Skipping ahead a few episodes, I present this timely holiday season review of the four-star Night Gallery segment “The Messiah on Mott Street,” originally aired on December 15, 1971.
“The Messiah on Mott Street” ****
Written by Rod Serling
Directed by Don Taylor
Edward G. Robinson as Abraham Goldman
Tony Roberts as Dr. Morris Levine
Yaphet Kotto as Buckner
Joseph Ruskin as the Fanatic
Ricky Powell as Mikey Goldman
John J. Fox as Santa Claus
Anne Taylor as Miss Moretti
“The Messiah on Mott Street” is one of Rod Serling’s finest original scripts, a warm, uplifting story that manages to combine both the Jewish and Christian late-year holidays. Like his previous “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar,” this is an atypical Night Gallery segment in that largely eschews the supernatural (although there is an element of it) and instead focuses more on real human feeling and emotion.
It’s Christmas Eve in a rather shabby New York neighborhood where seventy-seven year old Abraham Goldman (the great Edward G. Robinson) lies deathly ill in the apartment he shares with his orphaned nine-year old grandson, Mikey (Ricky Powell, in a good performance).
His doctor, paying house calls back in those days, Morris Levine (Tony Roberts, from several of Woody Allen’s movies from the 70s), wants him go to a hospital. But Abraham is concerned about the welfare of his grandson, should he leave the apartment and not return. He very clearly loves the boy and the two have some touching scenes together.
Later that night, Abraham feels and thinks he sees (in the form of a large black shadow) the Angel of Death visiting him in his bed, asking him to go with him. He adamantly refuses to go. He shares this with his grandson and tells him the most important thing for him is to help try to make his grandfather well and that, according to Jewish tradition, if the Messiah comes, he will “lift us up to health and wealth and heavenly contentment.”
Mikey, as devoted to his grandfather as his grandfather is to him, goes out to find the Messiah in the snowy nighttime streets of New York. He encounters a man dressed as Santa Claus, then a man dressed as Jesus who is a sort of evangelist, preaching his gospel of gloom and doom to the passersby, including young Mikey, who has stopped before him, wondering if he is the Messiah, and frightened by his diatribe.
A large black man (Yaphet Kotto, later in Alien, among other movies) appears and clears the evangelist off, telling him to stop frightening children. Mikey thinks he must be the Messiah, in part because of his resemblance to the large black shadow (I’m not trying to be cute here; it works given that it’s from the point-of-view of a young boy).
When Mikey explains to the man, Buckner, who he thinks he is, Buckner is gently amused and agrees to accompany the boy home to see his grandfather. When they get to the apartment an ambulance is there along with Dr. Levine. Mr. Goldman says he was again visited by the Angel of Death, who has promised to return a final time at midnight.
In the living room, Levine, exasperated at what his patient seems to think are his final hours, has a stilted chat with Buckner that includes some great Serling dialogue such as “all right, Mr. Buckner, if you have some special messianic powers, I wish you’d trot them out. I could use a miracle.”
Suddenly, a strong gust of wind blows through the windows and blasts the front door open. The wind blows into Abraham’s bedroom and a concerned Mikey enters to find the shadow of death hovering over his grandfather.
Buckner closes the door and tells Dr. Levine there is nothing he can do, to which Buckner replies, “Anybody tell you that you make a lousy Messiah?” Good Serling line, good Roberts comedic delivery and we finally get a sense that this story might turn out all right.
Then the wind stops as suddenly as it blew in. The door shuts on its own. The room has now become calm. Dr. Levine, now circumspect, turns to Buckner and says, “My apologies, Mr. Buckner. That’s the problem with ghetto dwellers—and former ghetto dwellers, of which I am one—we’re mystics, and believers, and children to our dying day.” More great Serling dialogue.
Then we go into the bedroom and find a much-revived Abraham Goldman, telling a story of a dreamlike recollection much like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz after she has awoken back home in her Kansas bed at the end of the movie. We hear Christmas bells heralding the stroke of midnight and Levine remarks “It’s kind of the season for miracles, I guess.”
Answering a knock at the door, Mikey opens it to find a postman (Buckner) there with a special delivery: a letter from Goldman’s brother. Enclosed within is a check for $10,000—an old debt repaid from one brother to another, and coming at a most-needed time.
Levine wishes the Goldmans a Happy Hanukkah and takes his leave. Outside, he sees the man kneeling near a mailbox and thanks him for what he delivered. “Did it please?” the man asks. “Dear God, how it pleased,” Levine replies.
Satisfied, the postman says “every now and then, God remembers the tenements.” Only vaguely recalling the face of the man who may indeed have been the Messiah (after the windy episode, everyone seemed kind of in a daze), Levine wishes him season’s greetings and the Messiah replies, “and to you and yours and to the whole earth” as we end with the two walking off to the sound of Christmas bells, an incredibly uplifting ending to a Night Gallery story, but then, as Rod Serling proved here, he could write just about anything and do it spectacularly.