‘The Twilight Zone’ Gave A Ton Of Screen Legends Their Big Break

One of the seminal anthology series of TV’s black-and-white era, Twilight Zone creator and narrator Rod Serling mined the pulp fiction stories that he’d grown up with, merging their narratives with a reflection of what he considered society’s ills, including The Cold War, racism, and nationalism. Along with episodes that would wade through genres like science fiction, fantasy, and horror, a new cast of characters came with each installment, allowing a vast array of talent to shine on the small screen.

While it’s well-known that actors such as William Shatner and Burgess Meredith made notable appearances on the show, here are a few that starred in some of the show’s lesser-known episodes during its initial run on CBS.

Robert Redford – Harold Beldon, “Nothing In The Dark” 

Redford had appeared in a number of one-off television appearances on various series, such as fellow anthology Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the crime drama The New Breed, which starred a young Leslie Nielsen. In this 1962 episode of The Twilight Zone, he starred as a young cop, badly injured in an altercation outside an old woman’s door. This being The Twilight Zone, she refuses to let him in due to her fear of “Mr. Death.” As he pleads with her, he causes a dramatic change in her perspective on life, and what comes after it.

George Takei – Arthur Takamori, “The Encounter”

An episode that was taken out of syndication after it aired in 1964 due to it’s racially charged storyline, Takei plays a young Japanese-American in an attic with a World War II veteran named Fenton. As the two talk, the tension slowly escalates, culminating around a sword that Fenton had taken off an opponent on the battlefield 20 years prior.

Robert Duvall – Charley Parkes, “The Miniature”

Like Redford, Duvall had starred in a number of smaller roles on television, and by 1963 only had one feature film to his credit as Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird. In “The Miniature”, he gives a dynamite performance as a man who grows obsessed with a doll inside a dollhouse, eventually falling in love with her. A lawsuit kept this episode out of circulation as well, and wasn’t aired again until The Twilight Zone Silver Anniversary special 21 years later.

Burt Reynolds – Rocky Rhodes, “The Bard”

One of Hollywood’s most notorious mustaches appeared bare-faced in a bit part as a famous actor, which was a deliberate sendup of Marlon Brando. The plot involves the ghost of William Shakespeare being summoned in order to complete a writer’s script for him as his, um, ghost writer.

Leonard Nimoy – Hansen, “Quality of Mercy”

The episode that was loosely adapted into the first segment of The Twilight Zone: The Movie, Dean Stockwell plays the lead as gung-ho Second Lieutenant Katell. Nimoy’s role as Hansen gives him few lines, but gives a remarkably understated performance that lies in his silent stares.

Dennis Hopper – Peter Vollmer, “He’s Alive”

One of Serling’s more personal stories, Hopper plays an American Neo-Nazi who becomes inspired by the ghost of Hitler on how to better lead his struggling hate group. In the narration, Serling goes to great lengths to drive home his point that the existence of hate will allow figures like this a kind of immortality.

Ron Howard – Young Boy, “Walking Distance”

Widely considered one of The Twilight Zone’s best episodes, it tells the story of a man named Martin Sloan, who happens to find himself in the town where he grew up. It turns out that he’s not only in the same place where he lived as a child, but in the same time as well. Howard himself has a small role as a boy playing marbles in the street not long after Sloan’s arrival.

Sydney Pollack –  Arthur Willis, “Trouble with Templeton”

Another tale centering on themes of misplaced nostalgia and focusing on the present, this time involving aging Broadway actor Booth Templeton. Pollack, himself a TV director at the time, co-stars as the recently replaced director of a play entitled The Great Seed, a taskmaster who demands the highest level of commitment from his actors — another characteristic Pollack shared with his character.

Richard Erdman – Patrick McNulty, “A Kind of Stopwatch”

He might not technically qualify as a “legend,” but Leonard from Community, everyone’s favorite frozen pizza critic, starred as an unaccomplished business man who’s fired by his boss at the start of the episode. After going to drown his sorrows, he drives out all the customers in a bar thanks to his many unpopular opinions. He’s gifted a stopwatch by the lone remaining patron, which has the ability to stop time.