The Twilight Zone: Season 5, Episode Sixteen“The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross”

Original Air Date: January 17, 1964
Writer: Henry Slesar/Jerry McNeely
Director: Don Siegel

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Based on a 1961 short story of the same name by Henry Selsar which was published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (Mr. Slesar also previously wrote the short story which was made into the Season 5 episode “The Old Man In The Cave”), “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross” is one of the most uncomfortable stories to be featured in The Twilight Zone. It is about a cocky, short-tempered young man with little prospects who nevertheless aggressively pursues a good-natured woman despite her relentless efforts to tell him “no.”

“Confidential personnel file on Salvadore Ross. Personality: a volatile mixture of fury and frustration. Distinguishing physical characteristic: a badly broken hand, which will require emergency treatment at the nearest hospital. Ambition: shows great determination towards self-improvement. Estimate of potential success: a sure bet for a listing in Who’s Who in the Twilight Zone.”
-Rod Serling

Salvadore “Sal” Ross (Don Gordon) is a snide and resentful down-on-his-luck 26-year old who longs to win over the heart of a desirable young social worker named Leah Maitland (Gail Kobe). Sal wants Leah not because he loves her, but rather because he simply hopes to possess her, like a prize in order to prove himself worthy. He regularly pesters Leah but her crippled, aging father (played by Vaughn Taylor of Psycho fame) steps in and prevents their relationship from growing any closer. The door is slammed quite literally in Sal’s face and he slams on the door, breaking his hand.

This sends Sal to the hospital where he meets an elderly man (J. Pat O’Malley) and they jokingly promise to trade ailments, however when Sal discovers that their injuries have been switched and that he possesses a strange supernatural power, he begins making other such trades. In a bizarre business arrangement, Sal sells his youth to an elderly millionaire in exchange for $1,000,000 and a penthouse apartment in the city. Now appearing as a much older man, Sal begins buying years of life from young bellhops for $1,000 a piece until he reaches the age of 26 again.

After making one final trade with a college student for his knowledge of culture and etiquette, Sal returns to the home of Leah and her father. He now seems impressive and accomplished but Leah’s father is not buying his superficial act. Leah somewhat reluctantly agrees to dinner with Sal after he refuses to take “no” for an answer. When they return, it is clear that Leah has completely rejected Sal because he is not kind and compassionate like her father –a man who cares for people simply for being people, not for any personal gain. Enraged, Sal offers financial security in the form of $100,000 to Leah’s father in exchange for purchasing his compassionate, kindly nature.

In a brief epilogue, the following day Sal and Leah return home from a date and they are now in love. Sal tries to apologize to Leah’s father but he refuses to accept. When Sal implores the old man to find some compassion, Leah’s father simply stares at him and reveals he is holding a gun before coldly remarking, “I sold that to you yesterday.” He then shoots and (presumably) kills Sal. It seems that even in The Twilight Zone, a man’s nature can never be fully transformed. As this episode’s title suggest, Salvadore Ross’s attempt at cheating his way to self-improvement has become his own undoing. Thankfully cosmic retribution exacts its vengeance on people like Salvadore Ross in The Twilight Zone.

“The Salvadore Ross program for self-improvement. The all-in-one, sure-fire success course that lets you lick the bully, learn the language, dance the tango and anything else you want to do. Or think you want to do. Money-back guarantee. Offer limited to…the Twilight Zone.”
-Rod Serling

The Twilight Zone Trivia:

  • Henry Slesar adapted this story for an episode of the CBS Radio Mystery Theater A Bargain in Blood which aired on June 10, 1974. Mr. Slesar also wrote the short story which was made into the Season 5 episode “The Old Man In The Cave.” This episode was the second of two contributions he made to the series.
  • Both actors Vaughn Taylor and J. Pat O’Malley who appeared as secondary roles in this episode also appear together in the 1976 comedy film The Gumball Rally.
  • An offer of $1,000,000 in 1964 would be roughly $896,000,000 today in the year 2022.
  • According to the script Salvadore Ross was born in 1937.
  • Salvadore’s apartment in this episode was the same set used in the Season 5 episode “A Short Drink From A Certain Foundation.”
  • At the time this episode was created Don Gordon was 38 despite playing a 26 year old. He previously appeared in the Season 1 episode “The Four Of Us Are Dying.”
  • In The Twilight Zone Companion, Marc Scott Zicree notes the implausibility that Leah would suddenly fall for Sal after one single day. He also makes mention of the poor effects and sloppy attention to detail in this episode.

Click here to return to my survey of The Twilight Zone series.

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