The Twilight Zone: Season 1, Episode Twelve “What You Need”

Original Air Date: December 25, 1959
Writer: Lewis Padgett/Rod Serling
Director: Alvin Ganzer

“Serenity, peace of mind, humor -the things you need most, I can’t supply.”

“What You Need” was based on the 1945 short story of the same name by spouses Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore under their joint nome de plume “Lewis Padget.” It was not the first on-screen depiction of the story, there was an earlier show called Tales of Tomorrow (1951-1953) with an episode that was perhaps more true to the original story (in which the old man possesses a unique scientific machine rather than a vague fantastical power) but few things can unseat the greatness of The Twilight Zone. Tales of Tomorrow was a live show on ABC that featured many big name actors during its run including Lon Chaney Jr., Paul Newman, James Dean, Boris Karloff, Leslie Nielsen, and others.

“You’re looking at Mr. Fred Renard, who carries on his shoulder a chip the size of the national debt. This is a sour man, a friendless man, a lonely man, a grasping, compulsive, nervous man. This is a man who has lived 36 undistinguished, meaningless, pointless, failure-laden years and who at this moment looks for an escape- any escape, any way, anything, anybody- to get out of the rut. And this little old man is just what Mr. Renard has been waiting for.”

Rod Serling

A curious old man named “Pedott” (played by Ernest Truex) has the uncanny ability to offer people exactly what they need (not necessarily what they want). The implication is that Pedott possesses clairvoyance. He demonstrates his ability in a cafe by giving a vial of cleaner to a woman, and he offers a former Chicago Cub’s pitcher a bus ticket to Scranton, Pennsylvania. The phone rings and a minor league coaching job is offered to pitcher in Pennsylvania, but there is a stain on his suit coat. The woman with a vial of cleaner helps him and they depart together. Their needs have been provided by Pedott.

Meanwhile a shady man at the bar has been watching the situation unfold. His name is Fred Renard (played by Steve Cochran), and he follows Pedott outside demanding to be given what he needs. Pedott hands him a pair of scissors which he later finds useful when his scarf is caught in an elevator, very nearly killing him via strangulation.

Ever the exploiter, Fred tracks down the gentle Pedott and threatens him for his own schemes. Fred has been struggling all his life and he wants some security in the future. As he grows increasingly belligerent, Pedott hands him a pair of shoes while cautiously backing away. The shoes cause him to slip in front of an oncoming car and die upon collision. In a world where Pedott may be killed, what is needed is to bring death upon his adversary.

Once again the cinematography of George T. Clemens is brilliant in this episode as we find a uniquely rainy, dark, and hazy MGM backlot made to look something like the streets of Chicago. The brilliance of The Twilight Zone often lies in its simplicity. Nothing is ever truly out of place, but it retains a level of mystery and intrigue along with a coherent conclusion that often leaves its audience in a state of wonder.

“Street scene. Night. Traffic accident. Victim named Fred Renard. Gentleman with a sour face to whom contentment came with difficulty. Fred Renard, who took all that was needed, in the Twilight Zone.”

Rod Serling

The Twilight Zone Trivia:

  • The original story featured a machine that could foretell an individual’s future. Serling replaced this science-fiction element with a fantasy story about a street peddler who could perform a similar act without the machine. In the original story the man owns a shop where he has a machine, and gives people what they need for the best possible outcomes. Also, the Renard character is killed not by a car, but by falling off a subway platform while a train is coming in to the station.
  • During the scene in Mr. Renard’s hotel room a bellhop brings him a newspaper. Renard then opens it and spreads it out on the floor. The movement is quick, but the front page of the newspaper is visible, indicating that it is the same front page used in another Twilight Zone episode, “Time Enough at Last”. The headline reads “H-Bomb Capable of Total Destruction.” Once Renard opens the paper and looks at the racing page, several in-jokes are apparent in the names of the listed jockeys, which include “Serling”, “Clemens” (referencing director of photography George Clemens), “Houghton” (referencing producer Buck Houghton), “Butler” (referencing set decorator Rudy Butler) and “Denault” (referencing assistant director Edward Denault).

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