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).
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.)
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.
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.