Twilight Zone: A Serling Performance (Memories 10-11/89)

Friday night, like the rest of premier week that October in 1959, found the TV networks relying heavily on the tried and true. NBC’s Gillette Cavalcade of Sports was back for its 11th season. ABC, exploiting the popularity of NBC’s Peter Gunn, a slick crime show, introduced The Detectives, a hard-driving, New York-based action program starring movie star Robert Taylor. Of the three networks, CBS took the only real risk. It invited viewers to enter The Twilight Zone, a series created and written by a feisty ex-paratrooper and bantamweight boxer named Rod Serling. Serling has distinguished himself writing such Emmy Award-winning live television dramas as “Patterns” for the Kraft Television Theatre and “Requiem for a Heavyweight” for Playhouse 90.

The 18 million viewers who tuned into the unorthodox new program heard a sinuous, off-camera voice promising them travel “through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind.” Their journey, the voice continued, was to a “wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination–”

In the show’s nightmarish first episode, “Where Is Everybody?” an amnesiac young man, played by Earl Holliman, helplessly wanders the streets of a deserted town. Only at the end do viewers learn that the man is an astronaut hallucinating after weeks of enforced solitude. That first surprise ending underlined the primary lesson of The Twilight Zone: Things were never what they seemed. “You would buy into one reality,” explains Douglas Heyes, who directed the first episode (and several others), “and it would turn out to be another.”

The process of putting the ground-breaking program on the air was something of a fantastic journey in itself. Two years before the series premier, CBS had bought a script from Serling for a time-travel fantasy called “The Twilight Zone: The Time Element,” intending to develop it into a series. But the story, about a man who goes back in time to pre-Pearl Harbor Honolulu and tries to warn the Army of the impending invasion, was considered too unconventional by the network, and the project was put on the back burner.

There it might have stayed, had not Bert Granet, the producer of Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse and a keen admirer of Serling’s work, met with the writer to talk about story ideas. Serling mentioned the shelved “Time Element” script, prompting Granet to get in touch with CBS and buy the story for his anthology series.

Granet then had to persuade Westinghouse and its ad agency, McCann-Erickson, to air the program. “The network people and the agency people didn’t like ‘The Time Element,’ which left the audience hanging,” Granet remembers. “They liked their stories neat and wrapped with a bow.” But finally, Granet’s persistence won out.

“The Time Element,” starring William Bendix and Martin Balsam, aired Nov. 24, 1958. Clearly it hit a nerve: within days Desilu Playhouse was deluged by more than 6,000 letters. Impressed, CBS reconsidered Serling’s fantasy and asked the writer to make a pilot for a projected series; Serling came up with the story of the astronaut’s hallucination. General Foods liked it and signed on as principal sponsor; Kimberly-Clark, a paper-goods manufacturer, also signed up. Serling had his deal.

As executive producer–as well as chief writer and narrator–Serling exercised more control over his product than any other writer in television. Contractually bound to write 90 percent of the scripts for the show’s first three seasons, he also had his work cut out for him. Each morning during the tense months leading up to the show’s debut, the hyperactive Serling would chain smoke (four packs a day), pace, gesture and dictate dialogue in the guesthouse-cum-studio of his Pacific Palisades home. Then he would hop into his 1936 Auburn Speedster and race down to the MGM back lot in Culver City to preside over the day’s filming.

One of the first episodes to be shot was a Western fantasy called “Mr. Denton on Doomsday,” about an aging gunslinger who briefly regains his sharpshooting powers via a magic potion from a mysterious vendor. Actor Martin Landau, who had a small part in that episode, remembers sitting around a table with Serling and other actors at MGM. “We read and we stopped and we discussed and he’s rewrite and we’re reread and refine it. Of course, for Rod to sit down for any length of time was hard–he was so wired. For a writer to be present on the set of a television show, and the cast to all be there, reading their roles in sequence, was so unusual. It gave us a feeling that he cared. It gave us a sense of comraderie. And it made for a show of real quality.”

While the first 13 episodes were being completed, Serling was sent on a publicity tour. Interviewers seemed to delight in asking the prize-winning playwright if he weren’t debasing himself by writing for episodic TV. Serling didn’t do much to dissuade them. Owen Comora, an ad-agency representative who accompanied Serling on the tour, remembers the writer on a Pittsburgh talk show, “complaining how it was impossible to put on meaningful drama when it was interrupted every 12 minutes by dancing rabbits with rolls of toilet paper. I could have killed him. After all, Kimberly-Clark, one of our sponsors, was the country’s leading toilet paper manufacturer.”

Serling need not have worried. The critics loved The Twilight Zone. Cecil Smith of the Los Angeles Times called the show “the finest weekly series of the season, the one clear and original light in a season marked by the muddy carbon copies of dull Westerns and mediocre police shows.” Time said, “Playwright Rod (‘Patterns’) Serling’s stories of the ‘fifth dimension’–are written, acted and directed with consistent competence.” And TV Guide called the show “the most refreshing series in some time.”

Public enthusiasm was slower to build, and the early ratings were disappointing. Still, a loyal following among college students and youngsters started to grow, and letters from young viewers’ parents, blaming the show for keeping their children up too late, began to flood the network. Ultimately, The Twilight Zone beat both The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports and The Detectives for first place in the Friday night time slot.

The series was also building a following within the television industry itself as a showcase for actors. Among the many stars and stars-to-be who “did the Zone” were Cliff Robertson, Agnes Moorehead, Buster Keaton, Ed Wynn, Martin Balsam, Robert Redford, Jonathan Winters, Robert Duvall, Jack Klugman, Fritz Weaver, Mickey Rooney, Lee Marvin, Peter Falk, James Whitmore and Gary Merrill.

Robertson, who appeared in two episodes, “The Dummy” (about a ventriloquist who switches personalities with his malevolent sidekick) and “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim” (about a pioneer who winds up in the future when he leaves a wagon train to find help for his ailing son), remembers Serling as “very sensitive to the artist’s needs. He was not one of those producer types who run roughshod over actors. He really backed us up. I remember, for example, when I was making ‘Rim,’ I didn’t like the costumes the designer had come up with. And we had a tiff about it. And Rod came down to the California desert where we were shooting and backed me up all the way.”

“The parts were so interesting,” adds actor Claude Akins, star of TV’s Movin’ On and The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo. “In many shows you’d get the scripts and think, ‘Oh great, I only did this a month ago–’ But not The Twilight Zone. The parts were wonderful.” It was Serling’s habit, Akin says, to cast his actors against type. In his two Twilight Zone appearances, Akins, who usually played a heavy, was cast as a good guy.

Comedian Jonathan Winters had one of his first dramatic roles in “Game of Pool,” a macabre episode co-starring Jack Klugman. “It was one of the best things I ever did,” Winters says now.

Serling took special pride in his ability to marry powerful social commentary and riveting entertainment, an achievement the television industry acknowledged by awarding him an Emmy for best teleplay writing in June 1961. (It was his fifth Emmy and his second for The Twilight Zone.)

In “Time Enough at Last”–voted among viewers’ favorites in a Twilight Zone Magazine poll–Burgess Meredith starred as bookworm Mr. Beemis, the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust who views the disaster as an opportunity to catch up on his reading. In one of the show’s best-remembered twist endings, just as he settles down for a lifetime of good reads, Mr. Beemis breaks his glasses.

In “Eye of the Beholder,” Serling creates a morality play about prejudice. In a hospital room a woman (played successively by Maxine Stuart and Donna Douglas) awaits the results of cosmetic surgery. As her bandages are removed, her surgeons recoil in horror, though to us the woman is quite beautiful. Then the camera pulls back and we realize that the drama has taken place in another world, a world whose inhabitants are (to us) grotesquely ugly. Only then do we understand the lesson of the episode.

In the show’s second season, Serling added the role of on-camera host to his list of duties, creating a spellbinding persona, one that comedians continue to impersonate today. “Actually he was very nervous when he did those introductions,” says Perry Lafferty, who directed several episodes. “He needed a lot of hand-holding and assurance. But somehow he got a kick out of doing them.”

Carol Burnett recalls Serling’s hilarious self-parody on The Garry Moore Show in 1962. “When he walked out of a fog onto the stage and began his delivery, they went wild. The skit was written by Neil Simon, and Rod loved it.” Serling later invited Burnett to appear in “Cavender Is Coming,” a comedic Twilight Zone episode he wrote especially for her.

By the third season (1961-1962), Serling–and the show–began showing signs of exhaustion. “I’ve never felt so drained of ideas,” he complained. “I’ve written so much I’m woozy.” When the show was briefly cancelled in the spring of 1962 before finding a sponsor, Serling welcomed the chance to escape to his alma mater, Ohio’s Antioch College, to teach communications and to put the finishing touches on a screenplay, Seven Days in May.

The Twilight Zone came back for two additional seasons in 1963 and 1964. By then Serling, tired of writing and tired of battling sponsors and the network censors–who had been squeamish about the show’s content from the beginning–was clearly a different man. “He was much less talkative, more perfunctory, more meat-and-potatoes,” remembers Landau, who had a role in one of the last episodes, “The Jeopardy Room.”

When CBS canceled the program for good in May 1964, Serling was philosophical. “I can walk away from this series unbowed,” he said at the time. But he never quite managed to escape its shadow, now was he ever again to enjoy the same creative control. In 1965 he created The Loner, a promising neo-Western series about a tough but compassionate Civil War veteran, played by Lloyd Bridges. But Serling balked at CBS’s insistence on putting more fighting into the show, and it went off the air after 14 episodes. Initially he was enthusiastic about NBC’s Night Gallery, a dramatic anthology that ran from 1969 to 1973, for which he wrote many episodes and again served as host. But he became disenchanted as the program descended into formula horror.

Although he continued to write and narrate television shows, including several Jacques Cousteau undersea specials, Serling derived his greatest pleasure, during the last years of his life, from teaching.

As for the Zone, it remains in syndication after 25 years, one of a handful of programs (I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, Star Trek) to have remained in continuous circulation. In 1983, Warner Brothers released Twilight Zone–The Movie, in which four directors (Steven Spielberg, Jon Landis, Joe Dante and George Miller) paid homage to Serling. But the film, already marred by a production accident that took the lives of actor Vic Morrow and two child actors, was panned by critics and failed at the box office. In 1985, CBS revived a version of the Zone which lasted only one season. Last year, MGM/UA launched a new Twilight Zone, which airs on independent TV stations and sometimes uses original, unproduced Serling scripts as the basis of its episodes.

Meanwhile, the original and, it would seem, inimitable version continues to travel through other dimensions, or, at the very least, other formats. In 1986, CBS Video Library began issuing videocassette versions of all 152 episodes. And Varese Sarabande has recently issued an album of Twilight Zone music, including the haunting metronomic theme created by French composer Marius Constant.

Serling died in 1975 at age 50, after a heart attack. In his last interview, he worried that his Twilight Zone persona might overshadow his writing. “I just want them to remember me a hundred years from now,” he said. “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 sufficiently an honored position for me.”

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