The Big, Tall Wish
“In this corner of the universe, a prizefighter named Bolie Jackson, 183 pounds and an hour and a half away from a comeback at St. Nick’s Arena,” Rod Serling begins the opening narration to “The Big, Tall Wish”, the twenty-seventh episode of The Twilight Zone broadcast on CBS, airing late in the series’ first season on the evening of April 8, 1960. “Mr. Bolie Jackson, who, by the standards of his profession is an aging, over-the-hill relic of what was, and who now sees a reflection of a man who has left too many pieces of his youth in too many stadiums for too many years before too many screaming people. Mr. Bolie Jackson, who might do well to look for some gentle magic in the hard-surfaced glass that stares back at him.”
In the approximate mold of Danny Fales, Scotty Beckitt, Steve Garrity, and Mountain McClintock before him, Bolie Jackson is one of Serling’s pugilistic also-rans. “Arms heavy, legs like rubber, short of wind, one eye almost gone, and there I go, running down the street trying to catch that bus to glory,” Bolie says about his fatalistic mindset. Whether it is mourning the passing of championship opportunities come and gone or pining away for chances that never presented themselves to begin with, these are common characteristics among Serling’s fallen heroes of the boxing world. Aside from the color of his skin, which certainly necessitates further discussion momentarily, there is one other major factor that distinguishes Bolie Jackson from the others.
Bolie’s lifeline, his primary source of support and encouragement, is not a caring social worker or a kind-hearted trainer or an estranged brother who has found his way to forgiveness, but a nine-year-old boy named Henry Temple who has been endowed by The Twilight Zone with the ability to make his wishes—the big, tall wish, specifically—come true. When and how he chooses to use this gift tells you everything you need to know about little Henry and his “good and close friend” Bolie and, for that matter, Rod Serling himself.
“When I see this episode years after it airs, long after my father died, I am struck by the tenderness of the relationship between Bolie and this little boy,” Rod’s daughter Anne Serling writes in her memoir. “The program, although sentimental, has an edge of steel and never glosses over the harsh reality of day-to-day survival for the poor and marginalized. In the end, it is the magic between this little boy and a down-and-out fighter that triumphs.”
“The writer’s role is to menace the public’s conscience,” Rod Serling proclaimed during a speech given at the Library of Congress in 1968. “He must have a position, a point of view. He must see the arts as a vehicle of social criticism and he must focus on the issues of his time.” The inspiration for developing The Twilight Zone originated with Serling after repeated run-ins with television executives and interference from network sponsors over the topical content of certain teleplays. The best example of this was Serling’s attempt to dramatize the murder of Emmett Till, which made already skittish decision makers especially uneasy.
A science fiction anthology program was the perfect Trojan horse, a vehicle enabling Serling to drive far-out tales right into viewers’ living rooms which were perfectly entertaining on a superficial level but contained contemporary allegories hidden within. On some occasions, the moral of the story could be delivered with a heavy hand, as Serling did deliberately like a punch to the solar plexus with episodes such as “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”, “The Shelter”, “Deaths-Head Revisited”, “I Am the Night, Color Me Black”, “The Gift”, and “He’s Alive.”
All things considered, Serling had come to the conclusion that “it was alright to have Martians saying things Democrats and Republicans could never say.” Commenting on how significantly he was forced to compromise his script for what was supposed to have been a hard-hitting political drama called “The Arena” for Studio One in 1956, Serling grumbled, “In retrospect, I probably would have had a much more adult play had I made it science fiction, put it in the year 2057, and peopled the Senate with robots.”
Needless to say, The Twilight Zone was so much more than just Martians and robots. The cautionary tales composed by Serling, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, George Clayton Johnson, Earl Hamner Jr. and other talented writers throughout the course of the show’s five seasons (Serling himself was responsible for 92 of 156 episodes) dealt with a variety of genres inhabited by creatures of unnatural or extraterrestrial origin as well as carbon-based human beings from all walks of life, including prizefighters. Of course, one of The Twilight Zone’s boxers happened to be a mechanized automaton, but we’ll get to that a little later. Right now, though, let’s get back to Bolie Jackson.
“You know, a fighter don’t need a scrapbook, Henry,” Bolie tells his faithful little admirer. “You want to know what he’s done, where he’s fought? You read it in his face. He’s got the whole story cut into his flesh.” Lost in self-reflection, Bolie verbally catalogs the inventory of painful physical reminders collected throughout his career. The ridged flesh above his right brow from a fight with Sailor Levitt in St. Louis in 1949, the crooked bridge of his flattened nose which was broken twice in the same bout at Syracuse’s Memorial Stadium by “an Italian boy, fought like Henry Armstrong, all hands and arms just like a windmill all over you”, a scar running the length of his right cheek from being raked by the laces of an opponent’s glove one night in Miami. All told, Bolie’s facial features comprise a topographical road map to the wasteland of discarded dreams.
Radio and television historian Martin Grams Jr. suggests in his comprehensive Twilight Zone volume Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic that Archie Moore was first cast in the role of Bolie Jackson but was replaced by Ivan Dixon. There is no mention of this in any of the books by or about ‘The Old Mongoose’, but “The Big, Tall Wish” was rehearsed and filmed on the MGM lot between February 19 and 26, 1960 which does coincide with Archie’s extended stay in Los Angeles to appear in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, playing the part of house slave and Huck’s travel companion Jim from Mark Twain’s classic novel. In fact, Moore was stripped of his light-heavyweight title in 1960 due to his prolonged ring inactivity. So, Grams’ claim is entirely within the realm of possibility.
Another tangential connection linking Moore to the fifth dimension is his supposedly having said of being on the receiving end of a knockdown during a title defense against Yvon Durelle, “Man, I was in The Twilight Zone.” Although Martin Grams Jr. is confused about the date and result—he reports it as a 1961 knockout loss at Durelle’s hands despite the fact that Archie was victorious in both bouts against New Brunswick’s ‘Fighting Fisherman’ by way of KO, in 1958 and ’59—I am assuming he meant Moore getting viciously cold-cocked by a right haymaker one minute into the first round of their first fight. “When Archie went down, I thought he was dead,” recalled Los Angeles Herald-Examiner sportswriter Bud Furillo about that first knockdown. Durelle would floor ‘The Old Mongoose’ twice more in the opening stanza and once again in the fifth, but would get sent to the deck four times himself, finally counted out by referee and former heavyweight champion Jack Sharkey in the eleventh round. Moore would proceed in putting Durelle away in the third round of their rematch eight months later. I couldn’t trace Archie’s Twilight Zone reference to an original source, but he could always be relied upon for a great quote or soundbite, and it certainly seems like something Moore would say, so I’m going to roll with it.
With an intense look that belies the youthful contours of his face, Henry snaps his fingers and hops down off Bolie’s dresser. He insists to the aging fighter, “you’ve been hurt enough” before saying that he is going to make a “big, tall wish” that will see Bolie through the fight he is getting ready to leave for. Henry’s mother Frances informs Bolie that she too was the recipient of the “big, tall wish” when, fifteen dollars behind on the rent, Henry worked his magic and a check soon arrived in the mail for exactly that amount from a woman she had provided nursing services for on Long Island.
As much as he obviously loves little Henry, taking him to ball games and for walks in the park, Bolie feels unworthy of the boy’s hero worship. “Scared old man who can’t remember nothing except how to bleed,” he says about himself to Henry’s mother. “I don’t fit no shrine, Frances.” Additionally, his own personal life experiences have hardened his resolve to the point where he is unable to reconcile a belief in anything he cannot see or feel or be wounded by. Not just by way of boxing, but thanks to the cruelty of the world at large, Bolie has had his dreams beaten out of him. As far removed as he is from the wonderment of childhood, it seems he has long since assessed hope, which is a valuable and necessary commodity for us all, to be a luxury he cannot afford.
“Little boys with their heads all filled up with dreams,” he bemoans. “When do they find out, Frances? When do they suddenly find out that there ain’t any magic? When does somebody push their face down on the sidewalk and say to them, ‘Hey, little boy, that’s concrete. That’s what the world is made out of. Concrete.’ When do they find out that you can wish a life away?”
Making his way toward St. Nick’s Arena past a small but enthusiastic congregation of well-wishers on the stoop and sidewalk in front of their apartment building, Bolie turns around to return the smile of Henry who looks down from the ledge of his second-floor window, secure in the knowledge that the “big, tall wish” is there for him to use if his friend needs it.
Now would be a good a time as any to talk about the fact that Bolie, Henry, Frances, and nearly the entire rest of the cast are African American. A production decision like this was considered unthinkable at the time and was an intentionally provocative choice on the part of Rod Serling. “Television, like its big sister the motion picture, has been guilty of a sin of omission,” he declared. “Hungry for talent, desperate for the so-called ‘new face’, constantly searching for a transfusion of new blood, it has overlooked a source of wondrous talent that resides under its nose. This is the Negro actor.”
While “The Big, Tall Wish” did indeed honestly portray the cultural marginalization of black people, it is also important to stress that Serling’s representation of African Americans was a refreshing counterpoint to the harmful stereotypes so prevalent then. In fact, Serling afforded his black characters a dignity their real-life counterparts would be denied by 1960s society. “I happen to think the singular evil of our time is prejudice,” proclaimed Serling. “It is from this evil that all other evils grow and multiply. In almost everything I’ve written, there is a thread of this: man’s seemingly palpable need to dislike someone other than himself.”
Just as Rod Serling venerated Joe Louis, so too did the star of “The Big, Tall Wish”, Ivan Dixon, who portrayed Bolie Jackson. “My idea of a hero was Joe Louis because he beat up white folks and because he did it with dignity, a kind of crude grace,” said Dixon, “the way he’d always step back a little before he bombed into them.” The Harlem-born Dixon appeared in both the stage and screen versions of A Raisin in the Sun opposite Sidney Poitier, with whom he became and remained fast friends. Ivan served as Poitier’s stunt double for The Defiant Ones and the two also appeared together in Something of Value, Porgy and Bess, and A Patch of Blue.
After “The Big, Tall Wish”, Dixon would return to The Twilight Zone as Reverend Anderson in “I Am the Night, Color Me Black”, receiving great acclaim in the feature film Nothing But a Man that same year. It’s somewhat unfortunate that he is probably best remembered for his five-year stint on Hogan’s Heroes, a show Rod Serling, a World War II veteran and Jewish man, detested due to its comedic depiction of a German POW camp. A president of Negro Actors for Action, Dixon was the recipient of four NAACP Image Awards, the National Black Theatre Award, and the Paul Robeson Pioneer Award from the Black American Cinema Society.
“The Big, Tall Wish” wasn’t the first time that Kim Hamilton, who plays Henry’s mother Frances, appeared alongside Ivan Dixon. Like Dixon and Sidney Poitier, she had a small role in 1957’s Something of Value featuring Rock Hudson, Kim’s first feature film. Hamilton’s most prominent part, albeit not a particularly impactful one, came as Tom Robinson’s wife Helen in To Kill a Mockingbird, and she would be cast in the 1981 remake of Body and Soul. Television would prove to be Hamilton’s bread and butter, with more than five decades worth of guest spots on Leave it to Beaver, My Three Sons, Mod Squad, All in the Family (playing the original Helen Willis), Sanford and Son, Good Times, The White Shadow, The Jeffersons (not as Helen Willis), Gimme a Break!, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and many more besides.
Steven Perry, who plays little Henry Temple, worked with Ivan Dixon for the first time on “The Big, Tall Wish”, but it would not be the last. The two would cross paths again during filming of A Raisin in the Sun when Perry won the role of Sidney Poitier’s offspring, Travis. He made his acting debut at the age of six in a 1958 episode of General Electric Theater titled “Auf Wiedersehen”, playing an orphan named, oddly enough, Joe Louis. He followed that up with The Sound and the Fury, The Man in the Net, and The Rebel Breed before his one and only visit to The Twilight Zone. Perry has only another dozen or so acting credits to his name, including three appearances on Magnum P.I. and a recurring role on Jake and the Fatman, and appears to have stepped away from the industry completely after the 1997 made-for-TV movie Escape from Atlantis.
Bolie is in the dressing room at St. Nick’s Arena, getting his hands wrapped by his trainer Joe Mizelli (longtime character actor Walter Burke, who was later cast in the Night Gallery segment “Deliveries in the Rear”), when he deduces that the fight promoter by the name of Thomas (Henry Scott, who would reappear in The Twilight Zone for “The Thirty-Fathom Grave”) has bet against him and takes a swing at the double-crosser. Thomas manages to duck the punch and Bolie smashes his knuckles into the wall, a visual callback to his earlier comment about how the world is made out of concrete. Painfully squeezing his broken hand into a boxing glove, Bolie’s lone regret seems to be how he has turned poor Henry’s wish into even more of a long shot.
Director Ron Winston, who had also helmed “The Monster Are Due on Maple Street” and would return to The Twilight Zone to oversee “Stopover in a Quiet Town”, makes the most of a limited budget and meager cast of extras by depicting the fight audience through an effective sequence of closeup shots. We see a man pound his fist into an open palm, a woman clutch the forearm of the man seated beside her, a man wringing his hands together, a woman shielding her face with both hands, a man absentmindedly shoveling popcorn into his mouth, a woman peeking nervously between splayed fingers, a man aggressively twisting a newspaper, a woman mimicking a fighter’s defensive posture, a man picking his fingernail with a toothpick and sticking the opposite end into his mouth, and the ringside announcer gripping the microphone with both hands while describing to home viewers the terrible beating Bolie Jackson is being subjected to at the hands of Joey Consiglio.
We were first introduced to Charles Horvath, who portrays Consiglio in “The Big, Tall Wish”, in part four of this series when discussing “Garrity’s Sons”, Serling’s 1955 boxing story broadcast on Ford Television Theatre. The formidable-looking Horvath was famous for turning up on the silver screen and small screen alike as a cowboy, Indian, henchman, mugger, convict, bouncer, bar brawler, or prizefighter. In “Garrity’s Sons”, Horvath had played an over-the-hill heavyweight contender named Sammy seeking the services of Rory Calhoun’s title character. He additionally appeared as an uncredited fighter in The Harder They Fall and played a boxer called Champ in an episode of the TV western Tales of the Texas Rangers.
Henry and Frances watch the fight from home wearing matching expressions of concern as Bolie absorbs a multitude of unanswered punches dealt out by Consiglio and crumples to the canvas. As the count of real-life ref Frankie Van approaches its inevitable conclusion, Henry presses his face to the television screen and repeats Bolie’s name over and over as if chanting a magic incantation.
Sure enough, at the count of ten the two boxers have inconceivably traded places, Consiglio lying on the canvas and Bolie having his hand raised by the referee. Frankie Van, incidentally, officiated in excess of 500 professional bouts during his thirty-five year career and appeared in more than fifty films spanning four decades, almost always as a referee in movies and TV shows like Golden Gloves, Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, Rocky, and Rod Serling’s Night Gallery in “The Ring with the Red Velvet Ropes” which we will talk about in the next and last installment.
Upon returning home, a triumphant but bewildered Bolie recounts the bizarre events of the fight’s conclusion for Henry on the roof of their tenement. “We had to have magic then. Had to, Bolie. Nothing left for us then,” Henry explains, trying to make his friend understand that his victory was a manifestation of the “big, tall wish.” To Bolie, however, magic is mumbo jumbo and wishes are the stuff dreamt up by a “dopey kid” which he can only equate with unfulfilled promises and human misery that will break your heart. “Somebody’s got to knock it out of you, don’t they?” beseeches Bolie. “Somebody’s got to take you by the hair and rub your face into the world ‘til you get the taste and the feel of the way things are, don’t they?” Henry tearfully implores Bolie to believe, otherwise the magic won’t work and his “big, tall wish” can’t come true. “I’m too old and I’m too hurt to believe,” Bolie responds.
In retrospect, we see that Henry Temple and Anthony Fremont, the six-year-old freckle-faced “monster” played by Billy Mumy in the season three classic “It’s a Good Life”, are the antithesis of one another. They have both been granted the supernatural ability to enact great change by The Twilight Zone’s powers-that-be, but each one uses his gift with very different motives in mind. Anthony insists on the conformity of everyone around him to his way of thinking, lest they disrupt the delicate balance of order he has established within his controlled environment of manufactured happiness. Anyone who fails to think what Anthony has dictated to be good thoughts and act according to his whims will be banished to the cornfield for their transgressions. Henry, on the other hand, selflessly uses the fulfillment of his wishes to help those he loves to lead a life of quiet dignity, or maybe even chase down a chance at championship glory.
The scene cuts back to the ring in St. Nick’s Arena where Bolie, unable to accept what he hasn’t rightfully earned and having refused Henry’s wish, resumes his place on the canvas to be counted out by Frankie Van and watch that bus to glory he has been chasing leave the station, never to return. This time, Bolie’s walk home is a solitary and solemn one. He is sporting a bandage over his left eye and a cast on his broken right hand as the latest additions to his bodily collection of boxing souvenirs. Frances expresses her apologies and lets Bolie into Henry’s room where the little boy tells the world-weary fighter that he won’t be making any more wishes because he’s too old to believe in magic. “Maybe there is magic. Maybe there’s wishes too,” Bolie ponders before exiting Henry’s room. “I guess the trouble is that there’s not enough people around to believe.”
“Mr. Bolie Jackson, a hundred and eighty-three pounds, who left a second chance lying in a heap on a rosin-spattered canvas in St. Nick’s Arena,” Rod Serling states in his closing narration. “Mr. Bolie Jackson, who shares the most common ailment of all men, the strange and perverse disinclination to believe in a miracle, the kind of a miracle to come from the mind of a little boy, perhaps only to be found in The Twilight Zone.”
Shortly after “The Big, Tall Wish” was broadcast, Rod Serling received a letter from the National Scholarship Service and Fund for Negro Students in New York with their thanks for representing the black community on The Twilight Zone. Serling replied with a letter of acknowledgement as well as a $25 donation to their foundation. He did likewise in response to a similar letter of gratitude from the Committee to Salvage Talent for Negro Actors, and subsequently made a donation to the NAACP in December 1960. The Twilight Zone was bestowed the Unity Award for Outstanding Contributions to Better Race Relations in 1961, and two years later CBS would enact a policy to ensure more consistent hiring of black actors.
If you happen to be a fan of the anthology program One Step Beyond and have seen the 1961 episode “The Last Round” starring Charles Bronson as a boxer who gets spooked by a visitation from a pugilistic specter, you might have noticed hanging on the wall of the promoter’s office a fight poster for the bout between Bolie Jackson and Joey Consiglio.
The Four of Us Are Dying
Strictly speaking, Bolie Jackson was not the first boxer depicted on The Twilight Zone. This distinction belongs to the ill-fated Andy Marshak in “The Four of Us Are Dying”, which was adapted by Rod Serling from the short story “All of Us Are Dying” by George Clayton Johnson. While not a boxing-themed episode, it qualifies for an honorable mention on a technicality nevertheless. Allow me to explain. Better yet, let’s have Mr. Serling spell it out for us.
“His name is Arch Hammer, he’s 36 years old. He’s been a salesman, a dispatcher, a truck driver, a con man, a bookie, and a part-time bartender. This is a cheap man, a nickel-and-dime man, with a cheapness that goes past the suit and the shirt; a cheapness of mind, a cheapness of taste, a tawdry little shine on the seat of his conscience, and a dark-room squint at a world whose sunlight has never gotten through to him,” Serling clarifies in the episode’s introductory narration. “But Mr. Hammer has a talent, discovered at a very early age. This much he does have. He can make his face change. He can twitch a muscle, move a jaw, concentrate on the cast of his eyes, and he can change his face. He can change it into anything he wants.”
In his $3.80 room at the ironically named Hotel Real, Arch Hammer (Harry Townes, later to appear in the Charles Beaumont scripted “Shadow Play” and the Night Gallery segment “Lindemann’s Catch”) fans out a batch of newspaper clippings on the bedspread from which to select identities that will meet his immediate needs. His dangerous game of make-believe begins with putting the moves on a heartbroken lounge singer (Beverly Garland from It Conquered the World) hopelessly hung up on a musician named Johnny Foster (Ross Martin, who would appear in the hour-long Twilight Zone episode “Death Ship” as well as two Night Gallery segments, “Camera Obscura” and “The Other Way Out”) who was killed when his car was hit by a locomotive, relying since then on bourbon and ballads to cope with her grief. Hammer then proceeds to put the squeeze on Penell, a mob boss played by Bernard Fein (a heckler in the season four episode “He’s Alive” starring a young Dennis Hopper) who had one of his henchmen, Virgil Sterig (Phillip Pine, later to revisit The Twilight Zone for “The Incredible World of Horace Ford”), dumped into the river after pulling a heist rather than cut him in on his rightful share of the loot which Arch has come to collect in full.
Trapped in a dead-end alleyway by two of Penell’s stooges, Hammer improvises a getaway plan by adopting the countenance of Andy Marshak, a boxer whose likeness he notices on a tattered fight poster peeling off the brick wall at his back. Marshak is portrayed by character actor Don Gordon who would make a return trip to The Twilight Zone four years later to play the title role in “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross.” Sure enough, Penell’s thugs are fooled and thrown off the scent and Hammer, as Marshak, heads off until being recognized by an elderly man running a newsstand (Peter Brocco, also apparently one of the aliens in “Hocus-Pocus and Frisby” and later to appear in the Night Gallery segment “Deliveries in the Rear”) who we soon learn is Marshak’s father.
An incredulous Hammer tries to make sense of the fact that he, or to the point Marshak, is this stranger’s son. “You were before you ran out,” the old man replies. “You were before you broke your mother’s heart, before you did dirt to a sweet, decent little girl who would have cut off an arm for you. But now you ain’t my son. Now you ain’t nothin’ to me.” Hammer shoves Marshak’s father to the ground where the old man cries after the retreating presence, “Look at Andy Marshak. Look at the monster. Look at my son.”
With his scheme gone awry, Hammer returns to the hotel where he is collared by a detective on an outstanding bunco rap. Taking one extra spin through the hotel’s revolving door, Hammer comes out on the other side as boxer Andy Marshak once again. Just when he thinks he’s pulled a fast one and is home free, the prizefighter’s distraught father guns him down in the street where Andy Marshak, Virgil Sterig, Johnny Foster, and Arch Hammer all lay dying.
Richard Matheson was one of the science fiction/horror genre’s more prescient and prolific writers. It is little wonder that Stephen King cites Matheson as a major inspiration for wanting to become an author of spine-tingling tales, or that Rod Serling tapped into his considerable talents on sixteen occasions throughout The Twilight Zone’s five season run. Who, for example, can forget classics like “Third From the Sun” or “The Invaders” or the two William Shatner episodes, “Nick of Time” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”? A Star Trek nerd from a young age, seeing the USS Enterprise’s Captain Kirk somehow beamed down onto this cool black and white sci-fi show with the amazing twist endings as a little boy sure went a long way toward my becoming a lifelong Twilight Zone fan.
Seven years before he would adapt it into a teleplay for The Twilight Zone’s second episode of its fifth and final season, Matheson’s short story “Steel” was published in the May 1956 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. “Steel” was an ingeniously crafted tale dealing with the continuation of prizefighting after human beings have been prohibited from participation in the sport. Coincidentally, abolitionists had been sharpening their pitchforks and lighting their torches throughout the last couple of years leading up to the night “Steel” was broadcast on October 4, 1963. The boxing world was reeling from the aftershocks of the Senate subcommittee hearings on the corruptive underworld influence on prizefighting spearheaded by Estes Kefauver, as well as two recent high profile in-ring tragedies that claimed the lives of Benny ‘Kid’ Paret and Davey Moore.
Memorializing Davey Moore’s sad fate in verse, Bob Dylan assigned blame for the boxer’s death only in part to Moore’s opponent, Ultiminio ‘Sugar’ Ramos. The remainder of the folk balladeer’s scorn was directed in equal measure toward the referee, the angry crowd, the cigar-chomping manager, the gamblers, and boxing writers. The fatal bout between Davey Moore and ‘Sugar’ Ramos had occurred only a little more than six months before the airing of “Steel”, with California governor Pat Brown still lobbying for a ban of “this so-called sport.” The Vatican even threw its collective peaked hat into the ring, so to speak, issuing a statement in its official newspaper denouncing boxing as “morally illicit.”
Prizefighters who were long in the tooth and down on their luck but still willing and able to risk their lives inside the ring despite medical opinions or conventional wisdom to the contrary were among Rod Serling’s favorite type of characters to depict. But even he hadn’t taken the subject matter into territory anywhere near as far-out as this. Matheson’s short story is set in 1980 with no specific mention of when the ban on boxing took effect, except for a passage discussing that the Mawling corporation had begun manufacturing android prizefighters as proxies for humans at least as far back as 1967. The Twilight Zone episode, a faithful adaptation by Matheson of his own short story, moves the narrative a little closer to the airdate of “Steel.” By six years, to be exact. But I’ll let Rod Serling fill you in on the details.
“Sports item, circa 1974. Battling Maxo, B-2 heavyweight accompanied by his manager and handler, arrives in Maynard, Kansas for a scheduled six-round bout. Battling Maxo is a robot or, to be exact, an android. Definition: an automaton resembling a human being,” explains Serling. “Only these automatons have been permitted in the ring since prizefighting was legally abolished in 1968. This is the story of that scheduled six-round bout. More specifically, the story of two men shortly to face that remorseless truth, that no law can be passed which will abolish cruelty or desperate need—nor, for that matter, blind animal courage. Location for the facing of said truth, a small smoke-filled arena just this side of The Twilight Zone.”
In many people’s eyes, Lee Marvin is the ultimate badass. The tough guy’s idea of a tough guy, he was supposedly expelled from dozens of schools on the grounds of his unrepentantly disruptive behavior and would later serve in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, suffering injuries while engaged in the Battle of Saipan. Community and summer stock theater led Marvin to Broadway and eventually Hollywood where he would make his mark courtesy of gritty roles, largely in westerns and war stories on both the small screen and silver screen, most notably Dragnet, The Wild One, The Caine Mutiny, M Squad, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Dirty Dozen, and Paint Your Wagon. Marvin’s appearance in “Steel” was his second trip through The Twilight Zone after having starred in “The Grave”, a memorably eerie third season entry.
In this episode, Lee Marvin plays Tim Kelly, an ex-heavyweight contender “before the law was passed, of course,” he stresses, who earned the nickname ‘Steel’ by virtue of the fact that he had never been knocked down. “Steel was his nickname and that was his character, his backbone, that he was so determined,” said Richard Matheson. “When you have a monomaniacal character like that, it’s easier to handle. Captain Ahab is like that, too. He has no grays, he just wants to kill the whale.”
Kelly is also the manager of the aforementioned B-2 android boxer, Battling Maxo (Tipp McClure, The Untouchables). Not that it makes much difference, but in Matheson’s short story both Kelly and Maxo were light-heavyweights. ‘Steel’ was once rated number nine and Maxo is currently ranked fourth thanks to his upset victory over the heavily favored Dimsy the Rock at Madison Square Garden in 1977. “I don’t go for these new ones,” Kelly says to a fellow train passenger in the original version. “The ones made o’ steeled aluminum with all the doodads.”
The tenderness Kelly exhibits toward Battling Maxo is the kind typically reserved for a close relation or very dear friend, not unlike the way Army looks after the welfare of Mountain in “Requiem for a Heavyweight.” The same cannot be said of Maxo’s mechanic, Pole, who constantly ridicules the squeaky, outdated B-2 as a “steam shovel” and “piece of dead iron.” For what it’s worth, unconditional love can sometimes blind one to certain undeniable truths and that appears to be the case here with ‘Steel’ Kelly whose sole purpose is to keep Battling Maxo up and running for one more fight, and another and another still, although the android is clearly falling to pieces before his very eyes. Kelly, despite his best intentions and undying dedication to Maxo, is complicit in his fighter’s swift and unavoidable decline. Pole’s emotional detachment, on the other hand, allows him to assess the automaton’s situation from a clinical and pragmatic, if harsh, point of view.
Kelly and Pole have lugged Maxo all the way from Philadelphia to Kansas so that their robotic fighter can square off against a B-7 model called The Maynard Flash, winner of seven straight we’re informed in Matheson’s short story. The only reason Kelly was able to secure the bout in the first place was because the B-4 originally scheduled as the Flash’s opponent was scrapped after being involved in a car wreck. Kelly seems to be trying to convince himself as much as Pole by offering up the reassurance that the Flash is just a starter model B-7 with the kinks probably not yet worked out of its system.
Underrated character actor Joe Mantell assumes the part of Pole for his second arrival into The Twilight Zone, having given a standout performance in what was for all intents and purpose a one-man show called “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room.” Nolan, the fight promoter played by Merritt Bohn, the truck driver who accidentally runs down little Maggie in “One for the Angels”, is also less than responsive to Kelly’s optimistic appraisal of his broken-down B-2 and just wants a competitive bout for his $500. Maxwell, the promoter’s right-hand man preoccupied by counting stacks of cash, is played by another return visitor to The Twilight Zone, Frank London who had previously appeared in “A Penny for Your Thoughts” starring Dick York.
The locker room looks like a cross between a tool shed and disorderly high school science lab, and it is here that the hood which has been covering Maxo’s head the entire time is removed and we finally get to see the android’s hand-molded facial features and unsettling, vacant eyes. While inventorying and evaluating Maxo’s internal damage, Pole worries that his clockwork machinery will be audible all the way in the back row and comes to the conclusion that they might as well cut their losses and salvage him for parts. Kelly, of course, won’t hear of it. After throwing a left jab at Kelly during their practice session, Maxo experiences a short-circuit and a replacement part for the sprung gear is no longer available on the open market. With no other options available to collect their pay, Kelly forces Pole into making him appear like a B-2 boxing robot so that he can take Maxo’s place, and is rolled on coasters toward the ring amidst an assemblage of hecklers shouting, “scrap iron” and “Rattling Maxo!”
“It’s face is that of an impassive Adonis,” Richard Matheson describes Maxo’s B-7 opponent, The Maynard Flash, in his short story. “The simulation of muscle curve on its body and limbs was almost perfect.” Chuck Hicks, who embodies the robotic Flash, would revisit The Twilight Zone soon after as a mover in “Ninety Years Without Slumbering”, and had played a boxer on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis in an episode entitled “Requiem for an Underweight Heavyweight”, a humorous homage to the recently released movie version of Rod Serling’s prizefighting story.
“I knew Lee Marvin for a long time and he was a real man and a great guy,” Hicks later recalled. “During the fight scenes while filming, we were both fighting the plastic that covered our faces. The eyes were getting fogged up and it was hard to see.” Twilight Zone makeup man William Tuttle had concocted the facial appliances by sculpting a layer of clay over a life mask he had taken of each actor. Ping pong balls cut in half and colored black served as the robotic boxers’ eyes, with pinholes cut into them for the actors to see out of. “I ended up hitting Lee a couple of times, but the tough Marine that he was, never complained. He always would say, ‘Don’t worry about it, Chuck, I know your problem.’ Yeah, he was a drinker, but a real great man underneath that plastic and skin.” Welterweight contender turned actor Johnny Idrisano had been brought in to help Marvin and Hicks choreograph the fight scenes.
Interestingly, the bout proceeds without the services of a referee. This is because, as Matheson relates in his original story, B models never clinch and, once knocked down, are programmed to stay on the canvas, rendering a count or an official to deliver it completely academic. Mawling was hardwiring their new B-9 prototypes to get back up following a knockdown which would make for much more fan-friendly fights. After being beaten nearly to death by The Maynard Flash, Kelly lies on the floor of the dressing room with Maxo looming over him like an immobile sentinel while Pole retrieves only half of their promised purse money due to the bout’s premature first-round conclusion. Rather than consign Maxo to the scrap heap of chewed up and spit out former fighters, quite literally in this case, Kelly vows to use their meager earnings to get back home to Philadelphia and make the necessary repairs to entitle Maxo to the dubious right to fight another day.
“Portrait of a losing side, proof positive that you can’t outpunch machinery. Proof also of something else,” says Rod Serling in his concluding voiceover. “That no matter what the future brings, man’s capacity to rise to the occasion will remain unaltered. His potential for tenacity and optimism continues, as always, to outfight, outpoint, and outlive any and all changes by his society, for which three cheers and a unanimous decision rendered from The Twilight Zone.”
The ever popular Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots hit toy store shelves not too long after the premiere of “Steel” on The Twilight Zone. Coincidence? Well, yes, but a fun fact to mull over nevertheless. The Marx Toy Co. encouraged kids to knock the block off The Blue Bomber and The Red Rocket courtesy of hand-controlled levers located just outside the ring that players would use to direct a punch to the point of his or her opponent’s chin and engage the spring which would send the plastic prizefighter’s head bobbing crazily this way and that.
Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots was a mass-produced home version of a mechanical boxing game that had been manufactured decades prior and could be found in penny arcades like the one Audrey Totter’s character Julie wanders around in 1949’s The Set-Up rather than subject herself to witnessing her 35-year-old husband Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan) fight a four-round prelim at the Paradise City Athletic Club. Julie finds momentary distraction and amusement watching teenagers enjoying each other’s company until she sees a young couple playing the boxing game which serves as a painful reminder of her personal dilemma. Even this was a scaled-down replication of a true-to-life-size boxing game that was fashioned for vacation resorts in the early 1930s. The human competitors would stand outside the ropes and use individual hand wheels to manipulate the mechanical dummies battling inside the ring which were galvanized by a system of electro-magnets.
“Even right now, despite the fact that I am definitely through with the ring as a fighter, I wouldn’t be afraid of any robot or mechanical man,” Jack Dempsey stated defiantly in an article that appeared in the April 1934 issue of Modern Mechanix magazine. “I could tear it to pieces, bolt by bolt and scatter its brain, wheels and cogs all over the canvas.” Dempsey authored this intriguing think-piece primarily to break down the scientific components to the mental, physical, and technical aspects pertaining to prizefighting. “The old lever principle governs the action of three primary blows known to every ring fan: the jab, the right cross and the upper-cut,” he explains. “In each of these blows the body acts as more or less an axis as the punches are delivered by a fighter in forward motion.”
Dempsey was adamant that an automaton, no matter how technologically advanced its gadgets and gizmos, was lacking the one element critical to achieving what their flesh and blood counterparts were capable of. “Engineers can build a robot that will possess everything except brains. And without brains no man can ever attain championship class in the boxing game,” elaborated Dempsey. “It is true enough that we have had some rare intellectual specimens in the higher frames of boxing glory, but I can truthfully say that no man ever attained genuine boxing recognition without real headwork. The best punch in the world is not worth a whoop if the boxer doesn’t know what to do with it.”
Dempsey concluded his article with these parting shots. “I’ll venture to say, despite the fact that mechanics and boxing are based on the same principles, that the average clever boxer, facing a robot constructed with two or three vulnerable points, could leave such a creature in the trash heap. For no matter how perfect the machine might be, it lacks a brain, and the most killing of all blows is worthless when not delivered at just the crucial second.”
(Rest period prior to Round Eight…to be continued)
Jack Dempsey. I Can Whip Any Mechanical Robot (Modern Mechanix, April 1934)
Mike Fitzgerald. The Ageless Warrior: The Life of Boxing Legend Archie Moore (Sports Publishing LLC, 2004)
Ian C. Friedman. Latino Athletes (Facts on File, 2007)
Martin Grams, Jr. The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic (OTR Publishing, 2008)
Richard Matheson. “Steel”, from The Shores of Space (Corgi, 1958)
Nicholas Parisi. Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination (University Press of Mississippi, 2018)
Anne Serling. As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling (Citadel, 2013)
Rod Serling. “The Big, Tall Wish”, from More Stories from The Twilight Zone (Bantam, 1961)
Marc Scott Zicree. The Twilight Zone Companion: Second Edition (Silman-James Press, 1992)
Robots Stage Realistic Prize Fight (Modern Mechanix, April 1933)
The Twilight Zone: The Big, Tall Wish (written by Rod Serling, original airdate April 8, 1960)
The Twilight Zone: The Four of Us Are Dying (written by Rod Serling, based on short story by George Clayton Johnson, original airdate January 1, 1960)
The Twilight Zone: Steel (written by Richard Matheson, based on his own short story, original airdate October 4, 1963)