The one about the little kid with supernatural powers. The shopkeeper who can magically materialize exactly what a customer needs. The episode with an invisible creature attacking people in the jungle. The show where an old man puts his personality into a robot. You know, that early ‘50s TV anthology that had all the famous science fiction writers like Theodore Sturgeon and Arthur C. Clarke, with early roles for future stars like Cloris Leachman and Leslie Nielsen, No, I’m not talking about Twilight Zone, that didn’t debut until 1959.
Tales of Tomorrow ran nearly year-round on ABC from August 1951 through June 1953, with two seasons totaling 85 half-hour episodes. Back in 1989, I began work on an article about the series, conducting phone interviews with creators involved with the show, all who’ve since passed away. It was to be my follow-up to articles about Boris Karloff’s Thriller that appeared in Midnight Marquee magazine and Filmfax. But then I started getting gigs writing for Starlog and Cult Movies, and stayed busy with comic book titles like Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics and Carnal Comics, followed by a quarter century stint at the Reader. My Tales of Tomorrow project got packed into a box and gathered dust for more than thirty years.
Until I found all those old interview tapes last year, and began digitizing them. The result is, for the first time ever, a detailed inside POV of this seminal science fiction TV program, told by those who created it.
As part of his 1970 Science Fiction in Literature film series, University of Kansas professor James Gunn asked Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling his opinion of other TV programs similar to his own.
“There was one previous show that was sort of the granddaddy of all the television science fiction,” Serling recalled. “Gosh, I wish I could think of the name of it. I love this desperate knowledge of mine that I come out with. And they did a lot of absolutely marvelous adaptations, and some very good ones, ‘The Adaptive Ultimate,’ do you recall that one? It was a classic…a very good show which they did on that. Uh, something about tomorrow was in the title. Tales Of Tomorrow, that was the name of the show, produced by Mort Abrahams.”
“That truly was the granddaddy,” concluded Serling. He was never more correct.
In August 1951, eight full years before Twilight Zone debuted, the television medium was about to experience its most momentous year of development. It was the very first season where shows, whether produced live (like most programming) or filmed (ala I Love Lucy and Dragnet), could be broadcast live coast-to-coast via a newly created national network connected by coaxial cable and microwave.
The nationwide broadcasts had become possible thanks to the cutting edge of futuristic technology, but science fiction fans were seeing few television efforts in that genre, outside of occasional episodes of dramatic anthologies like Lux Video Theatre (CBS), Hands of Mystery (DuMont Network), The Clock (ABC) and Kraft Television Theatre (NBC).
They were doing creepy stories at NBC in 1951 with their Lights Out anthology (based on a radio series) and in some episodes of Suspense at CBS (also a radio show). CBS would launch a short-lived science fiction show just before Halloween 1951, Out There, adapting stories by noted authors like Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein, but a 6pm time slot contributed to its cancellation after only a dozen episodes. DuMont had a kid’s sci-fi series airing on multiple days each week called Captain Video and his Video Rangers, and ABC had blown up a local L.A. kid’s show called Space Patrol into a national fad, but actual factual science fiction on TV was about as common as a Vulcan comedian.
When ABC debuted Tales of Tomorrow on Friday, August 3, 1951, a U.S. Viking rocket was about to score a new world record for reaching over 130 miles high, and movie theaters were running down their last prints of The Thing From Another World, preparing to open The Day the Earth Stood Still. It was the perfect time to bring real science fiction stories to television for the first time, written by actual noted authors of the genre, including adaptations of classic tales such as Frankenstein (starring Lon Chaney Jr.) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (with Thomas Mitchell as Captain Nemo).
The anthology format allowed for a wide array of up and coming performers to appear, offering early roles to Leslie Nielsen and Rod Steiger (both of whom also appeared in CBS’ aforementioned Out There sci-fi series), as well as James Dean, Paul Newman, Eva Gabor, Darren McGavin, Cloris Leachman, Lee J. Cobb, Joan Blondell, Joanne Woodward, and Brian Keith, occasionally working on the show alongside Hollywood legends like Boris Karloff and Veronica Lake.
The origins of the program, originally planned to be called Tomorrow Is Yours, can be traced back to an idea by science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon and TV producer Mort Abrahams. Sturgeon was writing for Astounding Science Fiction, Planet Stories, Weird Tales, and Planet Stories, creating psychologically-centered stories like “More Than Human” (1953), about six people who can meld their minds into a single consciousness, as well as later work for the Star Trek episodes “Shore Leave” (1966) and “Amok Time (1967) and the eighties reboot of The Twilight Zone.
“The genesis of it was that I put together an organization called the Science Fiction League of America,” said Mort Abrahams in May 1990, “which was a coalition of the top science fiction writers, some of who are still with us like Ray Bradbury. There were twelve members of the League, and I had an arrangement with them whereby I had the television rights to all of their published short stories.”
Abrahams would go on to work on Route 66, The Man From UNCLE, and features including the first two Planet of the Apes films, Doctor Doolittle, and Goodbye, Mr. Chips. “The first television series I ever did was called Tom Corbett, Space Cadet , and in that series I produced, I worked with Rock Hill Radio. They were a sort of ad agency at the time, this was all in the days when television was just beginning. Nobody quite knew who did what to whom.”
“Robert Heinlein had written Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, the book, and that got me interested in science fiction,” recalled Abrahams, “and Heinlein became one of the members of the Science Fiction League of America. So my second television production was Tales of Tomorrow.”
“I paid a weekly per-show royalty to the League,” said Abrahams, “and then an individual payment to the author of the particular work that was adapted for the series. I had access to something like 3000 stories. Then I took that proposal to a man by the name of Robert Lewine, he was very instrumental in putting the show together, and he suggested that I take it to George Foley.”
Robert F. Lewine on far left
Robert Lewine already knew Abrahams from when both worked for Rock Hill Radio, something that Lewine told me in 1990 “I don’t easily admit to. I was the head of the agency that bought the series from Richard Gordon and George Foley. I felt it was a good idea and took it to Kreisler watchbands, and they agreed to sponsor it. Later on that year or the next year, Masland carpets took over the sponsorship.”
George F. Foley Jr. was a New Jersey-born producer who brought to the table a potential sponsor he was already working with at ABC. As Mort Abrahams recalls, “They sold it a client of the ad agency that Robert [Lewine] was working with, Kreisler wristbands, who were behind the program The Kreisler Bandstand.” Foley and his partner Richard Gordon had formed a partnership, predictably named Foley & Gordon. “They had another show on the air, an afternoon game show, they were like a packaging company,” said Abrahams. A deal was whereby the League short stories (and over a dozen novels) would form a story bank. Little thought was given to original stories, but that would change once the show took off and writers of fantastic fiction took notice.
The original title Tomorrow Is Yours was replaced with Tales Of Tomorrow, and writers whose stories were purchased for adaptations included Arthur C. Clarke (“All the Time in the World”), C.M. Kornbluth (“The Little Black Bag”), Stanley G. Weinbaum (“The Miraculous Serum”), and Fredric Brown (“Age Of Peril,” “The Last Man On Earth”). Classic stories that had fallen into the public domain were also adapted, by authors like H.G. Wells (“The Crystal Egg”), Jules Verne’s (“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” adapted in two parts), Oscar Wilde (“The Picture of Dorian Gray”), and Mary Shelley (“Frankenstein”). Aside from show co-creator Theodore Sturgeon, other writers whose work was up for grabs included Frederik Pohl, Philip Wylie, Henry Kuttner, John Campbell, Ray Bradbury, and A.E. Van Vogt.
“James Lister was my assistant and casting director,” recalled Mort Abrahams, who was on the set for every shoot and took an active role in all aspects of the production, including choosing which authors and stories to adapt. “I had become a science fiction buff by that time, and I’d read almost all of the [League] material, so I kind of knew what I was dealing with. I made the selections myself, both from the available material from the Science Fiction League, or from material sent in, or given to me, or assigned by me to writers. As time went by, we mostly turned to original material by writers.”
Abrahams said TOT’s micro-budget made things challenging. “General Electric Theater was a different kettle of fish, it was big budget, with Ronnie Reagan as the host. It represented a big move for me in terms of having money to spend. My entire staff on Tales Of Tomorrow was Jim Lister part time, a secretary half a day, and myself. So I had a cot in my office, because I frequently spent three or four nights a week sleeping in the office. I had to turn out copies of the script with a hand-cranked mimeograph machine, and I didn’t have any money to deliver them to the actors by messenger or by cab, they had to be delivered by whoever was available to me, by bus and subway. It was really skinny money time.”
While talking to Abrahams, he revealed something previously unknown about the soundtracks for Tales Of Tomorrow. “I’ll tell you an interesting story about the music to that show. It was all from library, and the guy who selected the music and spun the records was Jerry Goldsmith.” Then 21 years old, Goldsmith would soon go to work for CBS, later scoring genre features from Planet of the Apes to Logan’s Run, Alien, Total Recall, Gremlins, The Omen, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and several films in the Star Trek franchise.
“Jerry kept after me for two years, saying ‘Please let me write an original score.’ I was paying Jerry $75 per show, and I said I don’t have any money for musicians. I’d love you to do it, Jerry, but I can’t pay you and I can’t pay the musicians, so I’m in a bind. Finally, he’d done such a good job…I had a few dollars extra, I think $125. And what he did was compose a score with a guitar and a harmonica, and somebody whistled, and I think it was Jerry Goldsmith’s first original composition [for television].”
Although most of the music was canned, Tales of Tomorrow provided early work to several of televisions most noted directors. Don Medford helmed over a hundred other TV shows between 1951 and 1989, including Twilight Zone’s season four episode “Death Ship,” the famed two-part finale of The Fugitive, and over two dozen episodes of the 1980s primetime soap opera Dynasty. His films include the 1964 feature length version of the Man From UNCLE, To Trap a Spy, and the third entry in Sidney Poitier’s Mr. Tibbs trilogy, The Organization.
Charles S. Durbin is best known for directing the beloved 1965 TV version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella starring Leslie Anne Warren, as well as TV staples like Hawaii Five-O, Kojak, Murder She Wrote, the Rockford Files, Matlock, and MASH, which featured him behind the camera more than any other director. He was hired by ABC as an associate producer in 1950, having already been promoted to head director by the time he began working on TOT episodes the following year. In 1958, he turned up on the Hollywood Blacklist of suspected communist sympathizers (as did fellow TOT writer Alvin Sapinsley), but he refused to testify at subsequent court hearings. He was never cited for contempt.
Director Franklin James Schaffner followed up his TOT work with other TV anthologies like Studio One and Ford Star Jubilee that earned him two Emmy Awards for Best Direction. He earned another Emmy for directing an adaptation of Twelve Angry Men, and he also worked on TV versions of Treasure Island, Alice In Wonderland, and The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, with the latter earning him yet another Emmy statue. His 1962 TV special A Tour Of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy was broadcast worldwide to over 80 million viewers. He’d go on to win an Academy Award as Best Director for Patton in 1970, as well as working on films such as Planet Of the Apes (a 1968 reunion with TOT Producer Mort Abrahams), Papillon (1973), and The Boys From Brazil (1978). From 1987 through 1989, he served as President of the Directors Guild of America.
As for scripters, screenwriter Mann Rubin came up through the anthology TV ranks on shows such as Studio One in Hollywood. He’d later work on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Fugitive, Perry Mason, Mannix, The Mod Squad, Land of the Giants, Future Cop, The Six Million Dollar Man, and others, as well as the attempted 1990 Dragnet reboot. He scripted sci-fi anthology comic books for DC Comics including Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space, and his feature film work includes Brainstorm (1965), Warning Shot (1967), and Frank Sinatra’s final major film, The First Deadly Sin (1980). He later spent around ten years teaching screenwriting classes at the University of Southern California.
When Rubin went to work for TOT, “I had just gotten out of college, I was 24 and I had decided in the last year that I wanted to be a writer,” he said in 1990. “I was tramping around New York and, every time there was a new show, I was writing things on spec [unsolicited]. My parents were insisting that I find a job and they had given me a couple of weeks to work something out. Finally, on a Friday afternoon, a friend of mine told me they heard about a new series, Tales Of Tomorrow, on ABC. I looked in the phone book and went over to the office of George Foley and I left three scripts that I had written on spec.”
At first, Rubin doubted that Foley would ever see his unsolicited scripts. “The secretary was rude to me. I asked to see Mr. Foley, and she said it was impossible, she was kind of rude. That weekend, I looked up jobs in the unemployment section [of the newspaper], and Monday morning, the phone rang about 9:30, and it was the same secretary, only this time her voice was very syrupy and sweet and she said Mr. Foley wanted to see me as fast as possible. By ten o’clock, I was in his office, and he told me he was buying all three scripts.”
Those stories included “Sleep No More” (which aired near the end of season one, on 4-11-52), “Time To Go” (broadcast the following week, 4-18-52), and “The Tomb of King Tarus,” a murderous mummy tale which was performed on Halloween, 1952, an era when only a few mummy stories had ever appeared on TV. Among the only programs to precede it was an early NBC live drama called “The Mysterious Mummy Case,” an adaptation of Theophile Gautier’s “The Mummy’s Foot” in 1949, and a 1950 Lights Out episode, “The Scarab.”
“I’d come in with a concept and discuss it with them, and they’d say go ahead and try it, and I’d go home and write it,” said Rubin. “All together, I think I did 15 or 17 Tales Of Tomorrow, it’s hard to narrow down because I would do rewrites too. Mort or George would call me and say they only had 50 dollars left in their budget, and would I come in and do the rewrite. I was so happy that my work was being accepted, so I would do them for whatever they said they had left over. Some of those shows, I didn’t get credit on…I got $300 a script, and then on the rewrites I’d get a hundred, fifty dollars, it depended on their budget and how fast they needed the script.”
Rubin reports an unusually warm attitude toward those who provided stories for the program. “They liked to include the writer in on the work, so that on Friday, they would always ask me to come down in the afternoon, when they were still rehearsing. I loved going down there and seeing the sets they created out of something I had just imagined. They let you stay on the set to change dialogue, and sometimes I would watch the show [in the network studio] as they broadcast…the great thing was to bring a date on Friday night, that would really impress the ladies.”
“Generally, there was a feeling of great freedom, a real sense of excitement, and for somebody my age, it was a tremendous time for me, it gave me a kind of validation as a writer, even after all this time. Although, as far as reviews and the press at the time, it didn’t seem to be that important at the time, it didn’t receive much notoriety. But I know it had a following, because I’d see the letters that they received in Foley’s office. I seem to remember there would be a hundred, maybe two hundred letters a week.”
Rubin singles out Don Medford as a particularly welcoming director. “He was very good, he was always very visual and he would plan out the concepts to move the cameras. I always felt very secure with him, that he knew exactly what to do with the scripts. There are other directors that didn’t really want you around.”
TOT writer Frank De Felitta, who scripted over a dozen original episodes, also made it a point to praise Medford. When interviewed in 1990, he said “Don directed all my stories, a marvelous director, just tops. It was so exciting, if you could have been in that control room to see him work, the man was like a conductor, jumping up and down, screaming ‘take one, take four,’ your pulse is racing, your heart is pounding, because you know this is going out over the airwaves now.”
De Felitta would later be known for his novels Audrey Rose (1975) and The Entity (1978), both of which he also adapted for successful films. He got his start scripting for the weekly radio thriller The Whistler, before taking jobs writing TV programs like Your Jeweler’s Showcase, The Plymouth Playhouse, Suspense, Armstrong Circle Theater, Medallion Theatre (later known as General Electric Theater, where he worked with TOT’s Mort Abrahams), Campbell Summer Soundstage (which, like Tales Of Tomorrow, offered a role to a young James Dean), and TOT. He eventually became in-demand as a genuine triple-threat — a writer, producer, and director – going on to write for noted anthologies like Studio One and earning Emmy nods in 1963 and 1968 for his documentaries, as well as a Peabody Award and several Writers Guild Awards.
“I thought that Tales Of Tomorrow was the best of the live television shows at the time,” said De Felitta in 1990. “I came onto the show later. I loved it, I used to watch it, and what was amazing to me was the ability of this program to deliver, on live television, the quality of an edited motion picture. At the time, I was interested in film, and television was simply a stepping stone to film for me, or at least that’s what I wished it to be.”
“It was so soon after the advent of television, and everyone was playing with medium like a toy, it was such fun, and yet it was crude, everything that they did was crude. It was like playing with something that they weren’t quite familiar with. And the nature of the pictures that would come out, the finished product, would always be, to me anyway, kind of corny and not quite up to the par of a motion picture. It never did quite measure up to the quality and the fluidity and the perfection that only movies can give you. So live television was always, to me, sort of a poor man’s movie. Even though I made money and was able to support myself and my family, it always left a great sort of vacant spot in my wishes, my desires, I always felt this [TV] was not really what I wanted to do.”
“Then, one time, I saw an episode of Tales Of Tomorrow. It had been on, I guess I just never saw it, and I was amazed at the fantastic quality of the show, at least compared to the ones I had been working on. I immediately called my agent at the time and told him I wanted to write for that program, and he said no, it was impossible because they didn’t take outside writers, they had sort of a stable of writers, it’s very difficult to get in.”
De Felitta didn’t let his agent deter him for long. “At that time, The Thing [From Another World, later remade by John Carpenter] was out. I saw it, and I came up with an idea for a show that would be like The Thing. I called it ‘The Cocoon,’ which I wrote patterned after The Thing. There was an object from another world, there was an invisible creature, and I had an awfully good time writing it.”
He felt sure his story was perfect for TOT. “There was a man named George Foley who apparently was the producer but he was always in the background. So then I was trying to get it to Mort Abrahams, he was the person who purchased the stories, and finally my agent managed to sneak me in for an interview with him.”
Recalling his initial meeting with Mort Abrahams, De Felitta said “The interview consisted mainly of him telling me how tough it was to find writers who wrote the kind of material they were looking for, who could write it well. He had found four or five writers that he thought were terrific, and he was satisfied to give them all of the shows. I said ‘Would you accept a script on spec?’ and he said ‘Of course, if I have the time, I’ll read it.’ And I went home and wrote ‘The Cocoon,’ got it to him, and he loved it, he said it would make a scary script. But it was awfully difficult to get him to buy it.”
He says some time went by before someone else from the show called to tell him that they wanted to purchase the story. “That seemed to open up a whole spectrum of work for me, I wrote 15 or 20 of them.”
“The Fury of the Cocoon” (3-6-53) turned out to be a particularly memorable entry featuring African jungle explorers being terrorized by giant bloodsucking insects from outer space who arrived via meteorite and are particularly hard to avoid, thanks to being as invisible as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s later jungle foe, the Predator. Director Don Medford builds the suspense gradually, from the time the explorers find the ominous notes from the previous doomed expedition through the subsequent escalation of attacks. Although the creature reveal, thanks to the limited budget, is unintentionally hilarious.
“I was told the ratings actually increased on ‘The Cocoon,’ that night it got a good rating, better than the week before,” said De Felitta. “I know that the sponsors, the Kreisler company, were having trouble with the stories, that there was a sort of same-ness to them, and they wanted to open up to other writers with other ideas.”
Also set in the tropics, “The Fatal Flower” (12-12-52) is an original story written by De Felitta and also directed by Medford. It stars a man-eating plant that becomes the subject of a shared obsession for an ambitious botanist (Victor Jory) and his assistant, who each have wildly different ideas about what to do with the homicidal houseplant they created in the Amazon jungle that makes Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors look like a sunflower by comparison.
Battling scientists also form the basis of Mann Rubin’s story for “Black Planet” (5-16-52), with future Naked Gun star Leslie Nielsen (who’d appear on six TOTs) playing one of two astronomers who work together in search of a tenth planet. However, they soon become suspicious and jealous of each other, especially once a hottie named Norma enters the picture, and one of the men ends up dead, a murder mystery that Norma’s police detective brother must solve.
Mann Rubin recalled that as one of many TOT episodes that was all too obviously a live, unedited broadcast. “An actor named Horace McMahon was playing a detective, and he was supposed to handcuff the hero, and he’s leading him out when the hero is supposed to attempt to escape. On camera, when the hero raised his hand, you could see that he wasn’t handcuffed.”
The most notorious example of things on a TOT set going awry came during a broadcast performance of Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” (1-18-52), among the most talked about episodes, and the one most widely seen, thanks to being included in cable programming for USA Network’s Night Flight and the Sci-Fi Channel.
“Frankenstein” stars Universal horror legend Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Monster. Many have reported that Chaney was drinking heavily before the broadcast, perhaps explaining why, when he’s supposed to break specially rigged prop chair, he instead gently sets the chair down and shouts “Break! Break!” while waving his arms around.
“He was not sober,” maintained Robert F. Lewine, the agency executive who was on the set for every TOT performance from first to last. “He was drunk, is what it was.”
Chaney later said he merely thought they were doing a dress rehearsal at the time, not the live broadcast, so he didn’t want to ruin the prop chair until the final performance. This seems entirely probable when one notes the way he does start breaking things up later, having been told during a commercial break that, yes, this was the live broadcast, not a rehearsal.
“It’s true that he thought that [it was a rehearsal],” Lewine told me in 1990, “but it was not. He had done a dress rehearsal, and gone into his dressing room, and drank and drank, and when he came back, he didn’t know what was going on. He goofed about three or four lines of dialogue. Our director Don Medford was so upset that he wanted to hit Lon! Except Lon was too big for him.”
Chaney’s take on the Monster is far different from his 1942 performance in The Ghost of Frankenstein. Of course, Universal held the rights to that flat-headed, neck-bolted version of the creature. The TOT interpretation hews closer to the emotionally outraged and unstoppably elemental incarnation from the original novel, in an energetic and barely restrained performance by Chaney that, drunk or not, could favorably be compared to Robert De Niro’s 1994 portrayal of the Monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Among other writers associated with the show, Arthur C. Clarke had already done a bit of TV by 1952, scripting for a DuMont kid’s sci-fi series, Captain Video and his Video Rangers, as had fellow TOT contrib C.M. Kornbluth, as well as Damon Knight, Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Robert Sheckley, and Jack Vance. When given the chance to work on TOT, he had at least some role in adapting his story “All the Time in the World,” concerning an art thief who steals by using a client’s mysterious bracelet to manipulate time, at least until thwarted by the emergence of a “super bomb” holocaust. It was adapted from an issue of Startling Stories that was published around the same time as the same-named first season episode that aired June 13, 1952.
“This was my first story ever to be adapted for TV,” says Clarke in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke. “Although I worked on the script, I have absolutely no recollection of the programme, and can’t imagine how it was produced in pre-videotape days!”
For the first few months, Tales Of Tomorrow shared its Friday 9:30pm time slot on alternate weeks with a show called Versatile Varieties that was about to end its two year run on multiple networks. By January 1952, TOT had the primetime spot all to itself.
Robert F. Lewine recalled “It was shot at ABC in New York, what they called Studio One, a big studio. Rehearsals would start on Monday, the show was performed on a Friday at 9:30, and we made kinescopes for the un-hooked-up stations, the ones that played it at different times.”
The episodes that still exist are due to that kinescope process, which in this case basically meant pointing an Eastman Recording Camera at a television set as the program aired, filming it for later broadcast. Most early-to-mid ‘50s programs that remain extant were saved this way, up until videotape came into common use around 1956, although the picture and sound quality varies wildly from episode to episode.
The show was occasionally mentioned in the press, with If magazine editor Paul Fairman calling it “the best science-fiction far on TV today.” However, it was not a ratings blockbuster. “ABC did not get good ratings, as a whole, until the show Disneyland came along [in October 1954],” said Lewine, who’s often credited (or blamed) as being responsible for bringing the Disney brand to television, working on both Disneyland and the Mickey Mouse Club. “Of course, the ABC lineup was definitely much weaker than CBS and NBC.” Lewine would know, having gone on to enjoy a career that found him heading up programming at one time or another for all three major TV broadcast networks.
Advertisers like the aforementioned Kreisler wristbands were clearly ignoring the kids who watched Captain Video to instead target an adult audience, as did the Maslin and Sons company, makers of Masland Beautiblend Broadloom carpets and sportswear. Patriotic commercial pitches also aired for U.S. Defense Bonds (“The easiest way to save!”). A teenage Adrienne Corri can be spotted in some ads, a few years before playing Doris in Devil Girl From Mars (1954) and long before she appeared in A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Vampire Circus (1972).
“At that time,” recalled Mort Abrahams in 1990, “the networks didn’t really control programming. The sponsors did. And the only time I remember I had some little problem was an uneasiness over ‘The Window.’”
“The Window” (11-7-52) presents a sort of twist on the Orson Welles War of the Worlds story-with-a-story broadcast. At first, the episode (introduced with fake credits as “The Lost Planet”) seems to be a typical doomsday thriller being performed and broadcast live from a TV studio, with the actual ABC soundstage, lights, and cameras visible as they work.
However, a strange signal keeps interrupting the broadcast, with a different image flickering into view on TV screens, as if a camera is pointed directly at a residential window somewhere in the city, recoding an increasingly alarming conversation. The signal keeps going in and out, as we go back and forth between soundstage and window, with the result looking for all the world as if an actual broadcast is being interrupted by what appears to be live footage of an impending murder.
“That was written by Frank De Felitta on a bet,” said producer Mort Abrahams in 1990. “He and I had a bet, we used to challenge each other. Fortunately, in those days you could do that. You worked 20 hours, but you laugh a little. I made a bet with him, I challenged him to write something that could only be done on live television. That could not be done in theater, that could not be done on film, and the only medium it could be done is live television. And I bet him a dinner.”
According to Abrahams, “He [De Felitta] went home to think about it, and called me a couple of days later to say ‘I think you owe me a dinner.’ And I said ‘Not until you tell me what it’s all about.’ He came in and explained it to me, and I thought it was just a great idea.”
As innovative as the plan was, Abrahams says there was an immediate hurdle to overcome. “The problem was, since it was a reality piece, the big problem was how are we going to integrate the commercials? I spoke to Bob Lewine, who was the agency representative, and I said ‘Can I do commercials at the end and the beginning of the half hour, before the story begins and after it ends?’ And he said you can’t do that, the sponsors won’t stand for it, you have to put them in the regular places. Which I felt would ruin the reality, cutting to commercials.”
Robert F. Lewine makes a cameo on behalf of the sponsors
Abrahams got around the problem by recruiting Robert Lewine to represent the sponsor’s wishes right there on camera, in the middle of the show. “There was Bob himself, on the studio floor saying to me ‘I don’t care what happens, I want my commercials!’”
Lewine recalled “I was the agency man in the pinstripe suit who yells ‘keep going to commercial’ or something like that. All the extras seen on the set of ‘The Window’ are actual TV studio techs and employees, other than the actors.” Most unusually, “We had a camera anchored, with no operator, at the window, and it just stayed there the entire time, one static shot.”
According to Abrahams, when “The Window” finally aired live, some viewers were indeed fooled into thinking they were watching real events. “The switchboard at ABC lit up, despite our disclaimer. We had a disclaimer that it was not a true story.”
Disclaimer? The existing kinescope has none, which Abrahams was surprised to discover. It’s possible the notice wasn’t even seen in some cities, judging from subsequent actions and events that have long been rumored, which both Abrahams and Lewine confirmed for me.
Robert Lewine, who was on the set for every TOT broadcast, said “The police came into the studio, the New York City police wanted to know where the murder was taking place! A lot of stations cut off the air, in the middle of the show, because they thought there was a real murder going to take place.”
Abrahams confirms “We did get two policemen who came in after [the broadcast ended], and wanted to know what all the fuss was about. Their switchboards were lighting up…they pulled it off the air in Cincinnati, and I thought they pulled it off the air in Boston as well, because they believed a murder was about to take place. Now I think, if I remember correctly, that there was a real brou-ha-ha about it and, the next week, around eight or ten stations refused to carry the program. Until it all quieted down, and the following week everybody returned to the fold.”
Abrahams also remembers “There was a very interesting casting problem, because we wanted people new, in order to create the reality. And here’s where James Lister came into play as a hero [as casting director]. We needed new faces and the problem wasn’t Rod Steiger, I think it was his first or second appearance on television [he’d appear in one other TOT]. The big problem was Frank Maxwell, who played the husband, who had been on television several times. So we disguised him, I think we put some plaster over a supposed bruise, and we doctored up his nose so it didn’t quite look like Frank.”
Many up-and-coming actors and actresses made their first TV appearance on TOT, with some of them returning for additional performances, including Leslie Nielsen (six episodes) and Cameron Prud’Homme (five episodes). Stars with at least four TOTs under their belt include Edgar Stehli, Olive Deering, Edith Fellows, Vera Massey, and Walter Abel.
Harry Townes, a regular on Boris Karloff’s Thriller, appeared in two TOT episodes, as did fellow Thriller vet John Newland (best remembered for his TV series One Step Beyond), and Karloff himself.
A partial list of other stars who appeared on the series includes Paul Newman, James Dean, Lee J. Cobb, Theo Goetz, Franchot Tone, Thomas Mitchell, Burgess Meredith, Barbara Joyce, Raymond Burr, Allyn Edwards, Jackie Cooper, Lon McCallister, Robert Middleton, Jack Warden, Roger De Koven, Jack Carter, Bruce Cabot, Darren McGavin, Ed Peck, Gene Raymond, Phillip Pine, Martin Brandt, Raymond Bailey, William Redfield, Lex Barker, Zachary Scott, Donald Briggs, Arnold Moss, Gene Lockhart, Everett Sloane, Eva Gabor, Nina Foch, Mary Alice Moore, Una O’Connor, Virginia Vincent, Sylvia Sidney, Mercedes Mcambridge, Joan Blondell, Nancy Coleman, Peggy Allenby, and Joanne Woodward.
Of the 85 TOT episodes produced, around 40 have been released on various DVD sets, along with another handful on VHS, which for years was the only place to find one of the most memorable entries, “A Child Is Crying.” Others can be downloaded online. The entire run can be broken down so that each episode fits squarely into one of several venerable science fiction categories, though many scripts (especially the classic literature adaptations) straddle multiple genres and topics: Doomsday, Aliens, Mad Science, Alternate Realities, Time Travel, Space Opera, and Creepshow, including horror-themed and monster episodes.
The end of the world/doomsday sets the stage for the first two episodes, “Verdict From Space” (8-3-51) and “Blunder” (8-10). The former, scripted by Theodore Sturgeon from his own story “The Sky Was Full of Ships” (Thrilling Wonder Stories, June 1947), is framed with a murder trial wherein the accused claims he was saving everyone from a deadly menace from another world that the victim, a scientist, had uncovered in an underground cavern. The alien machinery seen in this episode would later appear in the show’s adaptation of “Frankenstein,” now serving as oh-so-cost-effective lab equipment for the decidedly non-alien Doctor.
Episode two, “Blunder,” based on a story by When Worlds Collide writer Philip Wylie published in Collier’s magazine (January 12, 1946), portrays one of many “mad scientists” seen over the course of the show. Robert Allen is willing to risk destroying the entire world’s oxygen supply and initiating doomsday, just to complete his experiment, causing his fellow scientists to call him out as a big blundering dick.
Arthur C. Clarke’s aforementioned “All the Time in the World” (6-13-52), although framed as a time-freeze story, ends up examining whether a doomsday scenario is even worth living after the hydrogen bombs drop, in a story similar to tales told in two later Twilight Zone series: “A Kind of a Stopwatch” (1963) and “A Little Peace and Quiet” (1985).
The episode with Paul Newman in a small role, “Ice From Space” (8-8-52), begins with an extraterrestrial ice cube that first freezes its desert hosts before spreading and threatening the entire planet, thanks to yet another Air Force blunder (there are many swipes at that most airborne branch of the military throughout the series).
Doomsday viruses from the stars feature prominently in both “The Red Dust” (5-2-52) and “Plague From Space” (4-25-52), which aired on consecutive weeks. The former (starring one-time Tarzan Lex Barker) begins on a spaceship, when the crew realizes that the same radioactive dust that destroyed the former civilization they just visited is actually made of tiny living organisms that are now on their spaceship and may soon reach Earth with them, where it could kill everyone there as well. They can treat themselves with injections allowing them to live up to a dozen or more years, if they’re willing to spare Earth and instead just stay adrift, floating in their tin can.
The implications of the red dust kick off a philosophical and Serlingesque debate rarely found in early ‘50s TV outside of scripts by, well, Serling. The story is another Don Medford-directed production, based on a play by Science Fiction Quarterly cover story contributor Theodore R. Cogswell, known as one of the first novelists to write Star Trek stories aimed squarely at adults with 1976’s Spock, Messiah!
A similar examination of command altruism informs “Plague From Space,” wherein an alcoholic USAF Commander is faced with the scenario “What if the Roswell Crash Set Off a Doomsday Disease?” When it turns out the glittery disco alien they found in a spaceship crashed near their military base has infected them with a deadly microscopic contagion (maybe they shouldn’t have done medical experiments on the unconscious being?), the Captain played by Harry Landers (soon to visit the stars again in 1953’s Phantom From Space) must decide if he has the duty – or right – to call in a nuclear strike that will kill him and the handful of surviving soldiers, down from the original 2000 to just over a dozen men.
Scripted by TOT mainstay Mann Rubin from a story credited to Harry Guth (possibly meant to cite sci-fi writer Henry Guth) and directed by fellow TOT vet Don Medford, the episode also features young James Doohan, who’d later play Scotty on Star Trek.
“World of Water” (5-23-52) was helmed by TOT’s dynamic duo of director Don Medford and scripter Mann Rubin, with the latter entirely rewriting an otherwise unusable teleplay by an aspiring duo unfamiliar with the technical limitations of live TV. The story involves yet another unstable scientist, this one upset over sexy young waitress Nita Talbot spurning him and flashing back to his gut-wrenching time in a concentration camp. When he develops a “universal solvent” that transforms all matter it comes into contact with into water, the scientist’s bad day may just turn out to be the end of the world.
Despite rewriting for the available budget, Mann Rubin recalled there were still problems. “They had a shot of Victor Jory, who played the man who invented the machine, seen through a goldfish bowl. And it worked wonderfully during the staging of the rehearsal but, for some reason during the broadcast, the sand on the fishbowl kept getting clouded. So they had the shot, but you couldn’t see Victor Jory right behind it.”
Aliens are of course a constant on the show, usually on a mission to mess with humans. “The Search For the Flying Saucer” (11-9-51) is exactly what the title promises, with a disgraced Air Force officer hoping to prove that UFOs really exist by investigating sightings in a small New Mexico town (where he improbably hooks up with a hot local). Charles S. Dubin directs a Mel Goldberg script, starring comedic actor Jack Carter.
“The Last Man On Earth” (8-31-51), based on a Fredric Brown story, also delivers on its titular scenario, with aliens taking over the world and killing everyone other than two human beings (Martin Brandt and Cloris Leachman) that they want to keep messing around with.
Scientific hardware that interfaces with human emotion is used as a mainframe for many episodes, such as the Don Medford-directed episode “The Horn” (10-10-52). A violin maker-slash-inventor (movie star Franchot Tone) converts a French horn so that it uses sound to transmit the thoughts and feelings of the horn player directly into the brain of the listener, effectively controlling their emotions. Unfortunately (few fortunate events ever occur on TOT), the device is sabotaged by a jealous failed musician.
“The Bitter Storm” (12-26-52), also directed by Don Medford and one of many episodes shot all on one set, features a bitter scientist (Arnold Moss of Star Trek’s “The Conscience of the King”) who isolates himself on a remote island (about to be hit by a hurricane), disdaining mankind for abusing all of his discoveries without ever offering him fair compensation. Becoming somewhat of a pioneering Christian scientist, he invents a machine that can capture and broadcast any sound from any time in the past, going all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Joanne Woodward makes one of her first professional appearances.
Nearly magical glasses – not the evil kind seen in Thriller’s “The Cheaters” but rather an occupational boon to their owner – are central to “Seeing Eye Surgeon” (9-5-52), said in an epilogue to have won a Galaxy magazine poll for best TV science fiction. In this case, the suspect spectacles are offered by a mysterious stranger named Xenon to a doctor (Bruce “King Kong” Cabot) who needs to perform brain surgery on an important physicist. The Doc finds he can perfectly excise diseased tissue by using the glasses, even if he can’t see the TV studio camera that accidentally makes an unbilled cameo in one sequence.
“Youth On Tap” (9-26-52) gives away its premise in the title. A mysterious doctor (future Thriller vet Harry Townes) offers a financially challenged truck driver (Alan Alda’s dad, Robert Alda) a thousand dollars for a pint of his blood, which contains rare almost-miraculous properties, without revealing what it will actually cost the young man. Directed by Don Medford, the script contains tweaking by Mann Rubin from a story credited to Lona Keeney.
“The Golden Ingot” (5-9-52), based on a story by an Irish-American author named Fitz James O’Brien who was killed fighting in the Civil War, features a chemist (Gene Lockhart, the judge from Miracle on 34th Street) who claims he can transform base metals into gold. Scripter Max Ehrlich is best known for The Reincarnation of Peter Proud and the Star Trek episode “The Apple.”
Another O’Brien story was adapted for the TOT episode “The Diamond Lens” (3-14-52), about a scientist who falls in love with a microscopic girl he finds within a drop of water, a tale reportedly beloved by author H.P. Lovecraft (for some reason, the VHS release of this episode credits the story to Julian C. May).
Both mad scientists and aliens get a nod in “Many Happy Returns” (10-24-52), with a teleplay that Untouchables scripter David Karp adapted from a story called “Stepson of Space” (Astonishing Stories, October 1940) by Science Fiction Quarterly contributor Raymond Z. Gallun that some erroneous reports claim Astonishing Stories editor Frederik Pohl worked on. It features yet another precocious kid, this one a scientific tinkerer whose weird electronic inventions enable him to communicate with a big-headed alien right out of a future Outer Limits workshop.
So much political intrigue permeates “Many Happy Returns” (aka Invaders at Ground Zero), it brings to mind the feature The Space Children, with both productions featuring an alien presence who brainwashes kids to use as military pawns. Parents get totally screwed over in both, with a gadget in the TOT story literally electrocuting (minus a power source!) the nosy dad (former movie star Gene Raymond) who pries into his kid’s mysterious inventions.
Futuristic gizmos are paired with political intrigue again in “Sneak Attack” (12-7-51), set in the far-flung world of 1960 and basically about armed drones that show up all over America and start exploding (bye-bye, Denver!) as part of an invasion attempt by a Russian-style enemy. Broadcast on the tenth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the teleplay for the secret agent spy thriller was written by Mel Goldberg (Hang ‘Em High, The Big Valley, Hawaii Five-O), based on an idea provided to producers by the founder of the USAF’s Squadron Officer School, Russell V. Ritchey, who reportedly donated his author’s fee to a fund for Pearl Harbor survivors and family members of military personnel killed in the attack.
There’s more spy games in “Age of Peril” (2-15-52), based on a story called “Crisis, 1999” by Fredric Brown (whose “The Last Man On Earth” was also adapted for TOT) and taken from the August 1949 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Starring future Dark Shadows player Dennis Patrick, aka Dennis Harrison, it centers on the invention of a lie detector so infallible that passing its test can make a suspect invulnerable to prosecution, no matter what other evidence might be piled up against them. As one character says, “The day is coming when we won’t need policemen or detectives or criminologists, because there won’t be any more criminals.” The story, directed by Don Medford, also takes place in a future world, this time 1965, where the device’s dependability is tested by the resolve of a foreign agent caught stealing national secrets who somehow beats the “perfect” lie detector.
“The Miraculous Serum” (6-20-52) – the episode that Rod Serling later singled out for praise in the interview about his Twilight Zone inspirations – is based on “The Adaptive Ultimate” by Stanley G. Weinbaum, first published under the pen name John Jessel in the November 1935 issue of Astounding magazine. Don Medford directed and Theodore Sturgeon adapted the story about yet another scientist who rushes an experimental all-purpose healing serum into use from animals to humans, this time trying it on a dying young woman who subsequently evolves into a Thanos-style supervillain. The same story had earlier been adapted for two different TV anthologies, Escape (3-26-49) and Studio One (9-12-49), and it would turn up again in 1955 on Science Fiction Theatre, this time credited to Weinbaum’s pen name. A film version of the story called She Devil appeared in 1957.
James Dean was only 22 years old when he appeared in TOT’s final episode “The Evil Within” (5-1-53) in which he plays a young scientist whose wife accidentally ingests an experimental serum (thank to dummy Dean leaving a test tube in the fridge) originally made for animals that basically turns her into a homicidal Kelly Bundy (Rod Steiger co-stars). Although best known for his short but memorable movie career, Dean also did several TV shows, including an episode of General Electric Theatre called “I’m a Fool” (November 14, 1954) that was helmed by frequent Tales Of Tomorrow director Don Medford.
Medford also directed the sad saga of another dumbass scientist in TOT’s “The Invader” (12-12-51). This one is too old and lame to go outside his research boat’s cabin and investigate the mysterious glowing object that just fell into the nearby sea, so he sends his ill-equipped young son (who dad disdains because the kid just wants to be a writer) under the water to look into it. Even the kid’s girlfriend Eva Gabor can tell when he comes back that something otherworldly has happened to him.
The young scientist featured in “The Invigorating Air” (11-28-52) invents, well, a new kind of invigorating air. “That to me was one of the best ones that I did,” recalled writer Frank De Felitta in 1990. “It was with Joseph Buloff, he did an excellent job.”
De Felitta wrote of another richly speculative invention in “Substance X” (10-3-52), which centers on a scientist who has developed a new type of vitamin food substitute that takes care of so many essential needs that it ends up replacing the desire to eat, or even to work. When an entire town stops shopping at the only local grocery store, not being able to eat normal food any more is just the beginning of their problems.
“I was very happy with that one,” said De Felitta. “It was originally called ‘Manna,’ like in Exodus when God gave them manna [honey flavored wafers], and they keep calling the substance manna throughout the picture. This daughter comes down to the town to investigate it, and ends up trapped, she needs it. It’s almost like a drug that was created, an allegory for dope that you couldn’t even reference on TV any other way…we were sneaking that kind of thing past the censors long before Rod Serling came along with the Twilight Zone.”
De Felitta said the Twilight Zone connections seemed to continue, even after Tales Of Tomorrow ended. “I must say that, when I finished, there were a number of Tales Of Tomorrow stories that I had submitted that were sort of thumbnails. And, I don’t know how it happened, but Rod Serling used every one of them. I don’t know how he got them, but there were [Zone] stories where I’d say ‘Oh my God, this is a story that I was going to do on Tales Of Tomorrow!’ There was one I did called ‘Natural Habitat,’ about a family that seems to lead an ordinary life, they’re in their kitchen eating, mother’s getting the kinds ready for school, all very domestic and ordinary. Until you start to realize, through their nervous reactions to things, that all is not quite what it should be. And what it turns out to be is that they’re on display, and there are horrible creatures that come to watch them, much as we watch monkeys in a zoo.”
That premise is similar to Twilight Zone’s “People Are Alike All Over” with Roddy McDowall. De Felitta also said “Do you remember the one where a man finds a tiny civilization, small people, very tiny, and he wants to be their god [‘The Little People’]? That was mine, at the end there’s a greater god above him, looking down on him.”
Even the produced episodes of TOT often shared similarities to later Zones; the fantasy/sci-fi anthology format makes such storyline crossovers unavoidable. “The Great Silence” (2-20-53), scripted by De Felitta from his original story, is a rare humorous episode that finds Twilight Zone vet Burgess Meredith once again vexed by aliens like those he’d tangle with in Zone’s “Mr. Dingle the Strong.” In this case, a tiny interstellar interloper lands near Meredith’s remote mountain home just as Americans are robbed of their ability to speak, believed to be due to fallout from H Bomb tests which the government says will be only be a temporary problem. About the only dialogue in the entire episode comes from radio voiceovers.
“That was a marvelously produced and directed show,” recalled De Felitta, “Everyone was struck dumb, and here is a man, a northwest woodsman, a Frenchman, who is the only person who knows why, and he can’t communicate, he doesn’t have the ability to write and so he can’t write it down for people to know. He finally has to go out and fight this creature that has caused this silence to occur. It was a beautiful show.”
As on the later Zone series, Tales Of Tomorrow portrays robots both sympathetically and suspiciously. “Read To Me Herr Doktor” (3-20-53), scripted by Suspense and Shirley Temple’s Storybook writer Alvin Sapinsley (who’d soon find himself “blacklisted” as a suspected communist sympathizer), warns of a scientist (Everett “Citizen Kane” Sloan) and his daughter (Mercedes McCambridge of Johnny Guitar) who become helpless slaves to their robot’s insatiable hunger for both data and a hot date. The effectiveness of the story, similar to Twilight Zone’s “Uncle Simon (mainly remembered for guest automaton Robbie the Robot), is somewhat hampered by a poorly constructed robot who looks to be made from corrugated cardboard.
The parallel world seen in “The Duplicates” (which aired on the fourth of July, 1952) is visited by Darren McGavin, who plays an engineer basically screwed out of a perfectly good employment gig by needy aliens who want to bring him to their alternate version of earth, so he can kill his resident duplicate before the Anti-McGavin can kill ‘em all.
Time travel is the topic of “Past Tense” (4-3-53), starring Boris Karloff as a mechanically gifted modern day doctor who invents a time machine that could easily double as a hair salon on The Jetsons, hoping to bring modern lifesaving medicine into the world of 1910. Not to save lives, however – his plan is to sell the penicillin at an enormous profit, which of course earns him exactly the kind of reward he deserves.
“Past Tense” was scripted by Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, but the story idea actually came from agency executive Robert Lewine, who receives a writing credit. “I brainstormed that one at least, I was always on the set every week, never missed one…sometimes I’d see something that would give me an idea to suggest, they were very open to anything that fit what they were already doing.”
“Another Chance” (2-13-53) also bends time, featuring Leslie Nielsen in a Serlingesque tale scripted by Frank De Felitta and directed by Don Medford. A regretful criminal gets a chance to live part of his life over again, thanks to a newspaper ad that reads “I Can Help You.” He ends up landing back in 1946, in a new city, with a new name. Unfortunately, he’s lost the memory of his previous life – including the woman whose love he hoped to regain – and that’s just one of the new problems he must face.
“Ahead Of His Time” (7-18-52) has its lead character breaking the fourth well to tell viewers about how the time machine he invented in 1952 is now wreaking havoc in the formerly utopian year of 2052. The script is written by the episode’s star Paul Tripp, who got his start on TV’s Mr. I. Magination and also appeared in TOT’s “Double Trouble” episode.
The doctor’s medical kit from the future central to C.M. Kornbluth’s “The Little Black Bag” (5-30-52) comes from a story also adapted for Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, as well as for the British anthology Out Of the Unknown. Other than the depressed doctor’s partner being changed to his wife, the TOT version skews close to Kornbluth’s original, with dialogue tweaked by Mann Rubin to focus on the moral implications of how differently each of the two wants to use the power at their disposal.
A surprising number of TOT episodes are nearly old fashioned creepshows, along the lines of what one would expect from the earlier Lights Out or the later Alfred Hitchcock or Thriller TV shows.
Among the most memorable AND creepy entries appeared as the third episode, “A Child is Crying” (8-17-51). The story concerns the titular young mutant girl (changed from a boy in the original story) with an IQ off charts that didn’t even exist at the time, who baffles everyone with the way she uses “cyclic rhythm” to predict the future. Of course the U.S. government (represented by both a General and a Senator) wants her to go to work for them, especially when they realize that she knows the details of an imminent enemy attack. The girl refuses to reveal anything more, fearing that anything she says could set off a nuclear war.
The well-known story by John D. MacDonald was first published in December 1948 in Thrilling Wonder Stories and adapted in 1950 for the Lights Out TV show. The TOT adaptation came less than a year later. All versions share similarities to a short story called “The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes” by Margaret St. Clair, published by Maclean’s magazine in 1950 and later adapted for an episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. There’s also a resemblance to the later creepy-kid story The Midwich Cuckoos, published in 1957 and adapted for film as Village of the Damned three years later.
“That was our most popular program ever,” recalled Robert Lewine in 1990. “It was an idea ahead of its time that dealt with the prodigal child who became a national resource. It was very anti-nuclear, and this was 1951.”
“A Child is Crying” star Robin Morgan was only five years old in 1946 when she landed her own WOR radio show, Little Robin Morgan, as well as being heard regularly on Juvenile Jury. She became one of TV’s first child stars in 1949 by playing one of the kids in Mama (1949-1957), an early comedy-drama series based on Mama’s Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes, best known as the source material for the 1948 film I Remember Mama. In the ‘60s, Morgan became a member of the American Women’s Movement, serving as editor of Ms. Magazine and co-founding the Women’s Media Center with Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda. She’s authored over a dozen books, including 1970’s Sisterhood Is Powerful, an anthology cited by the New York Public Library as “One of the Most Influential Books of the 20th Century.” Morgan’s “A Child Is Crying” co-star Cal Thomas later became known as a famous right wing political commentator.
“What You Need” (2-8-52) is based on a same-named short story by “Lewis Padgett” (actually C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner), taken from the October 1945 issue of Astounding magazine. The Charles S. Dubin-directed tale concerns a shop owner who uses a fortune telling machine to give customers exactly what they’ll soon need, just before something momentous happens in their lives. One customer apparently needs more, and tries to blackmail the shop owner into providing it. Other than changing one character’s death from a fall to a more photogenic vehicular manslaughter, the TOT version runs a close parallel to the original. The same story and title was later adapted by Rod Serling for a Twilight Zone episode that aired on Christmas 1959, with the sci-fi fortunetelling machine replaced by a timid old street peddler with psychic foresight.
Leslie Nielsen turns up again in “Ghost Writer” (3-27-53) as an aspiring wordsmith whose stories seem to be coming true (ala Twilight Zone’s “Printer’s Devil” episode), spiced up with several sly twists courtesy of scripter Mann Rubin.
A man (Richard Kiley) who feels he’s too ugly to win the love of fair Lucia gets his shot thanks to a new face in “Two Faced” (1-30-53), in a story scripted by David E. Durston, the man behind the 1970 Charles Manson-inspired grindhouse classic I Drink Your Blood.
Durston also scripted TOT’s “Discovered Heart” (1-16-53), featuring an alien with an unfortunate Homer Simpson haircut who hopes to use an Earthbound lighthouse to begin work on a planetary invasion. However, he finds himself deterred by the kindness and courage of a young girl with really enviable pigtails.
“Flight Overdue” (3-28-52), directed by Don Medford, stars slumming movie star Veronica Lake as an acclaimed Amelia Earhart-inspired airplane pilot whose mysterious disappearance appears tied to strange radio signal and an even stranger man that the woman flier was known to just up and take off with. Much to the dismay of her perpetually pissed off husband.
“The Dune Roller” (1-4-52) is a flaming hoop snake that rolls along with its tail in its mouth, seeking victims to burn, which sounds really cool but they’re never seen directly on camera, instead being depicted as lights flashing on the characters’ faces. A geological scientist (Bruce Cabot) discovers that the legendary creatures, called Ouroboros, found only on Lightning Island in Lake Michigan, are actually sentient rocks that can merge into a circular shape and become ambulatory, at one point killing an unfortunate assistant. Directed by Don Medford and based on the novelette “Dune Roller” by Julian C. May, who was still a teen when it was published in the December 1951 issue of Astounding magazine, the same story was also the basis for the 1971 movie The Cremators.
Another set of unfortunate islanders populate “The Spider’s Web” (5-22-53), a cold war era radiation alert courtesy of Frank De Felitta that spends at least half its running time with characters yelling at each other to either run, hide, or run and hide. It stars character actor Henry Jones, most remembered as the cruel coroner in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).
TOT occasionally dipped its toes into the horror well with episodes such as “The Dark Angel,” “The Children’s Room,” and “Time to Go,” the latter played somewhat for laughs.
“The Dark Angel” (9-28-51) was based on a same-named story by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore (as “Lewis Padgett”) that first appeared in the March 1946 issue of Startling Stories. Directed by Charles S. Dubin, it’s framed by flashback sequences and features another super-powered mutant, this one an immortal woman whose husband Sidney “Rosemary’s Baby” Blackmer doesn’t know whether to buy his metamorphosing bride a new diamond ring or turn her in for killing an amorous bartender. Will she evolve to the point where humans are little more than animals to her?
“The Children’s Room” (a leap year entry that aired 2-29-52) is adapted from the same-named story by Raymond F. Jones that appeared in the September 1947 issue of Fantastic Adventures. A young boy starts bringing home strange books written in a language only he can read, which he says come from the children’s room of a scientific library which has no such room. Well, it does have one, but only mutants can see and enter it and talk to the hinky librarian (Una O’Connor of The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein), who’s there to recruit young soldiers for a worldwide takeover.
This gradual evolution of a “chosen” child away from their biological family again predates Midwich Cuckoos and Village of the Damned, as well as being similar to later Alfred Hitchcock TV shows such as “The Magic Shop” (warlock mentors and then abducts a kid) and “Special Delivery” (alien mushrooms infect kids), and Twilight Zone episodes such as “Mute” (silent mindreading child adopted by unwitting normals).
“Time To Go” (4-18-52) is another Twilight Zone-sh entry, with a creepy bank that offers to invest the time you save by being efficient into an account that you can draw from at the end of your life, to live a few years longer off those “savings.” Of course, the promised service comes with tragic (if ironically amusing) strings attached.
As in literary sci-fi, space operas were common script fodder. “Test Flight” (10-26-51), directed by Charles S. Dubin, is based on Nelson Bond’s story “Vital Factor,” from the August 1951 issue of Esquire magazine. Lee J. Cobb stars as a wealthy and ruthless businessman building his own spaceship, thanks to an engine powered by “counter gravity” that arrives via a meek and mysterious engineer (Thriller’s Harry Townes), who bleeds Cobb of all his money to pull off the launch.
Much of the first act appears to be improvised by Cobb. Robert Lewine recalled “When the curtain went up, so to speak, and the lights came on, he got the cue to start, and he was by himself, at his desk, and he could not think of the lines. He went blank. We lost the first two pages of the script.” Cobb pulls it together for act two but, due to rushing the wardrobe changes, when the two main characters finally make their ascent into space, you can see that they’re still wearing neckties under their spacesuits.
The seams also show during “Appointment on Mars” (6-22-52), where at one point you can actually see the studio lighting at the edge of a sparsely painted Martian set backdrop. Leslie Nielsen is a spaceship captain once again, leading a trio of explorers (including future Family Affair star Brian Keith and Actors Studio cofounder William Redfield) who discover a potential goldmine, or rather uranium mine. However, the longtime friends soon find themselves infected with a sort of paranoia and begin plotting against the Standard company that sent them into space in the first place, as well as against each other.
Despite being filmed all on one tiny barely-dressed set, with laughably low budget spacesuits that look more like janitorial wear, director Medford manages to keep “Appointment on Mars” engaging, especially the way the trio’s banter gradually becomes more sinister, as they change from being space-bros to race-foes. Even the body language and lighting changes to reflect the mood and attitude shifts, with all three actors giving journeyman performances that make it clear how and why they all enjoyed such successful careers.
According to Mort Abrahams, “What happened at the end of the show was that Leslie was supposed to pull a gun on Keith, but the gun fell out of his holster so he didn’t have a gun. I stood, I’m sure, pale and shaking in the control room with the director, and I remember Don [Medford] and I looked at each other, our hearts in our mouths, wondering how this thing was gonna end. Being consummate professionals, they simply went after each other, hand to hand, which wasn’t in the script at all, and remarkably ended their fight with a mutual death, exactly when the program should have concluded.”
“The writer of that show [S.A. Lambino], he called me the next day, and he said ‘Gee, I don’t know why you changed the ending of my play, but your ending was better.’”
Changes certainly weren’t uncommon, as episode writers would frequently be on call, on the set, during the live broadcast. As Frank De Felitta recalled, “The rewrites didn’t stop, even when you were on the air. Don Medford would say ‘What’s the time now, we have forty seconds too long,’ and I would say ‘Cut the speech that character has,’ and then he’d have to get that to the stage manager, who had to then give it to the actor and tell them ‘Do not make the speech,’ all that kind of thing. Otherwise, we wouldn’t come in on time, and there was no way we were allowed to overshoot the time, so that happened often…we were cutting on air. One is never certain how a picture will pace. Sometimes it lags, sometimes it goes too fast, and then we have to stretch it, tell him to take his time with the speech, don’t rush it.”
Producers had a little more time to play with when the show broadcast a two-part adaptation of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1-25-52 & 2-1-52). It debuted two years before the Disney epic, although the story had already provided the basis of a 1907 film short by French fantasy filmmaker Georges Méliès, a 1916 silent feature film, and a 1947 episode of the NBC radio series Favorite Story. With part one of the TOT version titled “The Chase” and part two “The Escape,” the highly abridged storyline focusses on a romance between Captain Nemo’s prisoner Farragut (Leslie Nielsen once again) and Nemo’s daughter, said to be narrated by Verne himself (actually a voiceover by radio actor Roger De Koven, who spent around 20 years on Days Of Our Lives).
The H.G. Wells story “The Crystal Egg” provides one of the most genuinely terrifying episodes, starring Oscar winner Thomas Mitchell as a professor who looks into an interstellar abyss, only to find something in that abyss looking back at him. The original story “O Ovo de Cristal” tells of a curio shop owner who comes into possession of a cheap crystal egg that, when peered into, seems to reveal the surface of Mars, which is richly described by Wells in great detail. In the TOT version, Mitchell looks into the curio and sees only a hurriedly painted outer space backdrop right out of a junior high drama club, behind a Martian cyclops puppet that looks more suited to an episode of Beany & Cecil.
Despite the budgetary limitations, Charles S. Dubin directs an effective episode fueled by obsession (the professor can’t stop thinking about that ugly puppet) and framed as a mystery (the egg inexplicably vanishes) that just happens to involve an otherworldly aspect.
In 1953, while the series was still airing, ABC decided to try out a Tales Of Tomorrow radio series which launched on New Year’s day. They hired TOT’s George Foley as the associate producer in charge of adapting stories from magazines like Galaxy Science Fiction. Host Raymond Edward Johnson also hosted the long running Inner Sanctum series (“Good evening, friends…”), as well as the pilot for a similar program called Beyond the World, which is sometimes mistakenly associated with TOT.
By February 26, the TOT radio series had already hopped networks, before ending its run on April 9, 1953, after only 15 episodes. A later radio show called X Minus One, launched in 1955 and also drawing from Galaxy Science Fiction stories, remade several Tales Of Tomorrow radio episodes, including “The Stars Are the Styx,” “The Moon Is Green,” “The Girls From Earth,” and “The Old Die Rich.” There was also a TOT book series, as well as a short-lived magazine run under that name.
When the 85th episode of Tales Of Tomorrow, “What Dreams May Come,” aired on June 12, 1953, producer Mort Abrahams already knew there would be no third season. “The primary sponsors, Maslin and Sons carpets, were taken over by another company. And Kreisler wristbands were having some internal financial problems and the company went out of business, I don’t know whether they sold it or it failed or what happened to it, but they never sponsored another show. The expense of the show was too much for them to carry.”
Robert F. Lewine would go on to work on countless programs, and he even hosted the Emmy Awards in 1959 and 1962, taking part in six Emmy shows while serving as the first full-time president of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, a position he held from 1961 to 1963 and again from 1970 through 1976. “I went from ABC to NBC, where I was the head of programming in New York. From there, I went to CBS and ultimately came out to Hollywood to run their programming. And from there, I went to Warner Brothers, where I ran the television department. Then I went to the Academy, where I stayed for seven years. I went from the Academy back to NBC in California and did nothing there. Nothing, I repeat, zero, and left at the end of the year.”
Up until not long before he passed away in 1993, Lewine spent over a decade teaching broadcasting classes at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles.
Frank De Felitta never wavered in his praise for TOT. “I owe a great deal to that show, it got me into the area that I’ve been working in, it was an absolutely wonderful experience, I was sorry when it went off the air. Some years ago, Mort [Abrahams] and I went to a seminar where we showed ‘The Window,’ and it was amazing how well it stood up.”
He said the respect given to creators at TOT turned out to be a rare and rewarding career experience. “I was always invited to be on the soundstage as they broadcast, they invited me to share the experience…I later did a science fiction film called Z.P.G.  that I take very little credit for, I didn’t really have anything to do with what ended up being made. It was a bad job, on a very wonderful script that I collaborated on with Max Ehrlich. Very bad job, done by a tyro director [Michael Campus] who really shouldn’t have been given the job. It was an unfortunate waste of wonderful material, and I couldn’t believe what he did with it. Writers are so vulnerable, you see, their work is at the mercy of director who can ride roughshod over a script, change whatever they want, and that’s the way it is in movies. I did have a good experience on Audrey Rose, which I also produced, Bob Wise directed it and did a wonderful job.” An Audrey Rose film sequel appeared in the early 80s.
De Felitta also took a turn at directing with a well-regarded 1981 TV movie called Dark Night of the Scarecrow, widely considered one of the best scarecrow horror stories ever filmed, as well as directing Paramount’s 1991 Sharon Stone thriller Scissors. “I did the book and then the screenplay for The Entity [a 1978 horror novel and 1982 film]. Unfortunately, I didn’t direct it. I should have, but Sidney Furie directed it, and it was responsible for the re-emergence of Barbary Hershey, who did a great job in it.” De Felitta passed away in 2016.
Two years after Tales Of Tomorrow ended, in 1955, Mort Abrahams returned to televised science fiction, hiring director Leonard Valenta (one of the few people besides Don Medford to helm TOT episodes) to work with him again. “Windows was my program, that was a summer show we did to replace some show that had been cancelled or whatever. I think I did twelve episodes of that, and the best one was a short story by Ray Bradbury, ‘The Dwarf.’” His love for the genre of the fantastic carried through his production duties on the first two Planet of the Apes films and beyond.
“I think, in a sense, later shows like Twilight Zone and Outer Limits were an outgrowth of Tales Of Tomorrow,” said Abrahams. “But the technology changed, those shows were on film. The acting, the direction, the camera work on Tales Of Tomorrow, now, looks and indeed it is very old fashioned and much less sophisticated. They were naïve and represented the technology and the techniques of those days, but those days were replaced by more sophisticated systems of delivery, equipment, and even different schools of acting and directing and camera work.”
Asked if he ever feels his show doesn’t get the credit it deserves, as TV’s first science fiction anthology, Abrahams (who passed away in 2009) said “I was very happy with Tales Of Tomorrow, I consider myself a pioneer and I loved doing it, hard as it was, I loved the results. And that self-satisfaction makes it okay with me that nobody gave me any gold plaques. I would have liked them, of course, but I’m not disappointed that I didn’t get them and I have no hostility or bitter feelings.”
“Rod Serling, in fact, got his basic training from me…he was writing from Cincinnati at the time [for WKRC-TV], and I was the one who kept encouraging him to come in, to live in New York. And when he came in, I introduced him to other people and was supportive of him, because I was a great believer in his talent. When he wrote a book called Patterns that included that [1955 Kraft Television Theatre] screenplay, he said in his forward that he credits me with a great deal of his success, which is very sweet.”
“That’s more satisfying than another award. I’ve got plenty of awards.”