Revisiting Night Gallery with Rod Serling: Pilot Episode, 1969

Since I was already midway through my journey into discussing the classic early 1960s anthology series Thriller, hosted by Boris Karloff, I thought now would be a wonderfully opportune time to make even more work for myself and start talking about another beloved anthology series, one that I adored as a kid and have watched many times over in the years since then.

Night Gallery, which ran on NBC from late 1970 to mid-1973, was the spiritual successor to The Twilight Zone, hosted by the legendary Rod Serling and featuring many episodes written by Serling himself. Though he didn’t have quite the amount of creative control he had on the Zone, his presence was still very much front and center, and as much as I love the earlier (and iconic) Twilight Zone series, I will always vibe slightly harder with Night Gallery‘s more macabre, supernatural horror stories (as opposed to TZ, which tended more toward science fiction, though both series delved into dark fantasy and morality tales as well).

While I will eventually get into discussing the actual Night Gallery series (and I’ll probably just talk about one episode at a time, since most of them consisted of two or three stories each), I first wanted to discuss the pilot, which aired in 1969 as a full-length film featuring three stories running at about thirty minutes each. The conceit of the film—and the series that sprang from it—was that Rod Serling would introduce each story by showing a creepy painting that was related to the story you were about to see. In the series proper, the stories themselves didn’t necessarily have anything to do with a painting per se, but the pilot “episode” themed all three segments around a different piece of artwork, which I always thought was a cool idea.

The paintings in the pilot, by the way, were done by Jaroslav “Jerry” Gebr, and they’re quite awesome. In fact, so many of the paintings displayed during the series kicked ass that I eventually would like to print out and frame a bunch of them and make my own night gallery, if you know what I mean. Several of the pieces really made a big impression on me as a kid.

The pilot, incidentally, is also notable for containing a segment that was the directorial debut of some nobody named Steven Spielberg, who was then a fresh-faced 22-year-old. The same segment also featured one of the final acting performances of Hollywood icon Joan Crawford, who actually tried to get Spielberg replaced because of his inexperience. She eventually gave the kid a chance, though, and the two of them ended up getting along like a house on fire, which is a nice little anecdote, I thought.

Anyway, the first story in the Night Gallery pilot is—spoiler alert—my favorite, mainly because it features Roddy McDowall being a deliciously and campily evil bastard, matching wits with the very proper and indignant (and also pretty conniving) Ossie Davis. I also love the eerie cemetery setting, and even though the story itself is pretty straightforward, it’s really effective and very entertaining. It was directed by Boris Sagal, who did a bunch of TV but also helmed the outstanding 1971 film The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston and based on Richard Matheson’s seminal novel I Am Legend.

So in “The Cemetery,” there’s this wealthy old man named William Hendricks living in a mansion right by the family graveyard. His faithful manservant, Osmond Portifoy (Ossie Davis) has cared for him for decades, but now it appears as though the old man’s time is running short. The only joy he finds these days is in his painting, and examples of his work hang all around the spookily beautiful old plantation house.

Like a vulture circling a dying wildebeest, though, the old man’s nephew Jeremy (Roddy McDowall) sleazes into the mansion, being as aggressively douchey as it’s possible to be. Turns out that Jeremy’s mother—who was obviously William’s sister—was actually supposed to be the main beneficiary of his estate upon his death, but wouldn’t you know it, she died before he did, which means that according to the will, the estate then passes to her next of kin and the old man’s only living relative, Jeremy himself.

It’s left unclear as to whether Jeremy had something to do with causing his mother’s death (I kind of doubt it, though he’s such a shit that it wouldn’t really surprise me), but as soon as he arrives, he wastes no time in basically telling Portifoy that he hopes his uncle does him a solid and drops dead sooner rather than later. He then makes himself at home in the mansion, getting drunk and bringing women home at all hours of the night, talking openly about how rich he’s going to be, and bossing Portifoy around like the lord of the manor, all while Portifoy quietly seethes.

Because Uncle William isn’t croaking fast enough, Jeremy decides to help nature along a little bit. He knows that his uncle is very susceptible to cold, so he purposely leaves the invalid old man next to an open window on a frigid day for several hours, and in due course, William passes away, in a manner that retains some measure of plausible deniability.

Before the body is even cold(er), Jeremy informs Portifoy that he’s read through the part of the will that was left in his uncle’s desk, and the will states that the whole estate passes to his next of kin (i.e. Jeremy), except for a measly $70 a month stipend for Portifoy. The manservant, seemingly appalled that his years of faithful service would be met with such an insulting amount, grudgingly asks Jeremy if he can keep his job at the mansion, an arrangement that Jeremy magnanimously agrees to.

Shortly after the uncle dies, however, shit starts getting strange around the plantation house. The last painting the uncle did was a view of the cemetery from his bedroom window, and the painting hangs on the wall along the staircase, along with several others. Jeremy notices, though, that the painting has changed slightly since he first arrived: whereas before it simply showed a normal-looking graveyard, now one of the graves in the foreground—the one where the uncle was laid to rest—has a little hump of dirt and a shovel in front of it, as though a recent burial took place there. Jeremy is wigged out, but Portifoy tells him the painting doesn’t look any different than it did before. Perhaps Jeremy’s guilty conscience is causing him to see things…?

As the tale goes on, the painting seems to be changing every time Jeremy looks at it…in the next instance, his uncle’s casket appears to be poking out of the ground, at which point Jeremy tosses the artwork onto the fire. Not too long after that, though, the painting is hanging back in its regular spot, and this time, the little casket is open and his uncle’s body is lying in it with his arms folded. When Jeremy next looks at it—obviously aghast because he was sure he burned it—the picture appears entirely back to normal.

Jeremy is getting more and more terrified and angry, but Portifoy keeps insisting that the painting hasn’t changed at all and that Jeremy must be imagining things. Portifoy, citing Jeremy’s slipping sanity and abusive behavior, quits his job and leaves Jeremy alone in the house with his supposed delusions. He also tells Jeremy that William needed the manservant when he was alive, but now that the old man’s dead, he seems pretty capable of taking care of himself.

Jeremy, now completely alone in the middle of the night, hears some creepy noises in the house and goes downstairs to find that the painting now shows the uncle fully out of his grave and making his way through the cemetery gate and toward the front of the house. Panicked, he tries to call Portifoy at the town hotel, but the desk clerk hangs up on him, and then he notices that in the painting, his uncle is now much closer to the front door. He hears creaking and sees an open window in the parlor, so he calls the cops and tells them to come out right away because there’s an intruder. This is a great, frightening sequence, and Roddy McDowall really sells the fear, especially after he begins to hear scratching and pounding at the door, as though someone…or something…is trying to get inside. He looks at the painting, which now depicts his uncle standing on the porch with his arm raised, knocking at the door, and at this point, Jeremy loses it completely, and in his hysteria, he ends up tumbling down the stairs and breaking his neck, which kills him instantly.

The front door opens slowly, and we then discover that the person pounding on the door is, in fact, Osmond Portifoy, who—again, spoiler alert—orchestrated this whole scheme. Turns out he spent his entire life savings of $8,000 to hire an artist named Gibbons to paint fifteen different versions of the cemetery painting, and either had someone switch them out at opportune times, or did it himself (not the most plausible scenario, especially during the final sequence when Jeremy was only out of the room for a couple of minutes at a time, but just roll with it). See, the part of the will that Jeremy didn’t get to stipulated that if all of William Hendricks’s living heirs were dead, the entire estate would pass to Portifoy after six months.

The artist asks what Portifoy would have done if Jeremy hadn’t fortuitously broken his neck, but Portifoy says that even if that hadn’t happened, Jeremy would have been driven insane by the fear that his dead uncle was coming back to get him, and would have been committed, a circumstance which would also allow the money to pass to Portifoy. Clearly, the man had all this meticulously planned out, and you know, good for him. Sure, it wasn’t the most ethical way to go about things, but I figure he had some reward coming for taking care of that rich old fart for thirty years.

But no, the story couldn’t let Portifoy’s crime go unpunished either, which honestly sort of bummed me out. Because the story has yet another twist, referring back to something Portifoy said earlier about hatred being stronger than death. He said it to freak Jeremy out, obviously, but I guess it was truer than he realized, because just as before, the painting on the staircase begins to change, only this time it’s Jeremy crawling out of his grave and walking toward the door, and this time Portifoy didn’t pay anyone to do the paintings. So Portifoy gets killed by zombie Jeremy, and the uncle’s estate presumably hangs in escrow for eternity.

I admit that I kind of wish Portifoy had gotten away with his plot, mainly because he was so likable and loyal, and Jeremy was such a chode, but oh well. The double twist was sort of a nice touch that I didn’t see coming the first time I viewed this episode.

The second segment, just titled “Eyes,” is the one directed by Steven Spielberg, and it’s also pretty great, likewise involving a wealthy shithead taking advantage of someone less fortunate.

Joan Crawford plays an imperious, very rich, and quite sociopathic blind woman named Claudia Menlo. She lives in a sprawling penthouse apartment on 5th Avenue in New York City, in a building she owns and won’t let anyone else live in. At the beginning of the story, her physician, Dr. Heatherton (Barry Sullivan) is coming to visit her, and in the elevator, he meets an artist who’s leaving her apartment with a portrait of her that he’s working on. Claudia can’t see the portrait, of course, because she’s been blind since birth, but that’s where the good doctor comes in.

See, he knows about a very experimental surgical technique that might be able, in theory, to restore sight by grafting in optic nerves from a donor. The surgery has only been successfully performed on animals so far, and there are a couple of catches: in one instance, the animal subject’s sight was restored, but only for a few minutes, and in the other instance, the animal could see for several hours, but then lost the ability again. Also, the animals used as donors were rendered permanently blind.

Claudia doesn’t give a shit about any of that, though; she wants Dr. Heatherton to do the surgery on her so she can look at her portrait and see if it’s done her justice (one line of dialogue she spouts that should let you know the kind of asshole we’re dealing with is, “In all my 54 years, no one’s ever done me justice…not even God”). She doesn’t care that the sight will only be temporary, and she cares even less that the person they use as a donor will never be able to see again. Claudia is clearly the most important person to have ever existed in the history of mankind, and everyone else on the planet is just incidental to her wants.

The doctor tells her straight up that even on the off chance that the surgery worked, she would only be able to see for twelve hours, in the best-case scenario, and he argues that the whole point is moot anyway, because she’s never going to be able to find a donor willing to part with their eyesight for the rest of their life just so a snotty rich lady can look at some shit for a few hours.

But Claudia tells him that’s where he’s wrong; everyone has a price, and as a matter of fact, she has absolutely located a person who’s sufficiently desperate for money that they’re willing to give up their optic nerves for her. Her lawyer, she says, represented a guy in a criminal trial some time back, and the man is in dire financial straits, owing thousands of dollars to a bookie who’s threatening to wax him if he doesn’t pay up. Claudia has agreed to pay the “inconsequential” guy $9000 to clear his debts, and he has in turn agreed to relinquish his sight.

Dr. Heatherton at this point realizes what a monstrous individual Claudia is and tells her in no uncertain terms that he will absolutely not be a party to taking away a healthy person’s eyesight just so Claudia can stare at a painting of herself. But then Claudia pulls out the ace up her sleeve: she has solid proof that the doctor sent a young woman to an illegal, back-alley abortionist some time before, and the woman ended up dying from the botched procedure. Claudia threatens to release this information to the public—which will ruin the doctor’s career, and probably his marriage—unless the doc does the thing. Knowing he’s fucked, he reluctantly agrees.

The donor turns out to be a simple, sympathetic sad sack named Sidney (Tom Bosley), who tries to keep things in perspective; he doesn’t really have a choice in the matter, after all. “In here they take the eyes, out there they take the body,” he tells the surgeons, somewhat poignantly. He also figures that he’s already seen everything good, and there’s really nothing left in his life worth seeing. He even makes a joke about being “the sight-giver.” The way he’s talking makes Dr. Heatherton feel even worse about the whole deal than he already does, especially when Sidney asks if he’ll still be able to cry out of his useless eyes, and implies that he’ll probably end up killing himself before 24 hours has passed. Tom Bosley is absolutely great here; he’s such a likable actor that you really feel for his character, and it’s super heart-wrenching watching him go through the process of realizing what exactly it is that he’s giving up and how desperation led him to this tragic state of affairs.

Meanwhile, Claudia has a plan for all the things she’s going to look at once she’s given sight, and she vows she’s going to commit every single thing she sees to memory so she can reflect back on it for the rest of her life after she goes blind again. She even sets everything up so that the first thing she sees when she removes the bandages is the portrait that now hangs on the wall of her penthouse. After the doctor gives her the lowdown on what to expect, she coldly dismisses him, comparing him to a “used light bulb” and telling him they’ll never see one another again. Real peach, this one.

So, because you just knew there had to be an ironic twist to this whole scenario, it turns out that only moments after Claudia removes the bandages from her eyes, there’s a city-wide blackout, and since Claudia doesn’t realize this, she believes that the doctor has fucked her over, or messed up the surgery somehow, because she’s still surrounded by blackness. You’d think that she would at least be able to see the moon or the stars outside of her apartment window, but maybe all the curtains were closed or something.

Not surprisingly, Claudia is VERY put out, first raging at the doctor for being a quack, then sobbing and begging for him to come back and fix it. After a while, she seems defeated, and collapses in her chair, where she falls asleep.

But when the sun comes up, she realizes that the surgery did actually work, and in rapture, she watches the sunrise over the New York City skyline. But by this time, her limited window of sight has been used up, and as she stares out the window, marveling over the colors and beauty she’s never seen, her vision gradually goes dark once again. She screeches about how unfair it all is, and while reaching toward the window (which was broken during her tirade), she falls forward and out, splattering her rich white ass all over the sidewalk several stories below, one presumes, though the movie doesn’t show this because it was made for TV. She never even got to look at her portrait before falling to her death, another little twist of cruel irony. Sidney’s ultimate fate is never revealed, though because of the dialogue, I’m assuming that he did exactly as he said he was going to do and committed suicide after going blind.

The third and final segment, titled “The Escape Route” and directed by Barry Shear, was actually my least favorite of the three; don’t get me wrong, it’s still really good, with an outstanding lead performance by Richard Kiley, but the pacing seemed a tad uneven to me, and the messaging was a bit heavy-handed. The story is along the same lines as the Twilight Zone episodes “A Quality of Mercy” and “Death’s-Head Revisited.”

Kiley plays a fugitive Nazi war criminal named Josef Strobe who’s hiding out in South America. Though it would be easy to play a character like this as a straight-up cartoon villain, the actor actually goes more nuanced with it, and while I won’t say that you sympathize with the character exactly, especially when you know what he did in his past, you do actually see him as a human being and not as a soulless monster, which is an amazing feat on the part of Richard Kiley.

Strobe is somewhat haunted by his days as a lieutenant general, when he basically made the decisions about who would live and die in the camps. He has nightmares and PTSD flashbacks, and it seems that the only consolation he can find is in a nearby museum, where he fantasizes about vanishing into a bucolic, calming painting of a man fishing on a lake. It seems that Strobe wants nothing more than to revert to a simpler life, where he never has to think about the atrocities he perpetrated, though he seems to understand that God will never allow him any such peace after what he did.

One day in the museum, he meets a Jewish man named Bleum (Sam Jaffe), who is contemplating a painting that shows a man being crucified in one of the camps. Bleum mentions that he was in the camps as well, and had a friend who died in precisely that way. At first, Bleum doesn’t recognize Strobe as one of his tormentors, though.

However, not too long afterward, Bleum actually does realize who Strobe is, and though Strobe tries to deny it, Bleum is adamant that he’s going to report Strobe to the authorities, as two investigators have been lurking around looking for him. To keep this from happening, Strobe kills Bleum (way to compound the sin, there, chief), but in the end, the murder was pointless because Strobe gets caught anyway.

Desperate, he tries to save his own skin by promising to give up some bigger-ticket Nazis, like Martin Bormann and Heinrich Müller, to the agents, but it seems the investigators aren’t biting. Strobe makes a break for it and escapes them, however, running to the museum in a panic and begging God to allow him to vanish into the peaceful fisherman painting, which is situated in a very dark corner of the museum.

Well, Strobe does disappear all right; when the agents arrive at the museum, they can’t find hide nor hair of him. But as astute viewers will have already guessed, the fishing painting Strobe loved so much was replaced with the crucified man one, and Strobe couldn’t tell them apart because it was too dark to see. So God apparently granted Strobe’s wish, thrusting him into the crucifixion painting to suffer for all eternity. Good riddance, Nazi scum!

As I mentioned, the fact that Richard Kiley plays such a risible character with such subtlety really puts this one a notch above what it would have otherwise been. Though we all love seeing Nazis get a beatdown, however, this one seemed just a tad too sanctimonious overall, and the story wasn’t all that original either. I still liked it, but I found my attention wandering way more during this segment than during either of the other ones.

This pilot episode of Night Gallery is absolutely worth watching if you like anthologies, especially for the first two stories. As time goes on, I’ll explore the rest of the series as a whole, so be sure to keep watching this space.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.


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