Wednesday, November 02, 2005

To Serve Man

Veteran actor Lloyd Bochner died earlier this week at his home in California, after a battle with cancer. He was 81.

If the name doesn't ring a bell, you would probably recognize his face. Over an acting career that spanned almost six decades, Bochner was a familiar presence on TV and in films. Late in his career, Bochner starred as Cecil Colby in the prime-time soap opera Dynasty. He was typically cast as a handsome, suave, and wealthy villian.

But Bochner may be best remembered for a classic episode of The Twilight Zone, entitled "To Serve Man." Bochner played Michael Chambers, a U.N. cryptanalyst. Chambers, along with thousands of other earthlings, has signed up to travel to the home planet of the Kanamits, massive aliens who have recently arrived on earth. During their time on the planet, the Kanamits solve the world's most pressing problems, and appear to be completely benevolent and altruistic; the book they leave the U.N. ("To Serve Man") seems to confirm their benign nature.

As Chambers prepares for his trip with the Kanamits, his assistant, Pat (played by Susan Cummings) labors to translate the book. In the tradition of The Twilight Zone, series creator Rod Serling delivers an unforgettable twist at the end of the episode. Standing in line to board the spaceship, Chambers learns that his hosts aren't benevolent afterall. Pat tells him that the book is actually a cookbook. Chambers tries to flee, but a Kanamit forces him onto the spaceship. The episode ends with the ship's departure, with Chambers (and his fellow travelers) on their way to become dinner for the Kanamits.

TV Guide recently ranked "To Serve Man" as the 11th-greatest TV episode of all time, and I can't argue with that assessment. In a series filled with memorable episodes, "To Serve Man" is one of the best.

Incidentally, 2005 marks the 30th anniversary of Rod Serling's death. While the genius of Serling's work has long been recognized, I also marvel at his prodigious output as a writer. He wrote more half of the episodes of The Twilight Zone (which aired from 1959-1964) , and authored some of greatest original dramas from TV's "Golden Age" in the 1950s, including the original Requiem for a Heavyweight.

More than one critic has observed that the quality and originality of Serling's work elevated the work of his actors, and that was certainly true on "The Twilight Zone." But Serling also understood that the players--many of them character actors like Bochner--gave voice and life to his words, and in the process, helped create some of the most memorable moments in TV history.

RIP, Mr. Bochner, and thanks for an unforgettable episode in one of TV's finest series.

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