Before he was a television writer, Rod Serling was a soldier in the U.S. Army, and while he was a soldier, he did some boxing (a total of 17 fights, the first and last of which resulted in his nose being broken). His experiences in the ring undoubtedly informed his teleplay Requiem for a Heavyweight, a 1956 episode of Playhouse 90 (performed and televised live). Serling's Peabody-winning tale concerned Harlan "Mountain" McClintock, an over-the-hill boxer facing life after the ring. McClintock is a lumbering, inarticulate lug who never quite made it to the top.
The Requiem cast, from left: Keenan Wynn, Jack Palance, and Ed Wynn.
Henry is a kid who lives with his single mother in the same tenement building as Jackson. Henry is Jackson’s biggest fan, and he plans on making a special kind of wish --- the big, tall kind --- to ensure that Jackson wins in the ring. Trouble is…. Jackson has to believe in the magic for the wish to come true, and he’s had too many hard knocks to invest in such nonsense.
But again, this is The Twilight Zone. Things tend to happen here.
Henry makes the big, tall wish.
“The Big Tall Wish” was first aired 50 years ago tonight. It's the first and (regrettably) only TZ episode with a predominantly African-American cast, and this cast shines. Ivan Dixon commands the screen as Jackson, his eyes and mannerisms speaking volumes beyond the words Serling puts in his mouth. Steven Perry is excellent as Henry, a little kid with a somber, ethereal wisdom beyond his years. The scene in which Henry pleads with Jackson to believe in his magic wish is at once uplifting and heartbreaking. On the strength of the casting for this episode, The Twilight Zone was awarded the Unity Award for Outstanding Contributions to Better Race Relations in 1961.
The episode is well-directed by Ron Winston. One effective touch is the use of extreme close-ups of the eager crowd during the boxing match. We see hands being wrung, palms being punched, popcorn boxes being clutched…. and the reluctant eyes of a female patron, peeking out from behind her hands in between blows.
One other item of note regarding this episode: the original score by Jerry Goldsmith is beautiful and haunting, and is the reason I first became interested in film and TV music twenty years ago. I can’t explain why this particular piece of music appeals to me so greatly, especially since it employs the harmonica of all things (which for me would usually be a deal-breaker), but I can’t deny that “The Big Tall Wish” is my single favorite Twilight Zone score. Goldsmith’s original recording has been released a number of times, first in the 80’s by Varese Sarabande on The Twilight Zone: The Original Television Scores, Volume 2 (on both vinyl and cassette, later released on CD in Japan only). The score later appeared on The Twilight Zone 40th Anniversary Collection from Silva (which compiled all the music from all five Varese Sarabande LPs, plus some additional TZ music).
Regarding those Japan-only CDs… Volume 2 was the first one I got (‘round 1994, I think it was). I paid $50.00 plus shipping to import it from a German soundtrack dealer, which sounds crazy now in the days of digital downloading and rampant music piracy, but I had to have the damn thing. Why? Because it had “The Big Tall Wish” on it, and my cassette would inevitably wear out. I've never once regretted the cost.
Next week: A two-bit thief gets iced in a robbery gone bad and wakes up in heaven. He’s got flashy threads, a swanky pad, girls galore, a casino where he wins every game, all the money he can spend… well, it's just gotta be heaven... right? Roll the dice and tune in.