When Roald Dahl Hosted His Own Creepy TV Show Way Out, a Companion to Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone (1961)

In an odd twist of his­to­ry, two of the wis­est and weird­est children’s writ­ers of their gen­er­a­tion also hap­pened to have both been fight­er pilots dur­ing World War II. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Lit­tle Prince, flew recon­nais­sance mis­sions for the French Air Force before the 1940 armistice with Nazi Ger­many. Roald Dahl, author of—among many oth­ers—Char­lie and the Choco­late Fac­to­ry, James and the Giant Peach, and The BFG, flew with the Roy­al Air Force. Both wrote about their fly­ing exploits and both writ­ers, it so hap­pened, were once shot down over Libya, which also hap­pens to be the title of Dahl’s first pub­lished sto­ry, writ­ten for grown-ups and pub­lished in the Sat­ur­day Evening Post in 1946.

There are maybe oth­er uncan­ny sim­i­lar­i­ties, but one thing Saint-Exupéry nev­er turned his hand to is tele­vi­sion. Dahl, on the oth­er hand, had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to host two TV shows dur­ing his life­time: Way Out in 1961 and Tales of the Unex­pect­ed, which aired from 1979 to 1988 and fea­tured sev­er­al episodes based on Dahl’s own sto­ries. Although he has become renowned for his high-con­cept kid’s books, at the time of Dahl’s entrée onto the tube, he had main­ly achieved fame as a writer of macabre tales pub­lished in the New York­er as well as a script writ­ten for Alfred Hitch­cock Presents called “Lamb to the Slaugh­ter.”

Dahl seems a nat­ur­al fit for the medi­um, not only as a writer but as a pre­sen­ter, with his dry wit and suave per­son­al­i­ty. But his first show, Way Outeight episodes of which you can now watch on YouTube—came about entire­ly by acci­dent, or rather, as the serendip­i­tous result of anoth­er program’s spec­tac­u­lar fail­ure. This is no exag­ger­a­tion. Jack­ie Glea­son, per­haps the most famous come­di­an of his day, had decid­ed in 1961 to attempt a celebri­ty game show on CBS called You’re in the Pic­ture. The show was such a bomb that it only aired once, and the fol­low­ing week, Glea­son appeared on a bare stage for half an hour, the authors of a Film­fax Mag­a­zine arti­cle write, and “apol­o­gized to the Amer­i­can pub­lic for the insult to their intel­li­gence that had been per­pe­trat­ed the week before.”

This went on for sev­er­al more weeks, then Glea­son invit­ed celebri­ty friends on for impromp­tu inter­views and “when things start­ed get­ting des­per­ate,” had a chimp on as a guest star. One CBS net­work head at the time remem­bered the show lat­er as the great­est dis­as­ter of his decades-long career in tele­vi­sion. Enter pro­duc­er David Susskind, “a man who could deliv­er a pro­gram quick­ly and under pres­sure,” and a great fan of Roald Dahl. Cook­ing up the idea of “an eerie, chill­ing creepy dra­ma,” Susskind says, with “a nether world sense to it,” he approached Dahl with an offer to replace Gleason’s trav­es­ty with adap­ta­tions of his sto­ries and the oppor­tu­ni­ty to host.

Only one of Dahl’s sto­ries made it into the show, the first episode “William & Mary” (above), about a man plan­ning to become a brain in a jar. But the show was an instant hit with crit­ics, espe­cial­ly Dahl’s brief, dark­ly humor­ous open­ing and clos­ing mono­logues. One crit­ic described him as “a thin Alfred Hitch­cock, an East Coast Rod Ser­ling.” And like Serling’s show, Way Out—which was spelled in a title card after the first episode with an inex­plic­a­ble sin­gle apos­tro­phe as ’Way Out—traf­ficked in sci-fi and psy­cho­log­i­cal hor­ror. But the two shows were not in com­pe­ti­tion. Twi­light Zone and Way Out both aired on the same net­work, CBS, and the time slot of Gleason’s failed show hap­pened to direct­ly pre­cede The Twi­light Zone, just then end­ing its sec­ond sea­son. Dahl’s show was billed as a “com­pan­ion pro­gram” to Serling’s.

Sad­ly for all the praise show­ered upon Way Out, it did not attract a large enough audi­ence to get renewed for a sec­ond sea­son, and it would be anoth­er 18 years before Dahl returned to tele­vi­sion. But even had he nev­er returned, or nev­er even made his first pro­gram, Dahl’s sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to TV his­to­ry would be secure. His first chil­dren’s book, The Grem­lins, orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten in 1943 for a failed Dis­ney project, inspired what is per­haps the most well-known Twi­light Zone episode of them all, the William Shat­ner-star­ring “Night­mare at 20,000 Feet,” which involves a cer­tain ter­ri­fy­ing shock on an air­plane and was so effec­tive, it was remade for Twi­light Zone, the film. The episode adapt­ed a sto­ry by Richard Math­e­son, but it was Dahl who first came up with the idea.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Read a Nev­er Pub­lished, “Sub­ver­sive” Chap­ter from Roald Dahl’s Char­lie and the Choco­late Fac­to­ry

Roald Dahl, Who Lost His Daugh­ter to Measles, Writes a Heart­break­ing Let­ter about Vac­ci­na­tions

Alfred Hitch­cock Presents Ghost Sto­ries for Kids (1962)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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