For Zonies, the words are like a mantra by now — ominous, yet somehow reassuring. “You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension,” a sinuous voice intones off camera, as a giant eyeball and shattering window hurtle past. “–a dimension of sound–a dimension of mind–”
The voice, of course, belongs to celebrated writer and personality Rod Serling. The program is The Twilight Zone, the idiosyncratic, award-winning, drama-cum-fantasy anthology show. Created, written, narrated, and produced by Serling, the series ran on CBS from 1959 to 1964, before acquiring a perpetual second life in–the rerun zone.
For more than three decades, millions of aging baby boomers, whose imaginations were originally ignited by Zone, have stayed up past their bedtimes (as they originally did when the show was broadcast at 10 p.m. Friday nights) for the thrill of once again riding through Serling’s customized Coney Island of the mind. A syndication stand-by, the program is still seen in most major TV markets, and all-day Zone marathons are a regular feature on many stations. Los Angeles’ KTLA-TV’s Thanksgiving Day 24-hour Twilight Zone marathon is an annual event.
Videophiles also associate Serling with the golden age of live television drama, when the prolific dramatist was turning out hard-hitting, socially realistic psychodramas like Patterns, The Rack, and Requiem for a Heavyweight for such wonderful bygone shows as Kraft Television Theater and
The most celebrated writer in the history of television, Rod Serling won a record six Emmies during the 10 years, 1954 through1964, that marked his creative prime. More than 200 of his teleplays were produced.
But who was Rod Serling? Was he as self-consciously tough and intense in real life as he appeared on camera? Indeed he was. He was also driven ambitious, good-humored, and when he didn’t get his way, hot-tempered. And he was also something else: sentimental.
Nostalgia for a simpler, bucolic past is a major theme in Serling’s better Twilight Zone scripts (he wrote out of the 156 episodes that ultimately aired). In Serling’s case, it was nostalgia for Binghamton, New York, the medium-sized upstate city where he was born Christmas day, 1924, and where he grew up.
Serling’s boyhood wasn’t entirely a lark. Hard times affected the Serling household: his father Sam, a wholesale butcher, eventually had to close his business. A Jew in an overwhelmingly gentile city, young Serling quickly learned about anti-Semitism. And he also took some knocks because of his short physical stature.
Radio played a crucial role in Serling’s formation. Like many writers of his generation, his word-intoxicated imagination was fueled by works of radio bards like Arch Oboler, Orson Welles, and Norman Corwin. Serling’s wonder years came to an end with World War II. Talking his way past the Army’s height requirement for paratroopers — Serling was five feet four inches — he served in the Philippines, where he was badly wounded and thoroughly traumatized.
Still scarred by his war experiences, Serling enrolled at liberal Antioch College in Ohio. There he met his future wife Carol, and with her encouragement began writing as a form of therapy. He also commandeered the college radio station, which he used to produce his own experimental, often macabre radio plays.
Television had overtaken radio by the time he graduated in 1950, and Serling, who was becoming disillusioned with Big Radio (as it was called) anyway, eagerly jumped on the TV bandwagon. The market for scripts was excellent in the early fifties, as drama anthologies proliferated on New York’s Network Row. Serlng was quick to take advantage of it, becoming a regular contributor to Climax, Studio One, and Kraft Theater. By 1954 he was successful enough to leave Ohio for Westport, Connecticut.
His breakthrough came in January, 1955, with the broadcast of Patterns on Kraft Theater. This acidic, Emmy-winning portrait of corporate intrigue, starring Richard Kiley as a rising organization man, Ed Begley as the aging executive he is hired to work with — and then replace — and Everett Sloane as the ruthless president who manipulates them, caused a furor. “Nothing in months has excited the television industry as much as ‘Patterns,’ Jack Gould wrote in the New York Times. The Wall Street Journal, stung by Serling’s picture of big business, called him a Marxist.
A ham at heart, Serling reveled in his newfound celebrity, which he quickly converted into as many deals as he could. At the same time he went on the attack against sponsors and network executives who, in his opinion, were polluting the new art form of video drama with commercials.
In 1956 Serling scored another knockout with Requiem for a Heavyweight, his poignant and scathing portrayal of the boxing business, on Playhouse 90. Later made into a film as well, the story starred Jack Palance as a washed-up fighter, Keenen Wynn as his corrupt, conniving manager, and Ed Wynn as his understanding trainer. A year later, Serling packed another wallop with The Comedian, his corrosive portrait of a TV comic, for which he won his third Emmy for outstanding dramatic writing.
By that time Serling had moved to Los Angeles, following the dying live-TV-drama form. Such former colleagues as Paddy Chayevsky and Gore Vidal had long since left television for other less censored and more “artistic” media, but Serling believed in television. And he liked the money.
However he was becoming weary of the compromises he had to make to get his hard-hitting stories on the air, and feared he was trading off certain moral values for success.
Fortunately, a creative escape for Serling appeared at this time in the form of The Twilight Zone. Serling was totally consumed with the show. Each morning, he would dictate dialogue into a Dictaphone (typewriters were too slow for him) in the studio of his expensive Pacific Palisades home. Then he would hop into his purple 1936 Auburn Speedster and race down to the old MGM set to where Zone was filmed to preside over the day’s shoot. Serling often wrote scripts with specific actors and actresses in mind. Buster Keaton, Ed Wynn, and Carol Burnett all had episodes customized for them. Among the other stars and stars-to-be who appeared on the show were Agnes Moorhead, Cliff Robertson, Robert Redford, Mickey Rooney, Jonathan Winters, Jack Klugman, and Lee Marvin, making it perhaps the greatest actors’ showcase in TV history.
In “Time Enough at Last,” one of the show’s best-remembered episodes, veteran actor Burgess Meredith starred as the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust, who views the apocalypse as a welcome chance to catch up on his reading. Just as he settles down for a lifetime of good reads, Bemis breaks his glasses, dooming his to futile wandering in the post-nuclear landscape.
Twilight Zone also featured excellent contributions from other writers, but it was essentially a one-man show. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences duly awarded Serling two more Emmies in 1960 and 1961.
CBS finally cancelled the program in May 1964 but its creator never quite managed to escape its shadow, nor was he ever able to enjoy the same degree of creative control. Initially Serling was enthusiastic about NBC’s Night Gallery, a dramatic anthology that debuted in 1969, which he also introduced on camera. But he became disenchanted as the program descended into formula horror.
Although he continued to write and narrate shows, the onetime “angry young man on television” spent the last years of his life in bitter exile from the medium he had once loved. He supported himself by teaching and by doing commercials — and iron twist of fate for the man who had once been TV’s best-known sponsor basher. He died of a heart attack in 1975 at the age of 51.
“I just want to remember me a hundred years from now,” Serling said in his last interview. “I don’t care that they’re not able to quote a single line that I’ve written. But just that they can say, ‘Oh, he was a writer.’ That’s a sufficiently honored position for me.”
And one he more than rightly deserves.