Rod Serling's Night Gallery:
Contemplating Roddy McDowall, the Panic of the Inevitable in The Cemetery, and the Choices We Make
In this personal piece by Jamie Evans, he explores Roddy McDowall in 1969's Night Gallery, interprets the actor's performance and the writing of Rod Serling...
I’ve been thinking more recently about who I understand myself to be and what legacy I want to leave in my wake. Legacy might sound overly grand, but that’s really what it is to be thought of and remembered and talked about, whether it’s by millions or by whatever nucleus of immediate people you hold to be family. A worldwide pandemic will get you to thinking about the impact we all leave on each other, and that’s not even the sum total of an at times rotten few years to process. Largely for me, it’s about the impact of leaving the people and places you find along the way better than you found them, or at least not worse for your presence. But life makes that hard. Communicating with each other with kindness and empathy is a journey that doesn’t end. Trying to be good to the planet that hosts us while just a handful of companies continue to be the biggest polluters in the world provokes wild cognitive dissonance. Capitalism swirling the drain and dragging us with it, bloody-knuckled and exhausted. Social media is a distracting feedback loop where we play out status games while the literal and figurative world around us burns. It is easy to lose focus.
What has this got to do with Roddy McDowall and Night Gallery (NBC, 1969) you may ask? Well, firstly Rod Serling and his writing have been one of the primary influences in my life on my own personal philosophy about how I treat people and how my own personal code developed and I come back to his work regularly for course correction as much as entertainment. And in ‘The Cemetery’ and McDowall’s phenomenal performance we have humanity in crisis in microcosm, in all its sadness and rage and selfishness and dread and pathetic hope. Just as much as any episode of The Twilight Zone (CBS, 1959-1964), this play provokes in me considerations of consequence and personal choice. A warning in a world gone wrong, embodied here by McDowall’s performance and Serling’s writing.
Ten years after the launch of The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling was ready to revisit anthology television. In the intervening years since his beloved fantasy show had ended, Serling had kept busy with a variety of different projects. These ranged from a modern television movie adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) reformed as a nightmare of nuclear Armageddon and a plea for cooperation between nations before mutually assured destruction, to The Loner (CBS, 1965-1966), a contemplative Western set in a this-time only figuratively haunted post-civil war America, and co-writing The Planet of the Apes (USA, Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968) amongst other films. For his new television project, this time, however, Serling would move beyond fantasy and science fiction and go deep into the dark waters of horror.
Night Gallery premiered as a television movie on November 8th, 1969. It took the form of three separate stories, linked by Serling’s narration. He presented these tales from the titular dimly lit gallery, offering us a trio of stories that all suggest not an indifferent universe, but instead one where the immoral might be able to run from their wickedness, but not, eventually, from consequences. And it’s the first of these plays we are considering today, ‘The Cemetery’, as well as the delicate and bruising performance at its centre from the British-born and raised actor Roddy McDowall. Directed by Boris Sagal, it is thirty minutes of television that distils everything that makes Serling such a great writer: emotionally literate, atmospheric, wittily loquacious and unyieldingly moral. There is a further Britishness at the heart of ‘The Cemetery’ too. McDowall plays his role with a lyrical Southern-tinged accent that will just as frequently tip into British pronunciation. Similarly, Serling’s tale could just as easily be set in a country house at the edge of a small English village and nothing would need to be changed to accommodate this meeting of a tradition of Southern USA and British gothic, where the older ghosts of the past, both real and imagined, leave their graves to haunt us.
Introducing the segment, Serling begins:
‘Good evening, and welcome to a private showing of three paintings, displayed here for the first time. Each is a collector’s item in its own way—not because of any special artistic quality, but because each captures on a canvas, suspends in time and space, a frozen moment of a nightmare. Our initial offering: a small gothic item in blacks and grays, a piece of the past known as the family crypt. This one we call, simply, “The Cemetery.” Offered to you now, six feet of earth and all that it contains. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Night Gallery…’
William Hendricks is old and in poor health. A series of strokes have left him largely incapacitated and housebound in the family mansion. He is attended to only by his loyal butler Osmond Portifoy, with the family burial plot the view from his window and the last thing he painted. Hendricks is wealthy and had only a sister to leave his money to, or so he thought. But with his sister dead, the inheritance will now pass to her son, Jeremy, a thoroughly disreputable man. Jeremy has moved into the home and is impatiently waiting for his uncle to die, so much so that he takes matters into his own hands to make sure William relocates to his place in the cemetery sooner rather than later. After this, Portifoy learns that a miserable stipend of $80 a month is his reward for decades of faithful service. And so, it seems, Jeremy finally has the means to support the lifestyle he is accustomed to. But then Jeremy notices that the painting of the house and graves hanging at the bottom of the staircase keeps changing and suggesting his uncle is not at all at rest.
What follows is a beautifully paced and executed Gothic tale of vengeance that for me is some of Serling’s finest writing. One of my favourite themes in his work is that of a moral universe and our choices within it. The idea that our reality is not passive, that we can make better choices but also that there are consequences for our cruelty, selfishness and inaction. Serling was frequently concerned with equality, the impact of racism and, as his wife Carol once explained, the ‘ultimate obscenity of not caring’. In The Twilight Zone, this could be a positive exploration, if we take for example the compassion and sacrifice of Lew Bookman or the universe indulging the sentimentality of Henry Corwin. But in Night Gallery it was frequently the other side of this coin. That moral universe is unrelenting in ‘Escape Route’ (the third segment in the pilot film), ‘Lone Survivor’, ‘The Doll’ or perhaps most memorably in ‘The Caterpillar’. In all of these, bad people do bad things and, perhaps not immediately but certainly, inevitably, the universe revisits this on them manyfold. Serling was always a champion of the best in humanity and what we could achieve, alone and most importantly together, and believed in the next generation and their capacity to do and be better. But he was also acutely aware of our frailties and failures as a species, from his experiences as a far-too-young man at war to the impacts of racism and isolationism in the decade that birthed Night Gallery. Perhaps this is why Night Gallery largely trades in the hope and optimism found in The Twilight Zone for more of the cosmic justice seen in that show’s ‘Deaths-Head Revisited’.
Despite this, ‘The Cemetery’ never stoops to being cruel. Enraged perhaps, and unforgiving, but not cruel. Instead, it is human and sad, much of this is found in Roddy McDowall’s performance. Jeremy at first is cruel as he taunts his uncle and brings about the old man’s death. An unremarkable and embittered would-be conman, Jeremy thinks himself destined for a life of luxury he possesses neither the means nor the character for. And in his uncle, he has found the chance to fulfil this destiny. He revels in verbose cruelty, not just to his uncle but also to Portifoy, whose name he allows to roll regularly from his tongue with contempt, for the man and for the role he plays in Hendrick’s life. There’s disgust here at a man who could be a servant but also envy. After all, Jeremy has never succeeded at anything, let alone three decades at one thing. After his uncle dies and is buried, Jeremy wastes no time in having the will executed and becoming master of the house. All through this, however, McDowall uses flashes of expression or sadness in his eyes to give Jeremy inner life. There’s part of him behind the facade that is perhaps regretful, or even himself disgusted momentarily by the brutality he is capable of. But he overrides this, pushes it down, makes his choice.
It is soon after his uncle has died that Jeremy notices that the final painting he did of the house and cemetery has changed. Something new has been added. William’s freshly dug grave has appeared on it. Jeremy asks Portifoy but Osman says he can see nothing different. It is the beginning of the end for Jeremy. As the painting continues to alter, different each time he sees it, Jeremy has two frightening conclusions to draw. The first is unthinkable, that his uncle is not at rest and is making his way from the grave to the house to exact revenge. The second is that he is losing his mind. As he diminishes from the swaggering, arrogant swine at the segment’s opening towards an imitation of his deathly ill uncle, abandoning the fancy shirts and sharp jackets and taking on William’s wardrobe of dressing gown and blanket, McDowall invites us into Jeremy’s confusion, where both he and us can believe both at once. Pushing Portifoy too far, the butler resigns and goes to stay at a hotel in town. It is now that Jeremy is alone in the house with no one to turn to. Devolving into panic and rage and overwhelmed by fear, Jeremy has dropped all bravado, clinging to the hope Portifoy will save him. It’s a name he no longer says with contempt, but instead with desperation.
There are many elements that for me makeup why ‘The Cemetery’ is so successful at what it sets out to achieve: Serling’s words, Sagal’s assured and controlled direction, the set design and presentation, the supporting performances, the stirring and oppressive Billy Goldenberg score that mixes traditional instrumentation with atonal electronic noise. But at its core and what brings Serling’s writing to life is the complicated, human villainy in Roddy McDowall’s performance. At the start of this journey, Jeremy repulses us. At the end of it, we still despise him but pity him too and perhaps recognise ourselves more. Night Gallery may have traded hope and optimism for the finality of cosmic justice, but particularly in Serling’s work for the series, it doesn’t lose his focus on humanity. If The Twilight Zone could often be a call to arms to be better before the worst happens, Night Gallery is a warning that to be better is a journey of choice that never ends, particularly – especially – if the worst is happening now. In McDowall’s panic, fear and anger as seemingly unrelenting consequence approaches, and in that final coda sting in this tale, that warning is clear to me: it is too late for Jeremy and William and Portifoy, but not too late for us.
And so, I think about ‘The Cemetery’ and how art-like it influences our real lives. I think about legacy and the imprints we leave on each other both while we’re here and when we’re gone. Let’s not be Jeremy, or Portifoy or Hendricks. Let’s be better. Rod Serling thought we could be, and McDowall shows us ourselves if we don’t try.