Desi Arnaz was technically the first host of The Twilight Zone

Desi even offered his own opinion on Serling's first TV teleplay.

Image: Desilu Sales Inc.

Fate is a tricky thing in The Twilight Zone, teasing its subjects with moral questions and sometimes even showing up personified as eerie beings who seem to obscure more often than they shed light on the future.

For Rod Serling, the future of the anthology series he wished to produce was uncertain when his first ever screenplay that ended up launching The Twilight Zone aired as an episode of Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse in 1958. The story was called "The Time Element" and it was so well-received that CBS immediately ordered more stories like it. Those stories they demanded would eventually become what is now known as The Twilight Zone.

In "The Time Element," dramatic actor Martin Balsam (12 Angry Men, Psycho) served as a psychoanalyst to a man named Peter Jenson, who is tortured by a recurring dream where he ends up in Honululu the day before the Pearl Harbor attacks but is unable to save a single life for his knowlege of the tragic future. Balsam's character spends the episode assuring his patient it is only a dream, because time travel isn't real.

Had this episode been introduced by Rod Serling, the audience would've known and expected something to be off in the world they were watching. As it played out as an installment on Westinghouse, the twist at the end where the patient disappears succeeded at throwing audiences with the same force that would later make The Twilight Zone such an iconic series.

This episode would never air as part of The Twilight Zone, but its importance in its legacy is significant to serve as a preliminary pilot. And to make this story even more curious, the host of this first-ever Twilight Zone story was not Serling, who wouldn't introduce an episode until his series' second season, but a different familiar face from the Fifties: I Love Lucy star Desi Arnaz.

When "The Time Element" begins, Arnaz steps out, a shadowy figure, with the shadow of a grandfather clock complete with swinging pendulum in the background. "Good evening, ladies and gentleman," he said in the episode, "and welcome to another Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse. Tonight we're going to see a story written by Rod Serling and starring William Bendix." This is normal enough for a host, but then his intro falls into a cadence that recalls Serling's distinct narration: "Our story begins in a doctor's office. A patient is sitting there. He walked into this office nine minutes ago."

We'd see Arnaz again when the story concludes, and the first thing he says is, "As you can see, the pendulum has stopped. We wonder if Pete Jenson did go back in time or if he ever existed."

Then he does something Serling never really did. He offered his own opinion: "My personal answer is that the doctor has seen Jenson's picture at the bar sometime before and had a dream." And when he sends us off, he does it by vocalizing the silent question affixed to the end of every episode of The Twilight Zone: "Any of you have any other answers?" He nods severely and then says, "Let me know."

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Wiseguy 16 days ago
"Had this episode been introduced by Rod Serling, the audience would've known and expected something to be off in the world they were watching."

Although Serling was well-known at the time for writing quality drama, the something off in the world element (no pun intended) wasn't really introduced until The Twilight Zone at least not enough so that the audience "would have known and expected."
cperrynaples Wiseguy 16 days ago
Yes, Serling's work on TZ was out of character for him. When interviewed by Mike Wallace, he said something to the effect of "Well Rod, does this mean you're giving up serious writing?" Serling was properly offended and told Wallace that TZ was very serious!
Wiseguy 16 days ago
TVLand showed it around the time the network premiered.
Lacey 16 days ago
While is was not a aired Twilight Episode, it was the bases for another Twilight Zone story staring Russel Johnson. The idea was, of course, used for an episode of The Time Tunnel.
KennethGrueschow Lacey 16 days ago
About Lincoln's assassination
pony 16 days ago
Ugh. The "Here's my theory" concept would have been a horrible way for each segment to end.
Wiseguy pony 16 days ago
According to The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree, a TV critic at the time wrote in response to Arnaz' comments "Go home, Desi!"
cperrynaples Wiseguy 16 days ago
Yes, that book answers a lot of questions posed by this article. However, other critics weren't so kind to Serling, thinking he was going to do Frankenstein and Dracula-type stories, instead of the more personal stories he DID do!
AgingDisgracefully 16 days ago
I think I Love Lucy would have been better if each episode featured an introductory paragraph from Desi, beginning, "Submitted for your approval..."
wanderer2575 16 days ago
Supposedly, Desi Arnaz' "personal explanation" at the end came at the insistence of the show's sponsor, who was extremely nervous that the viewing audience wouldn't understand the ambiguous twist ending. TV really was dumbed down in those days before Serling and company brought some shows that made us think.
JoeBev 17 days ago
Submitted for your approval... Here is "The Time Element":
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oERqiJgv9bo
cperrynaples 18 days ago
Desi had a policy that if he didn't like the story he wouldn't do it! He only did "The Time Element" because he was a fan of Serling! I've seen that epilogue on You Tube and he really throws shade on Serling! No wonder Desilu passed on TZ and went with The Untouchables! At least he understood gangsters and lawmen!
PS What's with that subheadline? In the first place, the phrase "TV teleplay" is redundant! And in the second place, it was hardly Serling's first "TV teleplay". He had already won Emmies for Patterns and Requiem For A Heavyweight by the time Desi contacted him!
Possibly it was meant to read "first TZ teleplay" but was mangled by autocorrect or something even less insightful such as an editor.
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