August 24, 2002 - 4:00 pm - Beverly Garland Hotel Theater
From left to right: James Sheldon, Ben Cooper, Elliot Silverstein
Note: These are in order of speaker and just briefly summarize each person's comments. The duration of this panel discussion was roughly 60 minutes. Some details may be outdated.
Gary Shusett (host): Gary let each person introduce themselves and discuss their "Twilight Zone" work, posing various questions to each as the hour progressed. Two more directors were scheduled to attend but did not, so Gary replaced them with actors Ben Cooper and Susan Gordon.
James Sheldon: Mr. Sheldon directed many old TV shows, which included a number of episodes of "Twilight Zone". The most memorable one, and his best, was "It's a Good Life" which starred Bill(y) Mumy. Today he often gets the question 'why were some of the Twilight Zone's shot on videotape?' The answer, of course, was that with tape there could be no photography done by George T. Clemens, who had established the way "Twilight Zone" appeared on television sets, so ultimately CBS stuck with film. He recalls "Long Distance Call", also done with Mumy, and "The Whole Truth" which were done on tape. He remembered using Mumy overtime, against child labor laws, in order to get the final shot of the picture; this was fine with Bill Mumy's mother but had the network found out, it would have been curtains for him. A year or so later, he got the assignment to direct Ray Bradbury's story "I Sing the Body Electric". While he liked Bradbury's story, he never liked the finished product of the episode and doesn't to this day … mainly because of the poor casting of Josephine Hutchinson as the granny. He also recalled "A Penny For Your Thoughts" and George Clayton Johnson being on the set during the shooting, just to be helpful. In his opinion, the marvelous scripts were what made TZ work as well as it did, but another large and much-overlooked factor was the extraordinary casting by a man named Jim Lister from the Stalmaster-Lister casting agency. There was a new and completely different story done every week, and that's mainly what kept the show going and kept the interest level high. A drama one week, a comedy the next, and so forth. The writers each had different styles, each of which presented its own share of challenges. After "Twilight Zone", Jim did "My World and Welcome to It," "M*A*S*H," "MacMillan and Wife" and more. He had done "Route 66" and "Naked City" around the same time as "Twilight Zone." Mr. Sheldon's career as TV director began at NBC. He was a guide, then was transferred to the news department. He learned that the director of radio was leaving, and soon after started getting jobs in the radio department (this was around 1948). In the fifties, he started directing television. He worked with both Ben Cooper and Susan Gordon during their days as young actors and made mention of what wonderful parents each had, and how good parents are always the precursor to good kid actors … and vice versa.
Ben Cooper (actor): Ben appeared in the third season episode "Still Valley" with Gary Merrill, with whom he had done several-hundred radio shows in the forties and early fifties. "Still Valley", coincidentally, was directed by his old friend Jim Sheldon! "Actors always felt comfortable working with Jim," Ben commented. "I have known Jim for about 60 years, ever since he came to see me in a Broadway play with Ruth Hammond when I was eight years old!" Ben recalled that the extras used for the street scene in "Still Valley", where everyone was required to stand perfectly still, were fabulous. "They were so incredibly professional. They could go out for coffee or a cigarette and come back and remember exactly how they were standing!" Jim Sheldon had Ben tone down his performance. Ben wanted to act dramatically, in the same style as Gary Merrill, but the character he was playing (the young soldier) didn't call for it. Ben did "Perry Mason" and "Gunsmoke" around the same time as "Twilight Zone". His career started in radio at around age eight. He subsequently went on to do over 3200 radio shows and later on at Columbia University he wrote a thesis about radio. In 1960, Ben was working on "Wagon Train", where the episode that week was a remake of "Great Expectations". He was - as he put it - "forced to do a love scene with a sponge!" The actress who he was working with was no good, and he complained to Ward Bond about it. Ward then replaced the bad actress with a young girl named Pamela who was visiting the set that day. Five minutes after meeting her, Ben decided he was going to marry her, and twenty-seven days later they were engaged. Pamela was already engaged to Ward Bond's best friend at the time they met, but broke the engagement!! Forty-two years later, Ben and Pamela are still going strong. Ben has always been thankful to that "lousy" actress (he doesn't remember her name, unfortunately!) Ben made a pilot in Greece in 1967 for Herbert Leonard, which CBS liked and was prepared to make into a series that called for the cast to travel to exotic locations frequently. This was cancelled when Leonard got into a brawl with the network. This was particularly disheartening to Ben because it would probably have meant big bucks for a LONG time. He's since gotten over it … and done a hundred times better for himself than that one series ever could have … but whenever someone has a sob story for him, he'll tell about 'The Series That Never Was'!! Ben spent seven years on the board of Screen Actors Guild and five years on the board of directors of the SAG pension plan. During this time he decided he did not want to rely on the pension and formed his own business, which has branches in all parts of the world.
Elliot Silverstein: Mr. Silverstein got his
start in TV after starting out as faculty member of the Theater Department at Brandeis University.
He later directed the films "Cat Ballou" and "A Man Called Horse" and was president of the DGA (Directors Guild of America).
He claims his break into TV and film came "purely by accident and as a result of coincidences."
"Twilight Zone" remains one of the single most important aspects of his career, because it led
to changing the so-called 'Bill of Rights' of directors in TV. During production of the episode "The Obsolete Man" (the last
episode aired in the second season of "Twilight Zone" in the spring of 1961),
Elliot was working with the film editor in the cutting process. They came to the last scene, with the state officials
closing in on the chancellor,
but the editor would not cut it the way he wanted.
Elliot went to the DGA to find out what rights he had as far as this issue was concerned. At that time, it had been
established for many years (since the early 1940's) that the director could only view the
"first rough cut" of the film, and any suggestions he had were to be relayed to the Associate Producer...and
that was IT. Elliot, single-handedly (but backed by many industry directors of the day) changed
all of that, and developed certain 'Thou Shalts' and 'Thou Shalt Nots'.
He remembers doing "The Passersby" with Joanne Linville and James Gregory, and also "Spur of the Moment" with Diana Hyland. He recalled that he asked Diana if she could ride a horse. Not wanting to be fired or replaced, the actress said 'Yes, of course' but when the time came for her to ride, she didn't even know what side of the animal to climb up on. During "The Trade Ins", Joseph Schildkraut's wife was dying and in between takes he cried like no tomorrow. Elliot offered him the option of cancelling production, but Schildkraut refused and insisted on finishing the assignment. Elliot spoke highly of Buck Houghton with the remark, "Buck Houghton was a Producer in the preferred sense of the word...the supremo of producers. He knew what he knew, and he expected that you knew what you knew. He never said 'no' to anything I wanted, and I was always very free to do my own thing." The shooting schedule was three days' preparation for three days' shooting. No rehearsal time was designated; the actors rehearsed between takes. He emphasized that a particular director was hired to do a certain episode, and that they were hired "to solve the problems of that particular storyline". On "Twilight Zone", he never had problems with actors, but on other shows he'd occasionally have one who refused to play a certain scene a certain way. "Part of a director's job is to guide actors who come from all different schools of acting." "We got the *completed* scripts about a week ahead of time on Twilight Zone...other shows usually did not give the director completed scripts. You walked in and they said, 'Here's the first three pages, don't worry, it WILL END!'" Elliot echoed Jim Sheldon's comment, that "Twilight Zone was always many cuts above all the rest. It was a class act all the way."
Susan Gordon (actor): Susan Gordon played Jenny, the young girl with the bad leg, in Charles Beaumont's episode "The Fugitive", with veteran character actor J. Pat O'Malley (who plays Old Ben, the fugitive from another world) . Even as a child, she liked "Twilight Zone" and found it 'magical' to work on. During the same period she did nearly all the shows that were on TV at the time ("Gunsmoke", "My Three Sons", and countless others). "Twilight Zone" was one of, if not 'the' most enjoyable of all the roles she played because the story gave her the opportunity to transform into a twin and run off with royalty. Of Nancy Kulp, who played Mrs. Gann (her lemon-sucking guardian!) she says, "I have foggy but warm memories of her; in a child's eyes, she was someone to respect." On the first day of shooting, she came down ill during the outdoor scene and was carried off on a stretcher just as Rod Serling was coming in; she never got to meet him. After high school, Susan stopped acting for awhile and decided she wanted an uninterrupted college career. After college, she moved to Japan and met her husband, with whom she had six children. During her 13 years in Japan, she found community theater, which allowed her to continue acting. After she returned to the US and made her home in New Jersey, she also continued doing community theater. Susan made the interesting observation about shooting schedules, "You really had to get your character developed and in order and had to be prepared for the schedule. For instance, sometimes we'd shoot the last scene first, and the first scene last, and it made you work accordingly...'okay, how am I going to be acting at the beginning as opposed to the end?' Susan did movies with Danny Kaye, Alan Ladd, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and many others, some of which had nine week long shooting schedules, and she found it all enjoyable. She has recently gotten back into acting and was re-discovered by a well-known director who cast her in an off-Broadway play, which has opened up some doors for her. Her greatest accomplishments, are her children, and she married off her oldest child the week before the convention.