Rod Serling Changed The Small
With His Dedication To Big Issues
2001 Investor's Business Daily]
Reprinted by permission of the author. This article originally appeared in Investor's Business Daily on February 26, 2001
Rod Serling saw the powerful potential of television. But it seemed to him that TV producers and advertisers were horribly timid. Why didn’t they air shows on serious, important topics such as bigotry, the Cold War and alienation?
Then again, thought Serling, why not just do it himself?
Already an acclaimed writer of screenplays and TV dramas, Serling chose to leave it all behind—including a $250,000 movie-studio deal—and develop a half-hour TV show. Colleagues thought he was crazy.
Inspired by his childhood love for science fiction, Serling (1924-75) created what he believed viewers would love, a groundbreaking show that fused fantasy and fiction. He dubbed it “The Twilight Zone.”
“Serling created a new form of TV,” said Marc Scott Zicree, author of “The Twilight Zone Companion.” “There already was science fiction and fantasy on television, but nothing of this enormous weight and commentary.”
To make sure the show represented his vision accurately—entertaining viewers while exploring the political and moral questions of his time—he created, wrote for and emceed the “The Twilight Zone.”
Into each episode, Serling wove a message. The first episode, on Oct. 2, 1959, dealt with isolation, the second with loneliness, the third with immortality. The fourth episode, perhaps Serling’s most autobiographical, confronted the longings in all of us to return home, back to the time when we were children.
For Serling, home was a small town in upstate New York. The younger of two sons of Esther Cooper and Samuel Serling, a wholesale meat dealer, he was born on Christmas Day 1924. Friends described Serling as an extrovert and an entertainer, articulate and outspoken.
Highly patriotic, Serling joined the Army on the day of his high school graduation. Despite his short, lightweight frame, Serling wanted to challenge himself and insisted on serving as a paratrooper. During basic training he even boxed, winning 17 of 18 fights.
While serving in the Philippines during World War II, Serling stared death in the face. A Japanese soldier put the crosshairs of his weapon on Serling. The aim was close, clear; Serling recalled being frozen in time. A fellow soldier shot the enemy from over Serling’s shoulder. The experience made him question war. Later in life, he railed against the Vietnam War.
After returning to the U.S. and attending college, Serling decided to focus on what he loved best—writing. He wasn’t sure what kind of writing he wanted to do, however. Along with his wife, Carol Kramer, he moved to Cincinnati, where he wrote testimonials and short documentaries for radio. It was, in his words, “a particularly dreamless occupation.” But he believed something better was out there.
So Serling wrote dramas in the evening. It wasn’t lucrative at all; he accumulated 40 rejection slips in a row. It was like “having a piece of your flesh cut to pieces,” he said. But Serling had faith that good writing ultimately gets recognized.
“If you’re really a good writer, then by God you’ll write and you will be read and you will be produced somehow,” he said. At all times, Serling tried to produce the best work he could, honing each sentence until it conveyed exactly the idea he had in mind.
In 1949, he sold his first script. Six years later, Serling received his first of six Emmys, for “Patterns,” a semiautobiographical play about maintaining civility amid the backstabbing of the corporate world. After it aired live on Jan. 12, 1955, offers flooded in. By popular demand, “Patterns” was performed again a month later, becoming the first TV rerun.
His best-known play was “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” the story of an aging boxer and the first original 90-minute show written for TV. It swept the 1956 Emmy Awards, winning six in all.
Serling remained humble about such awards. In his last interview in 1975, he referred to Emmys and Oscars mostly as “Hollywood backslapping.” He stood firm in his convictions. Indeed, Serling considered prejudice to be “the singular evil of our time, from which all other evils grow and multiply.”
To ensure that audiences understood the danger of bigotry, Serling made it a theme portrayed many times in the five seasons and 156 episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” of which he wrote 92.
Often, he couched his messages in a nonthreatening way that not only kept the censors off his back, but also led audiences gently to his message. “It was possible to have Martians say things that Democrats and Republicans can’t say,” he said.
Serling constantly sought a better way to operate his show. As a result, he changed the way writers worked with producers.
“He was the first writer/producer in television,” Zicree said. “Nowadays all shows are run by the writer and its creator. Before then, it was always the producer running the show.”
Serling believed that integrity was crucial to personal success. To remind viewers of the same principle, he attacked the corrupting influences of Hollywood and big money in his play “The Velvet Alley.”
When you get into “the big money, there are certain blandishments that a guy can succumb to,” he told Mike Wallace of CBS in an interview.
Despite his growing wealth, Serling remained more concerned with family issues, raising children and maintaining a good marital relationship. But success had traps for him as well.
“You suddenly find yourself having to compromise, giving so many hours to work and a disproportionate number of fewer hours to family,” he said. Serling died at age 50 of heart failure, leaving behind his wife and two daughters. At his funeral, Gene Roddenberry said that without the success of “The Twilight Zone,” he could have never produced “Star Trek.”
Even after the success of “The Twilight Zone,” Serling kept writing, trying to outdo his last achievement. He added to his success with “Night Gallery” and film credits for “7 Days in May,” “Planet of the Apes” and several other films. With each one, he humbly submitted them “for your approval.”