25 June 2009

Twilight Zone: The Big Tall Wish

The following Season One episode of The Twilight Zone deserves attention for two special reasons.
Episode #27: The Big Tall Wish
Directed by Ron Winston. Written by Rod Serling. Starring Ivan Dixon, Steven Perry, Kim Hamilton.

“In this corner of the universe, a prizefighter named Bolie Jackson, one hundred eighty-three pounds and an hour and a half away from a comeback at St. Nick’s Arena. 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.”

The first reason for turning my attention toward “The Big Tall Wish” is that Jerry Goldsmith fellow did the music. I’m not going to turn down an opportunity to talk about one the best scores written for Zone, and from the composer starting to emerge as one the major forces in film music. The same year that “The Big Tall Wish” premiered on TV was also the year the Goldsmith composed his first great film score, for Studs Lonigan. The harmonica-based score for this Zone episode has much in common with Studs Lonigan’s music, and also looks forward to two other sentimental and intimate Goldsmith scores of the 1960s, The Lilies of the Fields and A Patch of Blue. Goldsmith’s accompaniment here adds an aching beauty to Serling’s words and the top-notch performances.

The other reason to illuminate “The Big Tall Wish” is that it’s a rarity in early ‘60s television: it stars an almost all-black cast. And it’s done without any stereotyping at all. This makes The Twilight Zone, along with Star Trek, one of the key shows in breaking down the racial walls of television.

Serling knew what he was doing. He’s quoted in The Twilight Zone Companion as having said at the time the episode aired: “Television, like its big sister, the motion picture, has been guilty of the sin of omission… 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.”

The script Serling delivers for the story of a boxer (Ivan Dixon) who gets a bizarre chance to reverse a losing fight because of “the big tall wish” of a little boy who admires him (Steven Perry) has some powerful dialogue. The episode opens with boxer Bolie Jackson studying his face in the mirror, and speaking about the bruises and cuts form a map of his whole career. It’s perfect Serling. Ivan Dixon, who would later become an accomplished and busy television director, gives a riveting performance as a man who has fought his way through life, step by step, but seems to have gotten nowhere. When confronted with a magic overturn of his situation, he denies it… and returns to the original unfortunate results of his “comeback” fight.

“The Big Tall Wish” makes for powerful television. But I have a counter-reading to the lesson that Serling’s final narration tries to provide. The story wants to say that Bolie Jackson should have believed in the magic, accepted the victory the little boy’s wish gave to him. But my reading is different: Bolie had to reject the wish reversal because deep down he knew he did not earn the victory. Watching Dixon’s performance right after the mysterious victory, I can see that he’s playing Bolie as a man who thinks he’s gotten the easy way, and not the right way. Perhaps this idea comes to me from “And When the Sky Was Opened,” where three men come to realize they shouldn’t have survived a spaceship crash landing, or “The Hitch-Hiker,” where a woman learns that she didn’t live through a car-wreck. I feel the same applies here: Bolie Jackson wasn’t supposed to win that fight, his injured hand would have prevented him. And so Bolie Jackson rejects the magic and the wish, and restores the world to how it should be—even if it means he has to suffer. That sacrifice is more powerful to me than “a man who wouldn’t believe” moral.

On the surface, the episode wants to tell me on thing. But my instinct takes away something else, and that extra layer makes the text of “The Big Tall Wish” that much more fascinating.

Rod Serling already had experience writing boxing stories. He wrote the 1956 teleplay “Requiem for a Heavyweight” for Playhouse 90, and which later became a 1962 theatrical movie. Serling later listed this, along with the Night Gallery episode “They’re Tearing Down Tim Reilly’s Bar,” as his personal favorite of his own work.