Sunday, February 10, 2019

Shakespeare as Television Writer

This is my entry in the We Love Shakespeare Week hosted by Hamlette's Soliloquy.

William Shakespeare was one of the most prolific writers of the late 16th / early 17th century. (Or, if you are a conspiracy theorist, the unwitting stooge of Sir Francis Bacon.  Personally, I believe he wrote the plays credited to his name, however).  Over a span of just 25 years or so, he wrote 39 plays, as well as a slew of sonnets and poems.  (The guy must have suffered from insomnia...)

Shakespeare has made his way into the cultural zeitgeist of Elizabethan history.  Ask most people to name the most important person to have lived in that time period, and like as not, you'll get "William Shakespeare" in at least the top 5, if not the most commonly named persona.  He has had so many biographies written about him it is impossible for me to count.  (The best one I've read, by the way, is Bill Bryson's Shakespeare: The World as Stage, which, if not necessarily comprehensive, at a mere 200 pages, certainly won't tax your time and Bryson is definitely not boring.)

Shakespeare's plays have not only been performed on stage and in film, but there are several "modern" setting movies which use the theme from a play to tell a tale.  Akira Kurosawa, the legendary Japanese director, adapted at least two of the Bard's plays, moving the setting to feudal Japan;  Throne of Blood is a retelling of "Macbeth", and Ran was based on "King Lear".  In other realms, the classic science-fiction film Forbidden Planet derives much of its theme from the Shakesperean play "The Tempest". And most people know that West Side Story was basically a re-telling of "Romeo and Juliet". (And that's not all, just the ones I've seen...)

Shakespeare himself has also made his way into film media.  Best Picture Oscar winner Shakespeare in Love, featured Joseph Fiennes as the Bard.  A BBC television sitcom, Upstart Crow, features Shakespeare and his trials and tribulations as an aspiring writer.  And then there's the classic American TV show, The Twilight Zone, which during it's fourth season aired one of it's rare comedic outings with an episode called, appropriately enough, "The Bard"

Twlight Zone "The Bard"  (first aired May 23, 1963):

Meet Julius Moomer (Jack Weston).

Julius is a former streetcar conductor who desperately wants to be a television writer.  Except Moomer hasn't got the writing chops to pull it off.  (Given some of the more recent output on TV these days, maybe he was just born in the wrong century...)  Rod Serling in his opening monolgue to the show states that "if talent came at twenty-five cents a pound, [Moomer] would be worth less than car fare".  Anyway, Moomer tries and tries, and his agent, Gerald Hugo (Henry Lascoe) does his best to convince Moomer he ought to try some other outlet.  But Moomer isn't listening.

Fortunately for Moomer, Hugo has the patience of a saint, and agrees to take Moomer's script for an upcoming series on black magic.  But Moomer knows absolutely nothing about black magic.  So he goes to a bookstore where a ditzy baseball nut owner ends up giving him the only book on the subject she has in her shop.  The book, it turns out, is full of black magic spells.

Bumbling as he is (he substitutes feathers of a pigeon for the called for feathers of a falcon, sand from the local beach for sand from Egypt and the legs of an ant for the legs of a spider), Moomer is able to call up the flesh and blood body of William Shakespeare (John Williams ), complete with Hollywood's version of period attire..

Moomer has big dreams almost immediately.  Instead of getting Shakespeare to write the pilot for the black magic series, he instead gets him to write a full-fledged original teleplay.  Which of course becomes a potential television movie, because, after all, it wasn't Moomer's writing, it was Shakespeare's.  But Shakespeare becomes exasperated with Moomer who is taking all the credit for what was Shakespeare's original work.

Shakespeare decides he will go to the studio to see just how the rehearsal is progressing.  And he his shocked, to say the least.  Firstly, Rocky Rhodes (Burt Reynolds, who seems to be channeling Marlon Brando; and doing an excellent job of it, I might add) is not the young boy of 18 that Shakespeare had envisioned.

Neither is the "young"  girl who was to be his love interest.  And whole parts of the play have been subjected wholesale changes.  Not being used to such things, Shakespeare goes into a rant and storms off.  But not before giving Rocky a sock in the chops.

Of course, the play doesn't go off as planned.  but Moomer is not discouraged.  Wait until you see his next inspiration.

Drive home,safely, folks.



  1. I adore this episode of The Twilight Zone. It is so cheeky and so true. Your article as well was aligned with that sense of humour.

    1. I love most of The Twilight Zone episodes, but I do have an affinity for the rare ones that had a humorous twist. Thanks for reading.


    Cuz wow, John Williams as Shakespeare? All the yesses.

    1. You should see it because it's funny as all get out. I didn't really recall John Williams, except in "Dial M for Murder", but I was talking to my sister Sunday, and she recognized he was the second Mr. French on "Family Affair". Thanks for reading.


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