Original Air Date: October 9, 1959
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: Robert Parrish
“I just never will understand you people. You get this idiotic notion that life goes on forever, and of course it doesn’t. Everyone has to go sometime.”
“Street scene: Summer. The present. Man on a sidewalk named Lew Bookman, age sixtyish. Occupation: pitchman. Lew Bookman, a fixture of the summer, a rather minor component to a hot July, a nondescript, commonplace little man whose life is a treadmill built out of sidewalks. And in just a moment, Lew Bookman will have to concern himself with survival – because as of three o’clock this hot July afternoon, he’ll be stalked by Mr. Death.“
This second episode of The Twilight Zone is about a Faustian bargain between a “pitchman” (or a street vendor) and a 1950s suit-wearing bureaucrat whom we come to recognize as the embodiment of Goethe’s Mephistopheles (played by Murray Hamilton who also played the town Mayor in Jaws and Mr. Robinson in The Graduate). The bumbling but lovable pitchman is named Mr. Lew Bookman (played by legendary Hollywood actor Ed Wynn). He is visited by Death in the form of a tax collector who claims it is now Bookman’s time to pass on. But Bookman retorts that he still has unfinished business –he wants to find “success” by delivering the perfect pitch, or “one for the angels.” Mr. Bookman denies the old adage that ‘death waits for no man’ and he strikes a deal with Death.
However, once the deal is made Mr. Bookman immediately backs out of the agreement. Thus Death causes a little girl in the neighborhood to die by falling into the street and getting hit by an oncoming car. Before Death can take away the little girl at midnight, Mr. Bookman pulls out his table and delivers an incredible pitch using various products –and the ploy works. Death is distracted by Bookman’s pitch –undoubtedly “one for the angels”– and Death accidentally misses his midnight appointment. Now instead of taking the little girl, Death claims the soul of Mr. Bookman (per their agreement). Throughout the episode both men outmaneuver one other in a game of strategy perhaps akin to Ingmar Bergman’s chess match in Seventh Seal.
“Lewis J. Bookman, age sixtyish. Occupation: pitchman. Formerly a fixture of the summer, formerly a rather minor component to a hot July. But, throughout his life, a man beloved by the children, and therefore, a most important man. Couldn’t happen, you say? Probably not in most places – but it did happen in the Twilight Zone.“
The irony of “One For The Angels” is that we (the audience) find sympathy with both Mr. Bookman and Death. Together they have a playful relationship. Mr. Bookman thinks he can outsmart Death so we start to doubt his character as a cheater, but Bookman is fundamentally a noble soul because he cares for the life of a friendly little girl more than himself. We also learn that Death is not all-powerful -he can be outsmarted by a mere human. Death is forced, by means of a contractual loophole, to oblige Mr. Bookman’s wish for the perfect pitch. He cannot help but listen to Mr. Bookman, a man whose virtue lies in his in caring for the children, while in contrast Death operates like a cold governmental bureaucrat possessing of certain fallible human qualities. In the end, both men depart together as old friends, Death and the salesman (with Mr. Bookman, of course, en route to Heaven).
The tone of this episode is light and comical though it carries a variety of dark allusions to classical mythology. The idea of ‘cheating death’ is rife within the works of ancient Greek and Germanic literature, and this is but the first in a long series of Faustian Bargain episodes in The Twilight Zone.
The Twilight Zone Trivia:
- Wholly different in tone from the show’s pilot, Rod Serling based “One For The Angels” on an old teleplay of the same name he wrote for the television mystery show Danger in 1954. He specifically wrote the script for actor Ed Wynn with whom Serling had previously worked in Serling’s Emmy award winning episode for Playhouse 90 entitled “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1956).
- The toy “Robby The Robot” as featured in this episode is actually the “Nomura” 1957 Robby Mechanized Robot (aka the Kitahara #1). Someone in the prop department applied a sticker of a blood shot human eye onto its dome to give the toy a distinctive look. The toy was featured in a number of other Twilight Zone episodes, and also most famously in the Lost In Space series.
- “Ed Wynn was a sweetheart,” recalls Dana Dillaway (who played the little girl named Maggie). “He gave me a box of European chocolates after the filming was finished. I remember saying his character’s name, ‘Lou’, about a million times during rehearsals. The scene where I was hit by the car was kind of morbid… I remember they kept spritzing the actor who was driving the car with a water spray bottle, who came around to see if I was okay while laying in the street… there is a publicity shot of me laying there and it’s kind of morbid!”
- In consideration of Ed Wynn’s advanced age, the night scenes were actually filmed during the day, with tarpaulins pulled over the set to give the illusion of night.
- This episode takes place from July 19 to July 20, 1960.
- In Season 3 another “Mr. Death” character appears in the series portrayed by Robert Redford.
- In this episode Death claims that Mr. Bookman’s father came from Detroit and his mother came from Syracuse, the two places of origin for Rod Serling’s own parents.