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 would follow -- from The Walking Dead to Stranger Things -- and beyond, becoming one of the enduring pop culture staples of its era. 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 (arriving this October). 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.
Today, September 20th, This Day in Twilight Zone History wishes happy birthday to director Norman Z. McLeod, who was born on this day in 1895. Near the end of his illustrious comedy directing career, he was recruited by producer Buck Houghton and creator Rod Serling to direct Buster Keaton in the whimsical time travel episode “Once Upon a Time.” In that episode, written by Richard Matheson (not usually known for his comedy flair), Keaton plays Woodrow Mulligan, a janitor living in the fictional town of Harmony, New York in the year 1890, who steals a time traveling helmet from his inventor boss and arrives in the year 1962. It was not surprising that McLeod was chosen to direct – his long list of feature credits includes two marvelous Marx Brothers films (Monkey Business and Horse Feathers), the W.C. Fields classic It’s a Gift, and Danny Kaye’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
When the episode begins in the 19th Century, it’s essentially a silent movie with title cards and the requisite jerky motion of a slower frame projection rate. When Woodrow travels through time to 1962, the frame rate is traditional 24 frames, and there’s sound. It was a truly brilliant way to shoot this episode. Here’s to the legendary McLeod, who passed away at 68 in 1964, a talent from another era that brought life and class to a story from another dimension.