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Rod Serling's 'Night Gallery' Reborn Again on Home Video

Television: Exclusive collection features shows restored to original form and talents of the famous and would-be famous.

May 03, 1999|DONALD LIEBENSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Submitted for your approval, a collection of oils and still-lifes that share one thing in common: You won't find them in the average salon or exhibition hall or art museum. Or, for now, in any video store. Mail order distributor Columbia House Video Library, under its "re-tv" banner, has just unveiled its exclusive 10-volume collection of original episodes from Rod Serling's 1970s anthology series, "Night Gallery."

The introductory volume, available for $4.95 (at [800] 638-2922), contains two of the series' most celebrated pieces: the Emmy Award-nominated "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" and "The Caterpillar," starring Laurence Harvey as a man who gets an earful of earwig. Subsequent volumes will be available to subscribers every four to six weeks for $19.95.

The Columbia House collection marks the first time these episodes will be seen complete and uncut since their original broadcast run. The show was cut from one hour to 30 minutes for syndication. Fifteen-minute segments were, without Serling's or producer Jack Laird's consent, padded with stock footage. Stories that ran more than 30 minutes were cut to fill the time slot.

"Night Gallery" marked Serling's return to weekly television after "The Twilight Zone" was canceled six years earlier. The series enjoyed an auspicious beginning: a feature-length pilot that was broadcast in 1969 to critical acclaim and high ratings. One of the three segments, starring Joan Crawford as a predatory blind woman, marked the directorial debut of Steven Spielberg.

In 1970, "Night Gallery" shared its time slot with "McCloud," "San Francisco International Airport" and "The Psychiatrist," episodes of which were broadcast in rotation on NBC under the umbrella "Four in One." In its second season, "Night Gallery" earned its own spot on the Wednesday night schedule.

"Night Gallery's" palette had many colors, as Volume 8 illustrates. It includes the touched-by-an-angel fantasy, "The Messiah on Mott Street," the macabre "Green Fingers," the ghoulishly funny "The Funeral" and the haunting "The Tune in Dan's Cafe," which spawned the surprise hit, "If You Leave Me Tonight I'll Cry."

The popular perception of "Night Gallery" is that it pales in comparison to "Twilight Zone," but according to Scott Skelton, co-author of "Rod Serling's Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour," the series rates a fresh look.

"It was a showcase for moods and aesthetics," he noted in a phone interview. " 'Twilight Zone' was more a way [for Serling] to circumvent a lot of timid executives afraid of dealing with such subjects as prejudice and mob violence, stories about which he couched in a fantasy form. 'Night Gallery' was more of a horror show. It retained elements of science fiction and fantasy, but whereas 'Zone' was a writer's show, 'Night Gallery,' not to shortchange its writers, was more of a director's show."

Jeannot Szwarc, one of the series' most prolific directors, is represented in the video collection by such classic entries as "The Caterpillar," "Sins of the Father" and "Class of '99."

"[The show] required a feeling for atmosphere," he said in a phone interview. "The rhythm [of the segments] was deliberate, building toward something. I had read a lot of literature, such as H.P. Lovecraft, and, you know, the French are in love with Edgar Allen Poe. We have an affinity for the kind of story in which the end is like leaning over an abyss, where the end is like a new beginning."

Shooting schedules, he recalled, "were horrendously difficult. Some of those episodes were done in three days. But it was a very inspiring and collaborative environment. We used to go around and see what other sets existed [on the Universal lot] and then adapt them. And the material, of course, was phenomenal. We were at the edge of what was being done on television in those days. It was my creative home."

"Night Gallery" attracted a stellar roster of character actors who rarely appeared on television, including Geraldine Page ("Stop Killing Me," "Sins of the Fathers"), Kim Stanley ("A Fear of Spiders"), Vincent Price ("Class of '99") and Edgar G. Robinson ("The Messiah on Mott Street").

In addition to Spielberg, "Night Gallery" was also a launching pad for director John Badham ("Camera Obscura"). The shows also offer nascent glimpses of Diane Keaton ("Room With a View"), Mark Hamill (a cameo in "There Aren't Any More McBanes"), Randy Quaid ("The Late Mr. Pendleton"), Sandra Locke ("A Feast of Blood") and Gerald McRaney ("Deliveries in the Rear").

The series afforded the opportunity to play against type. Pat Boone callously commits his son to "The Academy," and Rudy Vallee portrays an insane doctor in "Marmalade Wine." Artie Johnson is a hell-bound disc jockey in "The Flip Side of Satan."

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