Burgess Meredith Let Himself Be Lit On Fire For The Sake Of The Twilight Zone

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Written By Sedoso Feb

Film and television set safety was pretty rock solid as both mediums entered the 1960s, but if you’re gripped by a particular phobia, the presence of a top-notch stunt crew can only be so comforting. Being engulfed in flames is a fairly universal phobia. And, amazingly, in the early 1960s, actors could still be involved in pyrotechnic gags.

Computer generated effects were still a good 30 years off when Meredith played the Mephistophelean Mr. Smith in “Printer’s Devil,” so when his hell-sent character lights a cigarette sans match by snapping his fingers, the flame had to be real. And director Ralph Senensky (who would go on to direct the classic “This Side of Paradise” episode of “Star Trek”) wasn’t about to cheat. So they rigged up Meredith with a practical apparatus that allowed his hand to catch fire without burning to a crisp.

As Senesky explained in Marc Scott Zecree’s “The Twilight Zone Companion”:

“There was a wire that went onto a battery and ran up his pant leg through his shirt to his hand. Then they stuck his finger into a coffee can of ice water. It would just get good and cold. They poured lighter fluid over it and then, when he did this [snaps his fingers], they would hit the switch, the spark would ignite it, and the lighter fluid would burn. The finger was literally a step from being frozen, so that it wouldn’t hurt.”

It’s a nifty trick, and it looks great on camera. Was it the coolest technical coup carried off by a “Twilight Zone” director? Not at all! But it didn’t result in Meredith doing an impromptu Human Torch audition, so let’s call this a win and thank the technology gods that actors aren’t placed in such perilous situations anymore.

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