Serling was immediately bombarded with offers and requests for more scripts, and he complied by selling off many of his earlier, originally rejected teleplays. Broadcasters also mined some of his older material that had been produced for quick remounts, now that Serling was a celebrated name.
On January 19th, exactly one week after the first production of “Patterns” was televised live from New York City, the half-hour CBC anthology show Playbill produced one of these earlier Serling scripts, “Mr. Finchley Versus the Bomb” to cash in on Serling’s newfound popularity. This production appears to have included William Shatner, marking the first (but not the last) time that he would appear in a Serling production. In fact, if IMDB is to be believed, this isn’t the last time Shatner would appear in this Serling-penned program.
“Mr. Finchley Versus the Bomb” was originally produced for another anthology series, Lux Video Theatre, almost exactly three years earlier in 1952. I could find very little information on what the episode was about (and I’m not about to travel to Ithica College’s Serling Archives just to read the script.) There is a one sentence synopsis in Dave Thompson’s The Twilight Zone FAQ: it apparently “dealt with one man’s refusal to leave his house after the military decreed his hometown the ideal site for its atom bomb tests.” Sounds like vintage Serling.
IMDB only lists four characters in the cast of this episode (although for reasons mentioned below I’m pretty sure there were several more): Mr. Finchley, a reporter, a general and someone named “Hannify.” William Shatner is listed as the actor playing Hannify, but I don’t know what the character did in the teleplay. Could have been a soldier, could have been a neighbor, could have been someone else…unknown. At least until I find myself in Ithica with time on my hands.
Until then, we’ll all just have to speculate together!
It’s time to detail all of the connections between Playbill’s “Mr. Finchley Versus the Bomb” and other Shatner appearances!
Rod Serling is, in my honest opinion, completely deserving of his reputation of being of the greatest screenwriters of the 1950’s and 60’s, and possibly ever. His most famous creation, The Twilight Zone, still stands as one of the best and most influential television shows of all time. If I were forced to choose my favorite TV series, I think I may have to pick The Twilight Zone against some very stiff competition, due to the quality of its writing, its moral and philosophical messages (often timely even today) and simply for its variety of settings and genres. In short, I fucking love that show. And for some reason, it always makes me want to smoke a cigarette.
Shatner would next work on a Serling program in September of 1956, very shortly after moving to New York City. Oddly enough, he would again appear in “Mr. Finchley Versus the Bomb” for the anthology series Kaiser Aluminum Hour. This time, he played a character named “Peterson” who was not listed on IMDB for the Playbill version. This is why I’m pretty convinced there were more characters in that version than are listed, which doesn’t surprise me because IMDB can be fairly unreliable.
Two years later he would co-star with noted method actor Rod Steiger for Playhouse 90’s, “A Town Has Turned to Dust.” Directed by future celebrated movie director John Frankenheimer, this story also has a character named Hannify (or Hennify, I’ve seen it listed as both) but this was probably just Serling reusing some old names, knowingly or unknowingly.
And then of course, Shatner would appear on two episodes of Serling’s magnum opus, The Twilight Zone, first in 1960’s excellent “Nick of Time” and then in 1963’s masterpiece, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Neither of these episodes was written by Serling (both were instead penned by Richard Matheson) but Serling was likely around a bit at least for “Nick of Time” and appeared as the host for each episode as he always did.
Finally, Shatner would work with Serling again in 1974 for a radio series called The Zero Hour. Serling did write some of the episodes for this anthology series but, again, not for any of the ones Shatner appeared in. However, he was the voice of the host, with Shatner appearing in five episodes in one week: “Dr. Rivington, Presumably,” Wanted: A Willing Companion,” “Pigs Could Put You in the Pen,” “Sky Lab, Are You There?” and “A Favor You Can’t Refuse.”
As for the actors, Kate Reid had previously appeared with Shatner in a 1954’s CBC Theatre episode, “The Man Who Ran Away.” In 1960, she would appear as Portia in Festival’s production of “Julius Caesar.”
Austin Willis had already appeared in two General Motors Theater episodes with The Shat, “The Big Leap” and “I Like It Here.” Despite working with Shatner on three shows in 4 months, this was the last they would ever appear together that I can see.
I purposefully didn’t talk about the plot of “Patterns”, not because there are spoilers or anything but because it wasn’t really germane to the review and you can check out more info on it here.
A few years after the live performances of “Patterns” on TV, Serling adapted his own script for a full-length feature film version. It was not as well received, but at least you can watch it as it is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. I’m sure you can find it on some streaming services as well.
Finally, if you haven’t already you should buy and watch repeatedly every episode of The Twilight Zone.