Original Air Date: May 4, 1962
Writer: Rod Serling/Lee Polk
Director: Abner Biberman
“He’s alive. Willy’s not a dummy.”
“You’re watching a ventriloquist named Jerry Etherson, a voice-thrower par excellence. His alter ego sitting atop his lap is a brash stick of kindling with the sobriquet ‘Willy.’ In a moment, Mr. Etherson and his knotty-pine partner will be booked in one of the out-of-the-way bistros, that small, dark, intimate place known as The Twilight Zone.”
Jerry Etherson (Cliff Robertson) is a ventriloquist performing at small clubs in New York City. He appears nervous onstage during his show, and later in his room Etherson’s agent Frank (Frank Sutton) berates him for drinking too much, but Etherson claims his dummy “Willy” is actually live. For a few moments we see Willy subtly move in the mirror’s reflection, but Etherson’s agent Frank brushes this off as mere paranoia and alcoholism.
Etherson attempts a performance with a new dummy named “Goofy Goggles,” but it is not well-reviewed. Desperate to get away from Willy, Etherson attempts to go out for the evening with a chorus girl named Noreen but he becomes haunted thoughts of Willy. In a fit of madness amidst oblong camera angles and sounds of Willy’s voice, he rushes back to his room, tears open his suitcase, and smashes his dummy –only he mistakenly smashes Goofy instead. And a voice from behind him utters, “maybe you need glasses.” Willy derisively laughs and in the final scene the curtain opens in Kansas City where we see their roles are reversed. Willy is now the ventriloquist and Etherson is the dummy (the human Willy is played by George Murdock).
“What’s known in the parlance of the times as ‘the old switcheroo,’ from boss to blockhead in a few uneasy lessons. And if you’re given to nightclubbing on occasion, check this act. It’s called ‘Willy and Jerry,’ and they generally are booked into some of the clubs along the ‘Gray Night Way’ known as The Twilight Zone.”
Anxiety-inducing, unsettling, horrifying –this episode is another triumph for The Twilight Zone, on par with some of its thematic contemporaries in which inanimate objects come to life and terrorize their owners such as “A Thing About Machines” or “Living Doll.”
The Twilight Zone Trivia:
- There is a different episode called “Caesar and Me” in which Jackie Cooper plays a ventriloquist. The same dummy was used in that episode, as well.
- This episode is based on a short story by Lee Polk.
- The dummy “Willy” was created by American ventriloquist supply maker Revillo Pettee. “Willy” is currently in the private collection of magician David Copperfield.
- There have been numerous stories based on the idea of ventriloquism, including by Ray Bradbury and a story by Robert Bloch that was featured in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. This episode was based on a story submission by New York television writer Lee Polk (by this point Serling was inundated with unsolicited scripts).
- Cliff Robertson previously appeared in The Twilight Zone episode “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim.”
- Effects man William Tuttle highlighted some of the more unique facial features of Cliff Robertson in order to make them more noticeable as a dummy.
Click here to return to my survey of The Twilight Zone series.
The Dummy and Caeser & Me both proved how a ventriloquist’s dummy can be most chilling as the embodiment of a person’s worst enemy. Even from the obviously made-up elements of the story, in The Twilight Zone it may serve as the strongest reminder of how crucial it is to never lose our ways in life.
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