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Serling, Rod (1924-1975)

Serling, Rod (1924-1975)

Best known as the host of television's The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling was a prolific author of live teleplays and television scripts who did much to raise the artistic bar of a fledgling medium in the 1950s and 1960s. With contemporaries such as Paddy Chayefsky and Reginald Rose, Serling found television a reprobate cousin to film and theater, and left it a respected forum for expression.

Born Rodman Edward Serling on Christmas Day 1924, he grew up in the sleepy university town of Binghamton in upstate New York. He served in the army during World War II, seeing combat action in the Philippines. Hospitalized with multiple shrapnel wounds, Serling sought an outlet for his pent-up emotions. "I was bitter about everything and at loose ends when I got out of the service," he later recalled. "I think I turned to writing to get it off my chest."

When he returned from the war, Serling began selling radio scripts to programs in New York City. When television's growing popularity created a demand for writers, he moved on to that medium. In four years of freelancing, Serling saw 71 of his teleplays produced, but none of them approached the quality of his 72nd. "Patterns," a powerful drama about internecine warfare within the halls of a major corporation, aired on Kraft Television Theatre on January 12, 1955. It earned Serling the first of six Emmy Awards and provided his big break.

The glowing reviews of "Patterns" made Serling one of the hottest commodities in the entertainment industry. "I found I could sell everything I had—and I did," he said later. Some of his scripts were brilliant. The harrowing boxing drama "Requiem for a Heavyweight" became a live television classic, for example. Others should have remained buried in the author's desk drawer. All of them bore the trademark Serling attributes of moral probity and social concern.

Those social concerns occasionally got Serling into trouble with jittery advertisers and network censors, however, and as a defiant defender of free expression, he bristled at every change to his work. In one instance, the word "lucky" was stricken from one of Serling's scripts because the sponsor, a tobacco company, did not want viewers to be reminded of Lucky Strike cigarettes. That was harmless compared to what CBS did to his drama "A Town Has Turned to Dust." An outspoken progressive on civil rights issues, Serling had penned a script based on the case of Emmett Till, a black teenager who was lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The network, afraid that the show would outrage viewers in the South, changed the setting from present-day Mississippi to Mexico in the 1870s. Other racially charged story elements were likewise toned down. Of his original script, the author lamented, "They chopped it up like a roomful of butchers at work on a steer."

In part because of his desire to make an end run around the censors, Serling turned his creative energies in 1959 away from live drama. He envisioned a weekly half-hour fantasy anthology series that could address philosophical and political topics in an oblique way. Intrigued at the prospect of signing up one of television's most respected writers, CBS green-lighted the project, which Serling christened The Twilight Zone. He was given total artistic control along with the title of executive producer.

Twilight Zone debuted on October 2, 1959, to generally positive reviews. Literate and highly entertaining, the show raised the science fiction/fantasy genre to a new level of artistic quality. True to Serling's concept, many of the stories used sci-fi trappings to speak to contemporary social issues like racism, cultural conformity, and Cold War paranoia. For actors, the series relied on a dizzying repertory company of seasoned character players and up-and-comers. Serling himself joined their ranks by serving as on-camera host/narrator. His bizarre persona—clenched teeth and gravelly monotone, crisp Kuppenheimer suits and the eternally cupped cigarette—made him seem like some kind of celestial undertaker beamed in to viewers' homes once a week for their edification and enjoyment.

In addition to hosting and serving as executive producer, Serling wrote 92 of Twilight Zone's 156 episodes over the course of five seasons. He contributed some of the show's most memorable teleplays, including "Eye of the Beholder," which explored relative perceptions of beauty through the eyes of a "disfigured" young woman. Unfortunately, the demands on Serling's time and concentration also forced him to write quickly and sloppily. Many of the show's worst installments—and its often preachy and moralizing tone—bore his imprimatur as well.

With the occasional critical brickbat, however, came the fame and recognition due to the unmistakable face and voice of a successful network television series. Serling collected numerous awards for his work on Twilight Zone, including another Emmy. After the series was canceled in 1964, he went back to writing dramatic teleplays for anthology shows. In 1968, he wrote the first three drafts of the screenplay for Planet of the Apes. His verbose, purple style still can be heard in the finished film, voiced with delicious pomposity by the perfectly cast Charlton Heston.

Lured back to series television in 1970, Serling lent his name and visage to Night Gallery, a Twilight Zone -esque anthology that ran for two seasons on NBC, but while he penned some exceptional episodes, Serling became frustrated with the network's vision of the show as, in his words, was "Mannix in a cemetery." He even suffered the indignity of having several of his own scripts rejected for insufficiently frightening content. Contractually bound to serve as host, the humiliated fantasist desultorily went through his paces until the show's cancellation. Three years later, he died following complications of heart bypass surgery. To the end, he remained committed to the integrity of his work and the vision of a higher standard of televised entertainment.

—Robert E. Schnakenberg

Further Reading:

Sander, George F. Serling: The Rise and Twilight of Television's Last Angry Man. New York, Plume, 1994.

Zicree, Marc Scott. The Twilight Zone Companion. New York, Bantam, 1989.

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