Twilight Zone: The Patricia Modell You Never Knew

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Not surprisingly, local obits/tributes for exquisitely coiffed philanthropist and socialite Patricia Modell, who died October 12 at age 80, emphasized her significant charitable giving to a host of Baltimore educational, health, and cultural organizations during the 16 years that she lived here with her husband, Art Modell, whose Cleveland Browns morphed into the Baltimore Ravens after moving here in 1995. 

Those same accounts also traipsed through her pre-Mrs. Modell life as modestly successful 1950s/1960s TV actress Patricia Breslin: a recurring role on pioneering nighttime soap “Peyton Place”; another on stalwart daytime soap “General Hospital”; and guest-star parts on a peck of other shows, everything from “Perry Mason” to “Maverick” to “Dr. Kildare” to “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” to “Thriller,” among many others. Not forgetting her continuing role on the curious 1950s sitcom “The People’s Choice,” in which she played the wife of the show’s star, Jackie Cooper, a city councilman whose basset hound, Cleo, got all the best lines (a voiceover, naturally). 

Despite this plethora of TV appearances, Breslin’s acting career, in truth, barely registered on Hollywood’s Richter scale. And yet before she chucked showbiz in 1969 after marrying Modell, she featured prominently in a pair of productions cherished by the pop-culture illuminati: a 1960 “Twilight Zone” episode opposite a buff William Shatner, and director William Castle’s fascinatingly lurid 1961 suspense/exploitation film Homicidal.

In “Nick of Time,” a taut drama written by frequent “Twilight Zone” contributor Richard Matheson, Breslin plays newlywed Pat Carter to Shatner’s hubby Don, the honeymooning couple waylaid in a small Ohio town after their car breaks down. Killing time in a local café, Don, already revealed as superstitious, becomes obsessed with a penny-a-play devil’s-bobblehead fortune-telling machine/napkin holder called the Mystic Seer. Responding to yes-or-no questions, it dispenses eerily “correct” answers to Don’s queries — at least from his perspective.      

Convinced that the machine can predict the future, Don grows increasingly agitated, relinquishing all reason/free will while feeding the Mystic Seer penny after penny. His desperate behavior alarms Pat, who, sensing marital discord, confronts Don in an attempt to reel him back, declaring in the episode’s climatic moment, “I don’t want to know what’s going to happen. I want us to make it happen together.”

Persuasively, Breslin transforms her character from buoyant recent bride into iron-willed wife, earning Matheson’s praise. “I thought the two performances were marvelous,” he tells Marc Scott Zicree in the book The Twilight Zone Companion. “They played together so well.”  (Watch the uninterrupted episode here.)

Exploitation kingpin William Castle’s Homicidal imposed fewer nuanced demands on Breslin. She dutifully plays florist-shop-owning good girl Miriam to Jean Arless’ (actress Joan Marshall appearing under a fake name) knife-wielding caregiver bad girl Emily in what a New York Times reviewer dismissed as “a dismal imitation of Psycho.” Sure, Homicidal rips off the essential conceit of Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho, but it hardly qualifies as dismal. 

By the time of the movie’s mid-1961 release, producer/director Castle had established himself as the undisputed grand poobah of American “gimmick” filmmakers. In his book Crackpot, John Waters calls Castle “the greatest showman of our time. King of the Gimmicks, William Castle was my idol. His films made me want to make films. I’m even jealous of his work. In fact, I wish I were William Castle.”

Starting with 1958’s Macabre (a blatant copy of the 1955 French thriller Diabolique), Castle rolled out a series of ingenious marketing ploys to fill theaters. For Macabre, he bought insurance policies that would pay $1,000 to anyone who died of fright while watching the film. For 1959’s House on Haunted Hill, he unleashed “Emergo,” a 12-foot plastic illuminated skeleton that popped out of a box and flew over moviegoers at a key moment. That same year’s The Tingler featured “Percepto,” motorized theater seats that delivered a slight buzz to patrons when, on screen, the title “monster” (the embodiment of human fear) slithered into a fictional moviehouse; at that point, the screen went blank and a voice announced, “Attention! The Tingler is loose in this theater. Please scream for your life.” For 1960’s 13 Ghosts, Castle devised “Illusion-O,” duo-colored 3D-like cards that enabled viewers to see the film’s ghosts (through the red portion) or not see them (through the blue portion).

With Homicidal, Castle concocted the Fright Break, wherein, two minutes before the movie’s conclusion, the film stopped, the screen went white, a heartbeat pumped through the theater’s sound system, and Castle’s prerecorded voice intoned, “This is the Fright Break. You hear that sound? The sound of a heartbeat. Is it beating faster than your heart? Or slower? This heart is going to beat for another 65 seconds to allow anyone to leave this theater who is too frightened to see the end of the picture, and get your full admission refunded.”

Audiences at the initial opening in Youngstown, Ohio, outfoxed Castle, though, staying through one showing of Homicidal, and then leaving during the Fright Break of the next performance, thus seeing the entire film and having their admission refunded. Castle retaliated immediately with color-coded tickets for each separate screening, and then, later, to eliminate the few people who still wanted to split during the Fright Break, he introduced the Coward’s Corner. This gimmick required exiting patrons to follow a path of yellow footprints while a recording taunted, “These cowards are too frightened to see the end of Homicidal. Watch them shiver in the Coward’s Corner” (the theater’s box office). The gambit worked; almost no one submitted to such public humiliation.

Amid all this marketing malarkey, Breslin acquitted herself admirably, with Variety reporting that she “delivers nicely as the half-sister, caught in a web which nearly destroys her.” (Video Americain offers Homicidal for rental. This homemade YouTube trailer provides a foretaste.)

Castle brought back Breslin for her final film role in his 1965 I Saw What You Did, after which she spent the remainder of the 1960s on “General Hospital” before bidding ta-ta to acting entirely, telling The Baltimore Sun in 2001, “It’s a part of a life I don’t even think about.”

   

 

 

  

 

 

   

 

 

 

  

 

 

   



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  1. We had to have a minute’s silence for Patricia Modell before La Traviata at the Lyric last night. If I’d known the silence was in honor of the shop girl in “Homicidal”, I wouldn’t have minded at all.

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