Thursday, May 5, 2011
The Shame of Jackie Cooper
Jackie Cooper died on Tuesday, after a unusually long and notable showbiz career, from starring in the Our Gang comedies in the early 1930s to playing Perry White in all four of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, as well as directing several episodes of Black Sheep Squadron, The White Shadow, and Jake and the Fatman. Among his other distinctions was that he starred in the worst-ever episode of The Twilight Zone, "Caesar and Me," which aired on April 10, 1964.
Its prime competition for that honor would seem to be "Cavender Is Coming," the ill-fated, laugh-track-bedecked outing starring Carol Burnett. I discount "Cavender" for a couple of reasons. One, it wasn't really a Twilight Zone episode so much as it was a pilot for a spinoff series Rod Serling wanted to sell. Two, I haven't seen it. It has been a project of mine recently to watch every original episode of The Twilight Zone, and I'm up to around 120 out of 156. "Cavender" is still missing, but I'll catch up to it in the next couple of weeks.
"Caesar and Me" dates from the Zone's troubled fifth (and last) season. By this time, Rod Serling was teaching at Antioch College in Ohio, commuting back and forth to Los Angeles to tape his intros and still writing the occasional script, but his day-to-day duties had pretty much ended. The episode features Cooper as a ventriloquist whose dummy starts talking to him - already a shopworn conceit that the Zone itself had done much better in "The Dummy," from Season Three. In this one, Cooper has almost no onstage career, so his dummy starts ordering him to rob homes to make a living. Yawn.
The story goes that the producer found himself one week without a script, so his secretary piped up and said she had been working on something. "Caesar and Me" would be the only televised work ever credited to one Adele T. Strassfield. It's not hard to see why.
Photo borrowed from the excellent site Twilight Zone Museum