An astonishing, full-throated performance from Richard Thomas highlights the outstanding Night Gallery story “The Sins of the Fathers,” reviewed here.

Season 2 Episode 21—aired 2/23/72

“The Sins of the Fathers” ****

Teleplay by Halsted Welles • Story by Christianna Brand
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc
Geraldine Page as Mrs. Evans
Richard Thomas as Ian Evans
Michael Dunn as the Servant
Barbara Steele as the Widow Craighill
Cyril Delevanti as the First Mourner
Alan Napier as the Second Mourner
Terence Pushman as the Third Mourner
John Barclay as the Fourth Mourner

In plague- and famine-filled Wales during the Middle Ages, a well-to-do family with a dead patriarch seeks the services of a “sin-eater,” one who takes on the deceased’s lifetime worth of sins so that he may go to heaven by feasting as his corpse lies nearby.

A dwarf servant (Michael Dunn, excellent) arrives on horseback to deliver disappointing news to the Widow Craighill (Barbara Steele, also quite good): he’s scoured the countryside for miles and can’t get any of the usual sin-eaters to come as they are all either ill, dead, or otherwise engaged. The widow insists that she must have a sin-eater to cleanse her late husband, and quickly.

The servant goes out again and tries one last house, that of a Mr. Evans. He speaks to his wife (Geraldine Page, another excellent performance) through an open window. Mr. Evans himself is ill with the plague and cannot go, yet the family, which includes their teenage son, Ian (Richard Thomas), is starving and the promise of a bounty of food, described in almost sexual terms by the servant, plus three gold coins, proves too much for Mrs. Evans to ignore.

She asks the servant to wait for a moment and explains to her son that he must go in place of his father as the sin-eater. Ian expresses severe misgivings due to fear of inheriting the dead man’s sins and to the fact that he has never done a sin-eating and does not know the right words to say or what to do. His mother basically tells him to wing it and scream at the proper moment as the sins would seem to enter his body. Further, she assuages him by saying that he should insist that the mourners leave the room so that he does not have to perform this ritual for the first time in front of an audience and that he must not eat a morsel of the food, rather he is to stuff it in his clothing and wait until he returns home before eating.

Ian and the dwarf ride the twelve miles to the Craighill home and Mrs. Craighill is taken aback at the sight of this would-be sin-eater: a scrawny, starving youth. The servant insists there is no other for the task and since her husband must be buried the next day, she reluctantly agrees to let Ian proceed.

He is able to persuade her to remove the onlookers and then begins his job alone, with the pallid corpse surrounded by mountains of delicious-looking food: bacon, rare beef, fresh fruits and vegetables and bread heavy with butter. Here, Richard Thomas performs a remarkable scene I would never have imagined he could, and abetted by Jeannot Szwarc’s usual excellent direction, goes through a sequence of a mixture of desperate hunger, revulsion at the corpse and what the ceremony represents to finally a series of shrieks which absolutely convinces the widow and the guest in the next room that he has indeed taken on the sins of the deceased.

After having stuffed all the food he can into his clothing during this episode, the spent youth flees the scene and runs all the way home, forgetting the gold coins, which the widow gratefully tosses at him as he leaves, but he is too overcome to notice.

When he arrives home, he wants to eat ravenously but his mother asks him to wait for just a moment and piles all the food onto a tray and takes it in to her husband’s room. Ian walks in and we see that his father has died during the time Ian was gone. His mother says that he may eat, but only after he has cleansed his father of his sins and we fade to black as Ian again goes through a series of agonizing screams.

This is one of the more unsettling Night Gallery stories put to film and it is an absolute top-notch segment all the way around, from Halsted Welles’ adaptation of Christianna Brand’s story to Jeannot Szwarc’s direction, to an outstanding cast led by an incredible performance from 20-year old Richard Thomas, just before he would begin his altogether different run as the steady John-Boy on The Waltons.