Submitted for your approval: The time is the early 1950s. The place: a kitchen table in Cincinnati. The young man seated at it, hammering away on a typewriter deep into the night, is a radio script writer eager to crack the new medium of television.
He’d written a fantasy about such a man once, a burned-out, middle-aged executive who, when he tries to return to his youth, is told by his father that there is ‘only one summer to every customer.’
It’s only one of life’s painful lessons in … ‘The Twilight Zone.’
With such opening narrations – delivered with his trademark clipped cadence, dispassionate smugness and an ever-present cigarette dangling from his hand – Rod Serling began one of television’s most memorable programs, one arguably more popular today than when it was launched in TV’s Golden Age four decades ago.
Although his writing credits extend from 1956’s ‘Requiem for a Heavyweight’ – one of the most praised dramas in TV history – to the screenplay for ‘Planet of the Apes,’ Serling always will be inextricably matched with ‘The Twilight Zone.’
The evocative program – characterized by its plot-ending twists and introspective focus on bedrock human values – had its genesis in the scripts and ideas that began pouring out of Serling while he was a student at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
After graduating, the Syracuse native moved to Cincinnati with his wife to accept a $75-a-week job as a staff writer for WLW Radio. And though his time in southwestern Ohio was brief – combined with his years at Antioch, less than a decade – it was a period that Serling himself acknowledged shaped the Midwestern sensibility reflected in much of his writing.
At WLW, Serling found himself thrown into what he described as ‘a murderous … grind,’ writing everything from public service announcements to laxative commercials to half-hour documentaries. He also scripted banter for two performers he later described as ‘a hayseed emcee who strummed a guitar and said, “Shucks, friends,’ and a girl yodeler whose falsetto could break a beer mug at 20 paces.’
Desperate to break away to serious writing, Serling would go home after a full day at WLW and work into the night on 30- and 60-minute dramas. After accumulating more than 40 rejection slips from TV producers and radio syndicators, he made a breakthrough in 1951 by selling nearly two dozen scripts to WKRC-TV (Channel 12).
Emboldened by that success – and a contract with WKRC for 26 additional half-hour scripts at $125 each – Serling quit WLW (or, depending on which version is believed, was fired) in a somewhat contrived showdown over a $10 raise.
For the next several years, Serling lived and wrote in Cincinnati, frequently commuting from his Wyoming home to work in New York City. Finally, in late 1954, with more than 70 of his scripts already produced on network TV, he moved to Westport, Conn.
Serling soared to national prominence in January 1955 with the Kraft Television Theatre’s production of his play ‘Patterns.’ The story of Fred Staples, a young, ambitious executive lured from Cincinnati to New York, ‘Patterns’ portrayed his struggle to maintain his sensitivity amid the ruthless white-collar backstabbing of the corporate world. In the end, when Staples – in whom there was much of Serling – decides to try to become the company’s conscience rather than quit, his wife reminds him: ‘There’s always Cincinnati.’
The Emmy that Serling won for ‘Patterns’ was his first of six, joined a year later by one for ‘Requiem’ – the poignant tale of a fighter on the decline – after it aired on Playhouse 90. ‘The Twilight Zone’ would later earn Serling two more Emmys, with the other two awards coming for other dramas.
But while he was now earning a six-figure salary and was one of the most sought-after writers in TV, Serling already was tiring of jousting with censorious network executives and sponsors, who wielded iron-fisted control over script content. In ‘Requiem,’ for example, the line ‘Got a match?’ was changed because the sponsor was Ronson lighters. And when Serling wrote a story patterned after an infamous murder of a 14-year-old black child in Mississippi, the script was gutted.
For years, Serling had mulled over notions for a science-fiction/fantasy series. Networks, however, were wary of the idea of an anthology series in which there would be no recurring characters save the narrator, Serling himself. Finally, though, CBS signed onto a project that Serling – expanding on a time-travel fantasy that had aired on WKRC’s ‘The Storm’ – had entitled ‘The Twilight Zone.’
The 18 million viewers who tuned in on premiere night – Oct. 2, 1959 – heard Serling’s distinctive voice intoning what would become one of TV’s most famous openings: ‘There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call “The Twilight Zone.”
For the next five seasons, Serling – using ‘The Twilight Zone’ as a video social conscience – blended fantasy, parable and reality into compelling and often disquieting insights into the human condition, lessons alternately delivered with humor or sobering directness.
The search for one’s youth, man’s infinite capacity for goodness and evil, nuclear-age nightmares, the price that greed and guilt exact over time, urban alienation, the sometimes blurry line between success and failure, and the tantalizing possibilities of opening one’s mind to the seemingly impossible – these and other subjects were the recurring themes that Serling explored. The well-crafted stories were noted for their intensely personal dialogue, with Serling’s tautly written opening and closing narrations serving as contextual bookends.
In ‘Eye of the Beholder,’ Serling showed conventional beauty being treated as ugliness worthy of banishment from society. An episode entitled ‘Monsters are Due on Maple Street’ had a ‘we-have-met-the-enemy-and-he-is-us’ message; in it, a meteor races over a typical Middle American street, prompting fears of an invasion from outer space that, in the end, turns neighbor violently against neighbor.
In another episode, a man given three wishes asks to be a leader who cannot be voted out of office, only to become Hitler in the final hours in his Berlin bunker. And ‘To Serve Man’ delivers one of the all-time classic punch lines in TV history: a book left behind by aliens who promise to use their technology to aid mankind turns out to be a cookbook, with humans as the main course.
Still regularly broadcast in nearly every major city and the subject of occasional all-day marathons, ‘The Twilight Zone’ has become a multi-generational touchstone of the video age, one that eclipsed anything Serling did in the remainder of his relatively brief career.
During the early 1970s, he was the host of ‘Night Gallery,’ a flawed clone of ‘The Twilight Zone’ that, like most of his other post-‘Zone’ projects, met with limited critical and commercial success. With his clout receding in Hollywood, Serling – burdened by the strain of trying to live up to the promise of his early successes – also taught at colleges and was reduced to being a commercial spokesman and a TV game-show host.
A workaholic and four-pack-a-day smoker for most of his life, Serling suffered a heart attack in May 1975. Weeks later, he had a second attack, and on June 28, suffered a third, fatal heart attack during open-heart surgery. He was only 50.
In his last major interview shortly before his death, Serling said: ‘I just want them to remember that I was a writer a hundred years from now.’
His words echoed those of a character in a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode who, eager to be recognized as the world’s best pool player, says: ‘As long as they talk about you, you’re not really dead … A legend doesn’t die, just because the man dies.’
And in death, Serling would achieve that measure of immortality, as the term ‘twilight zone’ entered the vocabulary and the nostalgia surrounding the program transformed him into a cultural icon.
For Serling, it’s a closing scene worthy of his finest work. It’s also a part of life – and death – confined not only to The Twilight Zone.
Publication date: 02-06-99
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