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Does anyone remember the television show that immediately followed The Twilight Zone
(Friday nights, 1961) and offered bizarre plays with twist endings even more
incredible than Mr. Serling's?
Perhaps these tantalising tidbits will refresh your memory:
the post-mortem brain of an articulate snob (Henry Jones) is kept alive in a
tank with an eye stem and ear drum attached, his growing agitation expressed
only with wordless electronic static on an ocilloscope as his wife blasts
twist records and exhales L&M smoke into his tank!
An odd little man (John McGiver) slips swamp water into
his neighbors' cocktails, changing them into frogs. An
overly-ambitious method actor (Alfred Ryder) sneaks around skid row to
steal ideas for playing a ravaged wino. (He actually becomes the skuzziest bum on skid row. Even the dirtiest dregs avoid him!) Or a photographer (Barry Morse) disfigures people's faces by painting a
weird fluid on their photos, until the bottle splashes on his portrait --
erasing half his face (the most shocking sci-fi TV episode of it's day, with
make-up by Dick Smith of Dark Shadows and The Exorcist). Have
you guessed the name of this half-hour series yet?
A recent Fox-network documentary on science-fiction television shows included a clip from an episode of this show: an actress finds herself
trapped after-hours in a television studio, where she rehearses with zombies. Do any of these episodes sound familiar? No, they weren't from The Outer Limits, Boris Karloff
Presents Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, or The Night Gallery.
Hosted by sardonic British author Roald Dahl and called, appropriately
enough, Way Out, the series brought together some of the most talented
people who have ever worked in television.
Possibly the most distinctive and memorable elements of Way Out were the
rather odd and unsettling opening and closing remarks written
and delivered, with marvelous touches of blackhumor, by host Roald Dahl.
Beginning each show with an inviting "How're you?" he would then
give advice on, for example, how to murder one's spouse or he might tell "pleasant"
stories of his boyhood in Norway where, when somebody died, and the ground was
frozen solid, they would sharpen the legs and hammer the body into the ground,
"like an enormous nail." Dahl himself got some of the best reviews, with one
critic describing him as
a "thin Alfred Hitchcock, an East Coast Rod Serling."
At this time (1961), Dahl was best known
for his rather "strange" stories that had appeared
in the New Yorker and several published
collections. His specialty was the
macabre, laced with savage black humor. David Susskind knew about Dahl from "William and Mary," Dahl's ironic
take on a wife's final revenge on her husband. Therefore, Susskind and his production company
sought Dahl as the host of a show they were developing.
After accepting their offer, Dahl soon found the weekly show to be demanding. In an interview, Dahl fretted,
"Now, suddenly, I find myself in the position
of speaking to the nation for one-and-a-half
minutes every week and it's nerve wracking."
However, in another interview, Dahl fondly recalled hosting
Way Out: "I was a pretty young chap then and
it was jolly nice. It was amusing for me because
it was my first thing on television."
One of Way Out's greatest advantages
was its New York location. This allowed Susskind to draw from the great
wealth of talent in the New York live theater.
Among those who appeared were Fritz Weaver,
Mildred Dunnock, a young Richard Thomas
(The Waltons), Martin Balsam, Kevin
McCarthy, Michael Conrad (Hill Street
Blues), Charlotte Rae (The Facts of Life), and
Mark Leonard (Star Trek). As Susskind has
said, "The honor list from that group of players
on Way Out would be hard to beat."
How did such an off-beat show attract
such high caliber actors from Broadway? According
to Susskind, "Most good actors were fearful of this kind of material.
But by showing that we could get good scripts with
these themes and that the characterizations would be
rich and ripe for them to play, we were able to
make this kind of thing more respectable than
it had ever been before." Carmen Matthews,
star of the third episode, "The Sister," recalls,
"It was a time of boundless energy--and joy
and dedication in our work."
On March 31, 1961, Way Out premiered to rave reviews with
with Roald Dahl's "William and Mary." Calling this first episode an
"auspicious debut," The New York Times
praised the show for a tale "told tightly and
lightly, with wry and brittle dialogue." A
West Coast review added that "Way Out's
chief asset could be its host Mr. Dahl, who
practices literary witchcraft in the realm of the
macabre and whose introduction to the series
and the opener (which he wrote) was a joy.
'The story we are about to see,' he said
with a gentlemanly leer, 'is not for children,
nor young lovers, nor people with queasy
stomachs. It is for wicked old women.'"
With "William and Mary" rated number one
in its time slot, it looked like Way Out, as
producer Mike Dann had hoped, would be a "good team
mate" for The Twilight Zone.
Seasoned script writers such as Irving
Gaynor Neiman, Sumner Locke Eliot, and
Phil Reisman, Jr., building on the basic
premise of the impossible, had managed to
devise a series of tales that were eerie,
unsettling, and, often, fantastic. Way
Out zinged its audience weekly with startling
"twist" endings. With Dahl's deliciously
nasty encapsulations adding spice to the mix,
Way Out seemed headed for a long, successful
So why, on July 14, 1961, after a mere
fourteen episodes, did the show bite the dust,
never to be seen on television again? The answer
is simple--the almighty ratings. Although
Way Out was a hit in the larger metropolitan
areas, it unfortunately did poorly
nationwide. Mike Dann speculates that the
stories were "perhaps a little too macabre, a
little too odd for television. Roald Dahl's
show simply was too limited to be that successful."
Thus, for the remainder of the summer
of 1961, the 9:30 p.m. Friday night spot
was filled with reruns of Schlitz Playhouse
(renamed Adventure Theater), probably the
cheapest series of shows CBS owned.
Fondly remembering this almost forgotten
chapter in television history, Mike Dann says,
"Way Out was one of the last weekly dramatic
shows to be done in New York. Practically
more than any other show, while it was not
the most important, it represented the end of
the era of New York as a production center for
prime time. The only thing we had left then
was variety shows. It meant the death of
drama in New York, which is a great loss for
David Susskind donated tapes of Way
Out to the Museum of Broadcasting in New
York City. His message to first-time viewers -- or those who like to relive disturbing memories -- is,
"Enjoy them! They were made for
entertainment. They were not made to change
your philosophy of life. Just be amused, entertained,
and enjoy them."
Once again, after having
the wits scared out of us, Roald Dahl can
comfort us with his kind works, "Goodnight. .
. . . and sleep well."