George Clayton Johnson and Charles Beaumont, circa 1960. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain
Editor’s Note: If you are heading out to Comic-Con, and you wish to learn more about what we covered in this interview, go to a special panel, “Star Trek 50th Anniversary and George Clayton Johnson Tribute,” on Thursday, July 21st, 9:00 – 10:30 PM. Room: 9 upstairs inside San Diego Convention Center. Having written the first aired Star Trek episode, “The Man Trap,” George has secured his place within Star Trek as much as Twilight Zone.
Jason V Brock is a filmmaker, writer, editor, and artist. For this interview, I draw from Jason’s extensive knowledge of golden age television and pop culture. Among his work in film, he is known for his documentary on the writer Charles Beaumont (1929-1967), which is a rich source for our talk. At the same time, Brock’s academic work is just as compelling. I consider Jason a friend in the entertainment industry: we both share a certain sensibility. I hope you enjoy this concise version our geeking out on George Clayton Johnson and related things. We were both en route to a special tribute for screenwriter George Clayton Johnson that took place this February. So, it all makes sense.
In this interview, we’re chatting about that golden time in television that was “The Twilight Zone.” This is digging deeper into the background of the show and its key talent. For this talk, we’re focusing on George Clayton Johnson along with other members of what became known as “The Group,” which met from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s. Within that gathering of writers, the leader was Charles Beaumont. Some writers from The Group went on to write for The Twilight Zone.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Jason, talk about Charles Beaumont, who remains something of a mystery: a great writer on the rise, dead at age 38. And then let’s shift to George, who also remains a mystery.
JASON V BROCK: There’s an interview with Charles Beaumont that was conducted by George Clayton Johnson. It was for a show called, “The Author and the Story.” And Beaumont recites from “My Fair Lady.” We include some of that in the documentary. If you can find that interview, it is well worth seeking out. Beaumont’s illness is a mystery. It does seem to come down to two possibilities: Alzheimer’s disease or Pick’s disease. I tend to think it was Pick’s disease as it fits in with what we know about Beaumont’s activity as he declined: slow and halting speech; a greater amount of impulsivity. What Beaumont’s friends believed was the main cause of Beaumont’s premature death was his routine use of Bromo-Seltzer, which had aluminum, a cause of dementia.
During this time that Beaumont was declining in health, he and George had a falling out. George was trying to figure out a new project. And they had a sort of disagreement. But, after a while, they mended fences. It was during that time that George discovered what was happening to Beaumont. Keep in mind that these were still young guys. The dementia started for Beaumont at around age 33.
Now, George will always remain a mystery. He was an enigmatic individual to be sure. A lot of people don’t know this but he was an underwear model for a time. He did whatever to make ends meet. He was, as he liked to say, “a dog without a collar.” He wanted to do things his way and succeed on his own terms. He was punk rock before that became a thing, and I admire that about him. He was a very intelligent person. He only had an eighth grade education. He was born in a barn in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He went through many phases. He was a beatnik and then became enthralled with hippiedom, and that aspect never left. He was a vegetarian. And he was involved with supporting the legalization of marijuana. Politically, he had more of a Libertarian ideal. He was also mercurial, open to new ideas, never crystallized in his mindset.
Ray Bradbury asked, “Who can explain the mystery of personality?” And I think George fits that perfectly. You could ask him one thing and he would answer back with the most unexpected things.
There was that aspect of overcoming the odds for George and his feeling a need to prove himself.
I look at The Group and think of it as the atom with Charles Beaumont as the nucleus. They’re all in different shells around Beaumont. The atom blew apart once the nucleus was gone. Everyone went in different directions. In the hierarchy, Beaumont was at the top. But, beyond that, in relation to success, was Richard Matheson in a role as mentor. Then there was Ackerman and Bradbury who were relatively older. What’s interesting is that Nolan and Johnson told me that they felt they were lowest on the totem pole in relation to the group. However, Nolan and Tomerlin were, in fact, closest to Beaumont. And then George was next to them.
George was more responsible. The three others did as they pleased. They would go to Monaco and crash a dinner for Princess Grace. They loved Grand Prix racing. They would run off and do all these things at the drop of a hat. Go hang out with Ian Fleming. George stayed home with his family. Richard Matheson stayed home with his family. George was one of the few who bought his house. He bought it early on and lived the rest of his life there. He hungered for that stability and security.
Considering those four core members, tell us more about John Tomerlin.
What’s interesting about him is that he was a catalyst for a number of things. He started in radio and that was his big love. He wasn’t really interested in television or film. The rest of the group dragged him into that. He was interested in competing and conquering. He was feisty. He became a bridge champion, and pilot. He was mostly in love with the Norman Corwin school of writing for radio. That’s like saying today that you’d like to write like the original Twilight Zone when we’re in the midst of Kardashian cult TV. It ain’t gonna happen!
Share with us more about other members of The Group. They seem to fade into the background and yet they’re all interesting in their own ways. There’s Chad Oliver, for instance, he seems pretty obscure but I come to find that he had his cult following.
Well, Chad Oliver really did enjoy science fiction. I don’t think that was where Beaumont’s heart was. It’s weird that Johnson and Nolan would think they were lowest on the totem pole since that was not true. After you move past the core, there are the top ten. Altogether, you could say there were thirty writers associated with The Group. If you’re thinking conceptually, outside of Bradbury, Beaumont was most influential closely followed by Richard Matheson. And then, after that, Nolan.
After that, it depends, as you give merit on a story by story basis. Stylistically, Beaumont was at the top. Followed by Nolan, and then Johnson. I would place Matheson at the bottom, as a stylist. His writing was very direct; he was not an atmospheric writer. His ideas and his characterizations are his strengths, and his novel way of looking at the universe. While Beaumont’s writing was more rich, a lot more substance to his delivery. Bill Nolan was a lot like that too, especially early in his career. Later in his career, his writing is more like Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler or Hemingway. He started in the style of Bradbury, as did Beaumont. George also emulated Bradbury. And then they moved on. Bill did a lot of television with Dan Curtis. Mathewson wrote a tremendous amount for television and film, beginning with Roger Corman. His writing lent himself to screenplays. He wrote about a hundred short stories and then switched to novels.
Talk more about the dynamics of what was going on behind the scenes of The Twilight Zone: Rod Serling and Ray Bradbury.
The Group would not have happened if not for Rod Serling. It was Serling who was the big shot in television. Ray Bradbury wanted to do that too. Serling came from the East Coast and steeped in great television, like Paddy Chayefsky. Bradbury has his side of the story of what caused the great rift between them–and we cover that in our documentary. I can see that it was jealously at play: Bradbury wanted what Serling had. But, The Twilight Zone, in fact, was always on precarious ground. Then there’s Night Gallery which left Serling without creative control which he regretted very much. Writers from The Twilight Zone went on to write for Star Trek and for Night Gallery. Nolan and Johnson both wrote a number of scripts for consideration on Star Trek. And, it was Johnson who wrote the first Star Trek episode aired, “The Man Trap.”
I can understand how Ray Bradbury would have felt that he could have done a better job than Rod Serling, even if that was not the case.
Bradbury would have directly said that. Serling got to the point too describing Bradbury’s style as best for the page and not the screen. Bradbury is more in line with Edgar Alan Poe. And that is more of an internal mode of writing. It is very difficult to transfer that onto a script. On the other hand, you can say Serling’s writing can be very talky. The modern equivalent to Serling would be Aaron Sorkin. Your mind is just snapping and crackling to that kind of writing. Serling was very much like that on his work for Playhouse 90.
Clusters of writers do crop up. You think of The Lost Generation Expats in Paris, The Lovecraft Circle, The Beats, The Group. It’s very hard, if not impossible, to form this bond online. You need that human connection.
Rod Serling is quite fascinating. And he did know what he was doing even if he had not been known for science fiction and fantasy prior to The Twilight Zone.
Yes, he had always been reading in the field. He had always been interested in science fiction and fantasy, reading it since he was a boy. He just didn’t have an outlet for it yet. He wasn’t a prose writer, that wasn’t his form of writing. He started in radio, just like John Tomerlin. Serling started writing from his direct experience in the war. He was in the Pacific during World War II. I recommend a memoir by Anne Serling, “As I Knew Him,” about her father. It is very well written. She describes how her dad wrote initially in a diary form to help him overcome PTSD. This would lead him to radio and, with his clipped style of talking, he was a natural for it. Later, he wins a writing contest for television. The writer who came in second was Earl Hamner Jr., who would go on to write a number of Twilight Zone episodes.
Indulge me and go even further into the background of the writing for The Twilight Zone. For one thing, everyone involved was hip to Weird Fiction.
If you break it down, story by story, what these writers were most interested in was Magical Realism. They didn’t really call it that back then in the United States. Bradbury had that aspect. Serling definitely had it. When you start looking at other writers from The Group, John Tomerlin and Jerry Sohl were much more interested in serious and realistic stories. So, it comes down to Nolan, Matheson, Beaumont, and Johnson.
They all loved F. Scott Fitzgerald. They all loved Hemingway. They could not help but admire Hemingway as he was the big force in writing at the time. Hemingway had that succinct style that fit right in with their interest in noir. They tapped into the Magical Realism in Faulkner. They all loved Poe. And they all loved Bradbury and wanted to follow in his footsteps and write for the pulps. Beaumont loved Lovecraft. He loved Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun.” Had Beaumont lived, he would have pursued more work with social commentary similar to Rod Serling. It’s very interesting as to how it all came together as it did. It is something I’d like to write about in the future.
Thank you, Jason. As always, a pleasure. I look forward to our next conversation.
Same here, Henry.
Keep up with Jason V Brock by visiting his website for his work and that of his wife, Sunni K Brock, right here.