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"The Trouble With Templeton" - Essay #8

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"The Trouble with Templeton": A Closer Look at a Twilight Zone Gem

by Michael Martin DeSapio

If any Twilight Zone episode qualifies as a "connoisseurs' piece" it is "The Trouble with Templeton," an uncommonly moving story about an aging actor confronting his past and taking charge of his present. Never among the most popular or iconographic episodes of the series (it has little in the way of science fiction or special effects), "Templeton" is nonetheless rated highly by serious Twilight Zone devotees; the episode's director, Buzz Kulik, called it his favorite of the nine episodes he helmed. One of the most surprising things about "Templeton" is that it was not written by any of the regular Twilight Zone writers. E. Jack Neuman was a prolific writer of series television in the 1950s and '60s, but this is his sole contribution to the Zone. Despite being created by a TZ outsider, the script (originally entitled "The Strange Debut") fits so well into the established world of the show that one could easily think it was the work of Rod Serling himself. Indeed, many of the episode's themes and details (time travel, an actor growing older) recall such earlier episodes as "Walking Distance" and "The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine"; at the same time, the sincerity and lack of affectation in Neuman's trenchant writing, along with George Clemens' exquisite cinematography and Brian Aherne's "authentic" and personal performance in the title role, place the episode in a class by itself. One of the finest segments of The Twilight Zone's second season, "Templeton" deserves a closer look.

"Pleased to present for your consideration, Mr. Booth Templeton; serious and successful star of over thirty Broadway plays, who is not quite all right today. Yesterday and its memories are what he wants, and yesterday is what he'll get. Soon his years and his troubles will descend on him in an avalanche. In order not to be crushed Mr. Templeton will escape from his theater and his world, and make his debut on another stage, in another world, that we call the Twilight Zone."

The opening scene of "Templeton" introduces the title character and his world in a few strokes. First, Jeff Alexander's lush music cue tells us immediately that we are in The Twilight Zone's "sophisticated" sub-genre—stories about upper-class, literary and theater people. We see a distinguished-looking older gentleman at his wardrobe choosing a necktie; the act of getting dressed is a reference to Booth Templeton's profession of actor and a nod to his taste and refinement. (We might observe that the character's very name reeks of literature and the theater, recalling as it does the American author Booth Tarkington and the stage actors Edwin Booth, John Wilkes Booth and Shirley Booth; there is perhaps also an intended reference to the theater as a "temple.") From the window, Templeton watches a young woman frolicking playfully by the swimming pool with a young man. Templeton's subsequent conversation with his trusted valet, Marty—who has come in to bring him his daily medication-clarifies matters: the young woman is his wife (named "Doris" in Neuman's script), who is habitually unfaithful to him: "Mrs. Templeton is not very discreet these days, is she?"

Winding up a music box, Templeton wistfully recalls his first wife, Laura, who died at the age of twenty-five after seven years of marriage ("Why did He have to take her from me?"), and reflects upon the generally sad nature of his life and upon the fact that he no longer loves his present wife. We might wonder if Templeton's marriage to a much younger woman was a futile effort to recapture his happiness with Laura. Templeton's thoughts turn morose, towards sleep, oblivion and-ultimately-death ("I suppose she's waiting for the day when one of these [pills] won't do what it's designed to do"). But in the end he placidly assures Marty that he is "quite all right" and prepares to attend the first rehearsal of a new play; despite everything that will happen to Templeton during the course of the episode, he remains a fundamentally centered and well-adjusted human being.

Templeton's melancholy monologue—played out partly in front of a mirror, a symbol of self-reflection-displays his eloquent way with language; he is an actor to his core. In Marty, Templeton is provided with a friend and confidant. Now fully dressed in a hat, scarf and overcoat, Templeton departs for the rehearsal. Interestingly, both he and Marty refer to going to the rehearsal as going "down there"—a hint that he will descend into the emotional depths. When at the scene's close Rod Serling appears on-camera to deliver his opening narration, he briefly shares a space with the departing Templeton and Marty—a surprisingly theatrical touch rarely attempted in the series.

The play Templeton is rehearsing is entitled "The Angry Lovers", a sly bit of irony; indeed, acting and reality will be intertwined throughout the episode. Templeton arrives at the back theater entrance and is accosted by Sid Sperry, the play's smarmy financial backer. Spouting corporate catch phrases, Sperry informs Templeton that the play's director has been "canned" in favor of up-and-comer Arthur Willis, a pompous and authoritarian young man. Sperry and Willis are symbols of a new social order in which the corporate is overtaking the artistic and creative, and in which there is little place for courtesy and respect-particularly towards elders. (We might notice too that Willis' very name underlines his dictatorial nature, as in "his will is law.") In his mini-lecture to the actors, Willis significantly lists the producer first among the important persons involved in the play, ahead of the author. E. Jack Neuman's social commentary here is very close to Rod Serling's, especially in his concern for the creative artist.

Seeing Templeton enter, Willis proceeds to lecture him on the importance of being on time. As Willis singles Templeton out, the camera focuses on the latter's face—harshly lit, emphasizing his age; expressionistically framed by the bars and shadows of the backstage area, he appears trapped or imprisoned. As Willis continues to bark at him in front of the other actors, Templeton's defenses shut down and he runs embarrassed and bewildered out of the theater. We have here a clash of generations and temperaments: an old-school gentleman coming up against the loud, pushy and commercial modern world. Templeton is kin to a number of other Twilight Zone protagonists who are unable to keep pace with modern life and therefore seek escape into an idealized past.

The place to which Templeton escapes is none other than the Twilight Zone. Immediately, outside the theater, he is greeted by cheering crowds, a stark contrast to the hostility and alienation he had experienced a moment ago. It is nighttime where it had been daylight a moment before. We notice too that the clothes seem a trifle antique for 1960. As Templeton soon realizes, it is 1927, his prime of life as an actor, and the play "The Great Seed"—written by Templeton's old friend Barney Flueger and starring himself-is playing on the stage. Templeton enters a bubbling, smoke-adorned speakeasy where we hear blaring dixieland jazz. Freddie, the owner of the establishment, tells him that his wife Laura is seated nearby. At the moment Templeton spots her, she is merrily drinking beer and appears to be flirting with Templeton's friend Barney Flueger; the shock of the moment is underlined by an expressive closeup of Templeton.

That moment, in a sense, contains the entire scene in miniature. Templeton tries to share his joy at seeing his presumably dead friends again, but they smugly humor him, jadedly ignore him in the whirl of merriment in the speakeasy, and finally mock him. The dynamic is that of a bad dream, in which all one's certainties are shattered and one cannot make oneself heard or understood. Laura has become a hard, urgent, frivolous creature quite unlike the one Templeton had remembered ("I don't like what you've become!"). The past—or Templeton's perception of it-has actually changed; his poor relationship with his present wife is repeating itself with Laura. At the culmination of this merciless scene, Laura slaps Templeton in front of the staring revelers, calls him a "silly, old fool of a man" and tells him to "go back where you came from. We don't want you here!" The music of the jazz band and the frenzied dancing start up again, and we are shown an odd closeup of the trombone-possibly an allusion to the horns of a cuckold, an old visual symbol in art and literature.

E. Jack Neuman's writing reaches heights of lyricism and pathos in this scene, with Templeton's impassioned pleas to his wife and friend: "[B]oth of you have been only memories for a long time. And now...tonight or today...wherever it is and wherever I am in space or time...somehow...some way I have you back again—you're alive." Two interesting touches are Laura's asking Templeton to take off his stage makeup (he replies that he's not wearing any, he's just grown older) and wondering why is wearing an overcoat in warm weather: "Would you tell me whatever reason on this glad, green earth you are wearing an overcoat for on a night like this?" to which Templeton replies, "I'm not so certain this is a glad, green earth!...I'm not so certain of this earth or anything in it right now." Coming from the cold, hostile present, Templeton has intruded upon Laura and Barney's warm and hospitable paradise.

Templeton appears doubly alienated, from both past and present. Had the episode ended here, it would have been one of TZ's most bitter and disillusioning entries, illustrating the idea that "the past isn't all it's cracked up to be." (The question "What did you expect?" is actually posed to Templeton three times during the course of the scene.) But then an astonishing reversal occurs. Just after Templeton has left the speakeasy, the revelers fall silent, their smiles disappear from their faces and they freeze in a tableau as they stare after Templeton. Laura steps forward, "strained with an overwhelming sadness" (Neuman's stage direction), and the scene goes black. We next see Templeton fleeing through the streets back into the theater's back entrance; now hot and flustered, he fans himself with the manuscript with which Laura had slapped him in the speakeasy. Templeton suddenly realizes that it is a play script, with the title "What To Do When Booth Comes Back." It is a direct transcription of the previous scene in the speakeasy, with stage directions and all. Templeton immediately grasps what happened: "Acting! They were acting...for me! They wanted me to come back to my own life...and live it!"

It has been suggested that "The Trouble with Templeton" lacks the customary Twilight Zone "twist." But in fact Templeton's realization is the twist, and it wrenches the story from cruel to heartwarming in an instant, causing us to view what we have just seen in a wholly different light. Here the Twilight Zone is presented as a version of Heaven, in which the souls of your loved ones lead a mirthful existence outside the dimension of time, act for your benefit if the need arises (not unlike the Christian idea of saintly intercession), and—most surprisingly—long for you to come join them.

Emboldened by the knowledge that his friends are alive and well in another realm and looking out for his welfare, Templeton finds new strength and vitality in his present life. He asserts himself in front of Arthur Willis ("It is definitely Mister Templeton...especially to one so young as you") and Sid Sperry: "Excuse me, Mr. Sperry. I never allow anyone not directly connected with the production to attend rehearsals." Willis, impressed by Templeton's new confidence, listens as speaks of a "most remarkable experience" he just had and promises to tell him about it—"someday." Willis, formerly a young tyrant, has been tamed into a student before a master actor. Templeton takes his rightful place in society again as he sits down with his fellow actors to begin the play reading.

In view of Booth Templeton's character arc, we might read new symbolism into his name: a progression from a narrow, confined field of existence (a booth) to a wide, free and spacious one (a temple). Templeton's arc contrasts sharply with "The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine"'s Barbara Jean Trenton, who wills herself out of earthly reality to live with her old acting friends. Templeton opts to live his present life to the fullest; his answer to Willis' query, "Are you in or are you out?" is "I am definitely... in." Thanks to this inspiring and optimistic ending, "Templeton" gives off a warm satisfying glow, a striking contrast to The Twilight Zone's darker offerings.

Brian Aherne, being himself a distinguished actor from a previous era, brings an air of authenticity to the role of Booth Templeton and ranks as one of the series' best "catches." Born in England in 1902, Aherne appeared on stage from the age of nine and in movies from the silent era, but had his heyday in the 1930s and '40s. During these years he carved out a niche as an urbane and sophisticated leading man, one of the best of the pencil-thin-moustache charmers of that era. His roles were mainly romantic and light comedy ones, which makes his emotionally charged performance in "Templeton" a surprise. Of course, Aherne's type of actor would soon be a dying breed, which adds some extra poignancy to the role. Excellent as well are the other members of the cast, including Pippa Scott as Laura, Charles Carlson as Barney, King Calder as Sid Sperry and of course Sydney Pollack (who went on to become an A-list movie director) as Arthur Willis; Carlson does a fine job channeling the collegiate type associated with the 1920s.

No less distinguished is Jeff Alexander's musical score, which insinuates itself in key moments and enhances the episode's lyrical and dreamlike atmosphere. Especially memorable are the haunting cues for harp and strings when Templeton first enters the past and the memories start flooding back.

It is left to Templeton to speak what might be considered the episode's tagline, repeating what Willis had said to the actors earlier: "The first day of rehearsal is the most important date in the life of a play." It is not only the "life of a play" being considered here, but also the "play" of life: as Rod Serling speaks his closing narration, the camera moves out to a full view of the actors on stage, framed by the proscenium and curtain. Folded into the episode's message is the idea that "all the world's a stage" in which we are all players and every day counts.

"Mr. Booth Templeton, who shared with most human beings the hunger to recapture the past moments, the ones that soften with the years. But in his case, the characters of his past blocked him out and sent him back to his own time, which is where we find him now. Mr. Booth Templeton, who had a round-trip ticket...into the Twilight Zone."

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