Highlights of a Life
In 1992, Gordon F. Sander wrote an unauthorized and somewhat controversial biography of Rod Serling, “Television’s Last Angry Man.” According to Sander, Serling, born on December 25, 1924, was a man “angrier, nervier, [and] more vulnerable to tragedy. A man whose ambition to be a serious writer, whose passion for morality in drama clash[ed] with his own lust for fame and celebrity and the imperatives of an industry he helped to launch.”
As if that weren’t enough, according to Sander, Serling was a “distraught veteran of Hollywood success, winner of six Emmy awards who was consumed by a sense of being a has-been in the decade after The Twilight Zone‘s cancellation, accepting every offer from game shows to corporate flecking, finally hawking Crest and Echo floor wax before dying during open-heart surgery at age 50.” To Gene Gray of the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, on the other hand, Rod Serling was a “hypnotic speaker, brimming with ideas, a political activist and a man who truly enjoyed coming back to his old hometown. He was also a man who died too soon.” Both men agree that Serling was the “star of late ’50s TV writing who became a savage opponent of McCarthyism [and commercial] sponsor censorship of TV content…leading the industry magazine Television Age to call him television’s leading critic in 1961.”
Anyone watching even one or two of the infamous Twilight Zone episodes will know that Rod Serling was intimately acquainted with ambiguity. In “Walking Distance,” the viewed is treated to a day in the life of a stressed-out advertising executive who is privileged to spend a day in his home town and, who, surprisingly, finds everything as it was when he was a child. The executive eventually spies a little boy who reminds him of himself as a little boy, riding on a merry-go-round. When he later meets up with his parent—who suspiciously appear young once more—they tell him to leave the town quickly since there is “only one summer to a customer.” Serling closes the episode remarking that while the television executive is “successful in most things,” he wasn’t successful “in the one effort that all men try at some time in their lives—trying to go home again.” Does the event really happen to the executive, or is it merely a product of an overstressed mind? Welcome to the twilight zone.
The facts of Sterling’s life, for the most part, are not ambiguous. He had one brother, Robert; he was a popular child who enjoyed reading “pulp” magazines such as Amazing Stories and Weird Tales, going to the movies, and afterward acting out the various parts with his brother; he joined the U.S. Army 11th Airborne Division paratroopers, fought in the Pacific during World War II, and received the Purple Heart for shrapnel wounds to his wrist and knee. Serling believed his wartime experience contributed to his writing career: “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.”
In 1946 Serling enrolled at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, majoring first in in physical education and then later in literature. He was active in Antioch’s theatre department, and he eventually wound up at the campus’s public broadcasting radio station. In college Serling met fellow student Carolyn Kramer, who he married in 1948, and with whom he eventually had two daughters, Jodi and Anne.
After graduating from Antioch in 1950, Serling moved to Cincinnati where he worked at WLW radio and WKRC-TV in Cincinnati. Worked on his own writing in the evening, he eventually realized that he needed to make writing a full-time career: “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.”
Patterns, broadcast on Kraft Television Theater, in 1955 was Serling’s first success. A story of corporate politics, Patterns received glowing reviews in the New York Times and Saturday Review and launched Serling’s career. He quickly began receiving offers to write other television shows, movies, Broadway plays, and novels. After a string of disappointing productions, Serling published Requiem for a Heavyweight in 1956, and it was broadcast on Playhouse 90. The play tells the story of a declining prize fighter whose manager pressures him to keep boxing so he can make money betting against him. Requiem for a Heavyweight won five Emmy awards and was made into a movie.
A passionate opponent of censorship, Serling entered the fray revolving around the degree to which corporate sponsors could control the content of a television production. Sponsors were eager to avoid controversy that could reduce their net profits, and they kept a lid on any content they deemed inappropriate. Serling came to believe that the most meaningful aspects of many of his stories were changed or deleted by his corporate sponsors, and he actively fought to bring down that kind of censorship. Serling eventually turned to science fiction in the belief that the genre would allow him to provide social commentary without censorship—ambiguity would be the cloak he would hide behind.
Serling submitted “The Time Element” to CBS in 1957—the pilot episode for a weekly science fiction-fantasy series called The Twilight Zone. While CBS did not initially commit to The Twilight Zone, the network produced “The Time Element” for the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse in 1958, the story of a man who sees a psychiatrist to help him deal with vivid dreams about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In the first of Serling’s trademark twist endings, it turns out that the patient was actually killed at Pearl Harbor, and the psychiatrist is the one having the vivid dreams. The network was inundated by viewer mail, prompting CBS to give the green light to The Twilight Zone.
The familiar, haunting theme music for the show was composed by Marius Constant, although a different piece by Bernard Herrmann was used for most of the first season. While Serling auditioned a number of well-known actors to narrate the show, including Orson Welles, he finally decided to try narration himself. Several directors cautioned Serling to change “his deadpan delivery style,” but his voice and presence ultimately became the trademark of The Twilight Zone. The show marked Serling’s arrival as television personality.
When the first episode of The Twilight Zone finally aired in 1959, reactions were positive from critics and viewers alike. Todd Raper of the Columbus Dispatch described The Twilight Zone as “the hottest show that CBS-TV has come up with,” and claimed that while watching it “we felt the hair on our neck rise, the skin on our back cringe, and our heart flop at the finish with a feeling of relief.”
The Twilight Zone—a smash hit—spawned a board game, comic book, and record albums. The series took up the important social issues of the day: racism, the persecution of suspected Communists during the Cold War, and the war in Korea. Critics generally consider the first three seasons of The Twilight Zone to contain the best episodes in terms of writing and direction, and in its prime, the show attracted top talent—Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, Dennis Hopper, Burt Reynolds, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Duvall, Carol Burnett, Elizabeth Montgomery, Jack Klugman, Cliff Robertson, Jonathan Winters, Martin Landau, Roddy McDowall, James Coburn, Art Carney, Don Rickles, Peter Falk, Cloris Leachman, Mickey Rooney, Buddy Ebsen, Dennis Weaver, Buster Keaton, and Robert Redford—to name a few, all made appearances on The Twilight Zone.
A sense of weariness led Serling to leave The Twilight Zone and return to Antioch College for a one-year teaching position. He commented that “I’ve never felt quite so drained of ideas as I do at this moment. You can’t retain quality. You start borrowing from yourself, making your own clichés. I notice that more and more.” While he continued to provide scripts and narration for the program, he curtailed his involvement for three reasons: “First is extreme fatigue. Second, I’m desperate for a change of scene, and third is a chance to exhale, with the opportunity for picking up a little knowledge instead of trying to spew it out.” CBS officially cancelled The Twilight Zone in 1964.
Serling continued to write television scripts and screenplays and served as president of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences from 1965 to 1966. He taught dramatic writing at Ithaca College in New York, and he did a stint of public speaking on political issues. In 1969 Serling participated in the creation of the television series Rod Serling’s Night Gallery which ran until 1972 and garnered two Emmy nominations. In 1969 he co-wrote the screenplay for Planet of the Apes.
Serling suffered a mild heart attack in May of 1975, then entered the hospital again a month later for a heart bypass operation. He died of complications during surgery on June 25, 1975, at the age of fifty. Serling was given a posthumous Emmy award in 1975.