Desi Arnaz was technically the first host of The Twilight Zone
Image: Desilu Sales Inc.
Fate is a tricky thing in The Twilight Zone, teasing its subjects with moral questions and sometimes even showing up personified as eerie beings who seem to obscure more often than they shed light on the future.
For Rod Serling, the future of the anthology series he wished to produce was uncertain when his first ever screenplay that ended up launching The Twilight Zone aired as an episode of Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse in 1958. The story was called "The Time Element" and it was so well-received that CBS immediately ordered more stories like it. Those stories they demanded would eventually become what is now known as The Twilight Zone.
In "The Time Element," dramatic actor Martin Balsam (12 Angry Men, Psycho) served as a psychoanalyst to a man named Peter Jenson, who is tortured by a recurring dream where he ends up in Honululu the day before the Pearl Harbor attacks but is unable to save a single life for his knowlege of the tragic future. Balsam's character spends the episode assuring his patient it is only a dream, because time travel isn't real.
Had this episode been introduced by Rod Serling, the audience would've known and expected something to be off in the world they were watching. As it played out as an installment on Westinghouse, the twist at the end where the patient disappears succeeded at throwing audiences with the same force that would later make The Twilight Zone such an iconic series.
This episode would never air as part of The Twilight Zone, but its importance in its legacy is significant to serve as a preliminary pilot. And to make this story even more curious, the host of this first-ever Twilight Zone story was not Serling, who wouldn't introduce an episode until his series' second season, but a different familiar face from the Fifties: I Love Lucy star Desi Arnaz.
When "The Time Element" begins, Arnaz steps out, a shadowy figure, with the shadow of a grandfather clock complete with swinging pendulum in the background. "Good evening, ladies and gentleman," he said in the episode, "and welcome to another Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse. Tonight we're going to see a story written by Rod Serling and starring William Bendix." This is normal enough for a host, but then his intro falls into a cadence that recalls Serling's distinct narration: "Our story begins in a doctor's office. A patient is sitting there. He walked into this office nine minutes ago."
We'd see Arnaz again when the story concludes, and the first thing he says is, "As you can see, the pendulum has stopped. We wonder if Pete Jenson did go back in time or if he ever existed."
Then he does something Serling never really did. He offered his own opinion: "My personal answer is that the doctor has seen Jenson's picture at the bar sometime before and had a dream." And when he sends us off, he does it by vocalizing the silent question affixed to the end of every episode of The Twilight Zone: "Any of you have any other answers?" He nods severely and then says, "Let me know."