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Rod Serling:
Failed Screenwriter

and other myths

by Christopher Conlon

Reproduced here by permission of the author, this article originally appeared as "The Hidden Hero:
Rod Serling's Feature Films
" in issue 8 of SIMIAN SCROLLS, a British magazine devoted to
Planet of the Apes.

Conlon is an accomplished poet, author, and editor. Visit his website www.christopherconlon.com.

Also by Christopher Conlon: California Sorcery TZ authors' club and The Many Fathers of Martin Sloane


"Serling's cinema work in the 1960s followed a general pattern: initial excitement, increasing frustration, followed by abandonment, or, in several cases, outright dismissal."
Gordon Sander, Serling: The Rise and Twilight of Television's Last Angry Man, p. 202

"While fascinating, any film faithful to the book [Planet of the Apes] would have been marked by long stretches of preachy dialogue—unutterable and unfilmable. And that's exactly what Serling turned in: My Dinner With Andre the Chimp."
—Joel Engel, Rod Serling: The Dreams and Nightmares of Life in the Twilight Zone, p. 294

 

Pity poor Rod Serling.

After a meteoric rise in early television, including Emmy Awards for "Patterns," "Requiem for a Heavyweight," and "The Comedian," he reached the apex of his career with the timeless television classic The Twilight Zone, which debuted in 1959. Not yet forty when, five years later, the series was canceled, Serling would spend the rest of his life searching to repeat that success—floundering in failed subsequent series (The Loner, Night Gallery), selling out his image and reputation in endless television commercials, and, perhaps most sadly, utterly failing as a writer of motion pictures. Until his death, then—at the age of 50, in 1975—his writing career was no more than (as Serling biographer Gordon Sander phrased it) a "slow fade to black."

Sad. Very sad indeed.

But is it true?

Received wisdom would certainly claim that it is. In every article or book about Rod Serling, in every television documentary about him, the same charges are leveled: that after The Twilight Zone, he lost his way; his writing was awkward, preachy, derivative; his film scripts were routinely rejected or completely rewritten. But this may represent a narrow view of the matter. In fact, it is quite possible to see Serling's filmwriting career in very different terms.

Let it be said at the outset that Rod Serling never achieved the same level of success or notoriety as a writer in films that he did as a television scenarist. No matter how anyone looks at Serling's career, The Twilight Zone remains his masterpiece, an utterly inimitable program which did much to usher in and help set the tone for the entire tumultuous 1960s. The series was iconoclastic, socially subversive, and brilliant; today it seems as fresh as it must have back in October 1959, when Serling first invited viewers to his "fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man." But it is to profoundly misunderstand Serling to claim that his later career—most particularly, his film career—was nothing but a sad postscript. In fact, he enjoyed numerous shining successes in the medium—none more exciting or gratifying than Planet of the Apes.

"I first became involved with Planet of the Apes about ten years ago," Serling told journalist David Johnson in 1974. "I was approached by an outfit called the King Brothers, who did mostly Indian-elephant pictures shot for about $1.80…The King Brothers had a notion about doing the Pierre Boulle book as a nickel-and-dime picture." Serling provided a detailed treatment for the prospective producers, he said, but ultimately the budget simply proved too high. The King Brothers dropped the idea. But then Serling heard from Blake Edwards, "the next individual to get into it and who was going to produce and direct it." Again, the matter was ultimately dropped for budgetary reasons. Finally Arthur Jacobs became involved, for whom Serling wrote "about three drafts of the actual screenplay."

Though Serling had followed his producer's instructions in creating a modern, ape-city environment for his story, Jacobs ultimately decided, again for reasons of budget, that a more primitive world was needed. Serling himself, who by this point had been involved for several years with Planet of the Apes, felt burned-out on it, and he and Jacobs mutually, and amicably, agreed to part ways.

It is often claimed that Serling's work was completely discarded when Michael Wilson came on to the project, but as Gordon C. Webb proves in his article "Thirty Years Later: Rod Serling's Planet of the Apes," this is far from true. Wilson "took away almost all of my dialogue," Serling said, "but the chronology of scenes and events was identical to mine--except that people didn't say the same things."

An analysis of Serling's second draft screenplay, dated December 23, 1964, largely bears the writer out. Although some key changes still remain—particularly the building-up of the character of Cornelius, who does not appear until relatively late in Serling's version—the script is clearly the blueprint for what would become the released version of Planet of the Apes. The major plot events—the crash-landing of the ship, the finding of the mysterious scarecrows, the theft of the astronauts' clothing, the capturing of the main character (called "Thomas" in Serling's script), his befriending of both Nova and Zira—are, indeed, almost identical to those of the finished film. Reading the script today results in an odd, deja-vu sort of experience, as in this moment, when the astronauts suddenly realize that they are in a world populated by intelligent apes:

 

DODGE
Oh, my God! I have now seen everything there is to be seen in the whole bloody universe!

CLOSEUPS—THE OTHER TWO ASTRONAUTS

as they, too, look, start, react and convulse with LAUGHTER. A WHIP PAN ACROSS THE FIELD in the direction of a car engine coming through the foliage.

SHOT—THE FRONT END OF A JEEP

as it comes to a stop at the edge of the clearing. PAN UP SLOW THE FRONT GRILL TO THE WINDSHIELD where standing are TWO APES dressed immaculately in the white garb and pith helmets of British hunters. Behind them, on foot, come SEVERAL OTHER GROUPS OF APES, CHIMPANZEES, and ORANGUTANS in assorted sizes and shapes, but all dressed as members of a safari carrying guns of different caliber.

CLOSE SHOT—THE ASTRONAUTS, FAVORING DODGE

DODGE
(shrieking with laughter)
I'll die. I will positively--

There is suddenly a fusillade of SHOTS. Dodge's face goes pasty-white. He lets out on small gasp as the CAMERA PANS DOWN his body to where his fingers clutch at a bloody mass that was his stomach, then he topples OUT OF THE SCENE.

ABRUPT CLOSE SHOT—THOMAS

THOMAS
(screams)
Dodge! Dodge, get--

He suddenly grabs at his throat as a bullet pierces his neck from the side.

 

The hysterical laughter of the astronauts here is a wonderful touch, as are Dodge's last words.

Though the script is largely, in Serling's words, "somber and serious," glimpses of the writer's humor come through as well. Not the rather obvious wordplay of the finished film—"I never met an ape I didn't like," that kind of thing—but something more ironic and mordant. Here, for instance, an ape at a table in a restaurant nervously asks Thomas to speak.

 

FEMALE APE

Would you, for me? We've never heard a "man" speak.

 

THOMAS
(rising from the chair)

You've never heard a man speak? Well... now I will speak.

Somewhat intoxicated, Thomas mounts the band's platform.

THOMAS
Ladies and gentlemen... I will now speak.
(a pause)

Bow-wow.

There is a stunned, incredulous silence as they all stare at him.

THOMAS
(continuing)
Now doesn't that grab yuh?

 

And, of course, the sharp dramatic dialogue familiar to fans of The Twilight Zone is present everywhere in this script, as in Thomas's climactic speech to Dr. Zaius after the discovery of the talking doll:

 

THOMAS

That bomb and others like it were dropped. It buried this planet. It turned it into a jungle. And from it emerged...

(a long silence)

...you. And a handful of human beings. Descendants of the bomb. Only this time around... the ape became the dominant creature. And Man evolved as the animal.
 

CORNELIUS
But our own culture, Mr. Thomas--
 
THOMAS
You don't have a culture, Mr. Cornelius. Or a science. Or an industry. The houses you live in, the buildings you occupy, the clothes you wear, the things you believe, the books you read--the very God you worship... that all came from Man! Five hundred... a thousand years ago... but not from an ape mind. Or an ape will. Or the logic, the reason, or the rationale of an ape. You're imitators. You've been mimicking the creature Man, who was there ahead of you!

 

Serling's screenplay offers virtually the entire structure of the finished film, and Serling's presence remains strong in the final Michael Wilson screenplay. The Serling script, as the author himself recognized, has significant faults (it is certainly too talky, for one); but it is in every way a polished, professional, and at least occasionally inspired work—and certainly far from "My Dinner With Andre the Chimp." Clearly, the final film could not have developed as it did without Rod Serling's crucial contributions, and he was rewarded, rightly, with co-author credit.

In interviews from then on, Serling would occasionally criticize the picture's cheap humor (which he mistakenly ascribed to Michael Wilson, when it was actually the work of other hands). But on the whole he had affection for the project, as well he might, since it gave him a writing credit on one of the biggest box-office bonanzas of the decade.

Nor was the value of his contributions lost on those who would continue to work with the Planet of the Apes saga. Serling was among the first writers approached for the sequel; and when it came time for Apes to become a television series, the man contacted for ideas was, again, Rod Serling.

Serling is in some ways the hidden hero of the TV Apes series, having made major—and uncredited—contributions to the show's "bible" (the document created at the outset of production to guide writers in creating scripts for a series). Predictably, Serling envisioned a somewhat more cerebral program than what ultimately aired—just as his original work on the film was more intellectual and less action-oriented than the final result. In the first of two unproduced scripts he wrote for the series, Serling creates two astronauts, Kovak and Virdon, who befriend a young ape, Galen. In the fourth act there is an argument in the Ape Council Building between two officials, Ursus and Zaius, with this highly Serlingesque dialogue:

 

ZAIUS

A number of years ago we were visited by other human space travelers. They were summarily destroyed... liquidated. And in doing so, we did not just kill off life. We destroyed a source of knowledge which might very well have aided us beyond measure.
 

URSUS
How much would they have aided us, Dr. Zaius, if their so-called advance knowledge had resulted in our liquidation?
 

ZAIUS

That was the rationale you used, Ursus, when you put them to death. Despite the fact that you knew--and know now--that these space travelers offer a link to our own history--
 
URSUS
We have antithetical positions, Doctor. Your job is apparently is to document the past. Mine is to secure the present.
 
ZAIUS

And stifle the future? Is that your job, Mr. Chief of Security Police? Because every time you sever a link of knowledge, you stick us one foot deeper into a pit of ignorance until we'll reach a point when our future generations will think the sky is made out of mud!

 

This kind of passionate, socially-committed dialogue would be familiar to any fan of The Twilight Zone, and represented high-quality work—alas, work that was simply viewed as insufficiently "commercial" for use in the series. But this does not change the fact that, from initial scripts for the first film through major efforts with the television series, Serling was absolutely vital to the success of Planet of the Apes.

But this relatively happy scenario does not play well with Serling's biographers, especially in terms of his film work. Planet of the Apes, we read, was entirely the work of Michael Wilson. Requiem for a Heavyweight—an extraordinarily fine film which has aged rather better than the original TV production—was padded with "unnecessary and unbelievable characters." The Man, Serling's adaptation of Irving Wallace's bestseller about the first black President of the United States, was considered sufficiently topical and powerful that ABC, which had originally designed it as a television feature, released it theatrically instead; but it is routinely dismissed by writers on Serling as a dismal failure. Even Seven Days in May—on which Serling received solo credit, adapting the popular novel—received only "decent" reviews, according to one biographer, and attracted crowds which "soon shrank." From this assessment it would be impossible to know that, in fact, Seven Days in May is routinely ranked by film historians as a four-star classic—one of the greatest of all Cold War thrillers, on a par with The Manchurian Candidate.

But it is easier to tell a story that takes a simple shape, and bemoaning Serling's inability to write feature films, and his failure on all fronts after The Twilight Zone, is a simpler tale to tell than one more reflective of the truth: that Rod Serling was a successful, in-demand screenwriter throughout his career, a screenwriter who penned at least two legitimate cinematic classics—Seven Days in May and Planet of the Apes—as well as several other worthy efforts. It is true enough that Serling's name appears on a number of clunkers, too—but the failure of a given film is invariably due to a myriad of causes, and it is too easy to say that Serling was at fault in every instance. (Consider, for example, the case of master screenwriter and Twilight Zone alumnus Richard Matheson, whose film credits include the classics Somewhere in Time and The Incredible Shrinking Man—but also such notorious bombs as Jaws 3-D.) Serling had his hits and his misses, along with every other prolific screenwriter, but he had a marvelous talent for film, with a great sense of pacing and, especially, dialogue. Serling may never have reached the heights on the big screen that he did on the small—but efforts such as Seven Days in May and Planet of the Apes prove that there is much more to this hidden hero than The Twilight Zone.