Anything boxing related - just ask Chris
Anything boxing related - just ask Chris
“I’ve always liked fighting and fighters,” wrote Rod Serling in the Author’s Commentary for his published teleplay of “Requiem for a Heavyweight” in the 1957 collection, Patterns. “As a nineteen-year-old paratrooper fighting at 118 pounds, I had several fights of my own, and I know a broken nose when I feel one.”
“Requiem” would significantly up the ante from the seven previous boxing stories Serling had crafted in terms of delving into the corrupt nature of the sport, with specific attention paid to how such malfeasance can wreak havoc on the psyche of a has-been prizefighter coping with wounded pride and a dubious future. “It’s basic premise was that every man can and must search for his own personal dignity,” Serling proposed. “I thought there was particular poignance in having an ex-fighter begin this kind of quest because his background provided him with the least possible chance.”
Rod Serling had a good deal of vested interest in the 8th annual Emmy Awards ceremony on the evening of March 17, 1956. Nominated for his version of Ring Lardner’s “Champion” in the Best Television Adaptation category, Serling would lose out to Paul Gregory and future Planet of the Apes director Franklin J. Schaffner (working off a script for which Serling shared credit with Michael Wilson) who cowrote The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Herman Wouk. “Patterns”, however, won for Best Original Teleplay Writing and Serling would take home the first of what would eventually total six gold statuettes throughout the course of his career, an individual record which has stood the test of time.
“For on the periphery of every success, in the shadows just outside the limelight, is a hulking, brooding monster known as a flash in the pan. ‘Patterns’ wasn’t my only success, but it evolved as the single standard by which I was judged. It was a point of comparison. It was the stock reference for quality,” said Serling. He was bothered by the thought of being known as a one-hit wonder, the potential for which had burrowed beneath his skin and become an irritant that wouldn’t go away. “And it wasn’t too long before I realized that sometimes the writing that brought you success on a platter was also the writing that evolved as your principal competition,” he continued. “I now had to fight myself or at least something I’d done. I had something to prove, first to others and then to myself. I had to prove that ‘Patterns’ wasn’t all I had.”
It may have seemed like an eternity to Serling, but that proof arrived just seven months after the Emmys, the night Playhouse 90 broadcast his story of a used-up palooka named Harlan ‘Mountain’ McClintock who struggles with navigating his way through the unforgiving terrain known as life beyond the ring ropes. Jack Palance gives an unquestionably stellar performance as Mountain. It is very possible that his past boxing experience informed his authentic portrayal to a great extent. Much more on that topic later.
Retrospectively scanning the horizon of his entire body of work from one end of the vista to the other, Rod Serling would later remark, “I guess ‘Requiem for a Heavyweight’, as old as it is, was as honest a piece as I’ve ever done.” For someone with his self-effacing humility, that was high praise indeed. Hard-fought and well-deserved, at that.
“I wanted to analyze a human being who fought for a living but who was nonetheless a human being,” insisted Serling. It was of the utmost importance to him to steer clear of the commonplace clichés depicted in certain boxing dramatizations that seemed to paint in broad brushstrokes, whereas Serling was concerned with the finer nuances of character portrayal which would slowly strip away the layers of what you thought you already knew in an earnest journey to get to the heart of the matter. “I wanted a guy who would act, react, feel and think without sounding like the stereotyped, cauliflower-eared punchy human wreck who has now become so familiar that he is funny,” Serling elaborated. “I wanted the dull, slow, painfully halting speech to elicit sympathy and understanding, but not a laugh.”
There was much awe and wonder and probably more than a few moist eyes among the viewers who tuned in to Playhouse 90 on October 11, 1956, but rest assured that “Requiem for a Heavyweight” inspired none of the unintentional laughter Serling dreaded.
Director Ralph Nelson’s establishing shot tracks nearer to the front door of a small arena above which hangs a banner boasting FITE TONIGHT. As the camera meanders through the lobby, littered with what appears to be napkins, betting slips, and discarded fight programs, we hear the volume of the cheering crowd slowly increase and get a good look at a poster advertising the evening’s ten-round main event between Mountain McClintock and Jack Gibbons. As soon as the corridor leading to the ringside area comes into view, the off-camera announcer gives the result of a technical knockout victory in favor of Jack Gibbons at 2:14 of the seventh round, and the winner comes bounding down the ramp in the company of celebratory hangers-on basking in his reflected glory, no matter how temporary.
Although his cameo is very brief, Jack Gibbons was played by John Lee Storey, better known among fight aficionados as Young Jack Johnson. With a ring moniker inspired by the first black man to win the world heavyweight title, Johnson had been a boxing champion in the Army before turning pro and earning a pair of impressive victories over Zora Folley and Ezzard Charles. He subsequently fell under the influence of mob boss Frank ‘Blinky’ Palermo, who secretly bought Johnson’s contract from his manager Bert Lewis. Johnson had a consistently inconsistent career, defeating one other heavyweight notable, Willi Besmanoff, but losing to other top-rated contenders such as Eddie Machen, Karl Mildenberger, Brian London, and twice to Ernie Terrell. At the age of 35, John Lee Story, aka Young Jack Johnson, was stabbed to death by his step-daughter Bobby Steptoe, seven months after being knocked out by Cleveland Williams.
When the winner and glad-handers clear out, the barely lucid form of Mountain McClintock is dragged down the hall by his trainer Army and manager Maish, portrayed by real-life father and son Ed and Keenan Wynn, respectively. There were grave doubts expressed by many involved in the production as to how competently Ed Wynn, famous for his zany brand of comedy, would be able to pull off a serious role, and on live television no less. This conundrum, which thankfully proved to be unfounded as Ed Wynn turned in a wonderful Emmy-nominated performance as Army, would serve as the subject matter for 1960’s “The Man in the Funny Suit”, a Desilu Playhouse dramatization of the making of “Requiem for a Heavyweight” which was helmed by “Requiem” director Ralph Nelson and featured Ed and Keenan Wynn playing themselves. Nelson had a small role as himself in “The Man in the Funny Suit”, as did Maxie Rosenbloom and none other than Rod Serling.
Ed and Keenan Wynn would both pay separate visits to The Twilight Zone. Ed would pass through the fifth dimension on two occasions, in “One for the Angels” and “Ninety Years Without Slumbering”, and Keenan starred in the season one finale “A World of His Own”, which was also directed by Ralph Nelson and features a memorable cameo by Rod Serling at the show’s conclusion. This marked the first time the show’s creator appeared on camera during an actual episode of The Twilight Zone, as up to that point Serling’s narrations were done offscreen and his visual presence existed only by way of his teaser for next week’s offering. That would change beginning with season two, and Serling’s introductions were often filmed, schedule permitting, on the episode’s actual set. Otherwise, a comparable mockup was sometimes substituted.
Army is forced to haul Mountain back to the dressing room on his own when Maish is detained by a sharp-dressed, intense-looking fellow who shakes him down for money he owes to a mobster named Mr. Henson. The New York State Athletic Commission’s doctor, whose thirty-eight-year career is coming to a close, enters to dress Mountain’s wounds and conduct a rudimentary post-fight physical. “Mountain and I will both retire this week,” the physician relates to Maish after detecting sclerotic damage in the boxer’s pupils which is the warning sign of a detached retina. The doctor is portrayed by Edgar Stehli, who Twilight Zone fans will recall as Sam Kittridge in “Long Live Walter Jameson”, the elderly professor who becomes wise to the fact that the title character, played by Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) just might be the beneficiary of an unnatural lifespan. Prior to “Requiem”, Stehli had appeared in two other Serling-penned presentations, “The Arena” for Studio One as well as The United States Steel Hour’s “Noon on Doomsday.”
Unlike Army, Maish is less than sympathetic. Within minutes of Mountain regaining consciousness, complaining of how badly his head hurts and that his eye feels “kind of funny,” Maish begins plotting to find a replacement for the tenderized piece of meat currently standing beneath a torrent of hot water, cleansing himself of dried blood and regret. Rejuvenated by the shower, Mountain comes out laughing and shadow boxing, but his legs are still unsteady and the laughter won’t last long when Maish informs him of the doctor’s orders for him to retire.
“What’ll I do?” asks Mountain pathetically. Unless you count the ability to simultaneously dish out and take a beating, he has no marketable skillset, and he doubts if anyone back home in Tennessee will remember him, or he them, following a fourteen-year absence. Mountain pleads with Maish to let him try his luck getting cleared to box in another state or at least take part in club fights, all to no avail. It’s only when Mountain apologizes in all sincerity for losing that night’s fight that Maish’s anger dissipates and is replaced by something resembling genuine sympathy for the man he has overseen for the last fourteen years. For the moment, anyway.
Out in the lobby, Maish and Army engage in a quick conversation with Mr. Pirelli, a wresting promoter with a hot dog in each hand and a voice that sounds as if he is gargling a handful of gravel. Pirelli will reenter the story in an impactful way a little later, and was played by future two-time Twilight Zone visitor Stanley Adams who was Buster Keaton’s foil, Rollo, in “Once Upon a Time” and Jensen the bartender in “Mr. Garrity and the Graves.”
The scene shifts to a hotel bar, a spot popular with ex-boxers that Maish refers to as “the graveyard” on account of the way that, as Mountain tells it, “these guys spend their time dying in here, fighting their lives away inside their heads.” One-time undisputed light-heavyweight champion of the world Maxie Rosenbloom is the pug with the fedora and flattened nose holding court, regaling the congregation of former fighters circled around him with an animated play-by-play of an evening in the ring that didn’t turn out too well for him when he ducked under two lefts thrown by his opponent but failed to get out of harm’s way a third time. Dating back to 1923, ‘Slapsie Maxie’ (a nickname bestowed onto him by famed journalist Damon Runyon due to Rosenbloom’s chummy demeanor and open-handed style of boxing) was a veteran of no fewer than 272 professional prizefights, winning 207 of them. These statistics are nothing short of staggering, inconceivable by today’s understandably precautionary standards. After Maxie hung up the mitts for good in 1932, he made a pretty decent living as an actor with almost 80 credits to his name in everything from The Boogey Man Will Get You with Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre to playing middleweight legend Stanley Ketchel in Irish Eyes Are Smiling to Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops to The Munsters to I Dream of Jeannie.
Max Baer can be easily spotted at the forefront of the group of beat-up pugs egging Maxie on, one of whom was played by Frank Richards, later to appear in the Twilight Zone episode “Mr. Dingle, the Strong” featuring Burgess Meredith. Baer had been one of the revolving door heavyweight champions of the early 1930s, having won the title from Primo Carnera in a sorry spectacle that resembled a mid-card wrestling match rather than a heavyweight championship bout, then promptly losing it to ‘Cinderella Man’ Jim Braddock almost exactly one year later to the day. Hollywood’s siren song beckoned to Baer as well, and Max’s humble show biz gig began with 1933’s The Prizefighter and the Lady, the lady in question being the beautiful Myrna Loy in the company of a grand total of three prizefighters, with Baer being joined by his future ring nemesis Primo Carnera as well as Jack Dempsey. His son, Max Jr., would gain acclaim among TV viewers by starring as Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies.
Army and Mountain are seated at the bar where they drink a toast to his 111 fights. “He wasn’t no good, but he never took a dive,” says Mountain before knocking back his shot. Ned Glass, another one of those “hardworking actors of the day,” is featured as the bartender. Glass’ extensive resume contains a pair of Twilight Zone appearances, as the refrigerator repairman in “The Midnight Sun” and the pawnbroker in “A Passage for Trumpet”, in addition to a guest spot on Rod Serling’s Night Gallery in a segment entitled “Operation Bingo.”
Maish shows up and wants to borrow what’s left of Mountain’s purse money from earlier that night. After everyone’s gotten their cut, it amounts to only $58 which Mountain is more than willing to hand over. But Maish is in hock for $3,000 because Mountain’s unforeseen expenses have been coming out of his own pocket, or so he serves up as a cheap excuse. Mountain, meanwhile, is grappling with suddenly finding himself “on the outside looking in,” trying to come to terms with the reality that his fighting days are over and that he has no rightful place alongside Maish and Army but knowing that he also must resist becoming one of the walking dead who haunt the bar’s “graveyard.”
As soon as Mountain leaves to go for a walk and clear his head, Army guesses immediately why Maish needs the money so badly and how exactly he lost it, and the crooked manager confirms his supposition. If it isn’t abhorrent enough that Maish bet against Mountain, he admits that he found it inconceivable that he would last three rounds with 18-0 Jack Gibbons. Mr. Henson’s goon turns up again, this time giving Maish two weeks to come up with the money or face the consequences. Army makes it very clear that his allegiance lies with Mountain, asking Maish why he stays involved with this sport if it has corrupted him so absolutely. “Sport? If there was headroom, they’d hold ‘em (boxing matches) in sewers,” sneers Maish venomously.
The following day, Army accompanies Mountain to an employment office where a pretty and empathetic social worker named Grace Carney tries in earnest to find a respectable vocation for this needful ninth grade dropout from Kennesaw, Tennessee seated before her, a 33 year-old prizefighter of fourteen years who never took a dive in 111 bouts and was once the fifth-ranked heavyweight in the whole world when Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, and Jersey Joe Walcott still prowled around the top of the division. It is very telling that Mountain’s primary objective is finding a job, any job, that will enable him to help ease Maish’s financial woes, whereas his manager’s motives are purely self-involved.
Grace’s good intentions result in an embarrassing gaffe when she attempts to reassure Mountain by explaining that she had previously worked with disfigured veterans of the war who had “special problems.” About to exit her office, Mountain turns back and proudly declares, “I got no special problems. You see, there wasn’t any room down on that sheet to put I was almost the heavyweight champion of the world. I’m a big ugly slob and I look like a freak, but…you know, I’d like to put that down on that piece of paper. This is no punk. This is the guy who was almost the heavyweight champion of the world.” He slams both fists down on Grace’s desk for emphasis and hurts his hand. He assuages Grace’s concern by confessing that pain is something he’s gotten used to. Now, he confesses, it’s “like an old friend.” Grace looks utterly devastated when she watches Mountain walk away after promising to find him something he will like. “You do that, miss, because I don’t want very much,” he mutters pitiably. “You see, all I want is the heavyweight championship of the world.”
The part of Grace Carney is played by the lovely and very talented Kim Hunter, who made her screen debut in The Seventh Victim, a 1943 thriller from RKO producer Val Lewton, and is best remembered as Stella to Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski in the stage and screen versions of A Streetcar Named Desire, as well as Zira to Roddy McDowall’s Cornelius in the first three Planet of the Apes films. Her career briefly hit the skids when hers was one of the names named by Streetcar director Elia Kazan during his notorious 1952 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but rebounded thanks to offers for more or less consistent television work. A handful of these were teleplays written by Rod Serling, the first of which was 1955’s “Portrait in Celluloid” for the Climax! series, followed by “Requiem”, the Emmy-winning “The Comedian” costarring Mickey Rooney, and “The Dark Side of the Earth”, all for Playhouse 90.
“Every script I did of his was really beautifully put together. Just marvelous,” Hunter later enthused about Serling. “He was such a good writer. I miss him. He loved to write, clearly.” She recalled, on a separate occasion, the time she got to reconnect with him on the Planet of the Apes set. “Rod came by once, yes…it was the courtroom scene,” she recalled. “Of course, it wasn’t his script anymore. He had done the original script and they reworked it into what we ended up with…I liked him.”
Serling had misgivings about the way the caring social worker came across in “Requiem”, through no fault of Kim Hunter. “The character of the girl, Grace, probably could have been better drawn,” he admitted. “She’s quite understandable up to a point, but I imagine an audience should be told more explicitly why she felt a compulsion to…help a broken-down fighter. Her compassion was not misplaced when Mountain came to her, but it’s a moot question as to whether or not compassion in itself could have made her feel obligated…to follow through on what is really just another unemployment case.”
Hunter concurs with what has often been pointed out, which is that one of Serling’s shortcomings as a writer was an inability to fully flesh out his female characters. “He always sort of underwrote women in the scripts he had done,” Kim acknowledged. She went on to talk about how she had discussed this dilemma with him and that Serling owned up to it. “He said, ‘Yes, I know that. But I trust you women to put in what I don’t put in, and it all becomes alive.’ Whatever was going on emotionally with the woman, the woman herself would present it rather than Rod trying to write it.”
Back at the hotel, Maish comes clean to Army about his plan to partner with the wrestling promoter, Mr. Pirelli, and have Mountain make the rounds of the grunt and grapple circuit as Harlan McClintock ‘The Mountaineer’ with a suitably ridiculous outfit to compliment his gimmick. While Maish paces around the room giving a self-aggrandizing speech about how having a full stomach is worth sacrificing one’s pride for, all Army can say as he repeatedly shuffles a deck of cards is, “Hey Maish, you stink.”
Mountain is so engrossed in ‘Slapsie’ Maxie’s lively reverie that he hasn’t even noticed Grace standing right beside him at the bar until everyone else does and the ghosts in the “graveyard” suddenly and eerily go silent at the trespassing of a woman upon their domain. She asks Mountain whether he would consider working with children, which is something that Rod Serling had done as a young man when he served as a counselor at a swimming camp for kids while attending Antioch College with an eye toward a future in physical education. He also interned for a time as an attendant at a hospital for rheumatic children.
Grace counteracts Mountain’s reluctance with some tough but well-meaning affirmation, then catches him off guard by asking if they can have a beer together and listen to some music on the jukebox. Completely but delightfully disarmed, Mountain confesses that the only song he is really familiar with is the “National Anthem” because they play it before every main event. There was, however, one boxer he remembers fondly named Smiley Collins who could “knock down a wall with his right hand” but also paradoxically played the violin.
Grace is enjoying Mountain’s company, but is sad that every topic of conversation, including a childhood trip down memory lane regarding his father, inevitably circles back around to boxing. “There isn’t much else is there? Besides fighting?” she wonders aloud to Mountain. But she knows there is so much more that life has to offer this tragic, resilient man with cauliflower ears and a kind heart, even if his undying trust in Maish is clearly misplaced and not returned in kind. Mountain hails Grace a cab, and their parting is a heart-tugging goodbye scene with director Ralph Nelson allowing the shot to linger on the contemplative, lovestruck boxer watching the taxi pull away.
Maish, Army, and Mr. Pirelli are awaiting Mountain’s arrival back at the hotel, and Mr. Henson places a call to Maish as a not-so-friendly reminder to make good on his past-due payment. All Mountain wants to do is discuss his date with Miss Carney, but Pirelli is eager to get down to business. Trying to make Mountain get a grasp on the workings of the wrestling racket is a difficult proposition, not least of all because his pride will not allow him to lay down for an opponent in accordance with pro wrestling’s pre-determined “one night you win, the next night the other guy wins” ethos.
The way Maish sees it, however, Mountain’s participation in the following evening’s wrestling card is a foregone conclusion. “I figure you owe me. How do you figure?” he reprimands the browbeaten boxer. Ed Wynn’s delivery of Army’s subsequent lecture to Maish is incredibly moving. “He’s a decent man. He’s a man with a heart,” he says in Mountain’s defense. “He’s somebody with flesh and blood. You can’t sell this on the market by the pound. Because if you do, Maish, if you do you’ll rot in the gutter for it.” Army accepts Maish’s offer to be in Mountain’s corner for the wrestling match, if only to ensure that the man he genuinely cares for is not made a fool of, but why it is that “so many people have to feed off one guy’s misery” is something he simply cannot come to terms with. “Tell me Maish,” he implores, “doesn’t it make you want to die?”
Having promised to give Maish an advance on his salary for Mountain’s wrestling debut, Pirelli is conferring with a pair of grapplers in the dressing room who are working out the choreographed sequence of maneuvers for their bout which is next up on the card. Ted Christy and Ivan Rasputin not only played professional wrestlers on TV, both of them had been performing in the squared circle since the 1930s.
Born Hyman Max Fishman to Ukrainian Jews who had fled Eastern Europe and settled in Chelsea, Massachusetts, Rasputin first employed ring monikers which incorporated his given name (Hymie Fishman, Max Fishman) before merging the despotic first tsar of Russia with the Siberian mystic who played a sinister role in the termination of the Romanov dynasty into one fiendish personality for the creation of his gimmick as Ivan ‘The Terrible’ Rasputin. He was well ahead of the curve with regard to drawing heat with fans by way of portraying a Russian villain the way Ivan and Nikita Koloff, Boris Zhukov, and Nikolai Volkoff would exploit America’s xenophobic fears during the Cold War. Even my uncle, Felix Szczygiel (of Polish lineage), got in on the act by assuming the identity of Boris Sinkoff ‘The Russian Cosmonaut’ during his short-lived professional wrestling career on the Long Island independent circuit in the 1970s.
A two-time Pacific Coast heavyweight champion, Ivan Rasputin competed for the world title on three occasions, all losses. His first shot came opposite Bruno Nagurski in 1938 when there was only one unified world champion, followed by two cracks at the prestigious NWA (National Wrestling Alliance) title, against Orville Brown and the legendary Lou Thesz. He has only two other acting credits to his name, 1949’s Mighty Joe Young in which he had a bit part as a strongman, and the Gary Cooper film Friendly Persuasion (released a month and a half after “Requiem” aired) that saw Rasputin once again take on the role of a wrestler, this one named Billy Goat.
Ted Christy’s journey through the world of professional wrestling would span four decades by the time all was said and done in 1967. A journeyman who lost more matches than he won, Christy would claim his only title belt while working a five-month stint in Hawaii between November 1961 and April 1962, twice sharing their regional version of the NWA tag team championship with his partner, Shoulders Newman. Over the course of his career, Christy had the opportunity to work high-profile programs with some of the more recognizable names in the wrestling business of that era, going toe to toe with the likes of Gene LeBell, Bobo Brazil, Fritz von Erich, Stu Hart, Larry Hennig, Nick Bockwinkel, Ernie Ladd, Giant Baba, Edouard Carpentier, and even former heavyweight boxing champion Primo Carnera. In the Twilight Zone episode “What’s in the Box”, Christy played the part of The Wild Panther who was engaged in fisticuffs with The Russian Duke in the wrestling match that William Demarest’s character, Joe Britt, is watching on television.
Aside from their staged tussle in “Requiem for a Heavyweight”, Ted Christy and Ivan Rasputin squared off against one another three times in the ring that I was able to verify. After wrestling to a draw in St. Louis in March 1951, they returned to the Gateway to the West two weeks later to stand in opposite corners for a six-man tag team match in which Christy’s squad emerged victorious. Following a two-year absence from one another, the two would resume hostilities in Los Angeles with Rasputin defeating Christy in a singles bout. Coincidentally, Ted Christy and Ivan Rasputin died exactly two weeks apart from each other in September 1976.
As for Harlan McClintock ‘The Mountaineer’, he instantly regrets that he looks like “a clown” in his ring gear and is read the riot act by Maish who inadvertently blurts out that he lost his money betting against Mountain. Turning on Maish, Mountain calls him a “dirty, lousy fink.” The notion of having to enter a boxing ring “barehanded against a guy with a cleaver” wouldn’t hurt as much, he insists, as the shame of going through with this charade. When Army tries to apologize to Mountain for his role in the duplicity, the boxer turns and slugs his loyal trainer in a blind rage. “I had it coming to me,” Army consoles a conscience-stricken Mountain. “Take what precious little you’ve got left and go.”
Army meets with Grace outside the hotel bar, handing her a one-way ticket to Kennesaw, Tennessee for her to pass on to Mountain who is inside, lurking uncertainly around the perimeter of specters telling ghost stories in “the graveyard.” While she isn’t necessarily sure that she loves him, she confesses to Army that “I feel so sorry for him, though, I could cry.” Grace gives Mountain the train ticket and a kiss on the cheek, assuring him that home may or may not be in Kennesaw but “wherever it is, it’s not over there,” motioning toward “the graveyard.” Mountain sheepishly returns her kiss on the cheek and tells Grace, “Thanks for not running away.”
A young boy on the train, played by Charles Herbert who would later appear on The Twilight Zone as little Tom Rogers with the robotic grandmother in Ray Bradbury’s “I Sing the Body Electric”, identifies Mountain as a prizefighter by his cauliflower ears. Initially uncomfortable with the attention, Mountain quickly warms to the boy and, as “Requiem” comes to a close, the two begin to bond as he teaches the youngster how to maintain proper form while throwing a punch.
The Twilight Zone would often take into consideration how one of its denizens treated children and, conversely, how innocent and impressionable little ones responded to them, as a sort of moral measuring stick by which their value as human beings was assessed. I am thinking here of Ed Wynn’s pitchman Lew Bookman in “One for the Angels”, Orson Bean as the zither-music-loving oddball “Mr. Bevis”, Carol Burnett’s klutzy movie theater usherette Agnes Grep in “Cavender is Coming”, and a good-hearted but skeptical prizefighter named Bolie Jackson played by Ivory Dixon in “The Big, Tall Wish.” By those virtuous standards, Mountain McClintock passes Serling’s respectability test with flying colors.
Nervously pacing while chain smoking and guzzling coffee the entire time, Rod Serling watched the Playhouse 90 production of “Requiem for a Heavyweight” at the Westport, Connecticut home of his friends, the Bergs. “Unfortunately, the final act of ‘Requiem’ is the weakest,” observed Serling, ever his own worst critic. “I think the train sequence with the little boy spelled out the finish too blithely and too patly. The play should have ended when Mountain leaves Grace and heads for the railroad station. To have carried it a step beyond this was unnecessary and diluting. I had always had qualms about this scene but was willing to let it go in the hope that it would play better than it read. Unhappily, it was as anticlimactic as I feared.”
Overall, however, Serling was very pleased with how well his teleplay translated from page to screen. “Unquestionably every script must gain something from its visual performance. But ‘Requiem’ was luckier than most,” he remarked. “It had the benefit of creative direction and superb acting performances—and how much do you pay for this on the market? There just isn’t any price tag big enough.”
Jack Palance in particular was singled out for considerable accolades by the writer. “His interpretation left nothing to be desired,” Serling wrote about Palance’s portrayal of his story’s protagonist. “His was the incoherent inarticulate yearning and hunger to belong to something he didn’t understand. Here was the heart-rending picture of a misfit battered into a shapeless ugliness and yet possessing a simplicity, a humility and the kind of beauty that comes with decency. All this Jack Palance gave to Mountain McClintock.”
Born in 1919 in the mining town of Lattimer, Pennsylvania to Ukrainian immigrants named Ivan and Anna, the identification on Palance’s birth certificate reads Volodymir Ivanovich Palahniuk. Before moving on to attend Hazle Township High School, he entered a local boxing contest at the age of fourteen and tied for first place with a boy three years his senior. He was the recipient of a football scholarship to the University of North Carolina, but dropped out after just one year to go home and work in the coal mines like his father Ivan before him.
At some point in between leaving North Carolina and arriving back in Pennsylvania, Palahniuk evidently made a detour to Louisville, Kentucky where he began preparing for a career in boxing under the guidance of Max Novich. A graduate of UNC, Novich was then studying for his bachelor’s degree in Medical Sciences at the University of Louisville. He would later give boxing lessons to troops going through basic training during World War II and become a pioneer in the area of sports medicine, advocating for safer measures to protect prizefighters, such as the use of thumbless gloves and the ability of a certified ringside physician to stop a fight. Later that year, the 6-foot-3, nearly 200-pound Palahniuk returned to Hazleton and changed his name to Jack Brazzo, boxing as an amateur against local club fighters between late 1939 and April 1940 and reportedly winning twelve out of thirteen bouts, all by way of knockout.
Jack Brazzo’s first professional fight would turn out to also be his last. On December 17, 1940 at the Westchester County Center in White Plains, New York, Brazzo came out on the short end of a four-round decision against Joe Baksi. Also hailing from Pennsylvania (Marion Heights in his case) and having done an almost obligatory tour of duty down in the mines, Baksi was competing that night in the tenth of what would be seventy-three career bouts, compiling a 61-9-3 record. Baksi won two out of three fights against top heavyweight contender Lee Savold in 1944 and later battered Freddie Mills so badly that the ill-fated Brit was forced to surrender on his stool on his home soil. However, Baksi would drop a wide decision to Jersey Joe Walcott, and ask referee Ruby Goldstein to call a halt to his bout with soon-to-be heavyweight champion Ezzard Charles after eleven rounds as he was no longer able to see out of his swollen left eye. All things considered, Baksi is best known for ending the boxing career of the man we know and love as Jack Palance.
“I got a broken nose and, in my last fight, I was punched in the Adam’s apple and I couldn’t speak for a week,” Palance later recalled when discussing his abbreviated pursuit of prizefighting. “You must be nuts to get your head beat in for $200. The theater seemed a lot more appealing.” Thirty-five years before celebrating his Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor as Curly in City Slickers by doing one-armed pushups on stage at the age of 73, “Requiem for a Heavyweight” would earn Jack Palance the first formal recognition of his thespic talents courtesy of an Emmy award for Best Single Performance by an Actor.
Palance’s was one of six wins for “Requiem” at the 1957 Emmys, the others being for Best Single Program, Best New Program Series for Playhouse 90, Best Direction One Hour or More for Ralph Nelson, and Best Art Direction One Hour or More for Albert Heschong. Last but certainly not least, Rod Serling won his second Emmy for Best Teleplay Writing, and was subsequently presented with a Peabody Award, the first ever given out by that foundation in recognition of exemplary television writing.
“There are certain pieces that you write that a piece of the flesh goes with it,” mused Serling. “And, in my case, ‘Requiem’ was probably the one.”
Linda Brevelle. Rod Serling: The Facts of Life (May 27, 1976—accessed through the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation website at https://rodserling.com/rod-serlings-final-interview/)
Seymour “Sy” Brody. Max. M. Novich: The Dean Of Sports Medicine (Jewish Heroes and Heroines in America, accessed at
Clarence George. Jack Palance: A Backseat to Baksi (boxing.com, August 6, 2014)
Ralph Nelson, writer and director. The Man in the Funny Suit (Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, April 15, 1960)
Nicholas Parisi. Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination (University Press of Mississippi, 2018)
Professional Boxing Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Eighty-Sixth Congress, Second Session (United States Government Printing Office Washington, 1960)
Gordon Sander. The Rise and Twilight of Television’s Last Angry Man (Dutton, 1992)
Rod Serling. Patterns (Simon and Schuster, 1957)
Rod Serling. Requiem for a Heavyweight (directed by Ralph Nelson, Playhouse 90, October 11, 1956)
Tom Weaver. Woman of the Apes (Starlog magazine #213, April 1995)
1956 Emmy Award Nominees and Winners (https://www.emmys.com/awards/nominees-winners/1956)
Jack Palance: His Extraordinary Life (Jerry Skinner Documentary, August 28, 2018, accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ESpluoz-iJg)
Kim Hunter on Rod Serling (Archive of American Television, accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhXaRvvFtLs)
Boxing Scene Forum (https://www.boxingscene.com/forums/showthread.php?t=458393)
Cage Match Internet Wrestling Database (https://www.cagematch.net)
Wrestling Scout (https://sites.google.com/site/wrestlingscout)