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 9, This Day in Twilight Zone History wishes happy birthday to not only one of the great, award-winning actors of all time, but a veteran of two of the most popular episodes of the show – Cliff Robertson, born on this day in 1923. Cliff – whose career was just beginning (he had just played “The Big Kahuna” in the original Gidget) – first starred as 19th-century pioneer Christian Horn, a wagon train leader with a stovepipe hat, in Rod Serling’s second season episode “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim.” One of a number of terrific time-travel stories, this timeless episode tosses Horn into the 20th century when he leaves his wagon train for a brief trek for water. Robertson is just terrific in this role, and, in my opinion, raised the level of the show another notch.
The following season, he returned with an even more bravura performance in “The Dummy,” portraying Jerry Etherson, a talented ventriloquist haunted by an increasingly more human partner. Robertson’s portrait of a performer either going bonkers or beset by supernatural events is spot on, and worth studying, and the episode has one of the great TZ twists of all time. Robertson soon left television for the heights of the 1960s motion picture world. President John F. Kennedy would soon choose him to play the president himself in 1963’s PT 109. But he left behind many formative performances on the small screen, not the least of which were his twin journeys into the fifth dimension. Robertson lived to see his 88th birthday, then died the following day in 2011. I have the honor of sharing birthdays with this acting force. Let’s toast the man who brought Christian Horn and Jerry Etherson to life.