Gary Gerani chats with 1964 Topps writer/editor Len Brown…
It’s amazing. To this day, there are still some fans who mistake the colorful, ‘50s-flavored storylines written for the 1964 OUTER LIMITS bubblegum cards for the actual teleplays (“You mean there wasn’t a ‘Jelly Creature”?). This unforgettable 50-subject product was an outrageous, delightful hybrid of colorized bears from the TV series (the actual name of this set is MONSTERS FROM OUTER LIMITS) matched with far-out original stories on the backs by a certain fellow named Len Brown.
|The original '64 box and wrap: Chill Charlie (never actually used in the TV show) became MFOL's front man.|
Serial buff, comics fan, rockabilly rebel (with a radio show to prove it), Len Brown is like a beloved big brother to me. As Creative Director of the Topps Chewing Gum Company, he hired Yours Truly back in 1972 as an “idea man,” and even helped me sell FANTASTIC TELEVISION to Crown a few years after that. But in ’64, he was best known for his involvement with Wally Wood’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R AGENTS comics, and as the guy who wrote the copy for Topps’ infamous MARS ATTACKS! cards two years earlier. Getting THE OUTER LIMITS set off to a typically disrespectful start, Topps didn’t even want to be associated with another “space invader” product (MARS had been controversial without being commercial), so it released MONSTERS FROM OUTER LIMITS under the alternate company name “Bubbles Inc.” Nothing personal, OL!
Anyway. I reconnected with Len recently – he now lives in Dripping Springs, Texas – and he offered to polish up his “rusty” brain for some MFOL-related questions, just for this blog. So, here goes…
GG: Len, it’s funny to be discussing THE OUTER LIMITS with you after all these years.
LB: Seems like yesterday, almost.
GG: Len and I used to have rather spirited “STAR TREK vs. OUTER LIMITS” battles in the Topps office.
LB: Well I have to admit, the original STAR TREK with William Shatner hasn’t aged very well.
GG: Neither has Shatner. He’s beginning to look more and more like Jabba the Hutt every day. Let’s talk about the birth and development of MFOL. Licensing was very different back in the early ‘60s. Although OL was a United Artists TV show for ABC, I’ll bet a smaller outfit handled the merchandising.
LB: That’s right. I forget the name of the company who handled the whole thing. There were two partners who represented the property, and they had a small licensing company in Hollywood. I went out there (Topps was based in Brooklyn at the time) and met with Al Schmittman. I forget the partner’s name. I seem to recall it was Schmittman who also introduced me to Mary Tyler Moore on the set of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, as he was showing me around the lot. I believe we had already done some business with A.S. when he told us about THE OUTER LIMITS.
GG: Who was it at Topps that decided OL was a strong enough property for the company? Were you and (Senior Creative Developer) Woody Gelman pushing to do the show BEFORE it even went on the air?
LB: The thing that got Woody and I interested was that Schmittman promised a different monster in every episode. Since we had success with monsters in the past (FUNNY MONSTERS, UNIVERSAL MONSTERS), we were very interested in securing a license for THE OUTER LIMITS. The show was not on the air and I believe I flew to California to look at the photos they could supply us with. They had very little color photography, so I believe we accepted their black and white stills and had them painted. United Artists had even less. I think we used every picture they had.
Here's a page from Topps' long-defunct archives; cards from all series were literally pasted into loose-leaf books.
LB: I don’t know who or why we came up with the idea of colorizing the photos, except there was a general feeling that kids would enjoy full color cards more than they would black and white pictures.
GG: I’m assuming veteran Topps art director Ben Solomon was involved.
LB: As you know, Ben always liked to have his re-toucher go over photos to improve the quality for reproduction. In the case of OUTER LIMITS, I guess that would have been Ray Hammond.
GG: I remember Ray – a grouchy-looking guy who was actually very nice. And for the record, both Ben Solomon and Woody Gelman used to work on the old Fleischer POPEYE and SUPERMAN cartoons of the 1940s. Often in a meeting, I’d notice Ben doing a Popeye doodle when he got bored.
LB: That’s right. They both worked on those cartoons. They even got credit.
GG: Back to OUTER LIMITS… Let’s talk about the text.
LB: I seem to think we originally thought we could automatically adapt the actual storylines from the TV series, but before we went to press, we were told that the writers of the scripts would want a piece of the action, which Topps couldn’t afford. So that’s why we came up with those ludicrous stories to describe the front of the cards.
GG: Listen, they have their own special charm! My favorite is “The Brainless Glob,” your version of Joe Stefano’s “Don’t Open Till Doomsday.” When I showed Joe the card, he joked that he preferred your storyline to his own.
LB: My God, how embarrassing for us. This is the screenwriter of PSYCHO, and we re-wrote his story in such a ridiculous way.
GG: Did you write the entire set, or did Woody pitch in?
LB: Woody might have read a few of the card backs, but I pretty much had the freedom to write ‘em all. Of course, we had to send the copy to California for approval, and since they wouldn’t let us use the stuff from the TV series in story form, they just quickly approved the silly stuff I wrote, without any changes.
GG: How did the set sell?
LB: When we first tested OUTER LIMITS in stores, it only sold fair. But I seem to recall that ultimately, it was looked back as a successful item. Initial orders seemed slow, but one day Woody came in looking very happy, and he said that the item had sold about 13,000 cases. Anything over 10,000 in the early ‘60s was considered a nice hit. So we never regretted having issued OUTER LIMITS cards.
GG: You’re a huge sci-fi fan. What were your favorite episodes of the show itself?
LB: I remember really loving “The Galaxy Being.” That was Cliff Robertson, wasn’t it? Always a fan of his. One of my favorite OUTER LIMITS episodes was the Adam Link one (I, ROBOT). It had previously been adapted for comics by EC in the 1950s, and there was nothing I loved more than WEIRD SCIENCE and WEIRD FANTASY comics back then. In fact, I still do. I was buying the hardcover reprints and was heartbroken when they stopped in the middle of reprinting the books. I understand they are still hoping to continue someday…
GG: You and I used to have all kinds of fun OUTER LIMITS debates back in the ‘70s, when I was writing about the series. I remember walking into my office and seeing a black and white photo of all the creatures from the kiddie show, SIGMUND AND THE SEA MONSTERS, sitting on my desk. Written below this photo, in grease pencil, was the description “OUTER LIMITS MONSTERS.”
LB: God, I forgot about that.
GG: You also said the Zanti Misfits had “Sterling Holloway faces.”
LB: I don’t remember equating the Zanti Misfits to Sterling Holloway, but I trust I did. I know you really liked that episode. To me, it was just “talking ants” and I didn’t care for it.
GG: Not a problem. We used to spar over the “talking rocks” episode (“Corpus Earthling”), as well. I even stayed over your house in Piscataway NJ one weekend, so I could watch that particular show during a telecast on Channel 48 from Philadelphia.
LB: I remember. We also used to watch Jack Benny reruns on Channel 29.
GG: Absolutely! They hadn’t shown them on NY TV for years. And I couldn’t pull in the Philly stations from Brooklyn, not without a parabolic antenna. This is all wonderful memory lane stuff for me, Len. Thanks so much for the look-back.
LB: My pleasure, Mr. G. Yes, they were the good old days. The ‘60s were especially sweet. Elvis was still alive and recording #1 hits. And I was in my 20s… Ahhh! Hope some of these memories helped…
There were two additional, officially licensed OUTER LIMITS trading card sets that appeared decades later. I edited/wrote one of these for Comic Images in the mid-‘90s. This set provided all the unit photography (b/w and color) from the original TV series, a Season One Episode Guide at last, along with a handful of Topps ’64 reprints… complete with my explanation of the altered storylines.
(click cards to enlarge)A few years after this set hit the market, Rittenhouse jumped in with their own incarnation. They focused on a half-dozen or so episodes with fan-friendly actors; frame grabs and autographs (Shatner, Nimoy, etc.) were the selling points this time around. But to most pop historians, it’s the 1964 Bubbles Inc./Topps version that resonates to this day. They were indeed a significant part of the original OUTER LIMITS experience, and I for one was delighted to collect them as a kid – bogus storylines and all.