With Halloween nearly upon us, if you find yourself in the mood for something spooky and unnerving but not exactly horrifying, one easy recommendation is to sit down with some classic episodes of The Twilight Zone. The original series, which ran from 1959-1964, is famous for its plot twists, reality-bending premises, and lessons learned through dramatic ironies. Not for nothing, it also featured some of the great performers of its era. A typical tour through classic Twilight Zone episodes will find you stumbling across quite a few Hollywood icons, from silent film legends to Oscar winners to comedy queens. The following ten screen legends all showed up on the series, often before they were famous, and just as often in roles that make for great curiosities today.
Episode: "Walking Distance" (Season 1 Episode 5)
Air Date: October 30, 1959
The star of this first-season episode of The Twilight Zone wasn't little Ronnie Howard but instead actor Gig Young, who had starred opposite Doris Day in movies like Teacher's Pet and Tunnel of Love (and who would eventually win an Academy Award for They Shoot Horses, Don't They?). Young played a successful executive who returns to his hometown only to find himself transported back in time. Howard, who would be cast as Opie Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show the next year, played a neighborhood boy who points Young in the direction of his teenage self. This was one of The Twilight Zone's more wistful episodes, and an early footnote in the career of actor/director/producer Howard.
Episode: "Two" (Season 3, Episode 1)
Air Date: September 15, 1961
Future action-movie star Charles Bronson co-starred with future Bewitched star Elizabeth Montgomery in this episode about two opposing soldiers of a future war that has decimated both sides. The man and the woman meet in a blasted-out city and find the beginnings of what may be a dark and sad love story … in the Twilight Zone.
Episode: "The Mirror" (Season 3, Episode 6)
Air Date: October 20, 1961
File this one under Yikes: a decade before he landed his most iconic role as the TV detective Columbo, Peter Falk appeared on The Twilight Zone in the role of Central American freedom fighter-turned-dictator Ramos Clemente. Falk, born in the Bronx to parents of Eastern European Jewish descent, was heavily accented, costumed in full Fidel Castro drag, and sporting some intense bronzer action that borders on brownface. So that happened! The Twilight Zone wasn't exactly known for its hot-button topicality, but this episode traded on the paranoia and uncertainty of its geopolitical time as triumphant revolutionary Clemente is tormented by a bizarre mirror that foretells future betrayals by his comrades.
Episode: "Once Upon a Time" (Season 3, Episode 13)
Air Date: December 15, 1961
Perhaps the greatest Hollywood icon to ever appear on The Twilight Zone was silent film star Buster Keaton, who a few short years before his death starred on a season three episode as a man living in 1890, disgruntled with his noisy, expensive, morally decaying hometown, who comes upon a prototype time machine and travels to 1960 … where it's noisier, pricier, and even more modern. It's a rather simple parable about being happy where you are, but the real appeal of the episode is that the first third is filmed in era-appropriate silent-movie style, giving TV viewers a chance to watch a master of the genre in his element.
Episode: "A Quality of Mercy" (Season 3, Episode 15)
Air Date: December 29, 1961
The future Spock of Star Trek fame took a supporting role in this episode, playing an American soldier in the Pacific theater in the waning days of World War II. The central figure in this episode is played by Dean Stockwell, of Quantum Leap fame, so it's probably appropriate that in this episode, his bloodthirsty lieutenant gets transported three years in the past into the body of a Japanese soldier, the better to learn about the titular quality of mercy in war. Stockwell's Japanese makeup and accent are best left in 1961, but it's another instance of The Twilight Zone's supernatural morality going global.
Episode: "Nothing in the Dark" (Season 3, Episode 16)
Air Date: January 5, 1962
Legendary actor and director Robert Redford was a baby-faced blond in his mid-twenties when he starred in this episode about an old woman (Gladys Cooper) who has kept herself shut away from the outside world because she fears the personification of Death will come looking for her to end her life. Redford plays a police officer who's shot outside her home. Knowing that this is The Twilight Zone, it shouldn't surprise you to learn that Redford is actually Death incarnate, come to take the woman to the world beyond. It's a spooky concept, but if Death ever comes calling and looks as good as twentysomething Robert Redford, we should all be so lucky.
Episode: "Cavender Is Coming" (Season 3, Episode 36)
Air Date: May 25, 1962
Comedy legend Carol Burnett took an early role in this penultimate episode of season three, a heavily comedic affair that was actually intended to be a backdoor sitcom pilot for its star, Jesse White (the episode even originally aired with a laugh track). White played Harmon Cavender, an angel on Earth looking to earn his wings, It's a Wonderful Life-style, by improving the life of a clumsy and unlucky woman played by Burnett. Cavender brings Burnett's character riches and comfort, just not happiness, and much like the Capra film, she realizes that she's rich in friendships.
Episode: "He's Alive" (Season 4, Episode 4)
Air Date: January 24, 1963
How's this for a concept: six years before Easy Rider would make him a counterculture icon, Dennis Hopper starred in this Twilight Zone episode as an American neo-Nazi who's struggling to properly inspire his crowd of would-be brownshirts. Much of the episode deals with the contrast of the Hopper's character's vile spoutings and his close bond with a grandfatherly old Jewish man and Holocaust survivor. But the Twilight Zone-y twist is that Hopper's character is then visited by the ghost of Adolph Hitler, who inspires him to greater heights … and ultimately his own downfall. The episode's moral that fascistic and genocidal evil is always lurking, ready to return with a vengeance, would probably work pretty well today, even if the premise is a bit of an eyebrow-raiser.
Episode: "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (Season 5, Episode 3)
Air Date: October 11, 1963
Here's the one everybody knows. Before he played Captain James Kirk on the original Star Trek, William Shatner boarded an ill-fated flight and was driven mad by the sight of a hideous creature on its wing. Shatner's character was already petrified of flying and had had a previous nervous breakdown, so he's not only powerless to stop the gremlin on the wing, he's powerless to get anyone to believe him. The portrait of terror and also helplessness in a world that's so unaware of the madness in its midst that it seems mad itself has proved to be one of the most enduring episodes in series history. Shatner also starred in the 1960 Twilight Zone episode, "Nick of Time."
Episode: "The Bard" (Season 4, Episode 18)
Air Date: May 23, 1963
In the fourth season of The Twilight Zone, the show expanded from half-hour episodes to hourlong episodes, which was so well received that they reverted right back to half-hours for season five. Still, the season finale and final hourlong episode gave us 60 minutes of Burt Reynolds doing a riff on a Marlon Brando-styled method actor in an episode about a struggling scriptwriter who — through a Twilight Zone-y twist — is able to employ William Shakespeare as a literal ghostwriter. Physically and vocally, Reynolds' Brando impersonation is positively uncanny, and even if you're not into the rest of the episode, that alone is a curiosity well worth seeking out.
The original Twlight Zone is currently streaming on Paramount+ and Hulu.
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Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: The Twilight Zone (1959 series), Hulu, Paramount+, Burt Reynolds, Buster Keaton, Carol Burnett, Charles Bronson, Dennis Hopper, Leonard Nimoy, Peter Falk, Robert Redford, Ron Howard, William Shatner