By Carlin Romano
You are traveling through another dimension. A dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination.
That’s the signpost up ahead. Your next stop?
THE WORLD OF 1950s TELEVISION.
The man seated before you is Rodman Edward Serling, born on Christmas Day 1924 and fated to be the somber, haunting host and creator of “The Twilight Zone,” the most enduring, idiosyncratic classic in four decades of television.
Those tail-finned Buicks, passing outside his window indicate that the time is late in the Golden Age of Television, an era in which the volatile Rod Serling is a famous writer of live network theater. But the short, dark, preternaturally intense figure you are watching — a four-pack-a-day smoker said to write television scripts in four hours and destined to be the author of more than 200 — is not the confident, oracular presence who will become familiar to millions, his hands clasped professorially before him.
For this man is angrier, nervier, more vulnerable to tragedy. A man whose ambition to be a serious writer, whose passion for morality in drama will clash with his own lust for fame and celebrity and the imperatives of an industry he helped to launch. A regrettable consequence of divided principles, but an inevitable one. Lesson to be learned — in “The Twilight…”
That is, in “Serling: The Rise and Twilight of Television’s Last Angry Man” by Gordon F. Sander (E.P. Dutton). Possibly the highest compliment one can pay Sander, a cultural journalist and scholar who has now produced the first major biography of one of TV’s immortals — a superb one — is that he manages to avoid Serling imitations himself. It’s not easy.
Instead, this Marymount Manhattan College teacher, who conducted more than 220 interviews in piecing together Serling’s fast and frenetic career, re-creates a Serling unfamiliar to many contemporary viewers who know the one-time “golden boy” of TV writing only for his provocative scripts, spooky lead-ins and sober narration on “Twilight Zone” reruns:
-The 5’4″ native and proud Jewish son of Binghamton, who never quite accepted either his Judaism or his height. (He converted to Unitarianism and wore elevator shoes for his “Twilight Zone” appearances — the camera cut him off mid-thigh because he wouldn’t permit himself to be filmed full-frame.)
-The ardent paratrooper and twice-wounded veteran of World War II battles in the Philippines who repeatedly drew on his war experiences in script after script.
-The star of late ’50s TV writing who became a savage opponent of McCarthyism, sponsor censorship of TV content and his own CBS network, leading the industry magazine Television Age to call him TV’s leading critic in 1961.
One distraught veteran of Hollywood success, winner of six 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.
World War II prompted the 18-year-old Serling to enlist in the Army in the hope of becoming a paratrooper, triggering a long-standing attraction to daredevil activities. (In his early work years after the war, Serling earned extra money by testing parachutes.) According to just about every Serling friend that Sander talked us the would-be writer’s service in New Guinea and the Philippines–during which many in his outfit were killed and Serling watched one of his best friends decapitated by a food crate dropped from a cargo plane — formed his character as did no other experience in his lifetime.
Serling broke into New York TV by writing broadcast plays that Sander describes as “Ibsenesque” in their social bite. “Patterns,” his 1955 indictment of corporate mentality, made Serling famous. “The Rack,” that same year, examined treason, torture and a prisoner of war’s psychology. “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1956) studied a washed-up fighter. All three demonstrated a skill at probing moral ambiguities that made advertisers nervous.
By the end on the decade, Serling enjoyed national fame as one of Hollywood’s hottest writers, a well-tanned media star who lived in a nine-room house and drew huge fees for his work. But he was also respected for not fearing controversy. In 1954, he fired off an angry letter to the Cincinnati Inquirer, castigating it for supporting Sen. Joseph McCarthy. After “Patterns” won acclaim in 1955, the Wall Street Journal labeled him a Marxist.
But Serling kept up his criticisms of corporate interference in TV. He joined forces with Edward H. Morrow, fellow CBS rebel, in denouncing what he considered the runaway greed of the networks, backing Murrow’s blistering observation that “I can find nothing in the Bill of Rights or the Communications Act which says that they must increase their net profits each year, lest the Republic collapse.”
Serling’s anger turned to contempt in 1958 after “Playhouse 90″ permitted the toning down of “A Town Has Turned to Dust,” an attempt to face racial prejudice head-on.
“A final note to any aspiring television writers,” he wrote in a magazine article. “Do westerns and make your horses gray, and if you have any burning desire to write of anything that has two sides to it, do a magazine piece on window cleaning.”
Serling’s five glory years producing “The Twilight Zone,” From 1959 to 1964, insulated him somewhat form the decline in serious TV drama. Increasingly presenting himself as a good network soldier, he managed to get his liberal social messages through largely unscathed on “The Twilight Zone,” often in his brief closing narrations.
But the changes in the medium that Serling wanted to love took place anyway. As Sander notes, in 1960 “there had been 13 dramatic anthology shows on the air.” By the fall of 1965, there were none.
Once Jim Aubrey became boss of CBS, Sander explains, Serling’s days were numbered. In the opinion of Buzz Kulik, onetime “Zone” director, Aubrey “changed the entire complexion of television, much for the worse. He was the one who killed live television because it was not financially remunerative compared with situation comedies.” Opposed to Serling’s auteur approach to TV, Aubrey eventually canceled “Twilight Zone” as well. In January 1964, only weeks after his 39th birthday: Serling learned that it would not he renewed for a sixth season.
“Unfortunately,” Sander writes, “Rod Serling never did really figure out whet he wanted to do with his life after the demise of ‘The Twilight Zone.’” He accepted almost every offer of work and damaged his earlier “statesmen of TV” image by agreeing to do embarrassing commercials.
Although a few good days remained — a brief term as president of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and a short comeback in the early ’70s with “Night Gallery” — Sander’s account of the last 11 years of Serling’s life teems with humiliations: the one-time golden boy’s failures as a screen and TV writer, charges of plagiarism against him by several science-fiction writers, a widespread belief in the industry that he would sell his “Twilight Zone” persona to any bidder. On all these matters, Sander remains sympathetic but blunt.
The heart of “Serling,” in any case, is its kinescope of a rare TV writer who actually tried, for any time at all, to explore that place “between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.”