Spanning sites such as Binghamton, Cincinnati and Los Angeles, Rod Serling’s life makes a very American story. And Gordon Sander responds to it with vitality and wit.
He provides a pocket history of Binghamton in southeast New York’s Broome County, where Serling was born and grew up and which he revisited symbolically many times In his work. He examined archives in Wisconsin, in New York City and at UCLA. He interviewed more thsm 200 people who knew Serllng, including his opponent tor the presiliency ot their high school’s student body. He quotes from an editorial Serllng wrote for his high school paper in October 1942 and cites reviews of his work in such newspapers as the New York Daily News, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.
This diligence reaps solid gains. Sander discusses the growth of radio In the 1930s, showing how FDR’s fireside broadcasts and Archibald MacLeish’s antifascist play “The Fall of the City” proved that radio could win an audience tfor adult material. Segueing to TV, he shows how a nation of 100,000 sets in 1946 became so taken by the medium that by 1959, when “The Twilight Zone” debuted, nine out ot every 10 American homes had sets. He also charts ex-radio scriptwriter Serllng’s adaptation to this boom, showing him learning to write for the eye rather than the ear, in order to profit trom TV’s capacity for intimacy.
But if Sander understands TV’s assets and limitations,he has also grasped those of his complex, conflictive subject. Serling qualifies as TV’s last angry man because of his feuds with sponsors and studio chiefs who preferred Iightweight formula programming over his own serious, challenging teleplays. Much of his anger turned Inward as well. Winning six Emmys and serving for two years as president of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences failed to quiet the inner demons of this truculent man-child of 5 feet 4 inches who smoked four packs of cigarettes a day.
Perhaps he never knew what he wanted or who he was, this stubborn, quick-tempered dynamo with a nostalgic streak. An ethnic Jew, he married a Protestant woman and later became a Unitarian. Though haunted by the combat duty he saw as a paratrooper in the Philippines, he always wore a bracelet bearing the Insignia of the Army Airborne. Perhaps he defined life itself as a combat. A “mass of psychological wounds and Insecurities,” he was as demanding of attention as an adult as he was as a boy. To his intimates’ dismay, he never outgrew a adolescent penchant for super-macho antics and the telling of dirty jokes.
Sander recounts both his torments and his triumphs compellingly, but not without flubs. He miscues, first, by bracketing Serling’s teleplay “Patterns” with Paddy Chayefsky’s vastly superior “Marty.” His attention nags. He cites an article that Serling wrote for the New York Times Magazine but omits the article’s title and pagination. Though he mentions both Joe Louis and Ezzard Charles in his text, he fails to pick them up in his index, a serious oversight in a biography of the author ot “Requiem for a Heavyweight.”
But these flubs are offset by the book’s virtues. No Idolater, Sander will criticize Serling as a colleague, an artist, a public personality and a family man (he was a neglectful husband and father). He also supplies a useful, meaty backmatter section, which includes a vldeography, a filmography and a list ot awards for the man who has been called “the most honored writer in television history.” Most of all, he makes us wonder how much Serling might have achieved had he learned to stop struggling with himself.