The Serling Zone - Rod Serling


Submitted, for your perusal, is the story of one man who, while short in stature, is considered among the giants in his chosen profession. A man who was among the pioneers of a new and exciting medium. A man who challenged his employers, his audience and himself to think, react, and feel. He could attack his own profession with a bulldog's tenacity, yet defend its faults and continue to be inspired by its potential.

He was a writer, producer, creator, innovator and "angry young man." Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Rod Serling.

Serling is among the most-awarded writers in television's history, with six Emmy trophies, a Peabody, three Hugos from the Science Fiction Writers of America, three Writers Guild of America awards and numerous others to his credit. He launched his career during the "Golden Age of Television," and, despite occasional interference from networks and sponsors, continued to churn out thought-provoking scripts into the 1970s.

He is best known for his landmark 1959-64 fantasy/science fiction series The Twilight Zone, although he also created The Loner in the mid-1960s and later served as host of Rod Serling's Night Gallery. He also penned several notable TV and theatrical film scripts. His work inspired everyone from Chris Carter to Steven Spielberg to Stephen King, and his influence is still seen in numerous films and series today.

To understand that influence, to understand the forces that made his work so powerful, one must first understand the man himself. In these few pages, we'll try to assist in that process.

Back There


Robert, Mom Esther and Rodman, circa 1927 (Courtesy RSMF)

Rodman Edward Serling was, in his words, "a Christmas present that arrived unwrapped," born on Dec. 25, 1924, in Syracuse, N.Y. A short time later, Rod's family - his parents, Samuel and Esther, and brother Robert (seven years his senior) - moved to Binghamton (present population 53,000 and change) in southern New York state near the Pennsylvania border.

By most accounts, his childhood was idyllic, the stuff that dreams (and dreamers) are made of. He had an uncanny combination of self-confidence and humility.

Robert Serling told The Twilight Zone Companion author Mark Scott Zicree that Rod enjoyed being the center of attention, and he usually was.

"He was that way all through school, that I can remember," he said. "A class leader, always into dramatics. He'd try out for anything. There was some kind of compulsion in him to do something that nobody else - the ordinary kid - wouldn't do."

Along the way, he devoured the typical pulp fiction books of the day, and enjoyed radio programs and movies with his brother. He was inspired greatly by a favorite teacher, Helen Foley, who taught him public speaking and later remarked that she thought he'd become an actor.

He was successful in practically everything he attempted, with one possible exception. Rod lamented years later that "I couldn't get into the varsity football game because (the coach) found it difficult to reconcile playing a quarterback who weighed less than the team bulldog."

 

A day after high school graduation, Rod enlisted in the U.S. Army. As a means of earning extra money during basic training, he took up boxing, despite, by his admission, his scant 118-pound frame. He actually won 17 of his 18 bouts (which may well account for his broken nose).

Despite the warning of friends that he was too small, he campaigned rigorously for, and was accepted into, the 11th Airborne Division paratroopers.


Samuel and Pvt.Rod Serling, circa 1942 (Courtesy RSMF)

"I was absolutely stunned when I heard he had enlisted in the paratroopers," Robert Serling told WNET-TV for American Masters. "I just think he wanted to prove himself, as he did all his life."

His chance to "prove himself" was very near, as the nation was in the midst of World War II, and his unit would see action in the Pacific.

Helen Foley recalled a visit Rod made to his old school, visiting each of his teachers, just prior to entering the war.

"It was such a pathetic thing," she told WNET, "to have a shining little boy like that go off through the horrors he went through."

Those horrors, he later said, would help to inspire his desire to write, as a form of therapy.

"He had terrible nightmares," Robert Serling told WNET. "He didn't just have war experiences, they were branded into his hide and his soul and his mind. And, I think, produced some of the finest writing he ever did."

Rod later said his wartime service expanded his mind, while also packing an emotional wallop that he had to deal with.

"I had been injured with the paratroopers," he said, referring to shrapnel wounds to his knee and wrist, "and I was bitter about everything and at loose ends when I got out of the service. I think I turned to writing to get if off my chest."

It was while serving in the Philippines that Rod's father, a butcher by trade but a nurturing influence on his son's imagination, died of a heart attack at age 52.

Rod used the G.I. Bill to enroll at Antioch College (his father's alma mater) in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1946, following his discharge from the service. His initial major was physical education, he said, because he was interested in working with children, although he later changed his major to literature and language.

Sounds And Silences

"Ideas come from the earth. They come from every human experience that you either witness or have heard about." --- Rod Serling

During his military service, Rod had written a few scripts for the Armed Forces Radio network, and radio appeared to be a good outlet for his budding desire to write.

He became the manager of the Antioch Broadcasting System's radio workshop, and directed, wrote and performed in weekly productions aired over radio station WJEM in Springfield.

 


Young Rod at the typewriter
(Courtesy RSMF)

His senior year of college saw him write the workshop's entire output, which, with the exception of one adaptation, was original material. Although he later dismissed this work as being of poor quality, the experience proved most valuable, and he submitted his local scripts to national radio shows for their consideration.

In 1946, Rod met an attractive education and psychology major named Carolyn Kramer. The two began dating and, despite some opposition from both their families (the two were raised in different faiths), were married in 1948. The couple was later blessed with two intelligent, attractive daughters, Jodi and Anne.

An important break came the following year, when one of Serling's scripts ("To Live A Dream," the story of a boxer dying of leukemia) was awarded second prize in an annual contest sponsored by Dr. Christian, a radio show which obtained all its material through such contests. The prize for the young couple was $500 and an all-expense-paid trip to New York City.

Later that year, two more Serling scripts were purchased by another radio program, Grand Central Station, and in 1950 he made his first sale to a television program. The NBC anthology series, Stars Over Hollywood, bought Serling's story "Grady Everett For The People" for $100.

After graduating from college, the Serlings moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Rod became a staff writer with WLW, a noted radio station in the region. The station had helped launch the careers of legendary guitarists Merle Travis and Chet Atkins, and mandolinist Jethro Burns of the comedy duo Homer & Jethro.

Rod's duties were varied, and not exactly to his liking. Among them were writing fictitious testimonials for a patent medicine remedy concoction which, he later said, "was about 12 percent alcohol by volume, and, if the testimonials were to be believed, could cure anything from arthritis to a fractured pelvis."

He also wrote feature segments honoring smaller towns in the region, with most of that material, he later admitted, being "more fabrication than documentation," and material for two "hayseed" entertainers, one of whom he described as "a girl yodeler whose falsetto could break a beer bottle at 20 paces."

Serling became more anxious to leave WLW and concentrate fully on freelance writing. The final blow for his WLW career came, Rod said later, during a dinner with his wife at a restaurant. A touch of her hand and Carol's supportive smile were all it took.

Such early efforts as his short story, "Transcript Of The Legal Proceedings In The Case Of The Universe Versus War" (a legal drama with Euripedes as prosecutor, Julius Caesar as defense attorney, a jury of 12 angels and God as judge) had convinced Serling that writing folksy retorts for pilsner-shattering yodelers was not in his future. He resigned from WLW radio, for good.

"For lush or lean," he said later, "good or bad, Sardi's or malnutrition, I'd launched a career."

The Arrival

"You have to take a position, assume a stance, believe in something strongly enough to raise a voice about it." --- Rod Serling

Serling signed with Blanche Gaines, a New York agent, in 1950, and her strong support proved vital over the next few years. "I collected 40 rejection slips in a row," Serling said later. "I remember a five-month period late in 1952 when my diet consisted chiefly of black coffee and fingernails." He added that Gaines kept him on a year before he made his first sale.

Initially, Serling commuted from Ohio to New York for meetings and story conferences, although he eventually made his move to the Big Apple.

"New York frightens me," he once said. "Each time I walk into a network or agency office, I have a strong feeling I'm wearing overalls and Lil' Abner shoes."

Among his earliest televised works were the seven scripts purchased by Lux Video Theatre, a dramatic anthology series which began on CBS on October 2, 1950 after a 16-year radio run as Lux Radio Theatre. The show began its TV run in New York, although it shifted its operation to Hollywood beginning in the fall of 1953.

Other Serling scripts were used on such series as Suspense, a CBS anthology which began in 1949, CBS' Medallion Theater, which ran one season (1953-54), Motorola TV Theatre, an ABC dramatic anthology which also ran from 1953 to '54, and Danger, another CBS series, featuring stories of psychological drama and murder mysteries.

The original director of Danger was Yul Brynner (who went on to make his mark as an outstanding actor), although he was replaced by Sidney Lumet. When Lumet left, he was replaced by a young director named John Frankenheimer.

Along with directors such as Frankenheimer and Lumet, several bright young writers - including Paddy Chayefsky, Horton Foote, Reginald Rose, David Swift, David Shaw and Serling - were raising the level of these dramatic anthologies above the typical TV fare of game shows and cheaply-filmed police series.

Frankenheimer told WNET that they were all very young, but anxious to ply their wares in this orphaned stepchild of radio.

"Well, we were working in a new medium," he said. "And we - we were the old days (laughs). I mean, there wasn't any history.

"We all either came out of the theater," Frankenheimer continued, "or, in my particular case, came out of nowhere."

The opportunity to work in well-crafted drama also appealed to many actors, according to Jack Klugman.

"We were hungry, there wasn't enough work in the theater," he told WNET, "and here was an outlet - live television - and written by good people."

A host of now legendary actors, including Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Claude Rains, Dane Clark, Charlton Heston, Raymond Burr, Veronica Lake, Celeste Holm and Franchot Tone, among others, seemed to agree with Klugman's assessment, and took part in these early live television dramas.

For Serling, it was business as usual, until the 1954-55 season, and one installment of the Kraft Television Theatre on NBC.

"Patterns" aired live on Jan. 12, 1955. The teleplay told the story of a young executive from Cincinnati who moved to New York to work with the Ramsey Agency on Wall Street.

The young exec, played by Richard Kiley, soon learned that he had been hired by the ruthless Mr. Ramsey (Everett Sloane) to serve under, and, if possible, replace, an older executive, played by Ed Begley Sr.


Ed Begley Sr. and Everett Sloane in "Patterns," Jan 12,1955 (NBC)

Kiley's character eventually agrees to try to unseat his older counterpart, who, under the pressure and strain of the work environment, dies of a heart attack. Full of idealism, and wanting no part of such a cruel structure, the young man resigns, telling his boss that "it's one thing to lick a man's boots, it's another thing to be the man whose boots need to be licked."


Rod and "Patterns" director Fielder Cook (CBS)

"'Patterns' is a story of power, ambition, and the price tag that hangs on success," Serling wrote later. "It is also a conflict of youth versus age. For every man who goes up, someone has to leave. And when the departure of the aged is neither philosophical nor graceful, there is an aching poignancy in the changing of the guard.

"I was writing about the values of a society that places such stock in success," he continued, "and has so little preoccupation with morality once success has been attained. This is not the morality of good and evil. This is morality's shady side of the street."

By all measures, "Patterns" was a huge triumph. So much so that, four weeks later, the exact same cast was reassembled to perform the play again, live, as in the initial telecast. Such an event had never before occurred in live television.

The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences was among those who were overwhelmed by Serling's work, and awarded him the Emmy for Best Original Teleplay Writing.

Serling was actually nominated a second time, in the category of Best Television Adaptation, for his script based on Ring Lardner's "The Champion," an episode of Climax!. The recognition was exciting for Serling, but it began to pose problems that the young writer didn't anticipate.

"There are two ways for a writer to achieve success," he said. "One is the long haul. The other is the so-called 'overnight' success, generated by a single piece of writing that captures the imagination and the fancy of the public and the critics. 'Patterns' was that kind of piece. It came on the air, unheralded, but pushed me into the limelight with a fabled kind of entry. All of a sudden, with no preparation and no expectations, I had a velvet mantle draped over my shoulder."

With that success came numerous offers, and Serling admitted that he took on all comers.

"I found that I could sell everything I had, and I did," he said. "Like the hungry kid left alone in the candy store, I just grabbed. A lot of what I sold should have stayed in the trunk." And, some of those stories that "should have stayed in the trunk" did not meet favorably with the critics and viewers who had praised "Patterns."

"On the periphery of every success lies a brooding monster," Serling later said, "known as a 'flash in the pan.' It wasn't long before I realized that the writing which had brought me success on a platter was also evolving as my principal competition. Now I had something to prove, first to others and then to myself. I had to prove that 'Patterns' wasn't all I had."

The Arena

"There was something of the magic of theater in producing a live television play. The bone-crushing schedules, the frantic adherence to deadlines, the mistakes, the forgotten lines, but with all that incredible and marvelous commotion that attends a Broadway opening night." --- Rod Serling

CBS premiered a new dramatic anthology series, Playhouse 90, on Oct. 4, 1956. It is often cited as, if not the best, then certainly near the top of the list of all the dramatic anthologies of the 1950s.

The original broadcast was a Serling script, "Forbidden Area," which did not meet favorably with most critics. A week later, however, Serling delivered one of his greatest efforts of all.

"Requiem For A Heavyweight" followed the story of a longtime professional boxer, "Mountain" McClintock (played by Jack Palance), who is suddenly facing the end of his career. His manager, Mace (Keenan Wynn) and ever-supportive trainer (Ed Wynn), along with a social worker (Kim Hunter), all try to assist the boxer in determining his next career move, although McClintock himself is not ready to hang up his gloves.


Jack Palance and Ed Wynn, Oct. 11, 1956 (CBS)

His greatest humiliation, however, comes when his manager decides to make him a professional wrestler. His dignity crushed, he tells his manager that "all these crummy, 14 years I fought for you, I never felt ashamed ... and now I feel ashamed.

"I would have gone into any ring, bare-handed, against a guy with a (meat) cleaver, and it wouldn't have hurt this much."

"I've always liked fighters," Serling wrote later. "As a 19-year-old paratrooper, I had several bouts of my own. But, to be a fighter, every moment you live is in preparation for the next fight, and when your career is finished, the profession discards you, and you're regarded as a freak.

 "So, I wrote a story about a fighter," he continued, "who, in the brief moment after his last fight, walked into a world that was unfamiliar and foreign to him. Every man can and must search for his own personal dignity. There was particular poignancy in having an ex-fighter begin this kind of quest, because his background provided him with the least possible chance."

 


Rod and producer Martin Manulis (CBS)

Martin Manulis, who produced "Requiem," still beamed about the broadcast decades later, as he recalled to WNET for American Masters.

"Even this many years later I feel everything I felt then about the night of the performance of 'Requiem For A Heavyweight,'" he said. We sat in the control room, and for 90 minutes it just held. The excitement was unbelievable. Rod Serling's work was so electric to begin with, and it was just a triumph." Manulis added a footnote, in the form of an unexpected message.

"I was about to go out to the floor," he told WNET, "and they called me back. Mr. (CBS president William) Paley was on the phone. That was the first time we had heard from him after a show. He said, 'Tell everyone - especially Rod Serling - that tonight we just put television about ten years ahead." Emmy voters were equally impressed, as "Requiem" was honored for Best Single Program Of The Year, Best Single Performance By An Actor for Palance, Best Art Direction (Albert Heschong), Best Direction (Program One Hour Or More) for Ralph Nelson, and Serling's second Emmy for Best Teleplay Writing (Program One Hour Or More).

"Requiem" also netted Serling a George Foster Peabody award, the first ever presented to a writer.

A year later, another Playhouse 90 production, "The Comedian," raked in two more awards at the Emmys, for Best Single Program Of The Year, and Rod's third statue for Best Teleplay Writing (Program One Hour Or More).

"The Comedian," based on Ernest Lehman's novel, followed the story of an overbearing entertainer (played by Mickey Rooney) who berated his flunky brother (played by singer Mel Torme) and head writer (Edmund O'Brien) of his upcoming TV spectacular.

Under the guidance of programming chief Hubbell Robinson, CBS had garnered a reputation as "the Tiffany network." Robinson was a man who knew quality, and wanted it on CBS.

Others, however, weren't as concerned as Robinson about quality, particularly if socially significant themes were involved. The sponsors, more concerned with pleasing consumers with whimsical ads for their products, wanted things to be kept as safe as possible.

Thus came Serling's reputation as "TV's angry young man."

 

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