Original air date – 12/25/59
Starring Steve Cochran, Ernest Truex, Arlene Martel, Read Morgan
What I like about The Twilight Zone is that most of the characters are not overtly despicable. As nice or bad as some of them may be, their actions are driven by the situations they find themselves in. Kind of like Frank Capra meets science fiction, if you will.
But in What You Need (watch it here on YouTube), we come face to face with a heinous character, Fred Renard (Steve Cochran). If the world was black and white, Renard would be pitch black. He’s the archetypal cold-blooded, remorseless criminal with not one redeeming quality — the type that makes capital punishment seem like a good idea.
In this episode, Pedott (Ernest Truex who is most memorable in season 3’s Kick The Can) walks into a bar with a suitcase of knick-knacks. He goes around giving people what he thinks they will need, seemingly useless items that each recipient accepts with hesitation, not seeing any reason for having the item. Until later, that is, when the useless item becomes essential. Pedott gives a train ticket to Lefty (Read Morgan), a miserable ex-baseball pitcher who injured his left hand and now spends his nights boozing. Immediately after, Lefty gets a call. It’s a job offer that requires him to take the train to a different city.
Renard, a bitter and greedy thug who witnessed the whole event at the bar, follows Pedott out and demands for something that he will need. By the fear on Pedott’s face, we know he knows what Renard needs but he is not willing to give up. Pedott finally gives in and gives Renard a pair of scissors.
While riding in an elevator to get to his apartment, Renard’s scarf accidentally gets caught between the elevator shaft. Good thing he has the pair of scissors to cut off the scarf before it cuts off his own circulation.
Renard quickly finds Pedott to receive another essential item. This time he gets a leaky ink pen. The ink drips on a racing info on that day’s newspaper, and Renard figures that the ink spot indicates the winning horse at the races. He guessed right, and wins a lot of money at the track.
Renard returns to Pedott again to demand yet another something that he will need. Renard’s behavior seems understandable, and who would not do the same? Renard is a criminal driven by greed and concerned with self-preservation, and Pedott seems to be peddling the skeleton keys to prospertity and longevity. But the least he could do is be nice about his new found luck. Instead, Renard mercilessly threatens Pedott to the point that Pedott fears for his life.
This time, Pedott gives him a pair of dress shoes that Renard puts on, only to find they are too small and the soles are slippery. Pedott runs across the street to get away from Renard. Renard gives chase, but the slick soles of the new shoes cause him to slip in the middle of street where he is hit by a passing car.
Looking at Renaud lying dead on the street, Pedott says, “Mr. Renard, what I saw in your eyes at that bar was death, my death. You were going to kill me. So what was needed for Mr. Renard – slippery shoes…”
Written as a short story in 1945 (read here) for the Astounding Science-Fiction magazine by Lewis Padgett, a pseudonym of a husband-and-wife science fiction writer team, it was first adapted seven years earlier for Tales from Tomorrow (watch that original version here). In that story, Pedott is Mr. Talley. Instead of pedding his products on the street, he has a curio shop where his clients seek him out. Instead of telling future himself, a machine in the shop does that. And like most TTZ‘s style, Rod Serling’s version is noir, but I watched and thoroughly enjoyed the Tales from Tomorrow‘s teleplay version which stays true to the Padgett’s short story.
A sad and bizarre back story of how Cochran met an untimely death the same way as his character Renard did. Five years after this episode aired, Cochran set sail on his yacht with three female helpers. Days into the trip, he died from lung infection. Due to the fact that the three helpers did not know how to operate the yacht, they had to wait until their boat drifted ashore. By then, Cochran had been dead for ten days. Foul play was suspected at first, but most assume he likely died of the infection.