It may have ended in disaster for Jackie Gleason, but it launched the TV career of Roald Dahl. In 1961, Gleason was supposed to make his “triumphant return” to television with his celebrity quiz show You’re in the Picture, where famous guests had to place their heads through holes in a picture and by asking pertinent questions guess what picture was about. It was a bomb, but let’s not smirk too soon, as I am sure some dick TV exec is currently contemplating how to make this idea work again.
You’re in the Picture was so bad that when Gleason went on air the following week, he apologized to the American public. A big gesture, and one that today’s politicians and TV producers should think of adopting. The series was binned and a replacement show had to be found, pronto. In came producer David Susskind with an idea to capatilize on the success of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone which was then dominating the schedules. Susskind contacted Roald Dahl to help front a science-fiction and horror anthology series ‘Way Out. Dahl was suited to this role of series host, as he was best known for his sinister and darkly amusing tales of horror and fantasy, published in the New Yorker.
The idea was for Dahl to introduce each show with a brief amusing monologue, which related to that episode’s story. It was also decided that Dahl’s disturbing science-fiction/horror story “William and Mary” would kick the series off. It was a fun and frenetic time, as Dahl later recalled:
“There was a hell of a rush. And there was always a rush subsequently. The whole thing was done at a hectic pace. I mean, having gotten mine done, he (Susskind) then had to rush around and find other suitable stories, get them adapted quickly, and line up the cast. Jackie Babbin (‘Way Out‘s producer) did sterling work. David Susskind likes operating at a white heat and he’s very good at it.”
On March 31 1961, the first episode of ‘Way Out premiered to rave reviews:
Calling this first episode an “auspicious debut,” the New York Times praised the show for a tale “told tightly and lightly, with wry and brittle dialog.” A West Coast review added that “‘Way Out‘s chief asset could be its host Mr. Dahl, who practices literary witchcraft in the realm of the macabre and whose introduction to the series and the opener (which he wrote) was a joy… The story we were about to see, he said with a gentlemanly leer, was not for children, nor young lovers, nor people with queasy stomaches. It was for ‘wicked old women.’”
Dahl was described as “a thin Alfred Hitchcock, an East Coast Rod Serling.” But while the series proved a hit in all the major cities, it didn’t fare so good across middle America, and after 14 episodes, the plug was pulled. A dam shame, one which Mike Dann, then head of CBS Network Programming has explained by saying the stories featured on ‘Way Out were:
“perhaps a little too macabre, a little too odd for television. Roald Dahl’s show simply was just too limited to be that successful.”
Perhaps, but sometimes it’s worth the risk of forgetting what the middle ground wants to achieve something better for all. Was ‘Way Out any good? I think so, but decide for yourself with these “lost episodes” from the series, including the first episode taken from Dahl’s story “William and Mary”. Enjoy.
‘Way Out: “William and Mary” (1961)
‘Way Out: “I Heard You Calling Me” (1961)
‘Way Out: “The Croaker” (1961)
‘Way Out: “Dissolve to Black” (1961)
‘Way Out: “Death Wish” (1961)