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Meeting Rod Serling
When I entered the small sound recording studio in Hollywood, it was like being in one of those Twilight Zone moments. The place was something out of the forties; modest but neat. I gave the young receptionist my name. "Oh, yes," she said. "They're waiting for you in back," and pointed to a door. I thanked her and entered a dim hallway.
As I traveled it, I began to get light-headed in anticipation at what I'd experience at the other end.
Suddenly I was awash in memories of the first Twilight Zone episode I'd ever seen: "Where is Everybody?" with Earl Holliman. My God, what is this? How deliciously weird. Then, "I Shot an Arrow" and "Walking Distance." Those whip saw endings and that droll delivery by writer Rod Serling. The same Rod Serling who had written "Patterns" and "Requiem for a Heavyweight." Good lord, what had he created here.
When I was still in my teens I found myself eschewing the usual teen stuff on the nights TZ was on. I had become an addict. Hooked. "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet!" When William Shatner opens that shade and sees that gremlin's face pressed into the window! Well—how could hot rods and proms compare to this?
Suddenly, I was back in the present. The door at the end of the hallway in the recording studio loomed. How did I get here? How did I come to this exquisite moment?
In 1970 I was living in Houston, Texas. Still in my twenties, a couple of partners and I had set up a commercial production company. Film? We were eaten up with it. So when an ad agency came to us to make a film for the United Fund we jumped on it. A script came from the agency: To my surprise and delight, it was written like a Twilight Zone episode and was appropriately titled "The Other World." This referred to the world of the unfortunate that the United Fund ministered to—and the film had a recurring Serling-like narration.
During a production meeting someone suggested that they go all the way and try to get Rod Serling himself to do Serling. Having worked in Hollywood, I leaned to one of my partners and sneered, "fat chance." Several days later I got a call from the account executive at the agency. "Just called to let you know we got him," he allowed "Got who?" I asked. "Serling. You go to L.A. next week to direct him."
Was I shocked? Stunned? No, thunderstruck! A dream come true. I'm gonna get to meet "the man."
Well, here I was in the recording studio. Serling was only moments away now. It still seemed like—well, The Twilight Zone. I emerged from the hallway into a lighted foyer. I was still alone. "Where has everybody gone," I wondered. Across the room was a door and a large glass window. I eased over to it and peeked in. There, seated at a table, reading the script was--was--ROD SERLING!
My heart pounded. He was engrossed and didn't see me. I collected myself and went to the door. Knocked. Then that unmistakable voice. "Come in," it offered. I entered.
It was him. He got up and as I walked over and extended his hand. "Rod Serling." Well, of course! He didn't have to tell me that.
"Huh, J.D. Feigelson from, uh, Houston..." I could hear my own voice outside myself. It sounded like Ralph Kramden.
"The engineer will be back in a minute," Serling said. "Did you write this?" he asked holding up the script.
"No," I answered honestly. "One of the writers at the ad agency."
"It's good," Serling commented. That was a relieving start. It loosened me up a bit and we chatted about the piece.
As we talked I couldn't help studying this icon. I found myself comparing this Serling to the one I knew from "The Twilight Zone." He was shorter than I had imagined. About five-five or six I guessed. He'd let his hair grow longer. It was curly and black with flecks of silver. He was brown as a nut and his skin had become somewhat leathery. From hours at pool side, I learned, dictating scripts.
And there was the ever present cigarette. This, I learned, was not a TV prop. He was a smoker. Chain smoker. Maybe he did it to calm himself, because one of the things I noticed early on was his intensity. You could see it in his jaw. When he spoke it was almost through clenched teeth. But it never affected his gentleness or desire to please me. He was outgoing and easy to talk to, and before the engineer arrived Serling had put me completely at ease.
The engineer came in and said he'd be ready for the session in a few minutes. Serling and I chatted. Still I couldn't believe it. Here I was talking to THE MAN, and him treating me like an equal. Finally we were ready.
From the control room I gave Serling a few of my thoughts. "Like a Twilight Zone," I reminded him. God how presumptuous of me to be telling Serling anything. But he smiled and nodded. "Let's do it."
"Rolling," the engineer called Serling took a last puff off his cigarette and launched into it. I was spellbound. He was flawless. It rolled out so easily, and the words in our little script suddenly took on stature. God he was good! Suddenly he stopped. "I think I can do that last line better," he said. He did it again and on he went, uninterrupted to the end.
Serling looked up. "What do you think?" he asked look at me. It was certainly good, but there was something more I wanted. But how in hell to asked? I was afraid the words would stick in my throat. But here we were. We'd never be here again—so, I went back into the studio. "Was there anything wrong?" he asked.
"No," I reassured, then mulled. "Okay, let me tell you my thought here," I managed. "The film is only narration--you aren't on camera."
"Right," Serling agreed.
"Since this is, you know, Twilight Zone-esque, it needs Serling underscored." He mused. I mused. Good lord! What do I do now? "Okay, here it is: Do Rod Serling doing Rod Serling." He looked. "It's you doing..."
"No, no, no," he interrupted. "I got it! I got it! Let's go for it."
I hurried back to the control room. "Rolling," the engineer called. Oh, heaven! I closed my eyes to listen. It was magic!
Thirty minutes later I found myself sitting across the table from Serling at a nearby pub. He had ordered us both a scotch and water. I told him how delighted I was with the "Serling doing Serling" take. He smiled.
"You know, I learned something too," he admitted. "A little exaggeration helps when no one can see you. It takes the place of your presence."
We chatted on. I moved the conversation on to all the questions I'd ever want to know about TZ.
During the conversation, several of Rod's admirers recognized him and came to the table to pay homage. He was most gracious. They looked at me wondering who this guy was that commanded the great man's attention.
Serling smoked incessantly. He filled two ashtrays in about an hour and a half. "You know," he said, "I originally wanted to do the "Zone" as a one hour program."
"I didn't know that, " I responded.
"It's true," he went on. "But we ended up with a half hour, as you know. CBS didn't have a hour time slot open. Turned out to be dumb luck. The half hour worked. Later we did an hour version. It didn't work."
"I've always wondered about that," I confessed. "Why?"
"Because a 'Zone' story is like a joke; if you wait too long to get to the punch line, it dies."
The "wow" I thought must have registered on my face. Serling took a long puff on his cigarette—and smiled.
I saw Rod Serling only once more after that. I was sitting in the Cock and Bull restaurant having lunch with a friend. Suddenly, hands clamped over my eyes and a voice asked, "Guess who?"
"Ha!" Who wouldn't know that voice. Of course it was Serling. He was on his way out.
"I heard that our little film won a prize somewhere."
"Yes, a Golden Eagle at the CINE festival in Washington DC."
"That's terrific!" And he shook my hand. "Congratulations. How long will you be in town?"
"Going home tomorrow," I said.
"When you come back," he offered, "Give me a call. Let's get together."
"I'd love it." But it never happened. Not long after, I received a call telling me that Serling had died on the operating table during heart surgery. I was stunned. I think in some ways I still am.
Years later, I was asked to write and direct two episodes of the "New Twilight Zone." I did an adaption of Ray Bradbury's "The Burning Man" and an original titled "The Little People of Killany Woods." In "The Little People" I used everything I had gleaned from my time with Serling. I strove to make it a "real Twilight Zone." I can only hope Rod Serling has seen it from somewhere out there—in the Twilight Zone.