The Twilight Zone premiered on television in 1956 and aired for five seasons. Rod Serling directed, often wrote and always introduced each segment. The introductions by the slim, dark-haired Serling were at once somber and teasing. The episodes were often surprising, ranging from light-hearted whimsy like “Kick the Can,” a program about the elderly finding childhood again, to dark parables about the mob mentality like “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.”
The Twilight Zone showcased many actors who would later become household names like William Shatner, Robert Redford and Dennis Hopper. It produced works by writers who would become well known, like Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont.
Twilight Zone - The Movie, video cover
Filmed in black and white, the show was inexpensively made and had little in the way of special effects. The audience got chills and thrills from the imaginative writing, the tight direction and the way it played with the most common fears. As Matheson once wrote, “The story was all in the Twilight Zone.”
The series became a cult classic.
In 1981 director Steven Spielberg, who had achieved both critical acclaim and commercial success with films like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark, wanted to make a film inspired by the TV series. He enlisted the help of his friend, director John Landis. Although not highly regarded by critics, Landis had demonstrated an ability to make money with comedies like Kentucky Fried Movie, The Blues Brothers, and An American Werewolf in London.
Landis and Spielberg agreed that they would be co-producers and equal partners in making the movie.
Spielberg wanted an anthology of four stories, each of them approximately the same length as an episode of a TV Twilight Zone
Three stories were based on episodes of the original series, and one was written by John Landis. “[Serling] used the fantasy element of his program to deal with social issues. . . . the story I made up, trying to use the magic, the idea of The Twilight Zone was about racism,” Landis said.
Landis wrote a screenplay about an embittered white man named Bill Connor. Connor is first seen railing vulgarly in a bar against Jews, blacks and Asians. The bigot leaves the bar and steps into a series of scenes: Nazi-occupied France where SS troops chase him, mistaking him for a Jew. He flees from the Nazis only to find himself in the Jim Crow American South where Ku Klux Klansmen see him as black and try to lynch him. He escapes from them and is in Vietnam, attacked by American GIs who think he is the enemy.
Although Landis wanted to make a moral point with this film, the story had an ethical problem at its heart. The ordeal endured by Connor seems to equate courageous American GIs in Vietnam trying to protect the South Vietnamese from Communist invaders from the North, with such groups as the Nazis and the Klan.
To star as the repulsive Connor, Landis hired Vic Morrow, a middle-aged actor best known for playing tough guys, usually villains.
When Landis submitted this script to Warner Brothers executives for their approval, two raised objections. Lucy Fisher, vice-president in charge of production, and Terry Semel, president of the studio, thought that the central character was so negative that audiences would not be able to care about him.
After a meeting with Fisher and Semel, Landis hit upon the idea of having Bill redeemed from his bigotry. Running away from the American soldiers firing at him and an attack from a U.S. helicopter in Vietnam, he would come upon two Vietnamese orphans. Moved by their plight, the man would rescue them from an air attack, bravely carrying them across a river to save their lives. At the end, as an entire village is dramatically blown up in the background, the former racist would reassure the youngsters, “I’ll keep you safe, kids! I swear to God!”
These script changes were approved.
However, Landis ran into an obstacle in the form of California’s child labor laws. Twilight Zone casting agents Michael Fenton and Marci Liroff of Fenton-Feinberg Casting told Landis and associate producer George Folsey Jr. that those regulations forbade children to work an hour past curfew and that a teacher-welfare worker had to be present when kids worked. Liroff remembered herself telling the director that the scene struck her as “kind of dangerous.” Fenton told Landis that, since the children were not going to have speaking parts, they were extras and could not be hired through Fenton-Feinberg Casting. Ron LaBrecque wrote in Special Effects that Liroff claimed, “Fenton’s response was a diplomatic way to avoid involvement in a questionable venture.”
Employers could get waivers to work kids later than that but Landis did not seek one. The exact reason for this failure later became a matter of intense dispute. Either he thought he would not get the waiver because the hour was too late or he knew he could not get approval to have kids around a helicopter and explosives.
The director decided to break the law. He would employ the kids illegally and pay them out of petty cash to avoid putting their names on payroll