Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Toys of Caliban

When I was off at college, my mother and younger brother developed a shared appreciation for Richard Mulligan as Bert Campbell in TV's Soap.

It always seemed to me that they were discovering Mulligan as if Soap was the first professional acting he had ever done — even though he had been around for a long time.

I had been familiar with Mulligan's work on the big screen for quite awhile at that time. For instance, I enjoyed his performance as George Armstrong Custer in "Little Big Man."

And I enjoyed the work he did in later years — his role as a mental patient posing as a substitute teacher in "Teachers" stands out in my memory.

But Mulligan probably is mostly remembered for the work he did on the small screen — and his finest may have been the work he did on the reincarnation of The Twilight Zone in the mid–1980s.

In the first season of the series, he provided a fresh spin on a part that became iconic in the hands of Art Carney a quarter of a century earlier. He starred as an alcoholic department store Santa Claus whose bag of toys began dispensing everyone's heart's desire.

And in the second season — in an episode that was shown for the first time 25 years ago tonight — Mulligan played more of a supporting role — as the father of an unusual little boy named Toby.

Well, Toby wasn't so little. He was played by David Greenlee, who was in his mid–20s, but mentally he gave every appearance of being severely impaired (the first time I saw the episode, I thought he might have Down syndrome).

And Toby had a special talent that wasn't so little, either.

He could summon things he saw in pictures by saying the word "Bring!" For example, he had a childlike fondness for doughnuts, and, early in the episode, he became sick from eating too many doughnuts that he had summoned.

That was the event that alerted people outside Toby's intimate family circle that he was not like other children. He wasn't like other retarded children, either. But all the outsiders knew was that he was different — and that he was treated differently by his parents.

What the outsiders didn't realize — couldn't have known — was that Toby's parents were motivated by a desire to protect both Toby and the other children from Toby himself.

Toby's talent had its drawbacks, the kind of drawbacks a retarded person could not fully comprehend. Once, when he was looking at a picture of a human heart, he accidentally caused the death of his mother (Anne Haney), attracting renewed scrutiny from child protective services.

Toby's father was determined to continue raising his son as he and his wife had done before, but he was forced to reveal the family secret to a nosy social worker who threatened to remove Toby from the home.

The social worker was finally persuaded to leave but insisted she would back.

Meanwhile, Toby, distraught by the confrontation between his father and the social worker, desired the reassuring presence of his mother and used a picture to bring her corpse back from the grave. It appeared in a chair — but as a decomposing corpse, not a living person.

Mulligan shielded his son from the horrifying vision, insisting that the corpse wasn't Toby's mother. He then went about burying the body in the backyard, after which he stood next to the grave and spoke to his wife's spirit, telling her that it was "time."

He then sat down with his son and showed him a picture of a blazing fire. "Bring!" he instructed Toby, and Toby brought the inferno to the house.

In the final scene, the social worker arrived at the house with police officers. No words were spoken; perhaps she hoped to save Toby, but the house was engulfed in flames.

Unlike most Twilight Zone episodes — either the ones from the 1960s or the ones from the 1980s — "The Toys of Caliban" had none of the series' trademark opening and closing narration.

I suppose, when the final scene is of the burning ruins of a rather modest home, there really isn't anything to say.