February 6 in Twilight Zone History: Remembering actor James Whitmore ('On Thursday We Leave for Home')

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Feb 6, 2018

Today, February 6th, This Day in Twilight Zone History and The Twilight Zone Encyclopedia remember actor James Whitmore, who passed away on this day in 2009 at 87.

Whitmore (1921-2009), a legendary character actor who was once groomed by MGM to be the next Spencer Tracy, starred in the marvelous Season Four one-hour episode "On Thursday We Leave for Home," portraying Captain William Benteen, a man who has almost singlehandedly taken care of a large party of beleaguered space colonists, trapped on a horridly hot planet beset by frequent meteor storms. When a rescue ship arrives, everyone is overjoyed – except Benteen, who begins to see a change in his relationship to his flock.

Captain Benteen (James Whitmore, left) greets his savior, Colonel Sloane (Tim O'Connor), in "On Thursday We Leave for Home."

If you were assembling a cast for any TV show or movie, Whitmore was your homerun hitter – always delivering in the clutch. I first discovered him at a Saturday matinee of Them!, in which he played Ben Peterson, a stalwart New Mexico police officer on the trail of some big ass ants. He had previously been nominated for an Oscar for playing Sergeant Kinny in the classic World War II film Battleground (he lost to fellow TZ veteran Dean Jagger, who won for Twelve O'Clock High).

In Them!, James Whitmore, center, played a very credible New Mexico State Police officer, opposite James Arness, Joan Weldon, and Edmund Gwenn.

Other quite memorable roles include Gus, the hunchbacked wheelman in The Asphalt Jungle; the orangutan President of the Assembly in the original Planet of the Apes; elderly convict Brooks Hatlen in The Shawshank Redemption; and the voice of the angel in the original Angels in the Outfield.

James Whitmore as tragic ex-convict Brooks Hatlen in The Shawshank Redemption.

So let's hoist a tall glass of bitter desert water to James Whitmore and his unforgettable William Benteen, a choice morsel on the sumptuous banquet plate we call The Twilight Zone.