Season 2 Episode 1—aired 9/15/71
“The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes” ***
Teleplay by Rod Serling, story by Margaret St. Clair
Directed by John Badham
Michael Constantine as Mr. Wellman
Clint Howard as Herbie Bittman
Bernie Kopell as Reed
Ellen Weston as Dr. Peterson
William Hansen as Mr. Godwin (Herbie’s grandfather)
Gene Tyburn as the Floor Director
Rance Howard as the Cameraman
The second season (and thank goodness for all us Night Gallery fans that it was renewed, and put on a weekly schedule, rather than the every-four-weeks schedule of the first season) begins with the story of a ten-(eleven later in the segment) year-old boy, Herbie Bittman (I wonder if Eugene Levy had this character’s name in the back of his head when he created stand-up comic Bobby Bittman later in the decade on SCTV) who can predict the future.
Herbie’s talents have led him to the attention of a New York television station who puts him on the air to deliver commentaries, which start with the mundane and end with some predictions of the future. When Station Manager Wellman gets wind of this (and one wonders why he didn’t know beforehand), he is outraged that the kid is going on live tv and says that this will be Herbie’s last appearance on his station. Michael Constantine is sort of playing against his usual type, that of a less-than-self-aware funny guy (Room 222 contemporary to this, then much later in My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and so his rages are tempered by an inner softie that we know to be there. Good work by him and by the casting director.
Herbie’s grandfather (William Hansen) says that “the boy has a special talent” and it turns out he is right as on the program, Herbie predicts that a missing girl will be found in fifteen minutes and that an earthquake will hit Los Angeles at 6:00 a.m. the next morning.
After the show’s conclusion, Wellman orders the tape of the broadcast wiped (yes, kids, we used to use videotape to record things in the old days) (also, wiped meant erased). Then a news bulletin confirms the prediction of the girl being found alive. The next morning’s paper shows that the earthquake prediction came true as well.
A year later, we learn that Herbie has made 106 correct predictions (and, yes, Wellman got him his job back delivering his commentaries on tv). A university professor is sent to study Herbie, having been given a grant to learn about ESP from him.
Dr. Peterson (Ellen Weston, who delivers a fine, empathetic performance) asks Herbie some gentle questions in his makeup chair before his next show about how he does what he does.
He says the predictions just come to him. He can only predict something “if I more or less know what it is. That’s the reason why I read so many books. The more things I know about, the more things I can predict.”
Just before going on air, Herbie looks stricken and asks his grandfather to take him home. Grandpa says “then that’s just what we’ll do” which makes station manager Wellman apoplectic,not wanting to lose what must be a huge ratings grabber for the station.
Wellman appeals to Herbie by saying his fans will be frightened if he doesn’t appear today. Herbie agrees to try, tells his grandfather “it’s ok; it’s really ok.”
After talking about school, his commentary grows more serious. “Tomorrow will be different.” He talks about war, famine, hatred and says tomorrow will be different because there will be no more war, people will live side by side and won’t be afraid anymore.
The next day, we get an eerie scene, wonderfully shot by director John Badham, in his first of seven Night Gallery stories he would direct, and who would go on to direct such feature films as Saturday Night Fever and War Games, where apparently with an orange filter, we get outdoor scenes of a traffic jam, smokestacks and large groups of congregating people cheering.
Inside their high-rise apartment, Herbie is with his grandfather and Dr. Peterson. He tells them that yesterday’s prediction was a lie because he wanted people to be happy. What he knew would happen is that today, the sun will become a nova.
Herbie doesn’t let those apocalyptic words hang in the air too long before adding these reassuring words: “Don’t be frightened, grandfather. It’ll happen so quickly, we won’t even feel it.” An excellent, eerie doomsday ending, one of the earlier such endings in 1970s science fiction, seen in other films like Silent Running and The Omega Man.
Clint Howard (Ron’s brother and Rance’s son, who has a bit part as a cameraman) also gives a good performance here in the tricky role of Herbie. Not a know-it-all, but just a curious, intelligent kid who has been somehow bestowed with this incredible power which in the end forces the weight of the world upon him, yet rather than reacting in fear, he tries to remove the fear from the one person closest to him.
A strong start to season two, many more stories to follow, most strong, some not so much, such as our next item…