Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Turning to the Bard

I like comedy.

Given a choice, I would prefer to watch a sitcom on TV than any other kind of show. Being a writer myself, I appreciate the well–crafted dialogue that is the hallmark of truly great comedy. But if the show is not a sitcom and it tries to do a crossover, it usually falls flat.

That was the problem for Twilight Zone on a few occasions. It was designed to be a dramatic program, and its comedy episodes generally did not work. A case in point is "The Bard," which first aired 55 years ago tomorrow night.

It was written by series creator Rod Serling and served as the finale for the fourth season. It was also Twilight Zone's final one–hour episode; the fifth season marked a return to the half–hour format. As I have mentioned on this blog, there were some excellent episodes in the one–hour format. "The Bard" was not one of them.

Jack Weston, whose work I usually enjoy, was a streetcar conductor–turned–aspiring TV screenwriter whose efforts kept getting rejected by TV executives. He was a shameless — and talentless — self–promoter who jumped at a chance to write a screenplay about black magic — even though he had no knowledge of black magic.

To make up for this deficiency he went to a bookstore in search of a book about black magic — and one literally flew off the shelves. It was loaded with spells, and Weston took it home with him. With the help of the book, Weston conjured up William Shakespeare (John Williams), who offered his services, and Weston took him up on it, intending to pass off Shakespeare's work as his own.

Well, that was the plot in a nutshell.

Weston's play was accepted for production on a weekly TV playhouse program, and he was invited to appear on a program that featured all the hottest names in the industry.

But there were problems afoot, chiefly with Shakespeare, who resented not receiving credit for his considerable contributions. He agreed to stay until he had had a chance to assess the performances of the cast in a rehearsal the next day.

One of those cast members was Burt Reynolds.

Reynolds is known today as a movie actor, but in 1963 his experience was exclusively in television. His was not a new face — but it was a somewhat familiar face, having appeared in nearly two dozen TV series, almost always as a guest star.

He was a guest star in "The Bard," playing — fittingly — an actor named Rocky Rhodes, and he kept making noises about his "motivation."

It was all too much for Shakespeare, who decked Rhodes with a right cross and walked out on the rehearsal.

That was a bit awkward for Weston, who had already been given his next assignment — an extensive program on American history. To meet it he conjured up several figures from American history — folks like Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Pocahontas and others.