Permit me to introduce you to Al Rosen. Al posted in a TZ Facebook group about his direct experience with Mr. Serling as a student attending Ithaca College in 1967. These posts were very popular and appreciated by many. At my suggestion, Al has kindly compiled the 10 posts into Word docs.
The main message I wanted to impart is what a truly amazing man Rod was in person. How he was as warm and friendly as you’d expect from his TV persona (trust me, I worked in broadcasting for 40 years after college and MANY of the personalities you see are NOT, “Why isn’t my LIMO here?” etc.)
He answered every question, full attention given to each student. Patient. Happy to be with us.
And his ‘self deprecation’ was real. I ask you, how many other successful writers would give an assignment to a class to find examples of “lousy writing” in a script he’d written!!? I think it was the reason that he sold all those shows to CBS so cheaply.
It brings me great joy to contribute to the ‘legend’ of Rod Serling. I’m happy to help in any way.
Thank you, sir, for this contribution. These posts are golden! Thanks to Ken for finding them, and Al.
Table of Contents: Background | Eye of the Beholder | Walking Distance | Uneven Episode Quality | Selling Twilight Zone Rights to CBS | Where Is Everybody? & Fourth Season Format | Early TV Advertiser Mentality | Screening Episodes with Rod Serling | Why Rod Serling Did Commericials | Rod Serling’s Favorite Twilight Zone Episode
Many folks in the group have asked what it was like having Rod Serling as a visiting professor back in Ithaca College in 1967. It was just as amazing as you would have thought, perhaps even more so.
First a little background. I was in front of my television set back on October 2nd, 1959 when this new science fiction program debuted. I was immediately fascinated and delighted to learn that others at my school also saw it and were hooked. We vowed to watch the episodes and then discuss each of them. Now you have to realize that back then, you actually had to watch the shows AT the time that they were broadcast. There were no VCRs, DVRs or any other kind of “R.” Also no YouTube or Hulu. You either saw the show as it was broadcast or you MISSED it, period, so my friends and I were forced to be home to watch the Twilight Zone each Friday night.
Flash forward eight years later. I’m attending one of my TV classes and the professor announced that Rod Serling was coming as a visiting professor this fall and spring. I just sat there. ROD SERLING!!! HERE????
The day came and Rod arrived. Now this is a phenomenon that only people who had black and white TV’s would remember. I only saw Rod over the five years of the Twilight Zone as GRAY, like in the welcoming group picture above. Now here was this smiling man with a deep tan, short, about 5’4.”
Now since I was mostly interested in radio, I did not have Mr. Serling as an actual professor, although I received regular reports from the film students and was very jealous.
Where I did see Rod was over several evenings he’d invite anyone from the Radio-TV department into a lecture hall where he’d screen Twilight Zone episodes. He’d give a talk explaining what to watch for, maybe give an assignment and then at the end answer any questions. On some shows he’d screen the episode, then screen it a SECOND time using a microphone to talk over the show and point out certain things we were seeing. Years later when DVD’s first came out and had commentary tracks, the first thing I thought of was, “WOW, Rod Serling did this exact thing for us 20 years before there WAS such a thing as a commentary track.” I only wish I had recorded his remarks. Then they’d be available to DVD distributors. Unfortunately I did not have the foresight that Mr. Serling had.
Rod was as “unHollywood” a person as there could possibly be. He could be very self-deprecating. I remember before he screened “Walking Distance” his assignment was to watch the episode and find examples of bad bullshit writing in the show that he had written! (His language was very colorful.)
Eye of the Beholder
Some interesting trivia about the Twilight Zone episode, “The Eye of the Beholder.” I attended Ithaca College where Rod Serling was a visiting professor in 1968. He screened some Twilight Zone episodes for us and would give us “assignments” for the viewing.
Before he turned on the 16mm. projector he told us that he was unavailable during the filming and the director Douglas Heyes realized the episode would come up a minute or two short. Because filming was on such a tight timetable, and Serling was not reachable, Heyes wrote a minute of Rod’s episode by himself.
Serling’s assignment for us was to pick out the dialog that he did not write. The answer was in the scene with the doctor and nurse together in a break room and the doctor begins, “Nurse why must we feel this way? Why shouldn’t people just be allowed to be different?”
Rod said that he wasn’t fond of the addition because in his mind the doctor would AGREE with those who felt that ugly people should be ostracized and NOT feel badly about it. He knew that Heyes needed to get the episode filmed on time and did not blame him in any way.
Ironically, on the Blu-Ray commentary, Marc Scott Zicree interviewed director Heyes who tells the story slightly differently. He said that he DID write the extra dialog and that in the first screening with Serling, Rod said, “Nice job.” I think Rod was just too classy to blame Heyes for anything since it was Rod’s script that ran short.
Anyway, since this is such a major episode, I thought it would be a cool story to share with the group!
In my last post, I mentioned how Mr. Serling would give our college class an assignment before he screened a Twilight Zone episode for us, and that our assignment before “Walking Distance” was to find problems with his writing. Some group members here wondered what Rod felt was wrong.
After the screening, Rod’s first example was the opening scene at the gas station, where Martin Sloan tells the attendant about all the pressures of his job, the board meetings, etc. and how he needs to go back home to relax and find peace. Mr. Serling then said, “WHO would do that? Why would Martin tell his whole life story to a frickin’ gas station guy?”
“This was just used as a lazy writer’s way to provide plot exposition,” he told us.
He also explained the reason why Martin didn’t just drive directly into town, and I had never thought of this before. If he had, the citizens of Homewood would have immediately spotted this strange car built 30 years in the future. So there had to be a reason why the car never appeared in Homewood.
Moving on, he didn’t like the scene at the drug store where Martin gets an ice cream soda from the counterman. Martin says very bizarre things to the guy, and yet the counterman doesn’t question his comments. Martin mentions that the drug store owner was dead, when the counterman knew he was very much alive up in his office. In this case, Rod felt the counter man should have reacted differently and questioned Martin, but didn’t.
He then mentioned what he felt was his biggest problem with his script. Martin meets his parents again, long since deceased, but now they’re alive and well! Martin then continues to walk around town. Serling felt that Martin’s mind should and would have been totally blown at that point. That he would NOT be able to function normally. He asked how WE would react to a situation like that.
He said the whole episode should have built up to that scene. That it should have ended the episode, that nothing he could have written would top that. “As an adult meeting your parents who you loved more than anything. Now they’re alive again and right in front of you.”
Bottom line, Rod felt that “A Stop at Willoughby” was a much better episode, looking back.
Rod DID love the gentle violin score which was written especially for this episode. It was scored and conducted by Bernard Herrmann. Mr. Herrmann a year later wrote the shrieking violin passage when Janet Leigh was stabbed to death in the shower in Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” It just shows you how brilliant Herrmann was; using violins to either soothe you or scare the crap out of you.
Oh, in case you were wondering, as far as his assignment to us, NO one in the class said they found anything wrong with his script. Looking back I’m happy that no 20 year old kid wanted to criticize Rod Serling on his writing.
Uneven Episode Quality
As a member of this group for a while, every so often I’ll see a post where a member would ask something like “What episode of the Twilight Zone did you not like?” “Which episode did you feel wasn’t up to the quality of the Twilight Zone?”
As someone who had Mr. Serling as a visiting professor at Ithaca College back in the late 60s I can tell you that he would have understood.
He said something to us that I will always remember (I guess so; it was over 50 years ago, LOL). He said, and I quote:
“Of the 156 episodes of the Twilight Zone I’m very proud of about 25% of them. I feel that they had important messages, held the viewer’s interest, and were well directed.”
“50% of them were acceptable. They probably held the viewer’s interest for the length of the episode, but not one that would be remembered for any length of time”
“—and 25% of the episodes were pure crap.” (He didn’t use the word ‘crap.’)
He explained the pressure of having to turn in each show on time. Think about it. Each season had THIRTY episodes or more, far more than required in series television today. Every once in a while he’d have writer’s block; coming up with and then rejecting ideas. Then there’d be problems in production, etc. problems with actors or technical problems but CBS didn’t care, “just turn them in on time.” I can’t even imagine what that would have been like. Hell, when I was in college and I knew I had one term paper due in a week, I’d lose sleep.
All I could think of was Mr. Misrall in “A Stop at Willoughby.”
“This is a PUSH PUSH PUSH business, PUSH and DRIVE” You can see where Rod would get the inspiration for that episode, and “Walking Distance” where you just want to escape to home and a more tranquil time.
Selling Twilight Zone Rights to CBS
I look back at my memories of Mr. Serling as a visiting professor at Ithaca College in the 60s, and there’s one topic which I think about every time someone here talks about watching a Twilight Zone marathon or purchasing a brand new Blu Ray collection of the series; that is the ownership of the show and something Rod told us back in 1968.
The series ended in 1965, and at that time he shared in the ownership of the series. He told us that CBS offered him a choice of either retaining his partial ownership OR selling the series to CBS outright for a fixed sum, which was somewhat less than a million dollars, and he’d give up all rights to the series. He said he did the numbers and determined that the show would have to be syndicated for over at least five years, through 1970 in other words, for him to receive more money than the figure they were offering. He never thought that would happen, so he accepted their lump sum and gave up ownership of The Twilight Zone. In 1968 when he talked to us, he said “I think I may have made a mistake.” If only he knew.
The choice was a combination of him not realizing the value of his creation, figuring that in less than five years his work would be forgotten AND also that he did not realize the future of television as we know it today.
For anyone reading this who is younger than I am, which would include just about everyone, let me describe the way TV worked in the 50s and 60s. In the vast majority of the country, you were lucky if you received three TV stations. They all broadcast new network TV shows. If you lived in a major city, you might have one or two independent television stations which offered some off-network reruns but they were rare. You could NOT own any TV programs or feature movies. There wasn’t the technology at the time. No VCR’s, DVD’s or video computer files. You had to watch whatever TV executives provided you and at the time they broadcast it. Period, or else your TV was off.
WITHOUT THIS KNOWLEDGE, that people could actually purchase the Twilight Zone series, or watch it streaming , and the feeling that people would not remember Rod Serling at all a few years after the series ended, you can see why he made the choice he did.
Early TV Advertiser Mentality
As I look back upon the couple of years in the 60s when Rod Serling was a visiting professor at Ithaca College, more and more memories come flooding back. I think the most common theme he mentioned to us over and over was how frustrated he was with the advertising community, the companies who sponsored his efforts.
You have to understand what television was like back then. To do this, we’ll pretend we’re in the episode “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim” and we’ll walk over that hill but this time we’re in the 50s. Suddenly any sort of pay television is gone. No HBO, No Netflix or Hulu, no DVDs, nada. If you watch TV or write for television as Mr. Serling did, you were at the mercy of the corporations who paid the bills. EVERY single show on TV had commercials. Every one, and the advertiser did not want the TV show they were sponsoring to have ANYTHING in the script to diminish their one goal, which was selling stuff. Mr. Serling provided a few examples of sponsor interference in scripts he wrote before “The Twilight Zone.” You’d think these examples were exaggerations, but they were real. He had a script which mentioned the Chrysler Building. The sponsor was Ford, and they made him take out the word “Chrysler. “Another time he wrote a script where someone said, “Hey got a match?” THAT was taken out because the sponsor was a lighter company. He wrote a great script once describing concentration camps in Germany in WW II. The sponsor made him take out the words “gas chamber” because the advertiser was selling gas stoves and thought it would hurt their sales. All true, and maddening.
You see, Rod and the advertisers had totally different goals. The sponsors just wanted people to buy their washing machines and automobiles. Period. Mr. Serling wanted to provide a story that would make the viewer think, perhaps by showing something unpleasant. The sponsor didn’t want “unpleasant” at all. So Rod told us he had a two-step plan to help change this.
Up until this point, he was a just a writer, working for other producers. He felt the producers didn’t try hard enough to challenge the advertiser over silly script changes and their fear of controversial subjects. He thought that if he had his own company, his own show, he could deal with them more effectively, hence the Twilight Zone.
Next, he explained why his “Twilight Zone” was a science fiction series, and it’s not for the reason you’d think. He had never written much science fiction before and had no major interest in the genre. But he told us that, if for example, he included MARTIANS in his story, the ‘dumb advertiser’ would let him sneak morals into his program. A perfect example is “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” He felt he would otherwise never be able to get away with telling a story about human foibles, about people’s attitude and prejudices, about mob mentality. BUT if you throw in a few Martians at the end, well then the advertiser would let it through. He did and it worked!
More thoughts and Mr. Serling’s comments as the commercials were screened to us next time.
Where Is Everybody? & 4th Season Format
I thought it would be fun to set the scene as to what it was like to have Rod Serling as a visiting professor at Ithaca College in the late 60s. In the evenings, after his film classes and after dinner, sometimes he’d organize Twilight Zone screenings in a classroom. Other times the gatherings were more impromptu. I’d be in my dorm and someone would yell down the hall, “Mr. Serling is talking with some kids in the student lounge!” We’d run over there, push some couches together and just listen to him and then he’d take any questions that we had.
He was always so patient with all of us. He’d enjoy when someone had a detailed question about important subjects such as plot structure but was always tolerant when the next question would be “Gee Mr. Serling, you look so much taller on television. How do they do that?” I’ll never forget his answer. He just smiled and said, “El boxo.”
A couple of comments of his that I remember from back then. Someone in our class mentioned that his favorite episode was the first, “Where is Everybody.” Rod said that the original idea for that episode occurred to him when he first visited a Hollywood studio after he signed on to produce “Twilight Zone”. Before that time, most of his TV scripts were aired live from New York, on indoor soundstages. Now he’s in Hollywood, he was escorted around the film studio back lot on a day when there was no filming going on. He was driven through the ‘town;’ saw the stores, the restaurants, the homes, the street lights, the traffic lights, everything but PEOPLE! It made an impression and we now know the result.
Someone asked about the 4th season with the hour episodes and wondered why he decided on that new format. He made it quite clear it was not HIS idea. He said CBS had decided to replace an hour series that wasn’t doing well with the Twilight Zone, and if he wanted to continue to be on CBS’s schedule, he’d have to expand to fit that slot. Also CBS felt that the hour format was more appropriate to dramas. (“Alfred Hitchcock Presents” was also expanded to an hour.)
Rod said that it never worked; that most of the episodes were just padded to fill out the time and it showed. He said, “It was an experiment that failed and as a result the fifth and final season went back to half an hour.”
Next time I’ll talk about Rod’s reactions to the commercials which aired in the original network Twilight Zone episodes. You’ll enjoy it.
Screening Episodes with Rod Serling
In past posts we’ve talked about what it was like being a student in the 60s with Mr. Serling as a visiting professor. Some evenings after dinner he’d invite us to a lecture hall for a Twilight Zone screening where he’d do a live commentary, similar to what we have now on DVDs.
Setting the scene, it’s important to realize how special that would be, even WITHOUT Rod’s commentary. Today, we take for granted that we can watch a Twilight Zone episode whenever we wish. Just pop in a DVD or open Netflix. It’s right there. But as I stated in an earlier post, this was not possible back then, you had to watch whatever was “on TV” at that moment. So none of us had SEEN a Twilight Zone episode in three years; just the fact that we were going to watch selected past episodes were special, not to mention with the creator himself.
Mr. Serling would discuss facts about the episode we were about to see, he’d start the 16mm. projector and then often show them a second time with his commentary. All the films he’d show were taken directly off the original CBS network presentation, meaning that they had all the original commercials included. He’d be on his microphone and then halfway through each episode, the Twilight Zone logo would appear and then on would come the commercial. Well, you should have heard Rod at this point. All the way through the 60 second spot, he’d be swearing at the actors in the commercial. “BASTARDS, WHORES!” he’d say, “How can you people do this for a living?” admonishing the actors in the commercial on the movie screen. It was all done tongue in cheek of course, but it was clear that he wasn’t happy with the interruptions. It got to the point where I’d cringe when a commercial was about to appear, knowing what was coming.
You can understand his reaction. Let’s take the episode, “Death’s-Head Revisited.” The viewer is placed inside the Dachau concentration camp with the other prisoners; Gunther Lutze is tormenting you. You’re surrounded by the other inmates and get a feel as to the horror. Suddenly, you’re in the present, one housewife is talking to another, “Marge, your husband’s shirt looks so white. My Joe is always complaining about his shirts looking dingy. You’ve GOT to tell me your secret.” Or you’d see cartoon bunnies selling toilet paper. Do you think the mood Rod and the director carefully set would be broken?
And THIS was BEFORE the Twilight Zone’s syndication today on venues such as the Sci-Fi channel which not only adds many more commercial breaks than Rod ever planned for, but often butchers the episodes so viewers often wonder what the hell is going on. I can’t even imagine what Mr. Serling’s reaction would be.
Next time I’ll talk about my favorite personal experience with Rod, and it had to do with the very topic discussed here.
Why Rod Serling Did Commericials
In my last post I talked about Mr. Serling screening Twilight Zone episodes for us at Ithaca College back in the late 60s and how he’d chastise the actors in the commercials for “selling out.”
After graduation I got a job as a radio DJ at Ithaca’s rock radio station at the time, WTKO. One day I was playing a commercial and the voice sounded very familiar! I turned to a fellow DJ and said, “Wow, that’s Rod Serling.” He nodded and I said, “But he ALWAYS berated the people doing commercials.” A few months later I saw him on TV selling something else. I told my friend that if I ever saw Mr. Serling again I’d ask him about it.
Well, it was easy to be brave and say that at the time. I had graduated and I figured my chance of running into Rod was slim to none.
You can guess what happened. A few weeks later I’m shopping at the Ithaca Co-Op grocery store, I turn into the next aisle, and there’s Rod Serling pushing a grocery cart. I took a deep breath and asked myself, “OK, Mr. Brave Guy, are you going to say anything to him?” Watching him, he was approaching the check out and I figured this was my last chance. I got next to him in line, introduced myself as a member of his class, and he was gracious as always.
I said, “Please don’t be upset with my question but I’d love to know what made you change your mind about the advertising industry.”
I held my breath. He looked at me and smiled and said, “Alan, I deserve this! I’ll tell you. I was in my office one day and a guy comes in with a brief case and takes out a piece of paper and places it on my desk. He says, ‘Rod, if you read what’s written on that paper into a microphone, I’ll give you enough money to put one of your kids through college.”
He said, “I looked at the paper, it seemed innocent enough so I did.”
(This anecdote is also printed in Rod’s daughter Anne’s book “As I Knew Him – My Dad, Rod Serling” It is an absolute must read for anyone who wants to know more about the man himself.)
Rod Serling’s Favorite Twilight Zone Episode
Well, that pretty much ends my memories of Rod Serling as a visiting professor at Ithaca College during my time there in the late 60s.
I hope you liked the stories. If you are interested and missed any of my 10 posts you can see them on the main Facebook “Twilight Zone Group” page. On the left you’ll see a “search this group” box. Just type in my name and they pop up. If you have a question or comment just post them and I’ll answer.
If there’s one thing I’d like to impart to the group, it’s how wonderful Rod was, not only as a genius with his stories, but as a PERSON. He never was a “Hollywood guy” with his people around him. He had time for all of us, always with a smile; very self-deprecating. He honestly felt back then that a few years after the Twilight Zone went off the air, he’d be forgotten. As we discussed, this is why he sold all his rights to the series. If he knew that almost 60 years later, there’d be a group like this, he’d be astounded, and I hope very happy.
Oh, one last thing. Someone asked him which was his favorite of all the episodes. He didn’t pause for a second when he said, “Time Enough at Last.” He loved the irony, and more so he loved Burgess Meredith. He couldn’t imagine anyone else playing that part, and he used Meredith in four different episodes. He told us about how difficult it was for Meredith shooting the episode because of those thick glasses. When wearing them on camera he couldn’t see anything.
Realize that when Mr. Serling gave it as his favorite, all of our ‘favorite’s change over time so he may have answered differently when asked about it later. If someone asks you your favorite song, or favorite movie, you might have a different answer as your tastes change. But know that on one cold snowy night in Ithaca in 1968, that was his answer.