Interview with Joseph Stefano

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by Lee Weinstein

Joseph Stefano (May 5, 1922 – August 25, 2006)) was a screenwriter and producer who is best remembered for his screenplay of Hitchcock’s PSYCHO and for producing the first season of THE OUTER LIMITS and writing much of the material for it. This interview was conducted at the New York TeleFantasy Convention in 1975 at the Commodore Hotel in Manhattan.  It was published in a slightly different form in THE NEW VARIANT No. 2 in 1983 by the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society. 

Q: Could you tell us how you first came to produce The Outer Limits?

JS: Well, Leslie Stevens asked me if I would be interested in doing it because he already had a commitment from the network to do this particular pilot, and since he was doing two other shows for the network, could not personally produce a third. So he asked me to do it. His company and my company formed a joint venture with ABC. I took over the show at that point, producing the pilot, and then when the show went on the air, produced the first year.

Q: Was the fact that you did the screenplay for Psycho an influence in going into something like this?

JS: No, I don’t think so. I think it was just the fact that I’d had a couple of successful movies, and the networks were interested, and are always interested in getting writers. Especially at that time there was a lot of thinking in the networks that perhaps the men who do the writing ought to be doing the producing, since the writing is where they always wound up with the biggest problems. If we can get a guy who’s also a writer, he’s going to write some of the shows and have a better view. So I was having talks with the network at the time about doing a show, although we didn’t know what kind of a show. They were just interested in me as an established writer and wanted to know if I would like to do a series for them. This came along at the same time, and I liked it well enough to want to go ahead and do it.

Q: It seems as though The Outer Limits has gotten very little attention or publicity in comparison to more recent shows like Star Trek. Do you feel that interest in it has been waning?

JS: Well, it’s strange that the interest in The Outer Limits has gotten has been at a fairly consistent level through the years. I’ve received mail, but I thought it was kind of special. The only thing I did know statistically, was that the show was syndicated all over the world, and this is year after year after year. In Los Angeles for a couple of years, for instance, they ran two shows, a double feature, on Saturday and Sunday so that there were four Outer Limits every weekend. And when they’d run out of the whole bunch of them, they’d start over again. They did this for a couple of years, so I was aware that there must be a big audience for it or they simply would not be showing them. It seems like in the last couple of years, attention has been growing toward The Outer Limits. I’ve always thought that with Star Trek you’ve got identifiable actors; characters who were there every week.  The show was on longer, and it was more traditional science fiction than The Outer Limits, but I’m very pleased to see the extreme interest.

Q: You said that Star Trek was more traditional science fiction. One thing unique to The Outer Limits were the non-human looking aliens that other science fiction series never had. Being a biologist I don’t think if we found intelligent life, they’d all look like us. Did you have that feeling?

JS: This was something I felt at the very beginning. Not being involved in science fiction, I approached it, perhaps fortuitously, from a very fresh viewpoint and I have always felt that it is so arrogant of us to think that (A) we’re the only planet with life on it and (B) that if there is life on other planets it’s going to resemble us. I always thought that’s perfectly insane. When you say there’s no life on other planets, what do you mean by life? I thought there was a great chance for excitement and drama in the fact that another planet would have ants that had faces reminiscent of ours.

Q: I think Star Trek fans try to justify it by saying that they had budget problems, but … so does every show.

JS: I think so, but also it’s easier, of course, to create a human character and say he comes from another planet than it is to create some totally unknown thing that you really start from scratch. Most of the aliens we had on The Outer Limits were born in our own heads.

Q: Most of the first season shows were done by screenwriters, although I know at least one, “Corpus Earthling” was based on a novel by a science fiction writer. Were any others like that?

JS: Very few. I just couldn’t find novels or short stories that I felt would adapt to the kind of series I wanted to make, so we had a great problem with them. “Corpus Earthling” was one of the very few that was really worth doing; that could be adapted to cinema. Outside science fiction it’s the same thing. I have often received from the studios or the networks a novel that they want to do as a movie, and I read it and like it as a novel, but I don’t know where in the world you can go to try to put this on film because it doesn’t have whatever that unknown quality is that a piece of drama has to have for me to be able to see it in cinematic terms.

Now, I did a ninety-minute movie on CBS a couple of years ago called A Death of Innocence, with Shelley Winters, that was based on a novel by Zelda Popkin. The novel was basically about a New York lawyer, a Jewish lawyer, who was having problems with his children. There was a parallel in the problems he was having with his child and the problems that a woman in the mid-West was having with her child. But to me, as I read the novel, I was really not interested in this lawyer, because he just didn’t have any real cinematic value to him. So I said, for me, the movie is about this woman in the mid-West who has a lovely daughter, who she thinks is the most wonderful kid in the world and is now an airline stewardess, and she’s very proud of her, and one day the phone rings and it’s — “your daughter is arrested for murder.” So that’s what the movie became about. Now, this woman comes to New York totally convinced they’re wrong, and by the end of the movie knows she never knew her daughter. See, that made the movie for me, but to do that novel as written would have been impossible. I wouldn’t have known where to begin.

Q: When you wrote scripts for The Outer Limits, did you ever write with particular actors in mind, or with particular creatures in mind, or did you always have a story idea first?

JS: I usually started with the story. The casting would come along. In regard to The Outer Limits, sometimes I’d get casting in my head as soon as I had conceived the story because I was also producing the show, so therefore I knew there was some sense to having casting ideas because I was in a position to do the casting. In a show where I’m asked to write a movie, for instance, I never, never think actors. For one thing, I may not even be there when they film it. I may not be able to get this actor, and so I don’t want to commit myself to an image of Robert Redford, for instance, and then find out they’ve gotten Sidney Poitier for the part. It’s just better not to think about it. With The Outer Limits I did often, as I was writing, think, “oh, wow, this would be great for somebody.”

Q: We talked about adapting novels to television, but conversely, many shows have had their episodes adapted into short stories and books. Have you ever thought about doing that with The Outer Limits?

JS: No, mainly because The Outer Limits went off too quickly, and also, at that time, merchandising was not really that big or important. No one had yet quite realized the potential.. With a Star Trek, for instance, as soon as they get into merchandising, they will usually have a department that handles that strictly, but merchandising was not very big then and also it’s the kind of thing that you usually get into during the second season, and I was not there for the second season. The show then went off the air, so the companies that do merchandising felt probably there wasn’t; there wouldn’t be any market.

Q: Do you think with this renewed interest in the show there would be a market for it now? Or would it be too late?

JS: No, I don’t think so. I think that it would all depend on who wanted to take the trouble to go into that, to go into marketing or selling. I don’t know, there’s such a large interest in science fiction and in The Outer Limits and Star Trek that I’m sure whoever walks in a store and buys a book based on a Star Trek show is quite likely to buy one based on The Outer Limits if it’s there.

Q: During the second season the show took a more standard science fictional turn. I think a majority of the episodes were actually based on written works or were written by science fiction writers. Do you …

JS: That may have been because the producer was not a writer, first off.  The man — a line producer, they’re called –- was not a writer. I was able to come up with ideas, some of which I didn’t even write myself, that I’d give to other writers to write for the show. So I think they went to more available source material in the second season.

Q: Do you feel this was a turn for the better or for the worse?

JS: I didn’t think it was good because I had never felt that classic science fiction literature worked on the screen. Even some of Ray Bradbury’s stuff that made for such great reading did not make terribly good movies. That may not be the fault of the material, but it somehow seemed to me that it intellectualized and interiorized so much that you can’t get action out of it; you can’t get movement, which is what film is.

Q: Do you have a favorite science fiction author? Are you still reading?

JS: No, I haven;t read any science fiction in ages. Colin Wilson was probably the last thing I read, I think last year. The Glass Cage, I think it was.

Q: Do you think there’s any likelihood of getting a network interested in a new anthology series dealing with science fiction?

JS: I doubt it very strongly. The networks are still very resistant to anthology shows, in spite of the success of Police Story, which is the first [successful] anthology series since The Outer Limits, practically. They just will not do them. They are now going to do one called Medical Story which will be an anthology like Police Story.

Q: Do you think it will be possible to do something in a made-for-tv format? A one shot?

JS: Science fiction?

Q: Yes.

JS: They have done those. As a matter of fact, last year Universal talked to me about the possibility of doing a series based on a 90 minute movie they had made; the name was The Questor Tapes [with] Robert Foxworth, and Gene Roddenberry did two that were pure science fiction movies, but both of his were really pilots for series.

Q. So do you think you might conceivably do one, not necessarily as a pilot, but just as a one-shot movie?

JS: I don’t think so because I just don’t think there’s that much interest. They don’t care to do it in the sense that a movie company would make 2001, for instance, a science fiction movie. The networks are not all that interested in science fiction. They don’t think that there’s that big of an audience for it. Whether they’re right or not, I really don’t know. There seems to me to be a very big audience for science fiction.

Q. Thank you, Mr. Stefano.

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