>From the Archive: John Newland


John’s note: This interview with John Newland, director and host of One Step Beyond, was conducted in the year 1999, as I was researching my book, An Analytical Guide to TV’s One Step Beyond.  Mr. Newland — a true gentleman and great talent — passed away in 2000.
Interview with John Newland

John Newland came of age as a theatrical artist just as television developed into a national obsession.

Perhaps the foremost leading man of the 1950s, Newland guest-starred on programs such as Playhouse 90 (1956-1961), The Loretta Young Show (1953-1961), Kraft Television Theatre (1947-1958), Climax (1954-1958), Suspense (1949-1964), Studio One (1948-1958), Robert Montgomery Presents (1950-1957), Tales of Tomorrow (1951-1953), Science Fiction Theater (1955-1957) and Inner Sanctum (1954).

Though Newland is best remembered for his role as the host of One Step Beyond and its syndicated sequel, The Next Step Beyond (1978-79), he also had a long and distinguished career as a TV director, helming episodes of Police Woman (1974-1978), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968), Dr. Kildare (1961-1966), Star Trek (1966-1969), Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (1970-1973), The Sixth Sense (1972) and Wonder Woman (1976-1978).

He also directed the memorable (and chilling…) TV movie starring Kim Darby, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973).

The following interview focuses on the production of One Step Beyond:

MUIR: How did you come to be involved with Alcoa Presents, the series known now and forever as One Step Beyond?
NEWLAND: Producers Merwin Gerard and Collier Young were my friends, and we had done other shows together. We came up with idea of doing a program called Fantasy, a series that would highlight fantasy one week, horror the next, science fiction the next, and so on. But all those things had been done before, so we decided to focus on psychic phenomena instead. There were so many sources to call on for stories, and we had Larry Marcus, a formidable writer, and I would direct the episodes.

MUIR: And that was how the pilot “The Bride Possessed” came about?”
NEWLAND: Yes. We made “The Bride Possessed,” and it had enough visual appeal to make the series seem worthwhile.

MUIR: Do you recall how much it cost to make the pilot (in 1959)?

NEWLAND: Around $30,000 dollars, I believe. We shopped it around, and Alcoa liked the show, so it became our sponsor.

MUIR: One of the things that made One Step Beyond so unusual was that many of the episodes were based on reported accounts of the paranormal, “based on fact,” as it were. “Night of April 14” concerned a psychic web surrounding the sinking of the Titanic. “The Day the World Wept” reported President Lincoln’s precognitive dreams of his own assassination, and “Earthquake” and “Eye Witness” told of people who forecasted real life natural disasters, such as the quake of 1916, or the volcanic eruption at Krakatoa.

NEWLAND: That’s right. The stories had to be real, and there had to be proof, either anecdotal or published. Of course, we got some letters from people who said I was the Anti-Christ for pursuing this kind of thing. Ivan Klapper was our consultant, and it was just as the narration said. [He breaks into the series narration here – and it’s a little uncanny to hear the voice coming through my phone]: ‘Explain it? We cannot. Disprove it? We cannot. We are simply inviting audiences to explore the unknown..”
MUIR: How long did it take to film the average episode of One Step Beyond?
NEWLAND: Three days. We’d work for five days a week, stop for two days to take a breather, and then start shooting again. We had a spectacular crew.
MUIR: And the budget per regular half-hour show?

NEWLAND: Between $30,000 and $50,000, I believe.
MUIR: And the shows were mostly shot inside. In the studio, right?
NEWLAND: We shot on the MGM lot. And we had access to their vast costume department, which meant that we could do period pieces.

MUIR: Were you allowed to improvise dialogue, or re-write any of the teleplays on the set, or were the stories pretty much filmed as written?
NEWLAND: We didn’t need to improvise. We had good actors, good movement and good dialogue. We had four cameras, and the benefit of vast experience.
MUIR: Did you have complete creative control in your directing choices?

NEWLAND: I had a totally free hand…and a lot of help too! Henry Berman [editor of the series] was a major reason for the success of One Step Beyond. After lunch on any given day of shooting, he would approach me and let me know what he thought he needed in order to deliver a satisfactory cut.
MUIR: What kind of advice did he usually have?

NEWLAND: He would say: ‘I need a two-shot here, John,’ etcetera. And usually his recommendation was something that would have never entered my mind. Cutters are very helpful to directors, and I always listened to Henry and placed stock in his advice/

MUIR: What were your feelings about Harry Lubin, who wrote the creepy signature music of One Step Beyond? That theme, “Fear” still gives me shivers whenever I think of it….

NEWLAND: Harry was a very articulate man, and a great composer, and he really loved the idea of the show. I think the music reflected his genuine interest and feel for the material. When an album of his work on One Step Beyond was released many years later, it was quite successful.
MUIR: Since One Step Beyond was an anthology, you had the opportunity to work with a variety of famous performers. Can I ask about some of your memories of the actors who appeared on the show?


MUIR: Suzanne Pleshette appeared in “Delusion,” the premiere of the second season. She played a duplicitous nasty girl, and the recipient of a blood-transfusion of a character played by Norman Lloyd. What was your impression of her?
NEWLAND: She was one of the best actresses I ever worked with. Period.

MUIR: In the print I saw of that episode, there was an abrupt cut as soon as Norman Lloyd began to strangle her. Was that a network-imposed cut, or did I just see a bad print?

NEWLAND: Well, I’m sure I told Norman to strangle her good. I don’t recall if that cut was a result of the network asking us to change something.
MUIR: Any thoughts on William Shatner, who you worked with again on Star Trek? He appeared in “The Promise” as a German bomb expert, and gave a very sensitive and restrained performance….

NEWLAND: He’s a charming actor, and a hard-working actor. I thought he was adorable, and he has been an excellent friend to me. I thought he gave a terrific performance in “The Promise.
MUIR: “The Visitor” was a deeply moving episode about how marriages can change over the years…with a psychic twist, of course. It featured a very young Warren Beatty as a man in his twenties, and then as the same character – but in his fifties. What was he like to direct?

NEWLAND: Warren was a friend. Of course he was a nobody back then, but Joan Fontaine [his co-star in “The Visitor”] wanted him for the part. I thought he was quite charming – and good in the role. He was dating Natalie Wood at that point, and she would come over to watch the dailies to see how he was holding up. He wasn’t in [old-age] make-up that long, and it wasn’t severe.

MUIR: Christopher Lee appeared in “The Sorcerer,” just as he was becoming an international star for his portrayal of Dracula.
NEWLAND: Oh, he was funny and charming. He makes his living being spooky but he’s really got a great sense of humor.

MUIR: How did you feel about the fact that you were always on-screen, in every episode, as the series narrator?

NEWLAND: That was a necessary selling point. Having me as an “established star” of television at the time, helped get the show sold.
MUIR: Part of your job, as I recall, was to hawk aluminum products for your sponsor, Alcoa. Was it ever awkward being their pitch-man?

NEWLAND: That was just part of the business. They were happy with my work, and I was happy with their money. It was a good relationship.
MUIR: While you were shooting the first season of One Step Beyond, you had an interesting encounter with Rod Serling, is that correct?

NEWLAND: I knew Rod, and he knew me as a director, and he was a splendid person to work with, and a real supporter. He called me up and asked me to meet him for drinks. Well, once we were at the bar, Serling told me he was going to be producing and writing an anthology series of his own. He assured me that The Twilight Zone was going to be pure fantasy, with no discussion of proof or psychic powers.

MUIR: Why do you think he wanted to tell you that?

NEWLAND: Because he was a class act. He just wanted to let me know in person that he wasn’t going to rip us off.

MUIR: Any favorites among the 96 episodes of One Step Beyond?
NEWLAND: I liked “The Devil’s Laughter” [ a story about a criminal who kept escaping the noose by luck]. The story was good, I liked Alfred Ryder’s performance, and felt engaged by the storyline.
MUIR: Least favorite?

NEWLAND: The one about the vine in Mexico.

MUIR: That was “Blood Flower,” about an American professor being possessed by the spirit of a Mexican revolutionary whose blood had spilled on a plant…
NEWLAND: It was a dumb, silly concept. The pits.

MUIR: One Step Beyond had a location shift for the last part of its third season. Thirteen episodes were filmed in Great Britain.

NEWLAND: That was my idea. We thought it would be a little boost to the show. Great Britain offered good actors, good locations, and good settings. We sought permission from Alcoa, and they okayed it.

MUIR: What was ABC’s general response to One Step Beyond?

NEWLAND: They were very enthusiastic. The show always won its time slot. Alcoa was even more enthusiastic. It was a solid success.
MUIR: How much interference was there from Alcoa and the network?

NEWLAND: These were the days before Proctor and Gamble. We had a totally free hand.

MUIR: Do you know why the series was cancelled?

NEWLAND: We’d done 96 episodes, and there was the inescapable feeling that we were no longer the new kid on the block. The show was still drawing high ratings, but the decision was made that we needed to make room for new product.
MUIR: Okay, you know I’ve got to question you about the episode called “The Sacred Mushroom.” This remains one of the most notorious episodes in network TV history, because you are seen on camera literally sampling mushrooms with hallucinogenic properties in a California laboratory. In your own words from the beginning of the show, “the story featured no actors, no script.” Basically, it was a travelogue to Mexico to experiment with these mushrooms. What was going on with that story?

NEWLAND: That was our most popular episode. It was a spooky trip. We landed in a tiny airstrip in Mexico near a mission. From there, it was a donkey trip of four days to reach the village. It was a dangerous journey, but we got phenomenal footage.

MUIR: That portion of the episode involved Dr. Barbara Brown (a neuro-pharmacologist), David Grey (A Hawaiin spiritual leader), Dr. Jeffrey Smith (a philosophy professor from Stanford) and Dr. Andrija Puharch sampling a mushroom called “X,” given to them by a local with doctor called a brujo. The peyote was supposed to enhance psychic abilities, and it was pretty damn unusual to see people getting high on TV in 1961, wasn’t it?
NEWLAND: Alcoa told us that the show was so bizarre, that we don’t dare put it on the air.
MUIR: So how did you salvage the episode?
NEWLAND: Well, Puharich asked me to take the mushroom, and I was game, so we took a camera crew and drove to Palo Alto and Puharich’s laboratory. Once there, I had three cameras rolling the whole time, and I told the cameramen to just keep shooting until we ran out of film. We decided to shoot and shoot and shoot and see what happened.
MUIR: Did you feel anything strange when you sampled the mushroom?

NEWLAND: I felt light-headed…and a sense of well being…the stuff was distilled. It was very powerful, but not poisonous, so I didn’t have any trepidations.

MUIR: Were there after-effects?”
NEWLAND: I had flashbacks and hallucinatory moments for about a month.

MUIR: But nothing psychic or paranormal happened?
NEWLAND: No. Not a grain.

MUIR: I guess I should ask you then, have you ever had a psychic or paranormal experience?

NEWLAND: I’ve not had a single experience. I’d like to have one, and if I were offered one, I’d certainly jump at it instantly.

MUIR: Going back to “The Sacred Mushroom,” your involvement with Puharich in the lab saved the show for broadcast.
NEWLAND: Alcoa saw it and considered my testimony “proof enough,” to air the show. As I said, it became our most popular episode.
MUIR: In 1978 you embarked on a syndicated sequel to One Step Beyond called The Next Step Beyond. It only lasted a season, and at first was shot on videotape.

NEWLAND: It was very inferior quality. We thought videotape was the medium of the future, but the results were not what we had in mind. We switched to 16mm halfway through the series to try to improve its look, but by then it was too late.

MUIR: With revivals of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, has there been any serious thought about another new One Step Beyond?

NEWLAND: We talked about doing all kinds of revivals, even recently, but as The Next Step Beyond proved so dramatically, you just can’t go home again.

MUIR: Is there any message you would like to share with fans of One Step Beyond?

NEWLAND: Thank you for your years of interest and belief. I am very grateful.

MUIR: And lastly what is your ultimate, final take on One Step Beyond, forty years later?

NEWLAND: It was the best production I ever worked on, period. It was the best time I had working in this industry, and it was the most creative and satisfying atmosphere in my life, both personally and professionally.

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