“In the television seasons of 1952 and 1953, almost every television play I sold to the major networks was ‘non-controversial,’” Rod Serling commented in 1957. “This is to say that in terms of their themes they were socially inoffensive, and dealt with no current human problem in which battle lines might be drawn.” It wouldn’t stay this way for very long.
In a concession to upward mobility, Rod and Carol Serling moved to Westport, Connecticut with their firstborn daughter Jodi in the latter part of 1954. This living situation represented the best of both worlds, allowing Serling to largely retain the small town sensibilities he cherished so dearly with the reassurance that New York City and the necessary evil of its hustling and bustling boardrooms was merely a little over an hour away.
While we’re on the topic of career advancement and corporate America, Serling’s teleplay “Patterns” would prove to be a game changer for the frustrated writer. Airing live on NBC’s Kraft Television Theatre the evening of January 12, 1955 and starring Richard Kiley, Everett Sloane, Ed Begley, and Elizabeth Montgomery, “Patterns” was an impassioned, scathing indictment of the manner in which commercial enterprise can crush the soul of a virtuous man, its ruthless machinery slowly but gradually grinding down his will to live.
To say that “Patterns” was well-received would be a strenuous exercise in understatement. In Serling’s own words, “One minute after the show went off the air my phone started to ring. It has been ringing ever since. There are two ways for a writer to achieve success,” he elaborated. “One is the long haul, the establishing of a record of consistent quality in his work. The other way is the so-called overnight success, charged and generated by a single piece of writing that captures the imagination and the fancy of the public and the critics. ‘Patterns’ was that kind of piece.”
In an unprecedented move to satisfy public demand, NBC reassembled cast and crew on February 9 to broadcast an encore performance. “Patterns” earned Serling his first Emmy award, and he would adapt his teleplay into a motion picture the following year with Van Heflin inheriting the lead role of Fred Staples from Richard Kiley. No longer was Rod Serling flying under the radar. Staying aloft in rarefied air, however, would be a struggle unto itself, one which would see Serling join the ranks of television’s angry young men in the company of Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose, Horton Foote, and Robert Alan Arthur.
Richard Grossman was an editor at Simon and Schuster who assisted Serling with the 1957 publication of Patterns which compiled the titular teleplay along with “The Rack”, “Old MacDonald Had a Curve”, and “Requiem for a Heavyweight.” An astute observer, Grossman had boxed in college and drew a direct parallel between Serling’s intensity and that of the prizefighter. “He had the air of people I had known in boxing. There’s this special kind of alertness that boxers have, because of a need to anticipate where people are coming from. That carried into his social life,” commented Grossman. “His eyes moved like a boxer’s, for one thing. He bore right into you, which is why I think he became such an effective TV personality. When he stared into that camera, he was really looking at you. And, of course, there’s something about little boxers. They’re associated with fast-moving, feisty little things, and he certainly was that. He was a feisty little guy.”
CBS programmer Mike Dann concurred with Grossman’s assessment, adding, “When he got you in one of those eye locks of his, you knew you were in trouble.”
Courtesy of Ford Television Theatre, which had migrated from CBS to NBC in 1951, “Garrity’s Sons” was Serling’s first post-“Patterns” boxing story to be transmitted over the airwaves. Directed by thirteen-time Ford Television Theatre contributor Fred F. Sears, “Garrity’s Sons” was broadcast on March 24, 1955 while Serling was still the toast of the town. The story opens in a gym as trainer Rory Garrity calls “time!” to signal the end of his newest fighter Chick Charleston’s sparring session. Chick is played by Abel Fernandez, who would go on to score a role as a series regular on The Untouchables television show as Agent William Longfellow, while Rory was portrayed by, well, Rory Calhoun. Having already been featured in 1945’s The Great John L. as James J. Corbett, the first fighter to win the heavyweight championship under the newly adopted Marquees of Queensbury rules by beating John L. Sullivan in 1892, and as a sparing partner to George Raft’s Tony Angelo in Nob Hill the very next month, Calhoun would also have a major part to play in Serling’s next boxing project, “Champion”, as well as a cameo in the film version of Requiem for a Heavyweight. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Rory sends Chick to the showers and immediately becomes incensed at an onlooker’s favorable comparison between Charleston and Rory’s estranged kid brother Steve, a top-rated light-heavyweight whom he used to train. Rory insists that Steve could have “cut off an arm and KO’d him”, meaning Chick. Before he can get to the locker room, Rory is stopped yet again, this time by a manager with an aging perennial heavyweight contender named Sammy in tow, looking for a trainer who can perhaps prolong Sammy’s slow stay of execution in the fight racket. An indignant Rory suggests instead that the manager “take him to a good doctor and have his head examined.” In an effort to knock Rory off his high horse, the manager reminds him that Steve was one of the dirtiest fighters in the business, which only infuriates Rory further. He finishes off his rude brush off of the pair by turning his misdirected anger on Sammy. “The closest I want to see you to a ring is in the third row, eating popcorn,” Rory declares before literally and figuratively slamming the door on the conversation.
While we may be done with the character of Sammy, we will get to revisit the man who portrayed him in a future installment. Charles Horvath, another one of those “hardworking actors of the day” (with a wink and nod to Tom Elliot of The Twilight Zone Podcast), will warrant further discussion when we get around to covering The Twilight Zone’s boxing episodes. Horvath appeared in “The Big, Tall Wish” as Bolie Jackson’s opponent, Joey Consiglio. But again, first thing’s first.
Back in the locker room, Rory attempts to convince Chick, who has only three bouts—all wins—on his professional record, to walk away from boxing, “without weaving” he adds. Chick wants no part of being assigned the reputation of a quitter. “Guy by the name of Tunney quit,” says Rory. “Nobody’s calling him any names. Not to his face.” Chick good-naturedly points out that Tunney retired as a champion and that they can pick up this subject again when he himself has a title. Sensing the motivation behind Rory’s request, Chick intuitively but gently responds that “they don’t all turn out like Steve.”
Rory opens up to Chick regarding his brother who, he confesses, went from being as contrite as a professional fighter can be, holding out his gloves apologetically toward an opponent at any perceived infraction on his part, to a back-handing “heel in the ring and out of it” within two years. “Every time he got hit,” says Rory, “a little of the niceness got punched out of him.”
Rory comes home to find out from his father (James Bell, from Val Lewton’s classic 1940s chillers I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man) that Steve, who has been staging a comeback and boxing out of Pittsburgh, will be arriving shortly thanks to the train fare that their forgiving-to-a-fault Pop sent to him. “Our Stevie knows three things,” Rory shouts at Pop, trying to make the old man see the error of his ways. “How to fight dirty, how to pick up the most expensive dames, and the cheapest bottles.” He harshly offers to pay for Steve’s train fare himself, but only in the probable event that it is to transport his dead body that has been picked up out of an alley.
Played by May Wynn (The Caine Mutiny), Peggy enters the room as Rory and Pop engage in their verbal tug-of-war. We soon learn that Peggy has been romantically involved with both Garrity boys. Steve was her childhood crush and first love until they got serious and he became abusive and skipped town, whereupon she presumably turned to Rory for emotional support which led to their current engagement. Peg has made a series of flimsy excuses to put off their wedding, but Rory is well aware that she still carries a flame for his no-good little brother. As wrong as she knows her impulses to be, she holds out some hope that Steve can once again become the “guy with a dream” she fell for in the first place.
The tension is ratcheted up when the prodigal son returns, much to the delight of his father and annoyance of his brother. Steve asks Rory to train him for a run at a title shot, but his brother reminds him of the fact that he walked out on their contract so that he could be represented by an obviously mob-controlled syndicate. Rory also rubs it in Steve’s face that their father’s devotion to him is nonreciprocal, evidenced by his absence during Pop’s serious illness because he was holed up with “one of your bargain basement babes and a couple of bottles.” All of that Rory could forgive, but not what Steve did to Peggy. Incidentally, Steve is portrayed by Vince Edwards, who would later star in the title role of the Ben Casey television series from 1961-66.
When Pop fetches her, Peggy almost immediately becomes locked in an amorous embrace with Steve who then proceeds to lay out Rory with a short left hook to the liver and another to the jaw after being called “a dirty, lousy crumb-bum.” It’s Rory, however, who gets in the parting shot by admonishing Steve for his inability to use a problem-solving method that doesn’t involve his fists and that he is “covered in dirt” because of it. “Just don’t let it get on you two,” he says with a sideways glance toward both Pop and Peg before exiting the room.
A newspaper headline reports that the Garrity brothers will be in opposite corners when Steve is matched against Rory’s fighter, Chick Charleston. Conventional wisdom predicts that this is a 50/50 fight, what with Chick being younger and hungrier but Steve enjoying the advantage in experience, not to mention the bag of tricks he carries into the ring. Peg tells Rory that her relationship with Steve stands a chance only if he loses the bout against Chick so that he can bow out of the fight game on his own terms and take the job that her boss has offered him. If he wins, Peggy insists that it’s over between them, but Rory isn’t buying it for a second. He knows all to well that she is stuck on him whatever transpires. She asks whether Rory can find his way to forgiving his brother, to which he coldly and succinctly responds, “Let’s put it this way. No.”
Visiting Rory in his office at the gym, Steve inquires as to how good a fighter Chick is and then begs to have him take a dive, just as Scotty Beckitt had requested of his former manager Googy prior to his bout against the hot prospect Andy Pinella in “The Twilight Rounds.” Same as Scotty did, Steve impresses upon his brother the importance of him looking good in this fight with the window of opportunity closing rapidly. Steve’s admission of guilt regarding past transgressions seems sincere, as he breaks down his primal mindset for Rory in easy to understand terminology. “Punch, hit, bleed, that’s all I knew.” He switches gears, assuring Rory that he will attempt to win the fight on his own merit, but asks that he instruct Chick to focus his attack on head shots rather than body blows, which he is particularly susceptible to.
Rory sends Steve away with the promise that he will think about it but, in the locker room on fight night, he specifically informs Chick about his brother’s vulnerable midsection and tells him to hurt Steve bad as a personal favor. Sure enough, as the action picks up in the third round, Chick works Steve’s body over and then comes back upstairs with a right cross which floors him. Steve regains his footing, but not for long. Chick continues an ambidextrous body assault before dislodging Steve’s mouthpiece with a left hook that sends Steve slumping to the canvas yet again. The bout is mercifully halted in the next round.
The denouement of “Garrity’s Sons” takes place where we started, back in the gym where a solemn, busted-up Steve knew he would find Rory after the fight is over. He confesses not only that he is washed up but that Peggy came clean about her talk with Rory. He understands, and is thankful for, why events played out as they did, ultimately for his own good. “I wish I could’ve taken that beatin’ for you,” says Rory. Steve, aware of how visibly Rory is losing a wrestling match with his emotions, replies, “Looks like you did take it.” The two Garrity boys stroll off with their arms around one another’s shoulders and head home for what Peggy is calling a victory party.
With television enjoying its Golden Age, the number of U.S. households boasting at least one set skyrocketed from less than 10,000 in 1945 to nearly 60 million by the end of the 50s. Anthology programs became exceedingly popular, offering the rapidly multiplying number of viewers original programming as well as unique takes on familiar source material featuring a rotating cast of actors, directors, and writers testing their mettle in varying genres.
Rod Serling made the most of this opportunity as often as humanly possible. It took only one week to the day from the airing of “Garrity’s Sons” for his follow-up boxing-themed story to be broadcast on network TV. Shown on CBS’ Climax! series at 8:30 pm the evening of March 31, 1955, “Champion” was Serling’s adaptation of the short story by revered sports columnist and humorist Ring Lardner, who is probably best known for his 1916 baseball novel You Know Me Al. Published that same year in Metropolitan magazine, “Champion” tells the tale of an unscrupulous prizefighter named Midge Kelly.
Serling’s dramatized version of Lardner’s story was, of course, not the first. His was preceded by the 1949 feature film, with a script from Carl Foreman who would soon after win great acclaim for High Noon but feel the wrath of the Hollywood blacklist, in which Midge was portrayed by relative newcomer and first-time Academy Award nominee Kirk Douglas. The 1950 statuette was taken home instead by Lon Chaney Jr.’s old drinking buddy Broderick Crawford for All the King’s Men. Interestingly, the Twilight Zone classic “To Serve Man” features a stock footage sequence of Times Square with a billboard advertising the Kirk Douglas movie visible in the background.
Fresh off of his starring turn in “Garrity’s Sons”, Rory Calhoun returned to assume the role of Midge Kelly in Serling’s “Champion.” While he is training for his upcoming heavyweight title defense against top contender Jack Riley, Midge’s life story is told through a series of flashbacks during an interview given to a newspaperman by his manager Jerome Harris (Ray Collins, who played Charles Foster Kane’s gubernatorial opponent Jim W. Gettys in Citizen Kane). Harris feeds the reporter a heaping helping of baloney, making Midge out to be more virtuous than a choirboy. The truth of the matter, however, will soon be revealed. The journalist is played by John Craven, who would later be featured in the Serling-scripted Twilight Zone cautionary tale “The Old Man in the Cave” as well as a sheriff in one episode of Rod’s short-lived western series, The Loner, which was titled “The Ordeal of Bud Windom.”
Midge’s upbringing was anything but ideal. As a young boy, he lived in a run-down tenement on the south side of Chicago with his little brother Connie and their tormentor of a father. An inebriate and ne’er do well, the Kelly patriarch by the name of Bunko was played by popular character actor Wallace Ford, whose specialty was wisecracking semi-tough guys like the ones he personified in such varied fare as Tod Browning’s controversial 1932 sideshow film Freaks, a pair of Universal Mummy sequels, the fantastic 1949 pugilistic film noir The Set-Up, Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Harvey with Jimmy Stewart, and The Great John L.
While Lardner cast Midge Kelly as an irredeemable scoundrel from the outset of his story, Serling’s narrative takes an interesting detour. He opts to instead reconcile the cruelty exhibited by the motherless Midge by suggesting that the fighter is merely repeating the cycle of terrible behavior learned from his father. Lardner’s story begins with seventeen year-old Midge, whose real name is Michael, knocking his crippled brother Connie out of his wheelchair for the half-dollar he’s holding and, conceivably, just for the fun of it. When their mother Ellen returns home from her shift at Faulkner’s Steam Laundry (the name is simply a coincidence, as William Faulkner was only nineteen when Lardner’s story first appeared and wouldn’t publish his first novel, Soldier’s Pay, for another decade) and discovers Connie lying on the floor, she confronts Midge who unconscionably punches her as well.
Curiously, there is no father present in Lardner’s story, and Serling again goes the opposite direction by omitting Ellen Kelly from his teleplay. Furthermore, while we are left to assume in Lardner’s story that Connie’s condition is most likely the result of an illness or birth defect, Rod includes in his script a sequence where Connie suffers debilitating injuries in a fall from their second-story apartment window in an attempt to flee from one of Bunko’s drunken, abusive outbursts.
After he becomes a boxer, Midge quickly finds that the paltry purse money earned from winning prelim bouts pales in comparison to the amounts of cash pressed into his palm for throwing fights, earning a spotty record and checkered reputation along the way. An association with manager Tommy Haley brings Midge some much needed legitimacy, accompanied by a full-on sprint toward the world title. Haley is played by Wally Brown, who in the recent past had been half of a comedy duo with Alan Carney. A sort of poor man’s Abbott and Costello, Brown and Carney beat that farcical pair to the punch in terms of playing opposite Bela Lugosi by appearing in two late-40s RKO flicks with the once and future Count Dracula called Zombies on Broadway and Genius at Work, both of which were light on the horror and debatably heavy on the humor.
No sooner does Midge attain the championship than he leaves his loyal manager in the lurch and cozies up to the wife of Haley’s replacement. Serling evidently made yet another alteration to Ring Lardner’s short story in which a character named Lou Hersch was a fight fan who befriends Midge and introduces the boxer to his sister Emma, fated to become the neglected Mrs. Kelly. In Serling’s iteration, Lou Hersch apparently becomes Midge’s second manager and Emma is now Lou’s wife, with whom Midge runs off after winning the heavyweight title.
Emma is portrayed in Serling’s “Champion” by Geraldine Brooks, an admirer of Katherine Hepburn who transitioned from the Broadway stage to the big screen, debuting in the 1947 film noir Possessed alongside Joan Crawford, Van Heflin, and Raymond Massey. From there, she would guest star on TV shows like Bonanza, The Fugitive, Gunsmoke, and two episodes of The Outer Limits among others. Shortly after her divorce from television writer Herbert Sargent (The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Saturday Night Live), Brooks married novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg whose outstanding 1947 boxing book The Harder They Fall (featuring a character named Toro Molina, who was a thinly-veiled caricature of former heavyweight champion Primo Carnera) was adapted nine years later into a film starring Humphrey Bogart in his last role. Schulberg also composed the screenplay for 1955’s On the Waterfront (in addition to the subsequent novel, simply titled Waterfront) which features Marlon Brando as a longshoreman and ex-boxer named Terry Malloy who memorably laments to his mobbed-up brother Charley, played by Rod Steiger, that “I coulda been a contender.”
Featuring Budd’s writing and Geraldine’s photographs, Brooks and Schulberg collaborated on a 1975 book entitled Swan Watch which chronicled the interactions they shared with their hissing, feathered friends Loh and Grin on the shore of Long Island Sound abutting the couple’s property in Quogue. Unfortunately, Brooks passed away two years later at the age of 51 from complications of cancer at Riverhead’s Central Suffolk Hospital, where my mother would receive her own terminal cancer diagnosis in 1998. Schulberg wasted little time remarrying, his fourth and final union, and was 95 when he died in 2009, hard at work on a script for a Joe Louis biopic which would have been directed by Spike Lee, as Budd told me not long before his passing.
Anger and rage, typically huge liabilities for a fighter during a bout as they cloud one’s judgment and thus impair the ability to think logically and act accordingly, seem to be Midge Kelly’s primary tools of the trade. They’ve gotten him all the way to the world title, so why shouldn’t he trust them to work in his favor against challenger Jack Riley?
Former heavyweight boxer Tommy Garland was selected to fill the role of Jack Riley. Originally from Newfoundland, Canada, Garland relocated to Culver City, California which allowed him to conveniently pull double duty as an actor and a prizefighter, with the vast majority of his bouts occurring in or around Santa Monica. Albeit against opposition of an unspectacular nature and with no shot at even a regional title to show for it, Garland accumulated a pretty impressive 45-14-5 record, with the distinction of never having been knocked out. His film resume boasts appearances in no less than eleven boxing movies from his debut in 1939’s Golden Boy to The Harder They Fall and Somebody Up There Likes Me, both released in 1956.
More or less cruising to victory over Riley, Midge becomes distracted by the sight of his brother Connie’s crutch propped up against his ringside seat which seems to stir up spontaneous feelings of remorse. Consequently, Midge is caught unawares and rendered defenseless, beaten so badly that he needs to be removed from the ring on a stretcher. His championship is not all he would forfeit, as he is conveyed to the dressing room where he expires from his injuries.
Connie, played by character actor Tommy Cook who is still with us and continuing to ply his trade at the age of 90, asks everyone gathered around the dressing room table, “Won’t someone cry for him?” Tellingly, no one can or will shed a tear. No one, that is, except for a now sober and repentant Bunko Kelly who learns of his son’s death in the newspaper.
The fate assigned to Midge Kelly in Rod Serling’s teleplay is another radical departure from Ring Lardner’s text, in which the conclusion is left open-ended and unresolved, terminating instead with the publication of the sportswriter’s misguided puff piece on the still very much alive boxer. Serling’s ending is also consistent with the type of cosmic justice that would be subsequently meted out in The Twilight Zone, “the middle ground” which “lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge,” where individuals whose trial by fire found them guilty of moral bankruptcy got their comeuppance in one unique way or another.
One of my favorite John Steinbeck passages can be found in his novel The Pastures of Heaven. In it, a wishful-thinking schoolteacher named Miss Morgan theorizes, “After the bare requisites to living and reproducing, man wants most to leave some record of himself, a proof, perhaps, that he has really existed. He leaves his proof on wood, on stone or on the lives of other people. This deep desire exists in everyone, from the boy who writes dirty words in a public toilet to the Buddha who etches his image in the race mind. Life is so unreal. I think that we seriously doubt that we exist and go about trying to prove that we do.”
Steinbeck’s universal truths surely resonate deeply within anyone who has ever undertaken an artistic or athletic endeavor and seen it through with the steadfast accompaniment of unbridled enthusiasm and gut-twisting anxiety. In relation to our ongoing discussion, these principles apply equally to the prizefighter as to the writer. Rod Serling expressed an inclination toward similar impulses in his preface to Patterns in 1957.
“No matter what a man or woman does for a living, it is part of the human mechanism to expect and need recognition of some sort. Beyond the security and the paycheck is the palpable hunger of a person to have an identity of his own,” pondered Serling. “This need, in a writer particularly, is probably more pronounced and yet less satisfied than the like needs of any other creative group in the arts.”
Rod Serling was, without question, fueled by a compulsive inner drive to become a writer of consequence and renown, and “Patterns” was one giant step in the right direction. If the teleplay itself was any indication, however, Serling strongly disapproved of the succeed-at-all-costs mentality, especially when it came in the form of climbing the rungs of the social ladder by stepping on the backs of others. This he had no tolerance for. He was determined to get ahead by keeping a stiff upper lip and diligently honing his craft, hammering out more scripts than the networks knew what to do with.
That show business is a fickle mistress is another thing Serling knew all too well, not to mention that he was going to have to summon the muses to conjure up something special to rival or hopefully surpass the sensation he caused with “Patterns.” The boxing gods would answer the bell, and that something special would materialize the following year in the guise of a story called “Requiem for a Heavyweight.”
(Rest period prior to Round Five…to be continued)
Ring Lardner. Champion (Esquire, July 1949)
Nicholas Parisi. Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination (University Press of Mississippi, 2018)
Gordon F. Sander. Serling: The Rise and Twilight of Television’s Last Angry Man (Dutton, 1992)
Rod Serling. “Garrity’s Sons,” directed by Fred F. Sears (Ford Television Theatre, March 24, 1955)
Rod Serling. Patterns (Simon and Schuster, 1957)
John Steinbeck. The Pastures of Heaven (Tower Books Edition, 1946)
Climax!: The Champion (The Paley Center for Media, accessed at https://www.paleycenter.org/collection/item/?q=rod+serling&p=12&item=T:16193)
The Physics Factbook: Number of Televisions in the US (https://hypertextbook.com/facts/2007/TamaraTamazashvili.shtml)