John Travolta was 20 when he took a part in 'The Tenth Level'.

Milgram, Travolta and the Tenth Level

In August 1976, the TV movie The Tenth Level, inspired by Milgram’s obedience research, screened to around 30 million viewers as part of CBS’s Playhouse 90 series. From the opening scene onward, Professor Stephen Turner’s (aka Stanley Milgram’s) interest in obedience is portrayed as a sinister obsession—one that he will pursue with reckless disregard for the consequences.

William Shatner played Stephen Turner, a handsome, solid, normal-looking guy. But two minutes into the film, viewers get the sense that Turner is far from normal. Spooky music plays each time he gazes at secret drawings of a lab and a machine or listens to audio interviews with SS men.

Stanley Milgram was a consultant on the film that depicted him as this deranged professor. But you won’t find his name in the credits.

The screenwriter George Bellak had the idea for the film after he saw news of Milgram’s experiments in the early 1960s. He had carried a yellowed newsclipping about Milgram’s obedience experiments around with him for years ‘hopefully dangling it before one or another producer’. Finally, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, a producer expressed interest in seeing a script.

Bellak got in touch with Milgram in September 1974 and asked to interview him about his research. Two months later he delivered a script. But Milgram wasn’t happy with it. Five days after he received it Milgram contacted his publisher for legal advice. Could he sue Bellak for defamation? The answer was no, his publisher said, because the character of Professor Stephen Turner was ‘fictional.’

Perhaps Milgram thought he might have some luck in influencing the script by being involved in the production.  CBS paid him $5000 as a consultant on the film but it seems they ignored him. Later Milgram complained that ‘the most significant input I had was to suggest what kinds of journals might be on the professor’s desk.’

In parts The Tenth Level seems pure soap opera—one unkind online commentator called the film “The Andromeda Strain meets Days of Our Lives”. But it broke new ground — not just because one of the actors was a 20 year old called John Travolta — but it was the first fictional treatment of the obedience experiments.

It also was the first time focus concentrated on the man behind the research as much as the men in front of the shock machine.

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