The first time I saw this opening was sometime in 1959 when I was still on the staff of Playhouse 90. One of my colleagues invited me to a screening of a yet-to-be-aired CBS pilot. The film was Rod Serling’s WHERE IS EVERYBODY?, which launched this classic television series. I remember being blown away by the film. It was truly exciting television. Little did I realize then that three years later I would receive a call from my agent telling me that Herbert Hirschman, the original producer of DR. KILDARE who was now producing a group of one hour TWILIGHT ZONES had put a ‘hold’ on me to direct an episode of the series. (Again for you civilians a ‘hold’ was a way of signifying interest without making a firm contractual commitment.) I was excited by the prospect of doing the show. But a couple of days later the agent called again and said that the hold had been withdrawn. The assignment would have been to direct a script by Rod Serling. As creator of the series and supplier of a prolific number of scripts Rod had director approval of those scripts he wrote. I’m guessing it was because of my relative lack of experience that he had withheld approving me. But it was not too much later that Hirschman called again, this time with a firm offer to direct a non-Rod Serling script. I happily accepted. The assignement was a script by Charles Beaumont, PRINTER’S DEVIL, based on one of his short stories, THE DEVIL, YOU SAY.
I reported to MGM for my prep, and it was like going home. This was the studio where I had served as Herb Hirschman’s assistant for nine months on DR. KILDARE. It was the studio where I had directed my first television show, and where I had directed three of the four shows that at that time represented my career. To complete the picture the casting director was John Conwell, an old friend and a fine actor who had recently moved into casting. John was wonderful. Having been an actor himself he understood, respected and LIKED actors. (You would be amazed to know how many casting directors disliked and resented actors.) We ended up with a sterling cast headed by Robert Sterling in the role of Doug, the small town editor whose newspaper is in deep, dark trouble; Patricia Crowley as Jackie, his assistant and girlfriend; and Burgess Meredith as the mysterious stranger, Mr. Smith.
I had been associated with Burgess before, but in a totally non-personal way. In 1957 when I was still employed on PLAYHOUSE 90 as a secretary, Burgess had co-directed their production of THE JET-PROPELLED COUCH. (He staged and directed the actors, James Clark directed the cameras.) On PLAYHOUSE 90 the original scripts would be printed in the mimeograph department. But there were daily script changes, and these were typed and then printed by me on ditto machines. The thing that made this situation unusual was that Stanley Roberts, the author of the play, would turn in his daily script changes which I typed and printed. Then Burgess, unbeknownst to Roberts, would rewrite the rewrites. These I also typed and printed. Each set of changes was produced on a different color paper. And dated. And annotated as to whose changes they were. This went on for a solid two weeks. If it sounds confusing now, think of what it was like when it was happening.
The set for Doug’s printing establishment was great. I was very impressed but not surprised, after all this was MGM. Everything there was always done top-grade. It was a very large set that included an entry area, a big printing room and Doug’s office, a comfortable space that looked out onto the printing room through large glass windows. It was a set that was going to provide lots of opportunity for interesting staging. The set was painted a dingy gray. That proved to be a problem. When George Clemens, the director of photography, came to examine the set he pointed out to the art director that his contract stated that all of his sets had to be painted green. (Even though the show was being filmed in black and white.) And so when I arrived at the studio the next day, I saw a dingy green printing establishment. Again I was impressed but not surprised.
The opening sequence had one other character, the old linotype operator, Andy Praskins. For this role I cast Charles Thompson, who had been a member of the cast in my Equity Library Theatre West production, MORNING’S AT SEVEN, the show that had started all of this for me. Charles, in a very fine cast, had been a major spark that provided some of the funniest comedy in the show. Interestingly midway through the run Charles character stopped being funny. I went backstage after the disappointing performance to talk to him about it. He said that he had reevaluated his character and felt that psychologically he had been on the wrong road. He felt his character was much more serious. I managed to convince him that, psychology are no psychology, for the success of the play it would be better to return to what he had been doing; and that was what he did.
And so Doug sends Jackie home, finishes off the bottle of booze and heads out into the countryside.
That was not the way I envisioned the scene. Since Doug left the car headlights on, I wanted that to be the light source. Doug would be harshly front lit, and the stranger, Mr. Smith when he appeared, would be back lit, in silhouette. Mysterious! A feeling of danger. Not until he lights his cigar after Doug has headed back to the car would we see the face of the devil. I presented my concept to George Clemens, the director of photography, and his response was that he didn’t see it that way. We took our disagreement to Herb Hirschman who listened and (unfortunately for me) sided with George. The scene still works because of Meredith’s bravura performance; maybe it even works better because you can see his face. And it is helped by the post production addition of the fog. But his vocal performance is so great, I still would have liked to have filmed it my way.
The day in pre-production when Burgess came into the studio for wardrobe fitting was an exciting day for me. Remember what I wrote about the MGM prop building. We went to the MGM wardrobe building. Ditto there. And the wardrobe people were prepared. They had rolling racks hung with trousers, shirts, vests, ties, belts, hats. They had canes and cigars, all sizes, all shapes. Watching Burgess in front of a full length mirror, examining different combinations was an experience, because with each change of wardrobe, his whole demeanor changed. He didn’t just drape different garments on his torso. He put them on and let his body react to them. He FELT them. I lost count of the number of different Mr. Smith’s I saw that day. But I relished the one that eventually was born.
Once the wardrobe had been taken care of, there was one more thing to attend to -- Mr. Smith’s finger bursting into flame. The special effects man came well prepared. To demonstrate he stuck his finger in a coffee can of ice. When it was sufficiently cold and numb, he doused it with lighter fluid. He then attached a wire to his finger, threw a switch and voila -- fire! He went through the procedure a couple of times before it became Burgess’ turn. First he ran the wire up Meredith’s pant leg, on up under his shirt and down his shirt sleeve, ready to be attached to his finger. Then his index finger went into the ice. As Meredith had his finger in the can of ice, I assured him that the special effects man had guaranteed the process would not burn him. His response. “I’m not worried about getting burned. I’m more concerned with freezing to death!”
Back to our story. Over drinks at the bar, we learn that their meeting on the bridge was not accidental. And we can see that Burgess Meredith’s performance was not accidental. He didn't miss a trick!
I’m sure Burgess took his cue for how to work at the linotype machine from one of Jackie’s lines. He doesn’t just turn out metal bars. He treats the machine as if it were a symphonic organ!
And Mr. Smith delivers. As a reporter he gets scoop after scoop. And always a very short time after the occurrence. Outrageous stories. A building collapsing. Drowning. Murder. And finally the burning down of the building of their newspaper competitor. In anticipation of this scene I had the set designer install window shades in Doug’s office. I wanted a claustrophobic, entrapment feeling as Mr. Smith accomplishes what he set out to do.
It is often said that ninety percent of the director’s job is casting. I’m not sure that in this case that percentage is too low. Burgess’ Mr. Smith had charm, intelligence, wiliness. There came a time when he also had to show evil.
To this day I can’t explain what happened. There was a little old man, a printer in Culver City, who had loaned us printing equipment. He spent a lot of time on the set observing our film making. Well the day after we shot the following sequence when we went to see the rushes, who should appear over Burgess’ shoulder in one shot, standing in a doorway, but this little old man. No one had seen him during the filming. Not me. Not the camera operator. It was eerie, almost ghostlike. Naturally we cut him out in the editing room.
I always preplanned everything. Ideally I would have staging for the the entire show with camera coverage marked in my script before the first scene was shot. My script looked very much like that of the script person. In fact many times I was asked if I had been a script boy. If time and circumstances did not allow for this, I at least had everything prepared through the Friday filming. I never came home after a long day to face having to prepare the next day’s work. On PRINTER’S DEVIL I didn’t have the final day’s work completed before we started. But I had a weekend to plan it. That was when I became aware that there was a problem. If Mr. Smith had ‘adjusted’ the linotype machine so that whatever was typed on it came to pass, all Doug had to do was sit down and type a different ending than the one Mr Smith had planned. We had to create a stumbling block. I called Herb Hirschman and went to his home. He agreed we had a problem. So we solved it.
If I seem to be ignoring Robert Sterling’s contribution to this production, it’s not because I don’t admire and respect it. And the same goes for Pat Crowley. And Sterling and I worked together again three months later on NAKED CITY in New York. When I write about that show, he will be center stage. We won’t have the devil then to distract us.
It was a decade before I saw Burgess Meredith again. I was directing an episode of a terrible series, SEARCH, and Burgess had a thankless supporting role in it. A total waste of a magnificent talent. We talked about PRINTER’S DEVIL. He told me that the night it aired he received a congratulatory telegram from John Huston. Forty-seven years later PRINER’S DEVIL is still aired annually. I think it’s the Sci-Fi channel on cable that stages TWILIGHT ZONE marathons. Look for it!