The Twilight Zone: “Caesar and Me”
With so many shows on hiatus, it’s a perfect time to highlight my fave Classic TV-gems.
I have always maintained that The Twilight Zone is the greatest television show ever made. I originally meant to just do some kind of all-encompassing post about the awesomeness that is TZ, but lumping the episodes together like that wouldn’t do the show, or Rod Serling, justice.
So let’s start this little “from the vaults” series by focusing on one of its stand-out episodes, the fifth and final season’s “Caesar and Me.”
There is something that has always creeped me out about ventriloquist dummies. As much as I am loathe to talk about the “good old days,” one thing that kids of today’s generation, and any subsequent ones, will never comprehend is the thrill around Christmastime of your parents handing you the gigantic Sears catalog and telling you to pick stuff out.
The chances of you actually getting anything on your dog eared pages was slim, because while you spent hours poring over the fake drum sets and plastic clubhouses, your parents were probably in their rooms wrapping your Teddy Ruxpin as you did so.
But there was one section in the catalog I could never look at. Every year I would thumb through those pages with a sense of dread, knowing that at any moment I could turn the page to find… the ventriloquist dummies.
I lived in fear that one day my parents would bring one home, and my brothers would use it to torture me. This was compounded by their constant threats to circle and fold that particular page, which in my child’s mind all but ensured that at any moment they would jump out from around a corner and use it to scare the shit out of me. Their vacant eyes and painted smiles haunted my nightmares. And playing right into that common fear was The Twilight Zone and “Caesar and Me.”
Which is why after the initial setup of showing a down on his luck ventriloquist, “Caesar and Me” opens with a chilling shot of the titular Caesar and his freakishly bushy eyebrows staring blankly (and yet still somehow smugly) ahead at the sweet Jonathan West, who wants nothing more than to be successful again. West is heartbreakingly portrayed by the great Jackie Cooper, a distinguished Navy veteran who we sadly lost just last year. Children of the 70’s and 80’s will recognize Cooper as Daily Planet Editor-in-Chief Perry White.
At the time “Caesar and Me” premiered in 1964, Cooper was already a celebrity, having successfully made the transition from child star to respected adult actor. At age nine he was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in the film Skippy (he is the youngest person to ever be nominated in the Best Actor category). And in 1964 he was fresh in viewers’ memories, having starred in the incredibly popular military sitcom Hennessey.
In Serling’s opening he calls Caesar a “small splinter with large ideas,” and for the next 30 minutes, Caesar slowly picks away at Jonathan’s psyche until he is left a broken man, willing to commit criminal acts.
But the core of why “Caesar and Me” is so unnerving goes beyond our discomfort around ventriloquist dummies. Caesar is more than just a manifestation of childhood fears; he is a representation of adult ones as well.
He picks at Jonathan’s confidence, who is only a kind hearted artist that wishes to be in the entertainment business. As a writer, the digs that Caesar makes at Jonathan – challenging his talent, questioning his ability to rise above the others and reach a modicum of success in his chosen art form — these are doubts that plague anyone trying to make a name for themselves in the artistic world, or really, anyone who is trying to find a sense of financial security in any field rife with competition. Which, with a fluctuating economy and shrinking job market could be any of us.
And so the story of Jonathan and Caesar hits home in a way you might not realize. Because it tears open fears that lie more deeply within us. A fear of not being able to make it doing what you really love to do. A fear of being forced to settle, forced to do something that is beneath your talents in order to survive. Or in the event that even those efforts don’t succeed, it makes you think of what lengths you would go to in order to put food in your belly.
“Caesar and Me” is the second time The Twilight Zone takes on a creepy ventriloquist dummy ordering around a comedian. If Caesar looks familiar it’s because he is the same dummy used in 1962’s “The Dummy,” which is stylistically more frightening than “Caesar and Me,” but lacks the psychological element that centers on Jonathan’s wasted potential and fear of failure.
While “Caesar” is full of the simple but eloquent dialogue that fans of Serling eat up, it was surprisingly not penned by Serling himself. That job fell to Adele T. Strassfield, secretary to William Froug, producer of the second half of the final season. This is notable because Strassfield is the only woman to ever write an original teleplay for the first (and best) incarnation of the series.
With so many popular shows currently on winter break, I recommend that my fellow TV-junkies use the time to explore the classic television our favorite shows owe their lives to. SyFy Channel currently airs The Twilight Zone at random hours of the day – put that DVR to better use than recording Dragonwasps.