“Your Guide into the World of the Unknown” ~ One Step Beyond’s Creator John Newland: An Appreciation on His Centenary Birthday
(23 November 1917 – 10 January 2000)
“What you are about to see is a matter of human record. Explain it, we cannot. Disprove it, we cannot. We simply invite you to explore with us the amazing world of the unknown. To take that One Step Beyond.”
Before we had today’s TV-scary American Horror Story and The Walking Dead; before The X-Files in the 1990s and Tales from the Darkside in the 1980s; before Night Gallery and The Sixth Sense in the 70s; and prior to The Outer Limits of the mid-60s, there was One Step Beyond (airing 1959-61). It preceded another, similarly-themed TV anthology series by a mere 10 months: Rod Serling’s legendary The Twilight Zone (1959-64).
One Step Beyond (OSB) dramatized (supposedly true) stories of the supernatural, such as mental telepathy, premonition, ghosts and other psychic phenomena. The Twilight Zone cast a broader net, with episodes in genres such as science fiction and fantasy. OSB labelled itself as a “docudrama”, host and creator John Newland asserting that its stories were based on actual, recorded or anecdotal, occurrences.
The magisterial and distinctively-voiced John Newland, a personification of “gentleman”, had been a long-time actor in theatre, movies and early TV who gravitated to directing in the mid-1950s. Though his demeanor seemed manifestly “old country”, he was actually a product of the Mid-West – born on November 23, 1917 in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was also raised.
He began his stage career as a performer in vaudeville – you read that correctly, vaudeville! – by joining a song and dance group called The Vikings in 1934. He decided to try his luck in the theatre and headed to New York City , taking a Greyhound bus there in the mid-1930s to study acting. Winning roles on radio and stage (Robert E. Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest), it seemed he was destined for a serious theatre career when the United States entered World War II. Serving in the United States Army Air Corps, he was offered a contract by Hollywood’s Warner Brothers studio on returning home after the war.
Newland made uncredited appearances in movies such as Nora Prentiss and Gentlemen’s Agreement in 1947, along with small parts in others. “Nevertheless”, in the words of Los Angeles Times writer Myrna Oliver in 2000, “the self-effacing Newland would describe that brief Hollywood film career by saying: ‘I was an immediate failure’.”
In 1949, the new world of TV-entertainment was a burgeoning one. With many shows originating in Manhattan and 37 hours/week of live drama, it was “a marvelous training ground for actors and directors,” he said.
In these early days of live television in which many shows were anthology dramas, Newland appeared as an actor in scads of them: Philco Playhouse, Kraft Theater, Robert Montgomery Presents and the first science fiction, TV anthology show of its kind: the aptly-named Tales of Tomorrow. At this time, it appears he branched out into directing and moved back to Los Angeles in the latter 1950s to direct The Loretta Young Show (Letter to Loretta).
It was also at this time that Newland became co-creator (with Merwin Gerard), director and host of One Step Beyond, deemed the first television series to explore psychic phenomena. It debuted on the ABC-network on 20 January 1959 as Alcoa Presents with the last episode airing in July 1961. Newland himself directed all 96 episodes! Most of these episodes were purportedly based on reported accounts of encounters with the paranormal, making it unique for that era.
“Newland presented himself more as a journalist; he apparently had a genuine interest in unexplained phenomena, and he repeatedly assured viewers that the stories staged for OSB were all based on true events,” writes scifi author/reviewer Gary Westfahl in his Biographical Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Film.
In an October 1999 telephone interview with noted horror/scifi film critic and author John Kenneth Muir, Newland discusses OSB’s production aspects. “The stories had to be real, and there had to be proof, either anecdotal or published. Of course, we got some letters from people who said I was the Anti-Christ for pursuing this kind of thing.”
At that time, the budget per regular half-hour show ran between $30,000-$50,000. Since the shooting took place on the MGM-studio lot, that gave “access to their vast costume department, which meant that we could do period pieces,” Newland told Muir. He also had a “totally free hand” in the creative control department, but acknowledged having significant help from technical staff such as series’ editor Henry Berman.
And oh – that unforgettable, haunting music that spooks me on every hearing! The eerily atmospheric theme was the composition of Harry Lubin and it truly set the mood for the show. “Harry was a very articulate man and a great composer, and he really loved the idea of the show. I think the music reflected his genuine interest and feel for the material,” Newland recalled. A successful soundtrack album of the music was released by Decca Records in 1959.
Being an anthology series, many well-known actors/actresses appeared on the show, some at the outset of their careers. For starters: Yvette Mimieux (‘The Clown’) – not long before playing Weena in 1960’s The Time Machine movie. Suzanne Pleshette (‘Delusion’), who Newland said “was one of the best actresses I ever worked with. Period.” Star Trek’s William Shatner (‘The Promise’): “a charming actor, and a hard-working actor.” Cloris Leachman. Jack Lord. Rosemary Murphy.
Patrick O’Neal. Donald Pleasence. And Christopher Lee! Lee acted in one of OSB’s rare, hour-long episodes, ‘The Sorcerer’ – “funny and charming…..a great sense of humor.”
And genuinely one for the history books, the silver screen’s Joan Fontaine paired with neophyte Warren Beatty in ‘The Visitor’, a touching tale about an estranged, married couple. Beatty played the same character, first as a 50+ year old man and later, as his younger, 20-something self.
“Joan Fontaine wanted him for the part…….quite charming – and good in the role,” said Newland.
Of course, the real – and ongoing – star of the program was John Newland himself, providing weekly continuity as the series’ on-screen narrator and host. Newland replied that it was a “necessary selling point. Having me as an ‘established star’ of television…..helped get the show sold.” And what about acting as (sponsor) Alcoa’s pitch-man? How did he feel about “hawking” aluminum products? Newland’s response: “That was just part of the business. They were happy with my work and I was happy with their money. It was a good relationship.”
But alas! Even a highly popular series like OSB must eventually end. When Muir asked if he knew why the program was cancelled, Newland said, “We’d done 96 episodes and there was the inescapable feeling that we were no longer the new kid on the block. The show was still drawing high ratings, but the decision was made that we needed to make room for new product.”
As with revivals of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, there was also an OSB revival in 1978: The Next Step Beyond. Unfortunately it lasted for only one season. In Newland’s words: “…….as The Next Step Beyond proved so dramatically, you just can’t go home again.”
Having first seen (and been intrigued by) several OSB’s back in the day – not in its initial outing but through syndicated reruns on local TV – I recently felt compelled to sit down and take a serious look at the program. I’ve re-viewed a few shows, though with about 15 seen thus far, 80+ more episodes is a long way to go! I’m enjoying watching it today as I did back in the 1970s; it’s sufficiently creepy and unsettling to satisfy my craving for “chiller theater”.
In the Muir interview, Newland mentions that the stories had to be real, backed up by solid evidence. As far as my research took me, I found no specific books, documents, journals, etc. were cited, either by Newland himself or on OSB’s closing credits.
- The shows are generally well-acted and directed but in several shows, a good, DRAMATIC punch was needed. The endings can be anti-climactic and unsatisfying, unlike Outer Limits or Twilight Zone where the final shock gives the viewer that satisfying jolt. For “stories based on true events”, the insufficient information can be disappointing, especially in its conclusion. Hence the strength of a totally fictitious teleplay: the pending “gut punch” or “shock to the system” is anticipated by many of us horror fans! Minus that ingredient, it’s like a cup of coffee that looks wonderful, smells divine, but minus its critical ingredient of caffeine – e.g. minus the necessary “kick”. Sorry – but for me, de-caf coffee tastes like an aberration!
- Twilight Zone and Outer Limits usually had some sort of moral/social summation at the shows’ conclusion. Nothing’s wrong with “messaging” but sometimes re-stating the obvious is unnecessary. In these kinds of stories, the moral is readily built into the plot.
- In a departure from other TV series of that era, Newland took the show overseas and filmed the last 13 programs of Season 3 at MGM’s studio in England. “I thought it would give a little boost to the show because Britain offered good actors, good situations, and good settings,” according to Newland.
Once the OSB run was finished in 1961, Newland worked mainly in the directing-writing-producing ends of television which was his specialty. He directed the gamut of 1960s/70s TV series ranging from spy stories, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Man Who Never Was, to westerns like Daniel Boone, to cop/detective dramas such as Hawaii Five-O, Matt Helm, and Police Woman. He directed an episode of Star Trek, and one of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery in which he also acted. As for acting, he only seemed to act sporadically in television through the 60s and early 70s; nothing seems to indicate that he ever returned to the stage.
Newland did make the occasional foray into big-screen filmmaking. That actually started in 1957 when he directed his first feature, That Night!, a critically-acclaimed drama concerning the devastating aftermath of a salesman’s heart attack on his family. John Beal plays the stricken husband but most of the cast is relatively unknown except for Rosemary Murphy.
The three IMDb reviews I found were glowing in their praise, with one person likening it to an “exceptional Hopperesque American ‘foreign’ film of the 1950s” and a “must-see classic”. Another wrote that John Beal gave a great performance along with the supporting players, stating “John Newland’s practiced eye for documentary has never been more advantageously used.” It was nominated for two British Academy Film Awards but doesn’t seem to have been recognized by the American Academy. What a shame the movie can’t be found!
Not until 13 years later did Newland take on another big-screen directorial assignment. This was a British movie, 1970’s My Lover, My Son, starring the wonderful Romy Schneider. I couldn’t find much information about this one and understandably so, as it deals with the topic of incest of a mother and son. Quite a departure from One Step Beyond and 1960s/70s TV!
I found a full-movie upload on YouTube but strangely, the movie name is changed to the German Incezt with the dialogue being entirely German-language, with no English subtitles. I say “strangely” because this is supposed to be a Brit-flick! With almost no info to go on, I wondered then if Mr. Newland was sufficiently conversant in German? I’ll conclude a shaky “yes” (until more material about the movie is found). If Mr. Newland was fluent in the language, it’s a shame that more – and better – German film projects couldn’t have emerged for him. Unfortunately, *incest* as a subject isn’t going to attract too many movie-goers, the subject making a number of us skittish about viewing no matter how skillfully it’s done.
That appears to be the extent of his theatrical filmmaking apart from a sporadic few such as The Legend of Hillbilly John (1974), another story with supernatural elements. But there was one low-budget, made-for-TV movie he directed in 1973 and which John Kenneth Muir deemed “memorable and chilling.” This was Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark starring Jim Hutton and Kim Darby of True Grit fame, not to be confused with the 2011 Guillermo del Toro-produced, big-budget remake.
In www.http://streamline.filmstruck.com (10 July 2011), Jeff Stafford offers a comprehensive critique, declaring that “this creepy little made-for-TV movie has one of the more memorable endings of any haunted house genre picture.” Filmed on a “bare-bones” budget, this is another riff on the “young-married-couple-living-in-a-crumbling-haunted-mansion”plot. The wife inadvertently unleashes demonic creatures from a sealed-up fireplace and all hell breaks loose! Stafford believes it works on several levels as both horror tale and morality play. The impish demons are truly frightening-looking creatures, with walnut-like heads and vampirish eyes! This is one horror movie I’ll definitely need to see, as the many positive reviews on Amazon attest to its scare quality!
And what about John Newland’s professional life in the 1980s/90s? The small bit of information I found (Wikipedia) listed his producer credits, mainly of the 1980s. I’m guessing that Angel City (1980), The Execution (1985), and Time Stalkers (1987) were all television-movies, based on Gary Westfahl’s comment on the latter: “……..a complicated but cohesive time-travel adventure.” There is nothing I could find beyond the 1980s decade for him, nothing I could dig out of the online universe or from my own personal library. It’d be intriguing to know what projects he was working on, if any, in the 90s up to the time of his death.
I think his talents were more substantial than realized in his (known) work and, though a bit discouraging to contemplate, he may have been under-valued working within the Hollywood system. It was therefore heartening to read this, his last statement in the Muir interview: “(One Step Beyond) was the best production I ever worked on, period. It was the best time I had working in this industry, and it was the most creative and satisfying atmosphere in my life, both personally and professionally.”
There is some good, incisive OSB commentary by the aforementioned Gary Westfahl (above link). I highly recommend reading him for his insights into the show, as well as his perceptions about Newland’s work.
At the time of his death on 10 January 2000, Mr. Newland was survived by his wife of 32 years, Areta; two daughters; and a granddaughter.
Isn’t the time long overdue for John Newland to be honored by having his star placed on the Hollywood Walk of Fame?
How about it? Anyone??
[More links will be added. ]
LMerle(Hawkins) ~ 23 November 2017