That’s right, this month the fantastic Rod Serling is my icon of the month.
Serling was born on December 25, 1924, in Syracuse, New York, to a Jewish family. He was the second of two sons born to Esther (née Cooper) and Samuel Lawrence Serling. Serling’s father had worked as a secretary and amateur inventor before having children, but took on his father-in-law’s profession as a grocer to earn a steady income. Sam Serling later took up the trade of butcher after the Great Depression forced the store to close. Rod had an older brother, Robert J. Serling. Their mother was a homemaker.
Serling spent most of his youth 70 miles south of Syracuse in the city of Binghamton after his family moved there in 1926. His parents encouraged his talents as a performer from the start. Sam Serling built a small stage in the basement, where Rod often put on plays (with or without neighbourhood children). His older brother, the writer Robert, recalled that, at the age of six or seven, Rod entertained himself for hours by acting out dialogue from pulp magazines or movies he had seen. Rod often talked to people around him without waiting for their answers. On a two-hour-long trip from Binghamton to Syracuse, the rest of the family remained silent to see if Rod would notice their lack of participation. He did not, talking nonstop through the entire car ride.
In elementary school, Serling was seen as the class clown and dismissed by many of his teachers as a lost cause. However, his seventh-grade English teacher, Helen Foley, encouraged him to enter the school’s public speaking extracurriculars. He joined the debate team and was a speaker at his high school graduation. He began writing for the school newspaper, in which, according to the journalist Gordon Sander, he “established a reputation as a social activist”. He was also interested in sports and excelled at tennis and table tennis. When he attempted to join the varsity football team, he was told he was too small at 5 feet 4 inches tall.
Serling was interested in radio and writing at an early age. He listened to various radio programs, especially thrillers with a fantasy or horror feel. Arch Oboler and Norman Corwin were two of his favourite writers. He also “did some staff work at a Binghamton radio station … tried to write … but never had anything published.” He was accepted into college during his senior year of high school. However, the United States was involved in World War II at the time, and Serling decided to enlist rather than start college immediately after he graduated from Binghamton Central High School in 1943.
As editor of his high-school newspaper, Serling encouraged his fellow students to support the war effort. He wanted to leave school before graduation to join the fight, but his civics teacher talked him into graduating. “War is a temporary thing,” Gus Youngstrom told him. “It ends. An education doesn’t. Without your degree, where will you be after the war?” Serling enlisted in the U.S. Army the morning after his high school graduation, following his brother Robert. Serling began his military career in 1943 at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, under General Joseph May “Joe” Swing and Col. Orin D. “Hard Rock” Haugen and served in the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 11th Airborne Division. He served as a technician fourth grade.
Over the next year of paratrooper training, Serling and others took to boxing as a way to vent aggression. He competed as a flyweight and had 17 bouts, rising to the second round of the division finals before being knocked out. He was remembered for berserker style and for “getting his nose broken in his first bout and again in last bout.” He tried his hand at the Golden Gloves, with little success. On April 25, 1944, Serling received his overseas orders and saw that he was headed west through California. He knew that he was headed to fight the Japanese rather than the Nazis. This disappointed him, as he had hoped to help combat Hitler. On May 5, his division headed into the Pacific, landing in New Guinea, where it would be held in reserve for a few months.
In November 1944, his division first saw combat, landing in the Philippines. The 11th Airborne Division would not be used as paratroopers, however, but as light infantry during the Battle of Leyte. It helped mop up after the five divisions that had gone ashore earlier. For a variety of reasons, Serling was transferred to the 511th’s demolition platoon, nicknamed “The Death Squad” for its high casualty rate. According to Sergeant Frank Lewis, leader of the demolitions squad, “He screwed up somewhere along the line. Apparently he got on someone’s nerves.” Lewis also judged that Serling was not suited to be a field soldier: “he didn’t have the wits or aggressiveness required for combat.” At one point, Lewis, Serling, and others were in a firefight, trapped in a foxhole. As they waited for darkness, Lewis noticed that Serling had not reloaded any of his extra magazines. Serling sometimes went exploring on his own, against orders, and got lost.
Serling’s time in Leyte shaped his writing and political views for the rest of his life. He saw death every day while in the Philippines, at the hands of his enemies and his allies, and through freak accidents such as that which killed another extroverted Jewish private, Melvin Levy. Levy was delivering a comic monologue for the platoon as it rested under a palm tree when a food crate was dropped from a plane above, decapitating him. Serling led the funeral services for Levy and placed a Star of David over his grave. Serling later set several of his scripts in the Philippines and used the unpredictability of death as a theme in much of his writing. Serling returned from the successful mission in Leyte with two wounds, including one to his kneecap, but neither kept him from combat when General Douglas MacArthur deployed the paratroopers for their usual purpose on February 3, 1945. Colonel Haugen led the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment as it landed on Tagaytay Ridge, met up with the 188th Glider Infantry Regiment and marched into Manila. It met minimal resistance until it reached the city, where Vice Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi had arranged his 17,000 troops behind a maze of traps and guns and ordered them to fight to the death. During the next month, Serling’s unit battled block by block for control of Manila.
When portions of the city were taken from Japanese control, local civilians sometimes showed their gratitude by throwing parties and hosting banquets. During one of these parties, Serling and his comrades were fired upon, resulting in many soldier and civilian deaths. Serling, still a private after three years, caught the attention of Sergeant Lewis when he ran into the line of fire to rescue a performer who had been on stage when the artillery started firing. As it moved in on Iwabuchi’s stronghold, Serling’s regiment had a 50% casualty rate, with over 400 men killed. Serling was wounded and three comrades were killed by shrapnel from rounds fired at his roving demolition team by an antiaircraft gun. He was sent to New Guinea to recover but soon returned to Manila to finish “cleaning up”.
Serling’s final assignment was as part of the occupation force in Japan. During his military service, Private Serling was awarded the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, and the Philippine Liberation Medal. Serling’s combat experience affected him deeply and influenced much of his writing. It left him with nightmares and flashbacks for the rest of his life. He said, “I was bitter about everything and at loose ends when I got out of the service. I think I turned to writing to get it off my chest.”
After being discharged from the Army in 1946, Serling worked at a rehabilitation hospital while recovering from his wounds. His knee continued to give him trouble for years, and in subsequent years, his wife became used to the sound of him falling down the stairs when it buckled under his weight. Once he was fit enough, he used the federal G.I. bill’s educational benefits and disability payments to enroll in the physical education program at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He had been accepted to Antioch (his brother’s alma mater) while in high school. His interests led him to the theater department and then to broadcasting. He changed his major to Literature and earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1950. “I was kind of mixed up and restless, and I kind of liked their work-for-a-term, go-to-school-for-a-term set-up,” he recounted.
As part of his studies, Serling became active in the campus radio station, work experience which was often useful in his future career. He wrote, directed, and acted in many radio programs on campus, then around the state, as part of his work study. Here he met Carolyn Louise “Carol” Kramer, a student, who later became his wife. At first, she refused to date him because of his campus reputation as a “ladies man”, but she eventually changed her mind. He converted from Judaism to Unitarianism in college, which allowed him to marry Kramer on July 31, 1948. They had two daughters, Jodi and Anne.
Carol Serling’s maternal grandmother, Louise Taft Orton Caldwell, had a summer home on Cayuga Lake in Interlaken, New York, which was the newlyweds’ honeymoon destination. The Serling family continued to use this house annually throughout Rod’s life, missing only two summers in the years when his daughters were born.
For extra money in his college years, Serling worked part-time testing parachutes for the United States Army Air Forces. According to his radio station coworkers, he received $50 for each successful jump and had once been paid $500 (half before and half if he survived) for a hazardous test. His last test jump was a few weeks before his wedding. In one instance, he earned $1,000 for testing a jet ejection seat that had killed the previous three testers.
Serling volunteered at WNYC in New York as an actor and writer in the summer of 1946. The next year, he worked at that station as a paid intern in his Antioch work-study program. He then took odd jobs in other radio stations in New York and Ohio. “I learned ‘time’, writing for a medium that is measured in seconds,” Serling later said of his early experiences. While attending college, Serling worked at the Antioch Broadcasting System’s radio workshop and was managing the station within a couple of years. He then took charge of full-scale radio productions at Antioch which were broadcast on WJEM, in Springfield. He wrote and directed the programs and acted in them when needed. He created the entire output for the 1948–1949 school year. With one exception (an adaptation), all the writing that year was his original work. While in college, Serling won his first accolade as a writer. The radio program Dr. Christian had started an annual scriptwriting contest eight years earlier. Thousands of scripts were sent in annually, but very few could be produced. Serling won a trip to New York City and $500 for his radio script “To Live a Dream.” He and his new wife attended the awards broadcast on May 18, 1949, where he and the other winners were interviewed by the star of Dr. Christian, Jean Hersholt. One of the other winners that day was Earl Hamner, Jr., who had also earned prizes in previous years. Later, Hamner wrote scripts for Serling’s “The Twilight Zone”.
In addition to earning $45 to $50 a week at the college radio station, Serling attempted to make a living selling freelance scripts of radio programs, but the industry at that time was involved in many lawsuits, which affected willingness to take on new writers (some whose scripts were rejected would often hear a similar plot produced, claim their work had been stolen and sue for recompense). Serling was rejected for reasons such as “heavy competition,” “this script lacks professional quality,” and “not what our audience prefers to listen to.” In the autumn of 1949, Martin Horrell of Grand Central Station (a radio program known for romances and light dramas) rejected one of Serling’s scripts about boxing, because his mostly female listeners “have told us in no uncertain terms that prize fight stories aren’t what they like most.” Horrell advised that “the script would be far better for sight than for sound only, because in any radio presentation, the fights are not seen. Perhaps this is a baby you should try on some of the producers of television shows.” Realizing the boxing story was not right for Grand Central Station, Serling submitted a lighter piece called “Hop Off the Express” and “Grab a Local”, which became his first nationally broadcast piece on September 10, 1949. His “Dr. Christian” script aired on November 30 of that year.
Serling began his professional writing career in 1950, when he earned $75 a week as a network continuity writer for WLW radio in Cincinnati, Ohio. While at WLW, he continued to freelance. He sold several radio and TV scripts to WLW’s parent company, Crosley Broadcasting Corporation. After selling the scripts, Serling had no further involvement with them. They were sold by Crosley to local stations across the United States. Serling submitted an idea for a weekly radio show in which the ghosts of a young boy and girl killed in World War II would look through train windows and comment on day-to-day human life as it moved around the country. This idea was changed significantly, but was produced from October 1950 to February 1951 as “Adventure Express”, a drama about a girl and boy who travel by train with their uncle. Each week they found adventure in a new town and got involved with the local residents. Other radio programs for which Serling wrote scripts include “Leave It to Kathy”, “Our America”, and “Builders of Destiny”. During the production of these, he became acquainted with a voice actor, Jay Overholts, who later became a regular on “The Twilight Zone”.
Serling said of his time as a staff writer for radio, “From a writing point of view, radio ate up ideas that might have put food on the table for weeks at a future freelancing date. The minute you tie yourself down to a radio or TV station, you write around the clock. You rip out ideas, many of them irreplaceable. They go on and consequently can never go on again. And you’ve sold them for $50 a week. You can’t afford to give away ideas—they’re too damn hard to come by. If I had it to do over, I wouldn’t staff-write at all. I’d find some other way to support myself while getting a start as a writer.” Serling believed radio was not living up to its potential, later saying, “Radio, in terms of … drama, dug its own grave. It had aimed downward, had become cheap and unbelievable, and had willingly settled for second best.” He opined that there were very few radio writers who would be remembered for their literary contributions.
Serling moved from radio to television, as a writer for WKRC-TV in Cincinnati. His duties included writing testimonial advertisements for dubious medical remedies and scripts for a comedy duo. He continued at WKRC after graduation and, amidst the mostly dreary day-to-day work, also created a series of scripts for a live TV program, “The Storm”, as well as for other anthology dramas (a format which was in demand by networks based in New York). Following a full day of classes (or, in later years, work), he spent evenings on his own, writing. He sent manuscripts to publishers and received forty rejection slips during these early years. In 1950, Serling hired Blanche Gaines as an agent. His radio scripts received more rejections, so he began rewriting them for television. Whenever a script was rejected by one program, he would resubmit it to another, eventually finding a home for many in either radio or television. As Serling’s college years ended, his scripts began to sell. He continued to write for television and eventually left WKRC to become a full-time freelance writer. He recalled, “Writing is a demanding profession and a selfish one. And because it is selfish and demanding, because it is compulsive and exacting, I didn’t embrace it. I succumbed to it.”
According to his wife, Serling “just up and quit one day, during the winter of 1952, about six months before our first daughter Jody was born—though he was also doing some freelancing and working on a weekly dramatic show for another Cincinnati station.” He and his family moved to Connecticut in early 1953. Here he made a living by writing for the live dramatic anthology shows that were prevalent at the time, including Kraft Television Theatre, Appointment with Adventure and Hallmark Hall of Fame. By the end of 1954, his agent convinced him he needed to move to New York, “where the action is.” The writer Marc Scott Zicree, who spent years researching his book “The Twilight Zone Companion”, noted, “Sometimes the situations were clichéd, the characters two-dimensional, but always there was at least some search for an emotional truth, some attempt to make a statement on the human condition.”
In 1955, the nationwide Kraft Television Theatre televised a program based on Serling’s 72nd script. To Serling, it was just another script, and he missed the first live broadcast. He and his wife hired a babysitter for the night and told her “no one would call because we had just moved to town. And the phone just started ringing and didn’t stop for years!”
The title of this episode was “Patterns”, and it soon changed his life. “Patterns” dramatized the power struggle between a veteran corporate boss running out of ideas and energy and the bright, young executive being groomed to take his place. Instead of firing the loyal employee and risk tarnishing his own reputation, the boss enlists him into a campaign to push aside his competition. Serling modeled the main character on his former commander, Colonel Orin Haugen. The New York Times critic Jack Gould called the show “one of the high points in the TV medium’s evolution”
and said, “for sheer power of narrative, forcefulness of characterization and brilliant climax, Mr. Serling’s work is a creative triumph.”
Robert Lewis Shayon stated in the Saturday Review, “in the years I have been watching television I do not recall being so engaged by a drama, nor so stimulated to challenge the haunting conclusions of an hour’s entertainment.”
The episode was a hit with the audience as well, and a second live show was staged by popular demand one month later. During the time between the two shows, Kraft executives negotiated with people from Hollywood over the rights to “Patterns”. Newspapers announced that “Patterns” would be rebroadcast but then stated the show might be unavailable if the rights were sold before then. Immediately following the original broadcast of “Patterns”, Serling was inundated with offers of permanent jobs, congratulations and requests for novels, plays and television or radio scripts. He quickly sold many of his earlier, lower-quality works and watched in dismay as they were published. Critics expressed concern that he was not living up to his promise and began to doubt he was able to recreate the quality of writing that “Patterns” had shown. Serling then wrote “Requiem for a Heavyweight” for the TV series Playhouse 90 in 1956, again gaining praise from critics. In the autumn of 1957, the Serling family moved to California. When television was new, shows aired live, but as studios began to tape their shows, the business moved from the East Coast to the West Coast. Serling would live in California for much of his life but kept property in Binghamton and Cayuga Lake as retreats for when he needed time alone.
The early years of television often saw sponsors working as editors and censors. Serling was often forced to change his scripts after corporate sponsors read them and found something they felt was too controversial. They were wary of anything they thought might make them look bad to consumers, so references to many contemporary social issues were omitted, as were references to anything that might compete commercially with a sponsor. For instance, the line “Got a match?” was deleted because one of the sponsors of “Requiem for a Heavyweight” was Ronson lighters. A New York Times television reviewer added this editorial note at the end of a glowing review for “A Town Has Turned to Dust”, a show about racism and bigotry in a small Southwestern town: “‘Playhouse 90′ and Mr. Serling had to fight executive interference … before getting their play on the air last night. The theater people of Hollywood have reason to be proud of their stand in the viewers’ behalf.” Frustrated by seeing his scripts divested of political statements and ethnic identities (and having a reference to the Chrysler Building removed from a script sponsored by Ford), Serling decided the only way to avoid such artistic interference was to create his own show.
In an interview with Mike Wallace, he said, “I don’t want to fight anymore. I don’t want to have to battle sponsors and agencies. I don’t want to have to push for something that I want and have to settle for second best. I don’t want to have to compromise all the time, which in essence is what a television writer does if he wants to put on controversial themes.” Serling submitted “The Time Element” to CBS, intending it to be a pilot for his new weekly show, “The Twilight Zone”. Instead, CBS used the science fiction script for a new show produced by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, “The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse”, in 1958. The story concerns a man who has vivid nightmares of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The man goes to a psychiatrist and, after the session, the twist ending (a device which Serling became known for) reveals the “patient” had died at Pearl Harbor, and the psychiatrist was the one actually having the vivid dreams. The episode received so much positive fan response that CBS agreed to let Serling go ahead with his pilot for “The Twilight Zone”.
Before “The Twilight Zone”, Serling created a local television show in Cincinnati on WKRC-TV, “The Storm”, in the early 1950s. Several of these scripts were rewritten for later use on national network TV. A copy of an episode is located in the Cincinnati Museum Center Historical Cincinnati Library on videotape. On October 2, 1959, the classic “Twilight Zone” series, created by Serling, premiered on CBS. For this series, Serling fought hard to get and maintain creative control. He hired scriptwriters whom he respected (such as Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont). In an interview, Serling said the show’s science fiction format would not be controversial with sponsors, network executives or the general public and would escape censorship, unlike the earlier script for “Playhouse 90”.
Serling drew on his own experience for many episodes, frequently about boxing, military life, and airplane pilots. “The Twilight Zone” incorporated his social views on racial relations, somewhat veiled in the science fiction and fantasy elements of the shows. Occasionally, the point was quite blunt, such as in the episode “I Am the Night—Color Me Black”, in which racism and hatred causes a dark cloud to form in the American South and spread across the world. Many “Twilight Zone” stories reflected his views on gender roles, featuring quick-thinking, resilient women as well as shrewish, nagging wives.
“The Twilight Zone” aired for five seasons (the first three presented half-hour episodes, the fourth hour-long episodes, and the fifth returned to the half-hour format). It won many TV and drama awards and drew critical acclaim for Serling and his co-workers. Though it had loyal fans, “The Twilight Zone” had only moderate ratings and was twice canceled and revived. After five years and 156 episodes (92 written by Serling), he grew weary of the series. In 1964, he decided to not oppose its third and final cancellation. Serling sold the rights to “The Twilight Zone” to CBS. His wife later claimed he did this partly because he believed his own studio would never recoup the production costs of the programs, which frequently went over budget.
“The Twilight Zone” eventually resurfaced in the form of a 1983 film by Warner Bros. Former “Twilight Zone” actor Burgess Meredith was cast as the film’s narrator but does not appear on screen. There have been two attempts to revive the TV series with mostly new scripts. In 1985, CBS used Charles Aidman (and later Robin Ward) as the narrator. In 2002, UPN featured Forest Whitaker in the role of narrator.
“A Carol for Another Christmas” was a 1964 American television movie, scripted by Rod Serling as a modernization of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and a plea for global cooperation between nations. It was telecast only once, on December 28, 1964. The only TV movie directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, this was the film in which Peter Sellers gave his first performance after a series of near-fatal heart attacks in the wake of his marriage to Britt Ekland. Sellers portrayed a demigod in an apocalyptic Christmas. Sterling Hayden, who costarred with Sellers in Dr. Strangelove earlier that year, was also featured. The cast included Percy Rodriguez, Eva Marie Saint, Ben Gazzara, Barbara Ann Teer, James Shigeta and Britt Ekland. Henry Mancini wrote the theme music, which was recorded for his 1966 holiday LP, “A Merry Mancini Christmas”. The film is not commercially available, but it can be seen at the Paley Center for Media in New York and Los Angeles and the Film and Television Archive at the University of California, Los Angeles. Turner Classic Movies telecast “A Carol for Another Christmas” for the first time in 48 years, on December 16 and 22, 2012. TCM aired it again on December 19 and 20, 2013.
In 1969, NBC aired a television film pilot for a new series, “Night Gallery”, written by Serling. Set in a dimly lit museum after hours, the pilot film featured Serling (as on-camera host) playing the curator, who introduced three tales of the macabre, unveiling canvases that would appear in the subsequent story segments. Its brief first season (consisting of only six episodes) was rotated with three other shows (called Four in One) airing in the same time slot. The series generally focused more on horror and suspense than “The Twilight Zone” did. On the insistence of the producer Jack Laird, “Night Gallery” also began including brief comedic “blackout” sketches during its second season, which Serling greatly disdained.
No longer wanting the burden of an executive position, Serling sidestepped an offer to retain creative control of content, a decision he would come to regret. Although discontented with some of the scripts and creative choices of Jack Laird, Serling continued to submit his work and ultimately wrote over a third of the series’ scripts. By season three, however, many of his contributions were being rejected or heavily altered. “Night Gallery” was cancelled in 1973. NBC later combined episodes of the short-lived paranormal series “The Sixth Sense” with “Night Gallery”, in order to increase the amount of episodes available in syndication. Serling was reportedly paid $100,000 to film introductions for these repackaged episodes.
After “The Twilight Zone” was cancelled, Serling wrote an unsuccessful western television series called “The Loner”, which ran from the fall of 1965 to April 1966. CBS asked Serling to have more action and less character interaction. He refused to comply, even though the show had received poor reviews and low ratings. In a stylistic departure from his earlier work, Serling briefly hosted the first version of the game show “Liar’s Club” in 1969. In the 1970s, Serling appeared in television commercials for Ford, Ziebart and the Japanese automaker Mazda, during the time they were promoting vehicles for the U.S. market powered with a rotary engine.
Writing prose was difficult for Serling. Several of his short stories were rewrites of scripts which had already been produced, but he also wrote original stories. In his book “The Evolution of the Weird Tale”, S. T. Joshi titled his chapter on Serling “The Moral Supernatural” and wrote of how difficult it is to categorize Serling’s writings. He looked to the three dozen prose pieces Serling had published as a basis for literary analysis. In his overview of Serling’s writing, Joshi said, “If there is anything that unites the whole of Serling’s works—whether it be short stories or film scripts, whether it be fantastic or mainstream—it is an abiding concern with human feeling.”
Joshi compared an original script version of “Walking Distance” to a short story version of the same work and to the final script. The scripts utilize visual images to show the locations, what the characters look like and emotions they are experiencing; in the short story, Serling fleshed these out with strong nuances, inner dialogue and elaborate memories that are not easily translated to the screen. Each is successful in its medium, and each includes pieces that are not found in the others. Joshi commented that Serling used pacing well, each correct for its medium, and that “in spite of Serling’s own doubts on the matter—he mastered the short story technique in every way.”
Serling returned to radio late in his career with “The Zero Hour” (also known as “Hollywood Radio Theater”) in 1973. The drama anthology series featured tales of mystery, adventure and suspense, airing in stereo for two seasons. Serling hosted the program and wrote some of the scripts. Originally placed into syndication on September 3, 1973, the series was picked up by the Mutual Broadcasting System in December of that year. The original format featured five-part dramas broadcast Monday through Friday, with the story coming to a conclusion on Friday. Including commercials, each part was approximately 30 minutes long. Mutual affiliates could broadcast the series in any time slot that they wished. In 1974, still airing five days a week, the program changed to a full story in a single 30-minute installment with the same actor starring throughout the week in all five programs. That format was employed from late April 1974 to the end of the series on July 26, 1974.
Serling’s final radio performance, which he recorded just a few weeks before his death, was even more unusual: “Fantasy Park” was a 48-hour-long rock concert aired by nearly 200 stations over Labor Day weekend in 1975. The program, produced by KNUS in Dallas, featured performances by dozens of rock stars of the day. It was also completely “imaginary”, a “theatre-of-the-mind for the 70s”, as producer Beau Weaver put it, using record albums recorded live in concert, plus crowd noise and other sound effects. KNUS general manager Bart McLendon recruited Serling (his old teacher) to record the host segments, bumpers and custom promos and television spots. Serling wrote the disclaimers, which aired each hour: “Hello, this is Rod Serling and welcome back to Fantasy Park—the crowds here today are unreal.” “This is Fantasy Park—the greatest live concert—never held.”
Serling kept his schedule full. When he was not writing, promoting, or producing his work, he often spoke on college campuses around the country. He also taught week-long classes on film in which students would watch films and then critique them. In the political climate of the 1960s, he often felt a stronger rapport with older students in his evening classes than he did with the youth of the day. By the fourth season of “Twilight Zone”, Serling was exhausted and turned much of the writing over to a trusted stable of writers, writing only seven episodes. In an attempt to take a break and clear his mind, he took a one-year teaching job as writer in residence at Antioch College in Ohio.
He taught classes in the 1962–63 school year on writing and drama and a survey course covering the “social and historical implications of the media.” He used this time to teach as well as work on a new screenplay, “Seven Days in May.” Later he also taught at Ithaca College from the late 1960s until his death in 1975. He was also one of the first guest teachers at the Sherwood Oaks Experimental College in Hollywood, California. Audio recordings of some of his lectures there are included as bonus features on some “Twilight Zone” home video editions.
According to his wife, Serling often said that “the ultimate obscenity is not caring, not doing something about what you feel, not feeling! Just drawing back and drawing in, becoming narcissistic.” This philosophy can be seen in his writing. Some themes appear again and again in his writing, many of which are concerned with war and politics. Another common theme is equality among all people. Serling’s experiences as a soldier left him with strong opinions about the use of military force. He was an outspoken antiwar activist, especially during the Vietnam War. He supported antiwar politicians, notably Eugene McCarthy in his presidential campaign in 1968.
“The Rack” is an example of Serling’s use of television to speak his mind on political issues. It tells the story of an army captain charged with collaborating with the North Koreans. The New York Times reviewer J. P. Shanley called it “controversial and compelling”. Serling tackled a question that was much in the media at the time: should veterans be charged with a crime if they cooperated with the enemy while under duress? In this courtroom drama the accused is put on trial for helping the enemy by urging fellow prisoners of war to cooperate with their captors. Serling offers many valid arguments on behalf of both the defense and the prosecution. Each has a strong case, but in the end, the captain is found guilty. There is no Serling narration to conclude the drama, as he had become famous for in “The Twilight Zone” — instead, the audience is left to make their own conclusions after the verdict has been rendered.
“No Christmas This Year” was a script written early in Serling’s career, around 1950, but was never produced. It told of a place that no longer celebrated Christmas, although none of the residents know why it has been cancelled. Meanwhile, at the North Pole, the audience sees Santa Claus dealing with striking elves. Rather than creating toys and candy, the North Pole manufactures a diversity of bombs and offensive gases. Santa has been shot at on his route, and an elf was hit by shrapnel. “24 Men to a Plane” recounts Serling’s first combat airdrop into the area around Manila in 1945. The drop became a fiasco after the jumpmaster in the first plane dropped his men too early, causing every subsequent plane to drop in synchronization with the mistake
“A Town Has Turned to Dust” received a positive review from the critic Jack Gould, who was known for being straightforward to the point of being harsh in his reviews. He called “A Town Has Turned to Dust”, “a raw, tough and at the same time deeply moving outcry against prejudice.” Set in a Southwestern town in a deep drought, it sees poverty and despair turn racial tensions deadly when the ineffectual sheriff is unable to stand against the town. A young Mexican boy is lynched, and the town as a whole is to blame. A second lynching is in the works after a series of events leads again to the town turning against the Mexicans. This time, the sheriff stands strong, and the first boy’s brother is saved, even as the town is not. “Mr. Serling incorporated his protest against prejudice in vivid dialogue and sound situations. He made his point that hate for a fellow being leads only to the ultimate destruction of the bigoted.” Serling took his 1972 screenplay for the film “The Man” from the Irving Wallace novel of the same title. The black senator from New Hampshire and president pro tempore of the Senate, played by James Earl Jones, assumes the U.S. presidency by succession.
On May 3, 1975, Serling had a minor heart attack and was hospitalized. He spent two weeks at Tompkins County Community Hospital before being released. A second heart attack two weeks later forced doctors to agree that open-heart surgery, though considered risky at the time, was in order. The ten-hour-long procedure was carried out on June 26, but Serling had a heart attack on the operating table and died two days later at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York. He was 50 years old. His funeral took place on July 2.
A memorial was held in Cornell University’s Sage Chapel on July 7, 1975. Speakers at the Memorial included his daughter Anne and the Reverend John F. Hayward. He was interred at Interlaken Cemetery in Interlaken, New York.
Serling began his career when television was a new medium. The first public viewing of an all-electric television was presented by inventor Philo Farnsworth at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia on August 25, 1934, when Serling was nine years old. Commercial television officially started on July 1, 1941. At the time, there were fewer than seven thousand TV sets in the United States, and very few of those were in private homes. Only five months later the U.S. entered World War II, and the television business was put on hold until war’s end, as many of the sets were confiscated by the government and repurposed to train air-raid wardens. After World War II ended, money began flowing toward the new medium of television, coinciding with the beginning of Serling’s writing career. Early programming consisted of newsreels, sporting events and what would be called public-access television today. It was not until 1948 that filmed dramas were first shown, beginning with a show called Public Prosecutor. Serling began having serious dramas produced in 1950 and is given credit as one of the first to write scripts specifically for television. As such, he is said to have helped legitimize television drama.
The format of writing for television was in flux in the beginning but eventually settled into a pattern in which time was set aside for a commercial break on the quarter-hour. Writers, Serling included, were forced to write around a break in the action. Serling’s response to this convention was, “How can you put out a meaningful drama when every fifteen minutes proceedings are interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits with toilet paper? No dramatic art form should be dictated and controlled by men whose training and instincts are cut of an entirely different cloth. The fact remains that these gentlemen sell consumer goods, not an art form.” Throughout his career Serling helped to mold the future of television.
As early as 1955 Jack Gould, of the New York Times, commented on the close ties that were then being created between television and cinema by writers. Serling was one of the first to exploit crossover between media by turning his early television successes, “Patterns” and “The Rack”, into full-length movie productions. Up to that time, many established writers were often unwilling to write for television because the medium was often viewed only once then shunted into a vault, never to be seen again.
After the first showing of “Patterns”, the studio received such positive feedback that it produced a repeat performance, the first time a television program had been shown again at the behest of the audience. Although successful shows had sometimes been recreated after two years or more, this was the first time a show was recreated exactly — with the same cast and crew — as it had been originally created. The second live performance, only a month later, was equally successful and inspired the New York Times critic Jack Gould to write an essay on the use of replays on television. He stated that “Patterns” was a prime example of a drama that should be seen more than once, whereas a single airing was the norm for television shows of the day. Sponsors believed that creating new shows every week would assure them the largest possible audience, and so they purchased a new script for each night. Gould suggested that as new networks were opened and the viewers were given more choices, the percentage of viewers would spread out among the offerings. “Patterns” was proof that a second showing would garner more viewers because those who missed the first showing could then watch it the second showing, adding to the total viewers and reaching a larger audience for sponsors.
In December 1966, the made-for-television movie “The Doomsday Flight” aired. The fictional plot concerned an airplane with a bomb aboard. If the plane landed without the ransom money being paid, the aircraft would explode. The bomb was set with an altitude trigger that would detonate it if the plane dropped below four thousand feet. The show was one of the highest rated of the television season, but both Serling and his brother Robert, a technical advisor on the project (a specialist in aviation), regretted making the film. After the film was aired, a rash of copycats phoned in ransom demands to most of the largest airlines. Serling was truly devastated by what his script had encouraged. He told reporters who flocked to interview him, “I wish to Christ that I had written a stagecoach drama starring John Wayne instead.”
Serling is indelibly woven into modern popular culture because of the popularity of “The Twilight Zone”. Even youth of today can hum the theme song, and the title itself is a synonym for all things unexplainable. Serling’s widow, Carol, maintains that the cult status that now surrounds both her husband and his shows continues to be a surprise, “as I’m sure it would have been to him. It won’t go away. It keeps bobbing up. …Each year, I think, well, that’s it—and then something else turns up.” “
The Twilight Zone” has been rerun, re-created and re-imagined since going off the air in 1964. It has been released in comic book form, as a magazine, a film, and two additional television series from 1985 to 1989 and again from 2002 to 2003. In 1988, J. Michael Straczynski scripted Serling’s outline “Our Selena Is Dying” for the 1980s “Twilight Zone” revival.
Even those who have never seen a black-and-white episode of the original “Twilight Zone” are now able to read some of Serling’s work in graphic novels. “Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone” is a series of adaptations by Mark Kneece and Rich Ellis based on original scripts written by Serling. “The Twilight Zone is not the only Serling work to reappear. In 1994, “Rod Serling’s Lost Classics” released two never-before-seen works that Carol Serling found in her garage. The first was an outline called “The Theatre” that Richard Matheson expanded. The second was a complete script written by Serling, “Where the Dead Are”.
More than 30 years after his death, Serling was digitally resurrected for an episode of the TV series “Medium” that aired on November 21, 2005. Filmed partially in 3-D, it opened with Serling’s introducing the episode and instructing viewers when to put on their 3-D glasses. This was accomplished using footage from T”he Twilight Zone” episode “The Midnight Sun” and digitally manipulating Serling’s mouth to match new dialogue spoken by voice actor Mark Silverman. The plot involved paintings coming to life, a nod to both “The Twilight Zone” and “Night Gallery”. On August 11, 2009, the United States Postal Service released its Early TV Memories commemorative stamp collection honoring notable television programs. One of the twenty stamps honored “The Twilight Zone” and featured a portrait of Serling.
Serling and his work on “The Twilight Zone” went on to inspire the Disney theme park attraction “The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror”. The ride takes place in the once elegant Hollywood Tower Hotel that was struck by lightning, causing the mysterious disappearance of five guests. Riders enter an abandoned elevator shaft as they become part of a “lost episode” of “The Twilight Zone”. The attraction takes guests up thirteen stories and drops them multiple times. Again, Silverman provides the dubbing for Serling’s dialogue for both incarnations of the attraction, at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney California Adventure.
His schoolteacher Helen Foley encouraged him in his writing and he always believed he owed his success to her. A schoolteacher in “Twilight Zone: The Movie” (1983) was named Helen Foley in her honour. Serling wanted Richard Egan to do the narration for “The Twilight Zone” because of his rich, deep voice. However, due to strict studio contracts of the time, Egan was unable to. Serling said “It’s Richard Egan or no one. It’s Richard Egan, or I’ll do the thing myself,” which is exactly what happened.
Out of the 92 “The Twilight Zone” episodes he wrote, his personal favourite was “Time Enough at Last”. His favourite from an outside writer was “The Invaders” by Richard Matheson. He usually dictated his scripts into a tape recorder and had his secretary type them up. In 1961, the FCC chairman, Newton N. Minow, gave a speech in which he called television programing a “vast wasteland”, citing” The Twilight Zone” as one of only a few exceptions.
The Canadian rock band Rush dedicated its third studio album, “Caress of Steel”, to Serling. Its fourth album, “2112”, includes a song titled “The Twilight Zone”, in which the two verses are each based on an episode of the series. Annually since 1995, Binghamton High School, Serling’s alma mater, primarily in partnership with WSKG-TV, hosts the Rod Serling Video Festival for students in kindergarten through grade 12. The festival encourages young people to engage in filmmaking. Serling’s work, particularly the Twilight Zone episode “Walking Distance”, underpins the romantic comedy “The Rewrite” (2014), which is largely set in Binghamton. In 2004 he was ranked #1 in TV Guide’s list of the “25 Greatest Sci-Fi Legends”, the only real person on the list. All the others are television series characters.
“Fame is short-lived. One year after this show [The Twilight Zone] goes off the air, they’ll never remember who I am. And I don’t care a bit. Anonymity is fine with me. My place is as a writer.” – Rod Serling