This Day in Twilight Zone History: Happy Birthday to James Whitmore ('On Thursday We Leave for Home')

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Oct 1, 2017

Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone premiered on October 2, 1959 and over the course of its five-year run would churn out 156 episodes and cement itself as a classic of science-fiction television. Its influence would be felt in any number of shows and movies that followed, from The Walking Dead to Stranger Things, becoming one of the enduring pop culture staples of its era and beyond.

This Day in Twilight Zone History presents key commemorative facts about the greatest science-fiction/fantasy television series of all time, presented by author Steven Jay Rubin, whose latest book is The Twilight Zone Encyclopedia. Whether it's a key performer's birth or death, the date an episode debuted or any other related fact, This Day in Twilight Zone History presents a unique aspect of the rich history of this television series and the extraordinary team that created it.

James Whitmore brought a combination of intensity and empathy to the role of Captain Benteen in "On Thursday We Leave for Home."

Today, This Day in Twilight Zone History celebrates the birth of one of the great character actors of all time – James Whitmore (1921-2009). Whitmore only made one TZ appearances, but it’s a beauty – and what Serling considered the best of the one-hour episodes: "On Thursday We Leave For Home." Whitmore portrays Captain Benteen – the civilian leader of a large group of space colonists stranded on a hot, blighted world, with little water and perennial meteor storms. These poor, wretched folk have literally waited decades for a relief ship; in the interim, Benteen has been their savior, their preacher, their friend – always inspiring them to hang in there one more day while enthusiastically sharing his sweet memories of Earth with the youngest colonist, Jo-Jo (Danny Kulick).

Captain Benteen (James Whitmore, left) remembers an Earth that little Jo-Jo (Danny Kulick, right) has never seen in "On Thursday We Leave for Home."

When the ship finally arrives, everyone is overjoyed, including Benteen, until, well (no spoilers here)…

I've always loved Whitmore's work, all the way back to the first time I saw the Warner Bros. science fiction classic, Them! Remember the big ant movie set in New Mexico and L.A.? Well that was Whitmore, bringing his all to the part of police officer Ben Peterson, who starts the movie off on the right foot when he saves a little girl seen wandering in the desert.

James Whitmore (second from right) joins James Arness, Joan Weldon and Edmund Gwenn in the unforgettable Them!

But that was Whitmore -- he always brought it all. And if TZ had stayed on another season, I have no doubt that Serling would have brought him back. Let us toast a true dean of character actors and a pearl in the universe we call The Twilight Zone.