In honor of the 60th anniversary of this iconic episode, today’s post is the third to be written by the curator of the popular Instagram account @jamesbondswardrobe. Enjoy!
William Shatner as Robert Wilson, paranoid middle-aged “husband, father and salesman on sick leave”
Aboard a Gold Star Airways flight across the United States, Fall 1963
Series: The Twilight Zone
Episode: “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (Episode 5.03)
Air Date: October 11, 1963
Director: Richard Donner
Costume Designer: Mitchell Leisen
Portrait of a frightened man: Mr. Robert Wilson—thirty-seven, husband, father and salesman on sick leave. Mr. Wilson has just been discharged from a sanitarium where he spent the last six months recovering from a nervous breakdown, the onset of which took place on an evening not dissimilar to this one, on an airliner very much like the one in which Mr. Wilson is about to be flown home—the difference being that, on that evening half a year ago, Mr. Wilson’s flight was terminated by the onslaught of his mental breakdown. Tonight, he’s traveling all the way to his appointed destination, which, contrary to Mr. Wilson’s plan, happens to be in the darkest corner of the Twilight Zone.
Yep, not much more background is needed than that—thanks, Rod Serling! Our “hero”, played by the legendary William Shatner, nestles in for what should be an uneventful plane ride home. If we learned anything from the likes of Don Draper and Pete Campbell, dressing for air travel in the sixties meant wearing your regular business duds. Loafers hadn’t yet become the de facto footwear to have on when boarding a plane, and men “dressing for comfort” seemingly translated to them just wearing a more comfortable suit.
What’d He Wear?
And it’s a more comfortable suit indeed that Bob Wilson wears for his fateful plane-ride back home. Hinting that mild weather was upon them, Wilson dresses in a suit whose cloth resembles that of a sharkskin weave. Its true color lost to history, the ventless jacket is cut in a rather unexciting way: soft, padded shoulders, a high two-button front, and two-button cuffs, all with dark plastic buttons adorning.
The overall fit of the suit is generous; it seems the minimalist and “skinny” fashions that came to define the ’60s hadn’t taken hold just yet. The slim notch lapels have small, semi-rounded gorges that sit rather high which, along with the high button stance, make this jacket decidedly more in-vogue with today’s #menswear trends. The jacket also lacks a breast pocket but features unconventional welted hip pockets that slant slightly rearward.
The trousers, naturally matching the jacket, have an extended waistband, side-tabs, “frogmouth”-style front pockets and plain-hemmed bottoms. There’s also likely a single welted right rear pocket. The jean-like “frogmouth” pockets are an interesting sight, being that they were historically used for horse-riding purposes. Of course, Wilson is sitting for a long period of time, so his choice of pockets is arguably superior to the usual side pockets. The extended waistband/side-tabs combo is rather typical of any self-respecting ’60s-era gentleman—if James Bond is anything to go by.
His white dress shirt, also a tad interesting, is designed with a narrow button-down collar, French placket, and squared single-button cuffs. The overall fit of the shirt is at-home with the early sixties—being neither billowy or skin-tight. Tied in a four-in-hand knot, the printed silk-repp tie features a repeating downhill-pattern of black spots.
Wilson’s shoes are black leather penny loafers, worn with medium-colored cotton socks that help continue the leg line from trouser-to-shoe. If they truly are penny loafers, then it’s a little humorous that damn-near sixty years ago, Bob Wilson wore footwear that, as mentioned earlier, would’ve been the top recommended choice for
dealing with the TSA flying today.
A simple wristwatch on a black leather strap peeks out from under Wilson’s left cuff when he’s close to losing his marbles—if any eagle-eyed reader could help us identify it, that’d be very appreciated!
Wilson boards the plane wearing a dark wool single-breasted overcoat with fashionably narrow notch lapels and a three-button front, which he promptly stows away to ride in greater comfort—at least physical, rather than mental, comfort.
Go Big or Go Home
Though he’s supposed to be going home, Robert Wilson’s recent discharge from a sanitarium only seems to predispose him to whatever trickery the Twilight Zone may cook up for him. Tormented by a giant, hairy “gremlin” (Nick Cravat) that only he can apparently see, Wilson understandably becomes frustrated, unfortunately to the point where his frustration bubbles over into hysteria. And hysteria on an airplane is never a good thing.
Stealing a revolver from the holster of a sleeping policeman (hello, sixties), Wilson—drenched in sweat and likely past the point of no return—brandishes a “pre-Model 10” Smith & Wesson Military & Police revolver while eyeing the gremlin. After being gas-lit enough times to start a fire by both his own wife and the crew of the plane, the unstable salesman takes matters into his own hands, aiming (ha) to kill the gremlin and save everyone on the plane… ignoring the consequences that immediately follow.
Making his way over to the Auxiliary Exit, Wilson opens the window, and (remember those consequences?) is immediately sucked halfway out of it.
Revolver in-hand, the unhinged Wilson aims at the gremlin, who had taken notice of his wailing. Charging at him, Wilson closes his eyes and pulls the trigger, surprisingly hitting the gremlin and fatally wounding it.
The plane obviously comes to an emergency landing, and, unfortunately for Wilson, he is quickly bound in a straitjacket. A reasonable reaction from the crowd, considering Wilson did turn into a dangerous maniac with a gun, sixties or not. It’s not the plane’s crew who gets the last laugh, however, as the final shot of the episode reveals unusual damage to the plane’s engine nacelle—yet to be discovered by the mechanics.
This particular episode was one of four to be remade for Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983). The relevant segment was directed by George Miller, with John Lithgow playing the Shatner role. Interestingly, Shatner and Lithgow later appeared together in 3rd Rock from the Sun: Dick’s Big Giant Headache: Part 1 (1999), where both characters claim they’ve been on an airplane that was terrorized by a “gremlin”.
And while this is easily one of the most iconic episodes from the original run of The Twilight Zone, it was plagued with scheduling constraints and technical issues ranging from the simulated weather to airplane engines and a multitude of other special effect challenges. It was also one the show’s most difficult shoots, with Donner allegedly cramming three days’ worth of work into two, thus demanding long hours from the cast and crew.
How to Get the Look
Going bananas on a plane trip back home after you just checked out of a sanitarium might not be the best idea, but Shatner’s Robert Wilson shows us it can be done with style… whether that helps the case or not.
- Medium-colored sharkskin-weave wool suit:
- Single-breasted 2-button jacket with narrow high-gorge lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, nonfunctional 2-button cuffs and a ventless back
- Flat-front trousers with side tabs, ‘frogmouth’ pockets, back-right pocket, and plain hems
- White cotton shirt with a button-down collar, French placket and squared single-button cuffs
- Medium-colored silk-repp tie featuring a repeating downhill-pattern of black spots
- Black leather penny loafers
- Medium-colored cotton socks
- Simple wristwatch on a black leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the series.
The flight of Mr. Robert Wilson has ended now, a flight not only from point A to point B, but also from the fear of recurring mental breakdown. Mr. Wilson has that fear no longer, though, for the moment, he is, as he has said, alone in this assurance. Happily, his conviction will not remain isolated too much longer, for happily, tangible manifestation is very often left as evidence of trespass, even from so intangible a quarter as the Twilight Zone.
— Rod Serling