Leslie Stevens: Beyond “The Outer Limits”

The Outer Limits (1963-65) falls third, both chronologically and in the esteem of the American public, in the field of “Weird Television Anthology”, I believe, right after Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. Unlike Rod Serling or Dark Shadows‘ Dan Curtis, The Outer Limits creator Leslie Stevens (Leslie Clark Stevens IV, 1924-1998) never became an above-the-title impresario with widespread name recognition, but he arguably had more distinguished credits, and so today we give him his due.

The son of a U.S. Navy admiral, raised in Washington DC, Stevens’ first literary effort, a radio play called The Mechanical Rat was sold to Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre of the Air when he was still a teenager. After World War Two service and some time at Yale, he began to make good as a New York playwright. His first play Bullfight, was produced Off Broadway, followed by Broadway productions of Champagne Complex (1955) featuring Polly Bergen and stage and screen veteran Donald Cook; The Lovers (1956) co-directed by Arthur Penn with a huge cast that included Group Theatre member Morris Carnovsky, Robert Lansing, Joanne Woodward, Pernell Roberts, and Bramwell Fletcher, among others; and the long-running The Marriage-Go-Round (1958-60) with Claudette Colbert, Charles Boyer, and Julie Newmar, which was made into a film the following year with Newmar, James Mason and Susan Hayward.

Meantime, Stevens had also broken into film and television with original scripts. Several of his teleplays were produced on Playhouse 90, and he adapted Gore Vidal’s western TV script The Left Handed Gun into a 1958 feature directed by Penn and starring Paul Newman. He was, in a word, a rising star. Inspired by the French New Wave, in 1960 he wrote and directed his first movie, Private Property, a low budget crime thriller starring Corey Allen (Buzz from Rebel Without a Cause), and Warren Oates, with whom Stevens was to collaborate many times over the coming years. A story of kidnapping, rape, and murder, Private Property was condemned as seedy and sordid by most critics and commentators who saw it, was denied an MPPC seal and censored by the Catholic Legion of Decency. It was scarcely distributed at all in the U.S. and was thought lost for many decades. It resurfaced a few years ago however and is now almost universally praised. It was strictly ahead of its time.

European acceptance of Private Property however allowed Stevens the leverage to direct his own script for a major studio film, Hero’s Island (1962) starring James Mason from Marriage-Go-Round, and Warren Oates from Private Property, as well as Neville Brand, Rip Torn, Harry Dean Stanton and the second of Stevens’ five wives, Kate Manx. That same year of 1962, Stevens launched his first TV series Stoney Burke (1962-63), starring a pre-Hawaii Five-O Jack Lord, along with Warren Oates yet again as well as Bruce Dern. In addition to creating the series, Stevens personally wrote and directed many of the episodes.

Stoney Burke only lasted a year, but at that point Stevens stepped immediately into his best known creation, The Outer Limits. Both Alfred Hitchcock Presents (renamed The Alfred Hitchcock Hour) and The Twilight Zone were still running when it debuted, but The Outer Limits carved out a niche for itself by being straight science fiction, often featuring monsters that were later recycled for use by Star Trek. It had none of Serling’s political and social moralizing, it was just about the thrills. (I can’t help but remark here that the show’s distinctive narrative reaction “There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture.” with its startling faux reality tone, recalls his old boss Orson Welles’ famous War of the Worlds hoax.) Though The Twilight Zone went off the air in 1964 and the Hitchcock show the following year, The Outer Limits didn’t survive beyond 1965 to carry the torch. Times and tastes had changed.

But Stevens career continued great guns for a couple more decades. In 1966 he wrote and directed his third film for cinematic release, a sci fi/horror film called Incubus starring a pre-Star Trek William Shatner. Unfortunately, Stevens made the risky movie of shooting the entire movie in Esparanto (!), dooming its success in English-language markets. For a few years he worked as a jobbing writer and director on such shows as It Takes a Thief, The Virginian, and McCloud. In 1972, he created his third TV series, a short-lived sci fi spy show called Search starring Hugh O’Brian, Doug McClure, Tony Franciosa, Burgess Meredith et al. He then went on to work on The Invisible Man (1975) which morphed into Gemini Man (1976), and his best known later project (developed with others) Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-81).

Stevens career slowed down considerably after that. In 1987 he wrote and directed his last theatrical film, a low budget action thrilled called Three Kinds of Heat. He wrote the screenplay for Return to the Blue Lagoon (1991), the sequel to the popular hit. He was one of the screenwriters on the family film Gordy (1994), about a talking pig (one year before Babe). In 1995, a rebooted version of The Outer Limits debuted, on which Stevens worked through 1997. He died during heart surgery the following year, releasing his atoms back into reuse by the cosmos.

Not surprisingly, Stevens wrote speculative works for the page, as well. His most influential was est: The Steersman Handbook: Charts of the Coming Decade of Conflict (1970), a futuristic work about an “Electronic Social Transformation”, the title of which is thought by many to have influenced Werner Erhard’s EST.