Ingenious premises, twist endings, the uncanny – nobody did these better than The Twilight Zone and its creator, Rod Serling.
Christmas Day, 1924. A baby is born… 35 years later he would enter The Twilight Zone…
Do you remember the one about the bookish little man who survives a nuclear holocaust and is overjoyed to finally be alone with time to read – until his glasses fall off and shatter? Or how about the one where an old hermit woman in a cabin battles tiny space invaders – only to find her tormenters have arrived in a spaceship bearing the logo of the U.S. Air Force? Or the one where a successful businessman discovers that he’s really just a washed-up actor, his waking reality nothing more than a movie – one that’s about to stop shooting?
Though The Twilight Zone first aired on television more than 50 years ago and lasted only five seasons, we still can’t stop talking about it. Ingenious premises, twist endings, that creeping sense of the uncanny lurking just beneath the surface of our well-ordered lives – nobody did these better than The Twilight Zone, a program which influenced countless later TV shows and films. It may come as a surprise then to learn its creator considered his career, in many ways, a failure.
Rod Serling was born on Christmas Day in 1924, the second child in a Jewish family in upstate New York. His early life was unremarkable and, like many young men, when World War II broke out he enlisted at the tender age of 18. His time as a paratrooper in the Pacific theatre would inform much of his work. He was discharged only after being seriously wounded and later in life would suffer from nightmares and flashbacks. That so many of the classic Twilight Zone episodes are set during wartime is no accident.
Serling began his career by writing radio ads and TV continuity bits in Cincinnati. During an 8-month period when he tried to break into television as screenwriter, he collected more than 40 rejection slips, but his perseverance paid off. Between 1951 and 1955, he had 70 scripts produced for a variety of shows.
Serling’s big break came with “Patterns,” an Emmy-winning story about the ethics of corporate ladder climbing. This was followed by the even more well-received “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” a Playhouse 90 live drama and the work he remained most proud of throughout his life. By the time he won his third Emmy for “The Comedian” he was one of the most successful dramatic writers of television’s Golden Age, finding his way onto a short list that included luminaries like Horton Foote, Abby Mann and Paddy Cheyefsky.
But after eight years of struggling to write serious, thought-provoking social dramas, he’d had enough of battling with network censors and corporate sponsors who shrank from anything even remotely controversial. Characterizing himself as a “tired non-conformist” he left the prestigious world of live TV drama (a short-lived, dying format even then) for a strange-sounding science fiction anthology series of his own creation, something called The Twilight Zone.
Like many of the great sci-fi writers of the era, Serling discovered that he could tackle the taboo issues of the day by de-contextualizing them, having contemporary conflicts safely play out on distant planets, in the far-flung future, in dimensions not only of sound and sight but of mind. Freed from the bounds of realism, The Twilight Zone allowed him to write about death, war, racism, mass hysteria and capital punishment – all topics with which no buttoned-down early 1960s advertiser would otherwise have wanted to be associated.
The show was an instant critical darling but it initially had a tough time winning over audiences, barely earning a second season renewal. With the second season two new features were introduced that remain iconic fixtures of American pop culture – Marius Constant’s eerie 4-note theme song (often wrongly attributed to Bernard Herrmann) and Serling’s on-camera introductions. Clad in a sharp black suit and delivering his monologues in a clipped, wryly serious manner, Serling had both an oft-kilter and reassuringly normal presence, making him the perfect guide to a world where ordinary people were thrust into mind-boggling situations.
Most of those situations were concocted by Serling himself, who not only hosted and produced the show, but wrote an astounding 92 of its 156 episodes, with others written by Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson (author of I Am Legend), George Clayton Johnson (author of Logan’s Run and the short story that inspired Ocean’s Eleven) and even Ray Bradbury. Part of the fun in watching Twilight Zone reruns today is spotting all the now-famous actors who appeared in the show early in their careers, actors like Burgess Meredith, Roddy McDowall, Charles Bronson, Elizabeth Montgomery, Peter Falk, Lee Marvin, Jack Klugman, William Shatner, Donald Pleasance, Carol Burnett, Vera Miles, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Leonard Nimoy and Dennis Hopper.
By the end of the third season, Serling was exhausted and unhappy with CBS for first cancelling the show and then renewing it as a mid-season replacement. The network also expanded the format to one hour, an unpopular move with the creative team. Serling resigned as executive producer and took a teaching post at Antioch College, though he still shot the introductions during his infrequent trips to Los Angeles.
The Twilight Zone was cancelled after its fifth season in 1964. ABC approached Serling about producing the show on their network under the new name Witches, Warlocks and Werewolves, but he wasn’t interested in doing a show purely about the supernatural.
At least, not yet. One of the ironies of his success was that while pre-Twilight Zone he’d been thought of as a high-brow social dramatist, after half a decade of bringing weirdness into American homes, nobody could look at him without hearing that strange neener-neener theme playing in the background. The live dramas he’d cut his teeth on were long a thing of the past, and even anthology shows were being replaced by episodic series and sit-coms, which were cheaper to produce.
He might have felt much like the hero of his next TV show The Loner, a story about battle-weary former Confederate soldier in search of himself. The show received mixed reviews and lasted less than one season. He also penned a memorable script for the 1968 film Planet of the Apes (one which borrowed its twist they-were-on-Earth-all-along ending from the Twilight Zone episode “I Shot an Arrow Into the Sky”), but was otherwise absent from the screens until he returned with Rod Serling’s Night Gallery.
Once again he served as the on-air host and once again contributed heavily to the show’s content, scripting more than a third of its episodes. However, he had little creative control over casting, direction or script selection. Sterling clashed with producer Jack Laird and disliked Night Gallery’s focus on gothic horror and the supernatural. Disdainful of its lighter, comedic touches, he once dismissed it as “Mannix in a cemetery.”
When the show was cancelled after three seasons, he returned to teaching, this time at Ithaca College. He also earned money doing voiceovers and, in an ironic turn, as a pitchman for those pesky advertisers who’d been such a thorn in his side. He continued working on projects for both film and television, but had difficulty getting any of his work produced. His years of working 14-hour days and his 4-pack-a-day smoking habit had also taken their toll on his health. His own father had died at 52 of heart trouble and Serling would not make it that long, dying at age 50 during open heart surgery after he went into cardiac arrest while mowing his lawn.
“God knows when I look back over 30 years of professional writing, I’m hard-pressed to come up with anything that’s important,” he said during his final interview before his death in 1975. “Some things are literate, some things are interesting, some things are classy, but very damn little is important.”
Anyone who believes him would have to be living in another dimension.