Does “The Twilight Zone” Episode “The Dummy” Reflect Rod Serling’s Own Inner Demons?
Originally airing on May 4, 1962, The Twilight Zone (1959) episode “The Dummy” stars Academy Award winner Cliff Robertson (Charly) as Jerry Etherson, a ventriloquist who is convinced that his dummy, Willie, is alive and evil.
With a teleplay by Rod Serling, based on an unpublished short story of the same name by Lee Polk, this episode is a perfect example of the series creator’s ability to take a preexisting story and craft his own version. (One example of an earlier iteration of the general plot is the Ventriloquist’s Dummy segment in 1945’s British anthology film Dead of Night.)
On a deeper level, the episode appears to be a meditation on alcoholism and the artistic alcoholic personality. Serling had previously explored these themes in The Twilight Zone’s “A Passage for Trumpet,” which stars Jack Klugman (12 Angry Men) as an alcoholic trumpet player who decides to end his life but instead finds himself in that bizarre place that our narrator so-often refers to.
Other than the strange vibes from his wooden friend, perhaps one of the reasons that Jerry drinks is because he fears that his artistic abilities are not good enough to qualify himself as best in his field. Despite these feelings, his agent Frank (Frank Sutton) insists that he should be performing in Vegas, rather than the second rate night clubs he is playing now.
The club might also be a representation of The Twilight Zone in comparison to the more prestigious television programs that Serling had previously worked on, including U.S. Steel Hour (1953-63) and Playhouse 90 (1956-1961). Although The Twilight Zone eventually went on to become one of the most popular television series of all time, at the time of its original airing, the anthology was viewed as campy by many critics.
Like the trumpet player and the ventriloquist, Serling suffered from a lack of self-acceptance. Throughout his lifetime he gained great commercial success for his work in film and television, but he always regretted the fact that he never got around to writing the “great American novel.” Many of his literary works were novelizations of his own television scripts.
But, while in “A Passage for Trumpet” Joey comes out of his ordeal rejuvenated, in “The Dummy’s Jerry allows his obsession to get the best of him, as the dummy and the ventriloquist perform what Serling refers to as the “old switcheroo” in his closing epilogue.