The Movie That Will Never Be Shown Again

Rod Serling will always be legendary in the film and television industry, thanks to his creation, “The Twilight Zone.”  The rights to the original series were bought a few years ago by Syfy channel, which will be showing a marathon of episodes on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.  But before “Twilight Zone,” Serling had made his mark with Requiem For A Heavyweight on Playhouse 90 (and later did the script for the big screen version) and the business drama “Patterns” that were part of the so-called Golden Age of Television.  After “Twilight Zone,” he did the screenplays for both Seven Days In May and the original Planet of the Apes before returning to television with “Night Gallery.”  Serling was only 50 when he had a heart attack while mowing his lawn and passed away.

But Serling was infamous in the airline industry.  In 1966 he wrote a TV movie called The Doomsday Flight that was shown on NBC.  It was a case where he was a little too good as a writer.  Because of that, you’ll likely never see this movie unless you find it on video.

Passengers are arriving at LAX for an evening flight to New York City.  A man (Edmond O’Brien) wearing Coke-bottle glasses wanders around the terminal watching those passengers, including a popular actor (John Saxon) and a wounded Vietnam vet (Michael Sarrazin).  The man (which is how his character is identified in the cast list) clutches a brown paper sack to his chest.  Even with his thick glasses, he needs help reading a flight schedule board.

In the crew area of the airport, Captain Anderson (Van Johnson) picks up his chart valise and checks the weather for the flight with his co-pilot Reilly (Edward Faulkner).  One of the stewardesses on the flight checks her makeup, but drops her mirror, which shatters.  “I hope you’re not superstitious,” another of them says.

After the flight takes off on schedule, the airline’s office receives a call from the man.  He says he’s hidden a bomb on board the airplane that’s set to go off if they drop below an altitude of 5000 feet.  He demands a ransom for the location of the bomb and how to disarm it.  The man gives the airline enough details to prove he’s serious.  The FBI is brought in, led by Special Agent Frank Thompson (Jack Lord).

Van Johnson

I’ll include a couple of spoilers here, since as I noted above you’ll likely never see this movie.  The FBI does manage to find the man, but before they can discover where the bomb is hidden, the man dies.  But Serling had planned a way to save the plane, based on his knowledge of geography.  This was before the unification of the NFC and AFC to form the NFL and the huge rise in football’s popularity; the first Super Bowl wasn’t played until a month after this movie aired.  Not many people knew offhand that Denver was the Mile-High City, at an altitude of 5280 feet.

For the airplane and airline information, Serling could have checked with his older brother Robert.  The brother was one of the leading aviation writers in the US for decades, and published a bestselling novel, “The President’s Plane Is Missing,” six months before this movie was aired.  (The novel was filmed in 1973, with Buddy Ebsen in the main role.)

Jack Lord

For a TV movie of that day, the film had an excellent cast.  Both Johnson and O’Brien had been marquee names for a couple of decades.  Jack Lord was two years away from his iconic role as McGarrett on “Hawaii Five-O.”  Michael Sarrazin had only done a couple of small roles, but broke out as a star the next year in The Flim-Flam Man.  In smaller roles you have Ed Asner, Malachi Throne (pre-“It Takes A Thief”), and Greg Morris, who would start his career role as Barney on “Mission: Impossible” shortly after filming this movie.

The film was directed by journeyman director William A. Graham, who had a fifty-year career directing over a hundred television episodes and made-for-TV movies such as the Frank Sinatra vehicle Contact on Cherry Street and ripped-from-the-headlines dramas like 21 Hours at Munich and Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones.  The movie also had effective theme music composed by Lalo Schifrin, who also did “Mission: Impossible,” “Mannix” and movies such as Cool Hand Luke, Bullitt, and Dirty Harry.

It looked like the movie would become a stable of reruns on local stations, but then something disturbing started happening.

Rod Serling

A writer’s maxim is that if you’re going to steal, steal from the best.  That’s why movies like West Side Story and 10 Things I Hate About You stole their plots from Shakespeare.  Con men, though, started to steal Serling’s plot.  Whenever the movie was shown on TV, it was often followed by an airline actually receiving a similar threat to the one in the movie.  As mentioned, Serling’s tight plot was so detailed that it could be lifted by the con men and played out as real.  In Australia, two men managed to extort half a million dollars from Qantas Airlines, though both were soon caught and much of the money was recovered.  After this happening several times, the movie was pulled from TV schedules.  (The makers of Airplane II: The Sequel did include a reference to this movie in their spoof.)

I was fortunate enough to see this movie once on TV before it was pulled.  I can attest to its effectiveness as a thriller, since even decades later I can still picture scenes from the film.  Today, it would be nearly impossible to carry out the plot of the movie, with GPS tracking, voice prints, as well as heightened airport security.  Because of that, perhaps one day the vault will open and this movie will be shown again.

But I wouldn’t bet on it.

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7 thoughts on “The Movie That Will Never Be Shown Again

    • True, but his first major notice came from playing opposite George C. Scott in “The Flim Flam Man” which came out two years before “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” I did resist mentioning “The Gumball Rally.” He was always a favorite of mine in the 1970s.

  1. As of today (04-09-17) the full movie is on YouTube, albeit with Arabic subtitles. It’s thrilling and suspenseful, as one would expect a Serling story to be. However, there’s one thing that doesn’t make sense.
    It isn’t until very late in the movie that The Man finally reveals that the bomb is set to explode below 4,000 feet. (earlier he said only that it was “below 10,000 feet.”). All this time, the jet has been circling more-or-less over northern Arizona and southern Utah. Why then, with it running critically low on fuel, was the pilot directed to fly to Denver? Both Flagstaff, AZ (6,900 ft) or Albuquerque (5,300) were much closer. Flagstaff’s small airport might not have been able to land jets in 1966 (it can today) but Albuquerque’s certainly could have.
    Evidently Serling didn’t do his homework too well.

    • Interesting that Doomsday Flight showed up, Larry. Thanks for letting me know about that. It’s possible Serling chose Denver because it was well known as the Mile High City. Albuquerque is just as high, but didn’t have as good a press agent, I guess. Flagstaff is a much smaller airport. Even today it’s serviced by turboprop planes run by American Eagle, the only airline that services Flagstaff.

  2. From Wikipedia:
    “SkyWest Airlines, operating as American Eagle via a code sharing agreement with American Airlines, currently operates the only scheduled passenger flights serving the airport with Canadair CRJ-700 regional jets to the American Airlines hub in Phoenix. This regional jet service marks the first time that all flights serving Flagstaff have been operated with jet aircraft.”

    I’m no expert on aircraft, but the term “regional jet” would seem to mean that these jets aren’t as big and the jetliner depicted in the film. So it could be that even today the Flagstaff airport can’t land a jet that size.

    But I digress. I first heard of The Doomsday Flight some 30+ years ago when I read The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree. All these decades later I finally got to see it. Late in the book, in a chapter about things Serling did between the end of TLZ (1964) and his death (1975), Zicree writes:

    “Some things, however, could not be viewed with humor. On December 13, 1966, NBC aired The Doomsday Flight, a TV movie written by Serling. The plot concerned a mentally disturbed former airline mechanic (Edmond O’Brien) who plants a pressure bomb, set to explode below 4,000 feet, aboard a commercial jet airliner. Ultimately, the scheme is foiled when the pilot lands the aircraft in Denver, which is situated at 5,300 feet. To all initial appearances, the show was a tremendous success, gathering the second-highest rating of the 1966-67 television season (surpassed only by the network showing of The Bridge On The River Kwai).

    “The first bomb threat came at 10:45 PM, while the show was still on the air. In the days that followed, TWA, Eastern, American, Pan Am and Northwest Airlines all received similar threats. Within six days the total rose to eight, and each of these had to be taken seriously.

    “Serling was devastated. ‘I wish to Christ I had written a stagecoach drama starring John Wayne instead’ he told the papers. ‘ I wish I had never been born. ‘ “

    • Canadair (which is also known as Bombardier Aerospace, part of the company that created the snowmobile), like Fokker in Europe, specifically builds for the regional market with planes smaller than you’d get from Boeing or Airbus. The CRJ-700, a stretch version of the 200 series, is about the largest they make and it seats 70. It looks similar to the old Boeing 727, with engines mounted at the tail, but it carries less than half the passengers of the 727. So, yeah, the plane in the film would have been too large.

      I remember reading an article on “Doomsday Flight” in TIME back in the late 60s/early 70s. Several times when it was rerun, even, the bomb threats came in. Sometimes a movie can be just too effective.

      Always felt sad that Serling died only a couple of years after this, when he was only in his 60’s. I’d love to have seen more films written by him.

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