…a lengthy but riveting account of the blood, sweat, and tears it took to make it in television.
by Rod Serling
About Writing for Television
There is probably no single “absolute” anyone can use as a yardstick to describe the nature of the television writer, his background, his fortes, or the nature of his advent into the realm of television writing—save for the simple statement that there are no absolutes.
The TV writer is never trained to be a TV writer. There are no courses, however specialized and applied, that will catapult him into the profession. And it was especially true back in the twilight days of radio that coincided with the primitive beginnings of television that the television playwrights evolved—and were never born. In my case the decision to become a television writer arose from no professional master plan. I was on the writing staff of a radio station in the Midwest. Staff writing is a particularly dreamless occupation characterized by assembly-line writing almost around the clock. It is a highly variable occupation—everything from commercials and fifteen-second public-service announcements to half-hour documentary dramas. In a writing sense, it serves its purpose. It teaches a writer discipline, a time sense for any kind of mass-media writing, and a technique. But it also dries up his creativity, frustrates him, and tires him out.
It’s axiomatic that the beginning free-lance writer must have some sort of economic base from which he operates. Usually it is a job with at least a subsistence wage to give him rent money and three square meals a day while he begins the treacherous and highly unsure first months of writing on his own. The most desirable situation encompasses an undemanding job that draws little out of the writer’s mind during the working day so that his nocturnal writing will be fresh, inspired and undiverted. In my case this was a wish but never a reality.
I used to come home at seven o’clock in the evening, gulp down a dinner and set up my antique portable typewriter on the kitchen table. The first hour would then be spent closing all the mental gates and blacking out all the impressions of a previous eight hours of writing. You have to have a pretty selective brain for this sort of operation. There has to be the innate ability to singletrack the creative processes. And after a year or so of this kind of problem, you have rent receipts, fuel for the furnace and a record of regular eating; but you have also denied yourself, as I did, a basic “must” for every writer. And this is simple solitude—physical and mental.
The process of writing cannot be juggled with another occupation. The job of creating cannot be compartmentalized with certain hours devoted to one kind of creation and other hours set aside for still another. Writing is a demanding profession and a selfish one. And because it is selfish and demanding, because it is compulsive and exacting, I didn’t embrace it. I succumbed to it.
I can pinpoint the day and almost the hour that it happened for me. After two years of double-shift writing, I had made approximately six sales to network television programs. These weren’t bad scripts. There was usually a kind of strength to them that showed in dialogue and a sense of character. But they were stamped with the lack of professional polish. They showed in many ways that they were done on a kitchen table during the eleventh and twelfth and thirteenth hours of a working day. They were always sharpened, but never to their finest points.
So, on a midwinter day, I gave in to free-lance writing. This was not the overtly courageous plunge that some writers make. In my case I had just finished a three-week assignment as a staff radio writer, planning a documentary series designed to honor certain towns and cities in the listening area. (In regional radio, adjoining localities are forever being honored. This is designed to make for excellent public relations, but it is only on rare occasions that it makes for even a modicum of good listening. In most cases, the towns I was assigned to honor had little to distinguish them save antiquity. Any dramatization beyond the fact that they existed physically, usually had one major industry, a population and a founding date was more fabrication than documentation.)
I had just turned in a sample script to the program director that was essentially above and beyond the call of duty, and well beyond the call of truth. My script called for a narrator and a 30-piece live orchestra, and contained the kind of prose that made Green Hills, Ohio, look like the Alamo!
When I was called into the P.D.’s office my script was lying face down on his desk, like a thumb in a Roman arena. He leaned back in his swivel chair and studied me pensively, as if searching for some velvet-glove language that could be utilized to castigate me without breaking my spirit.
“Serling,” he said, “it’s this way. Your stuff’s too stilted. You seem to be missing the common touch. We’re looking for grass roots here. We want to be close to the people. We’re obliged to use the ‘folksy’ approach. In short, we want our people to get their teeth into the soil.”
As he was talking I knew exactly what he meant. The “folksy approach” did not include a 30-piece orchestra, or prose out of Norman Corwin’s On a Note of Triumph. It needed only two elements: a hayseed M.C. who strummed a guitar and said, “Shucks, friends”; and a girl yodeler whose falsetto could break a beer mug at twenty paces. This was getting the teeth into the soil. And the little thought journeyed through my brain that what these guys wanted was not a writer but a plow!
During the next couple of hours two things occurred to form and then cement a resolve of mine. The staff writer, in addition to writing, acts also as a kind of roving “idea man” for several current and varied types of programs. One of my duties was to supply “gimmicks” for an afternoon ladies’ show. That afternoon I stopped by the studio to watch the tail end of one of its performances. The master of ceremonies was a semi-literate, ex-tent revivalist with curly hair and an absolutely devastating smile. He was winding up his show with a three-minute sermon on the boys in Korea and how we should pray for them. The ladies in the audience were totally captivated. There wasn’t a dry eye in the studio. The program went off the air and the M.C., his eyes half closed, walked softly out of the studio, past the sighs and fluttering eyelashes of the good ladies who had come to see him and who now stared worshipfully and respectfully up at him. He nodded to me and we both got on the elevator. It went down one floor and a girl got off. The wavy head went up, the look of soulful ecstasy left the broad and dimpled face. He winked at me, nudged my elbow and said, “I wonder if she lays?”
(This same fat-faced, sanctimonious slob had told me earlier that he used to travel with his father, who was also an itinerant evangelist. But at the time, he said, his father did the preaching and he was the one who made the money: he had the “Bible concession.”)
Two hours later I got my next assignment: to dream up an audition show for a patent medicine currently the rage. It had about 12 per cent alcohol by volume and, if the testimonials were to be believed, could cure everything from arthritis to a fractured pelvis. I spent two minutes studying the agency’s work sheet, which stated the general purpose of the program. I read as far as the second paragraph: “This will be a program for the people. We’d like to see a real grass-roots approach that is popular and close to the soil.” The pattern of whatever future I had was very much in evidence. I was either going to write dramatic shows for television, even at the risk of economics and common sense, or I was going to succumb to the double-faced sanctimony of commercial radio, rotating words as if they were crops, and utilizing one of the approaches so characteristic to radio-writing and thinking downward at the lowest possible common denominator of an audience. That afternoon I quit the radio station.
I sat that night with my wife, Carol, at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant and after a few false starts—”You know, honey, a man could make a lot of money free-lancing”—I talked out my hope. Free-lance writing would no longer be a kind of errant hope to augment our economy, to be done around the midnight hour on a kitchen table. Freelance writing would now be our bread, our butter, and the now-or-never of our whole existence. My wife was twenty-one, three months pregnant, and a most adept reader of the score. She knew all about free-lance writing. She’d lived with it with me through college and the two years afterward. She knew that in my best year I had netted exactly $790. She was well aware that it was a hit-or-miss profession where the lush days are followed by the lean. She knew it was seasonal, and there was no definition of the seasons. She knew that it was a frustrating, insecure, bleeding business at best, and the guy she was married to could get his pride, his composure and his confidence eaten away with the acid of disappointment. All this she knew sitting at a table in Howard Johnson’s in 1951. And as it turned out, this was a scene with no dialogue at all. All she did was to take my hand. Then she winked at me and picked up a menu and studied it. And at that given moment, the vision of medicine bottles, girl yodelers, and guitar-strumming M.C.s faded away into happy obscurity. For lush or lean, good or bad, Sardi’s or malnutrition, I’d launched a career. I’ll grant you the perhaps inordinate amount of sentiment attached to all the above, but if this were a novel, patent medicines, Howard Johnson, and my wife, Carol, would all be part of an obligatory first chapter.
This was the nature of television in 1951. The medium had progressed somewhat past the primitive stage. There was still a sense of bewilderment on the part of everyone connected with the shows. And it was still more the rule than the exception to find the opening camera shot of almost every television play trained on the behind of one of the cameramen. But by this time there were six half-hour “live” shows that came out of New York, and two or three one-hour shows. On the Coast there were a dozen or more filmed half-hour anthologies. The television writer’s claim to the title “playwright” had been made, but as yet was not universally accepted. The TV play, once called by Paddy Chayefsky “the most perishable item known to man,” enjoyed no longevity through the good offices of the legitimate stage and the motion pictures. The motion-picture industry looked down at its newborn cousin somewhat as the president of a gourmet club might examine an aborigine gnawing a slab of raw meat. The movie people had no way of knowing at the time that this bumbling, inexpert baby medium would one day compete with them and come dangerously close to destroying them. For at that time the television play went on and off the air with few cheers and with no one to mourn its passing. The video diet was a lean mixture of wrestling and occasional football. These were the days of the 10-inch screen, the 1931 movies, and Gorgeous George. The television dramas extant were still in the process of feeling their way around, trying to find some kind of level of performance, some reason for being, and some set of techniques. At the time there existed no species referred to exclusively as “television writers.” There were radio writers who were extending themselves a bit, realists who knew that the golden days of radio drama were dimming into twilight. There were screen writers doing television films as a stop-gap between picture assignments. There were also some embryonic playwrights who used the new medium as a kind of finger exercise for what they hoped would turn into legitimate writing later on. But neither the industry nor the public was prone to make any association between writing of real quality and the sort of thing done for television.
My first television script had been sold in early 1950 to an NBC film series on the Coast called Stars Over Hollywood. It was brave and adventuresome. Beyond this, the production and conception of the program were symptomatic of absolutely the worst features of Class-B moviemaking. The plots were an ABC mishmash, with the depth and levels of an adobe hut. The performances were rarely ever able to overcome the scripts. The piece I sold them was called “Grady Everett for the People.” It starred Burt Freed, who turned in a pretty fair performance, considering everything. I don’t recall too clearly the essence of the story or the way it was done, but I have a vivid recollection of the payment involved. It was exactly $100 for all television rights. I never met anyone connected with this production, nor did I set foot in the studio. But as of this writing it has been on at least twenty-four times at odd hours and on odd channels. I will claim immodestly that it surpassed wrestling; beyond that, I’ll make no value judgment whatsoever.
The singularly distinguishing feature of television drama in those early days was a paucity of payment, sets, and theme. And to go along with this was a bleak desert which represented the area of identity of the television writer. He was practically anonymous; he had an ill-defined respect for his talents and no protection at all for his work. He had few prerogatives in terms of its production and only the barest of recognition for his contribution.
The Kraft Television Theatre, the oldest of the one-hour dramatic shows, wouldn’t permit a writer at rehearsal until the day of the show. His presence at that late hour was probably a guarantee against intrusion. For by then the lines had already been changed, the interpretations made, the blocking and camera arranged. The writer could protest, but only as a gesture. The show was a fait accompli prior to his arrival. In the kindred areas of rewriting, casting, music, et al, the writer had even less to say. I cite the Kraft Theatre as an example not to single it out for a necessarily unique mistreatment of authors but because it was one of the few dramatic programs existent at the time. It aimed for quality and often achieved it. This was the show that did things like Moliere’s A Doctor in Spite of Himself; Ibsen’s A Doll’s House; Galsworthy’s Justice and Loyalties. It also produced plays like Valley Forge, Berkeley Square, Comedy of Errors and Macbeth—and some of these shows were produced as early as 1947. The reader can pretty much gather what the policies of the lesser programs were with regard to their conception and treatment of the men and women who wrote the material.
These first four and five years of television were the cradle days of a baby whose birth may not have been accidental but whose process of maturing was far from being planned. But thanks to programs like Kraft and some others, television was expanding its technique and coverage. And along with it came an expansion in quality. Besides Kraft there was Studio One. Tony Miner, a pioneer without coonskin, was producing the plays on Studio One, whose expanse was becoming as much horizontal as vertical. One of his productions took place on a submarine. He used actual water and a mock-up submarine, and he did it on a nickel-and-dime budget that today wouldn’t pay for a cast on a half-hour show. It evolved as a striking and powerfully realistic illusion, and it pointed the way to a new horizon in live television.
Celanese Theatre went on the air and did things like Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset, and it did them well and effectively. Celanese was directed by a man named Alex Segal, who became one of the early “names” in television. He was later to direct some television plays by Rod Serling, who at the time of Alex’s arrival on the television scene was still writing prayer messages for an ex-tent revivalist in Ohio. But at this moment in the evolution of television drama there were even a few intellectual diehards who began to see the potential of it, and began to realize that a television play could come close. to the legitimate theater, and even surpass it sometimes in terms of flexibility. Along with television’s expansion and progress came the birth of a new school of television actors and actresses, men and women associated with the medium and known because of it. Like Hollywood and Broadway before it, television began to produce its own stars, and also like Hollywood and Broadway the writer was the last of the company to achieve an identity. To his everlasting credit, he did it on his own. The networks financed no campaign to make Chayefsky a known and associable quantity. Several million viewers began to make that association on their own. Plays by Paddy Chayefsky, Horton Foote, Bob Arthur, David Swift and David Shaw were stamped with that particular quality that forced recognition. The programs and networks helped, of course. The medium was improving to a point where it allowed them to help. They began to supply the financial and technical aid to enlarge the scope of the television drama. Now a writer could conceive of a story that played on more than two sets with more than four actors. He could write with an eye toward the fluidity of movement that came with three cameras. His sets and costumes were no longer slapped together as incidental accouterments to a one-shot performance. They were given thought, preparation and time.
But the major advance in the television play was a thematic one. The medium began to show a cognizance of its own particular fortes. It had the immediacy of the living theater, some of the flexibility of the motion picture, and the coverage of radio. It utilized all three in developing and improving what was actually a new art form. As indicated previously by the plays on Kraft, Studio One and Celanese Theatre, one could see that the television play was beginning to show depth and a preoccupation with character. Its plots and its people were becoming meaningful. Its stories had something to say. There was a flavor to it well beyond the early Hollywood half-hour film which shoved a product out that was obviously molded at an early age and became moldy at a late one. This product was sprinkled with a kiss, a gunshot, a dab of sex, a final curtain clinch, and it was called drama. Parenthetically it might be stated here that Hollywood did little to help in the evolution and improvement of television as a medium, at least in terms of drama. What accolades are deserved here should go to Chicago and New York.
In terms of technique, the “close-up” that had served as such a boon to the motion pictures was further refined and used to even greater advantage in television. The key to TV drama was intimacy, and the facial study on a small screen carried with it a meaning and power far beyond its usage in the motion pictures. I can’t forget, for example, the endearing passage in Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty between Marty and the girl in the little all-night beanery. This scene was a close-up of the two through the entire playing. And the wonderfully fabulous thing of two lonely people finding each other was played on the two faces. I am also reminded of one of my own things, a totally different piece from Marty but one which utilized the same kind of television technique that was so uniquely television. This was The Strike, produced on Studio One in June 1954. There was a moment in the play when Major Gaylord (extremely well played by James Daly) was recounting an experience during World War II when he was obliged to fire on an American soldier in the dead of night on a Pacific island. The camera stayed tight on his face for almost three solid minutes, and we had a moving, poignant and almost heart-rending picture of the fatigue and fear that go hand in hand in the province of wartime combat.
The physical and the fates conspired to force the maturing of the television drama. It was no longer a novelty; it had become a fixture. As such it competed with every other kind of entertainment; consequently it was forced to become better, to become different, and to aim higher. It was a medium that in a one-hour time period could play to an audience greater than a Broadway play reached in one solid year of SRO crowds. With this kind of potential and with this kind of impetus, however young, however groping, television was something to b® reckoned with.
Television today remains a study in imperfection. Some of its basic weaknesses and mediocrity are still with us. There is still wrestling, soap opera, overlong commercials and some incredibly bad writing. There is really no defense for any of this, but there is an explanation. You need only look at a calendar to remember that only seven or eight years have gone by and the medium remains a young one and a groping one. There still remain new techniques to learn, new fields to examine and a myriad set of roadblocks to progress that still have to be breached.
But there is still time and there are still ways. Radio was around for twenty-odd years before it really found its niche and ultimately wrote out a finis to its potential. Television hasn’t exhausted its potential or altogether found its niche. And in the area of drama it has already far surpassed that of its sister medium.
Like any mass medium, it might still die from internal strangulation. But for those of us who professionally cast our lot with it in its early days, we haven’t yet given up. For us the heartening thing is that there are still things to strive for.
A Few Recollections
A writer—at least this writer—measures his career not so much in terms of years as in individual moments. They are the good moments: the big sale, the well-received show, the award at the end of the year. The television playwright must savor his success and his good moments very hurriedly, because they’re temporal at best. But the bad moments—his failures, the script rejections, the incisively bad reviews—cling to him with much more tenacity and for longer periods than the moderate successes.
Between late 1951 and 1954 I lived in Ohio, commuting back and forth to New York to take part in story conferences and the rehearsals of my shows. This was expensive and time-consuming, but was a concession to my own peculiar hesitancy about all things big, massive and imposing. New York television and its people were such an entity. For some totally unexplainable reason, every time I walked into a network or agency office I had the strange and persistent feeling that I was wearing overalls and Li’l Abner shoes.
I remember one incident during those early days when I had flown into New York to discuss a rewrite on a script called You Be the Bad Guy, which starred Macdonald Carey. The script editor, Dick McDonagh, asked if I’d like to meet the star of the show. I was ushered into a small office where the cast was assembled for the reading, and there was introduced to Mr. Carey, who turned out to be an extremely pleasant, affable guy, who stood up and shook my hand and complimented me on the script. I remember standing in the center of the room wondering what the hell I could do next, and deciding that I had outworn my welcome and my purpose and should at this time beat a retreat. I looked busily and professionally at my watch, nodded tersely to all assembled, mumbled something about it being a pleasure to see them all but that I had to catch a plane going west, and then turned and crashed into the wall, missing the door by two feet. Then, in backing out of the room, I ran into an oncoming secretary and dropped my briefcase, exposing not only scripts and writing material, but a couple of pairs of socks, some handkerchiefs and some underwear. (I traveled light in those days.) My exit from the J. Walter Thompson offices that day could not have been more pointed and obvious had it been staged by Max Leibman. But as a postscript to the story, I remember Dick McDonagh gripping my hand before I left the building and saying, “Look, little friend, these people don’t give a good healthy damn what you carry in your briefcase, or how you leave a room. All they care about is what’s in there!” He pointed at my head. Then he slapped me on the back and wished me well, and I headed back to the airport and Ohio.
On a writer’s way up, he meets and does business with a lot of people. And in some rare cases there’s a person along the way who happens to be around just when he’s needed—perhaps just a moment of professional advice, a brief compliment to boost the ego when it’s been bent, cracked and pushed into the ground, a pat on the back and eight words of encouragement, when a writer’s self-doubts are so persistent, so deep-rooted and so destructive that they affect his writing. Dick McDonagh gave me many moments and several words of encouragement and enough pats on the back to keep me propelled forward. He once told me that there might be a day when he’d be reading some of my plays in a book anthology. He may know very well by now how prophetic were his words. But I wonder if he also realizes how instrumental he was in having it happen.
The writer in any field, and particularly the television writer, runs into “dry periods”—weeks or months when it seems that everything he writes goes the rounds and ultimately gets nowhere. This is not only a bad moment but an endless one. I remember a five-month period late in 1952 when my diet consisted chiefly of black coffee and fingernails. I’d written six half-hour television plays and each one had been rejected at least five times. What this kind of thing does to a family budget is obvious; and what it does to the personality of the writer is even worse. The typewriter on my desk was no longer a helpmate; it took on the guise of an opponent. The keys seemed stiff and unyielding. The carriage seemed bulky and sluggish, and the wastepaper basket would get crammed by the hour with discarded pages—a testimonial to my unsureness as to what to write and how to write it. Toward the end of this, I got a letter from Mr. Worthington Miner. I’ve mentioned Tony Miner earlier. Then as now he was a major-league, top-drawer television producer. And to get a letter from him, particularly a letter asking to see scripts, was like a third string pony-league pitcher getting a telegram from John McGraw telling him to come up and pitch for the Giants. I flew into New York to see him, my briefcase bulging with manuscripts. ( There wasn’t even room for socks.) Tony read them, and during our second meeting informed me that he’d like to buy at least six of them. He was putting together a new show to be sponsored by an auto company, and my work impressed him. The feeling I got in that given moment was something akin to what a person feels when he is notified that he’s just won the Irish sweepstakes. The knees begin to give out and there’s a roar that begins some place down deep in the gut and starts to travel toward the throat. Fifteen minutes later I was on the telephone calling my wife and guzzling a Scotch on the rocks I ordered from room service (tipping the bellboy a whole buck), and adding up in my mind know very well by now how prophetic were his words, how much are six times six or seven hundred dollars. One week later, back in Ohio, I got another letter from Tony Miner apologizing and explaining that the show he was putting together had been shunted off to another agency and he would not be producing it. The guy who had won the Irish sweepstakes couldn’t find his ticket stub. It was that kind of feeling. For some perverse reason I saved Tony’s second letter; my wife put it into a scrapbook. And sometimes I take a look at it as a piece of memorabilia to document a bad moment that on the scale of a career’s ups and downs represents the bottom of the barrel. A writer’s career is studded with the near sales, the close hits, the almost-but-never-wases. And afterward, when he becomes accustomed to eating a little higher off the hawg, the bad moments get remembered. And no matter what you eat, it tastes like pheasant under glass.
Besides the good and bad moments in a career of writing, there is also an indefinable hard-to-peg turning point, a crossing of the Rubicon when suddenly you find your name somewhat known in the agencies and on the networks. You announce it at the reception desk and the girl nods knowingly and doesn’t ask you to repeat it or query you as to its spelling. Exactly when this happens and how, you’re never quite sure. But it does happen. Afterward the process of writing is never any simpler, the ideas are never easier to come by, and your craft and technique don’t seem appreciably altered. But there is a difference, as if the long grind upward levels out a little bit and the going becomes a little easier. In my case it happened because of a single show that emanated live out of New York City. This was the Lux Video Theatre.
Over a two-year period they bought twelve of my shows and produced eleven of them. Since that time, Lux has gone the way of so many dramatic shows. They moved West, went into an hour form, and in this case began to use old movie properties instead of originals. But in its New York half-hour days, the Lux Video Theatre proved itself symptomatic of the basic difference between what was Hollywood television and what was then New York City television. It was a show that consistently aimed high. Its whole conception in terms of dialogue and production was adult, never hackneyed, and almost always honest. It touched upon themes like dope and marital infidelity. It did things like adaptations of short stories by Faulkner and Benet; it encouraged the submission of original scripts by any writer who knew how to write, regardless of what his credits were. The definitive characteristic of this show was that it never got rutted into a “type” program. It was never a till-death-us-do-part marriage between the policy of the program and the type of story and ending. The most meaningful and probably the most valuable thing that I can say about the Lux Video Theatre is applicable to all of television. On the basis of individual shows, it was as often unsuccessful as it was successful. But it always tried. And though its sights were sometimes aimed higher than its capabilities, it was rarely dull. If this could be said of the entire medium, flags could be raised on all the antennae.
The Problem Areas
Defensiveness in a television writer is a kind of occupational disease. His newfound stature has been somewhat therapeutic in combating it, but it remains in varying degrees. A writer is still thought of in some circles as a hack, plain and simple. His work is still regarded by some as merely an appendage to a sales message. And the medium he writes for is still maligned as being principally a display case and not an art form.
The TV writer falls prey to some of his criticism because he deserves it. A sizable bulk of television writing still must be dismissed as inconsequential or simply bad stuff, but there also exist reasons for this. And if they don’t stack up as reasons all the time, they are at least in a sense explanatory of a condition. The mass-medium writer has two major problem areas in which he must write. These two areas represent roughly the nature of the medium and the writer’s identity.
There is probably no single “absolute” anyone can use as a yardstick to describe the nature of the television writer, his background, his fortes, or the nature of his advent into the realm of television writing—save for the simple statement that there are no absolutes.
The Nature of the Medium
Built into television drama are innate and homegrown problems that do not exist in any other art form. Television, while unique in its potentials, is further unique in its limitations. In playwriting this is particularly true. For example, in no other writing form is the author so fettered by the clock. The half-hour program will sustain a story for only 23-odd minutes. The hour program calls for a 48- to 50-minute play. It is unheard of that a legitimate playwright must write within so rigid and inflexible a time frame. But the TV writer must. It is further arbitrary that his play must “break” twice in a half-hour show and three times in an hour show to allow time for the commercial messages. Obviously, there are some plays that will not in any circumstances lend themselves to such an artificial stoppage. The “break” will hurt the flow, the continuity and the build, but the “break” must come. And what do you do about it?
This time problem extends over into another area: production. The average hour television show rehearses for eight or nine days. This means a little over a week allotted to reading, staging, blocking, line learning, camera, dress rehearsals and, finally, production. Contrast this with a Broadway play that rehearses on an average of one month to stage a production that runs only twice as long as its television counterpart.
Very recently, when Playhouse 90 began telecasting on a weekly basis with a 90-minute play each week, it was thought that here at last was the time frame long and flexible enough to aid the writer in handling plot, character and pacing. I for one gratefully accepted the assignments for the first two plays of this new series, thinking, as did most others, that with about 70 minutes allotted the play, it would be moving out of an igloo into a mansion. But once again television’s own peculiar limitations cropped up and, instead of aiding the playwright, the new time frame within this program did nothing but hurt him. For instead of a regular three-act arrangement, Playhouse 90 took a host of sponsors, each demanding at least two commercials. The result was that during the ninety minutes the show had to be divided into twelve- and thirteen-minute segments, each separated by a commercial, so that the overall effect was that of a chopped-up collection of short dramatic segments torn apart and intruded upon by constantly recurring commercials. Scenes had to be automatically “curtained” at a high emotional pitch to accommodate the stoppage of action, the commercial, and then pick up the thread of story line. It is obvious that a succession of phony curtains or emotional high points will eventually dilute the effect of any play. An audience can get used to and almost oblivious to bomb blasts if they occur often enough.
The physical limitations of the television drama are part and parcel of the innate problems of the writer. Four or five basic sets represent the maximum stretching of both facilities and imagination. I might parenthetically state here that television’s “intimacy,” so often its strength, is an outgrowth of this weakness. We had to be intimate. We didn’t have room to be anything else. In New York, the Mecca of live television drama, the set problems are the greatest and show the least possibility of improvement. Most of the shows are berthed in old movie houses, buildings that are the victims of the young medium which now utilizes them. They are segmentized, overextended, and asked to serve in a capacity they were not designed for. This lack of space is often reflected in the techniques of television playwriting. The author must often probe vertically because there just aren’t enough inches to let him spread out horizontally.
But while time and space present hurdles, the basic, the most important limitation of the television dramatist is not totally physical. In a sense it is more philosophical. And this happens to be the simple and fundamental fact that our economy is geared to advertising. For good or for bad, the television play must ride piggy-back on the commercial product. It serves primarily as the sugar to sweeten the usually unpalatable sales pitch. It’s the excuse to wangle and hold an audience. The play is forced to become a kissing cousin to an entity totally foreign to it. The audience, during a one-hour viewing of a drama, is forcibly deprived of that drama and in its place is exposed to three minutes of Madison Avenue dynamics. The audience must then make its own mental and emotional realignment to “get back with” the sole object of its intentions. That it can do it at all is a tribute to mass intelligence and selectivity.
I don’t really believe there exists a “good” form of commercial. There are some that are less distasteful than others, but at best they’re intrusive. And even in the most absolutely palatable form, they thrust a cleaver into the overall effect of a television drama—and they do it three times during its all too brief playing, and even more during the 90-minute shows.
I make reference to this by way of pointing out a basic weakness of the medium. I do not presume to suggest any antidotes or alternatives. At the moment none seems possible. A sponsor invests heavily in television as an organ of dissemination. That organ would wither away without his capital and without his support. In many ways he hinders its development and its refinement, but by his presence he guarantees its survival.
Still, I don’t think it is possible to generalize about the sponsor or the agency or the networks themselves. They vary as to the intensity of their dogmas, the legitimacy of their concerns, and the extent of their interference in a given television play. But, at their very worst, their interference is an often stultifying, often destructive and inexcusable by-product of our mass-media system. It extends into an area of dramatic creation that should by rights lie well outside their bailiwick and well beyond their scope of prerogative. I think it is a basic truth that no dramatic art form should be dictated and controlled by men whose training, interest and instincts are cut of entirely different cloth. The fact remains that these gentlemen sell consumer goods, not an art form.
A few years ago on a program called Appointment with Adventure I was called in to make alterations in some of the dialogue. I was asked not to use the words “American” or “lucky.” Instead, the words were to be changed to “United States” and “fortunate.” The explanation was that this particular program was sponsored by a cigarette company and that “American” and “lucky” connoted a rival brand of cigarettes. After establishing beyond any doubt that my leg wasn’t being pulled and that this wasn’t some cheap, overstated gag, I did the only thing a writer can do in television in the way of a protest. I asked that my name be withheld from the script. It was not that the alteration of the language in this case was of particular consequence or to any large degree changed the story. But in the matter of principle I felt that this was ludicrous interference, and I didn’t want to be part of it. I’ll never forget the man from Talent Associates, the outfit that produced the show, explaining to me that this was not the happiest state of affairs, but that writers, as well as any creative people connected with the show, should keep in mind that it’s altogether proper for a sponsor to utilize certain prerogatives since he’s paying for what goes on. Extending this kind of logic, we might assume that it is altogether proper for a beer-company executive to have a hand in managing a baseball club whose games are televised under his sponsorship.
Exactly where is the line of demarcation between the play and the commercial? No one seems to know. Ideally, the sponsor should have no more right of interference than an advertiser in a magazine. Theoretically, at least, this advertiser has no say over the policy of the magazine he buys space in, nor should he have even to a minute degree. But in television today, the writer is hamstrung and closeted in by myriad of taboos, regulations and imposed dogma that dictate to him what he can write about and what he can’t.
In the television seasons of 1952 and 1953, almost every television play I sold to the major networks was “non-controversial.” This is to say that in terms of their themes they were socially inoffensive, and dealt with no current human problem in which battle lines might be drawn.
After the production of Patterns, when my things were considerably easier to sell, in a mad and impetuous moment I had the temerity to tackle a theme that was definitely two-sided in its implications. I think this story is worth repeating.
The script was called Noon on Doomsday. It was produced by the Theatre Guild on the United States Steel Hour in April 1956. The play, in its original form, followed very closely the Till case in Mississippi, where a young Negro boy was kidnapped and killed by two white men who went to trial and were exonerated on both counts. The righteous and continuing wrath of the Northern press opened no eyes and touched no consciences in the little town in Mississippi where the two men were tried. It was like a cold wind that made them huddle together for protection against an outside force. which they could equate with an adversary. It struck me at the time that the entire trial and its aftermath was simply “They’re bastards, but they’re our bastards.” So I wrote a play in which my antagonist was not just a killer but a regional idea. It was the story of a little town banding together to protect its own against outside condemnation. At no point in the conception of my story was there a black-white issue. The victim was an old Jew who ran a pawnshop. The killer was a neurotic malcontent who lashed out at something or someone who might be materially and physically the scapegoat for his own unhappy, purposeless, miserable existence. Philosophically I felt that I was on sound ground. I felt that I was dealing with a sociological phenomenon—the need of human beings to have a scapegoat to rationalize their own shortcomings.
Noon on Doomsday finally went on the air several months later, but in a welter of publicity that came from some fifteen thousand letters and wires from White Citizens Councils and the like protesting the production of the play. In news stories, the play had been erroneously described as “The story of the Till case.” At one point earlier, during an interview on the Coast, I told a reporter from one of the news services the story of Noon on Doomsday. He said, “Sounds like the Till case.” I shrugged it off, answering, “If the shoe fits . . .” This is all it took. From that moment on Noon on Doomsday was the dramatization of the Till case. And no matter how the Theatre Guild or the agency representing U.S. Steel denied it, the impression persisted.
The offices of the Theatre Guild, on West 53rd Street in New York City, took on all the aspects of a football field ten seconds after the final whistle blew. Crowds converged, and if there had been a goal post to tear down, they would have done so. The White Citizens Councils threatened boycott and the agency people somberly told me that this was no idle threat. They had accomplished effective boycotts down South against the Ford Motor Company and the makers of Philip Morris cigarettes.
In the former case, it seemed that Negro workers had been permitted to work on assembly lines alongside whites; and in the case of Philip Morris, there had been a beauty contest in Chicago where one of the winners was a Negro girl. This was all it took for a wrathful wind to come up from the South. I asked the agency men at the time how the problem of boycott applied to the United States Steel Company. Did this mean that from then on that all construction from Tennessee on down would be done with aluminum? Their answer was that the concern of the sponsor was not so much an economic boycott as the resultant strain in public relations.
These, therefore, were the fears, and this was the antidote. The script was gone over with a fine-tooth comb by thirty different people, and I attended at least two meetings a day for over a week, taking down notes as to what had to be changed. My victim could no longer be anyone as specific as an old Jew. He was to be called an unnamed foreigner, and even this was a concession to me, since the agency felt that there should not really be a suggestion of a minority at all; this was too close to the Till case. Further, it was suggested that the killer in the case was not a psychopathic malcontent—just a good, decent, American boy momentarily gone wrong. It was a Pier 6 brawl to stop this alteration of character. The script was then dissected and combed so that every word of dialogue that might remotely be “Southern” in context could be deleted or altered. At no point in the script could the word “lynch” be used. No social event, institution, way of life or simple diet could be indicated that might be “Southern” in origin. Later, on the set, bottles of Coca—Cola were taken away because this, according to the agency, had “Southern” connotations. Previously, I had always assumed that Coke was pretty much a national drink and could never, in the farthest stretch of the imagination, be equated with hominy grits and black-eyed peas, but I was shown the error of my thinking. And to carry the above step even further, a geographical change was made in the script so that instead of being a little town of undesignated location, it was shoved as far north as possible, making it a New England town. It is conceivable that the agency would have placed the action at the North Pole if it hadn’t been for the necessary inclusion of Eskimos, which would prove still another minority problem. For it to open in New England, with the customary spires of a white church in the background of the set—so typically Yankee and Puritan—was somewhat ludicrous to behold. But this was to be a total surrender, and there would be no concessions made even to logic.
Noon on Doomsday was, in the final analysis, an overwritten play. It was often tract-like, much too direct, and had a habit of overstatement. What destroyed it as a piece of writing was the fact that when it was ultimately produced, its thesis had been diluted, and my characters had mounted a soap box to shout something that had become too vague to warrant any shouting. The incident of violence that the play talked about should have been representative and symbolic of a social evil. It should have been treated as if a specific incident was symptomatic of a more general problem. But by the time Noon. on Doomsday went in front of a camera, the only problem recognizable was that of a TV writer having to succumb to the ritual of track covering so characteristic of the medium he wrote for. It was the impossible task of allegorically striking out at a social evil with a feather duster because the available symbols for allegory were too few, too far between, and too totally dissimilar to what was actually needed. In a way it was like trying to tell a Jewish joke with a cast of characters consisting of two leprechauns. This track covering takes many forms in television. It is rarely if ever successful, and carries with it an innate transparency that shows it up for what it is.
When Reginald Rose, in an exceptionally fine play, Thunder on Sycamore Street, took an uncompromising swipe at a brand of lunacy in our country that recognizes equality as applying only to those whose roots are in the third-deck planking of the Mayflower, he had to couch his theme in a language acceptable on Madison Avenue. It was the story of a family in a residential street being bullied and pushed around by their neighbors because the guy happened to be an ex-convict. The story was originally written about a Negro family. The central conflict in every line of dialogue pointed to the Negro-White problem and the altogether basic premise that sooner or later human beings are going to have to live together side by side. Mr. Rose’s enforced track covering was simply exchanging an ex-convict for a Negro. And this is a process a TV writer has to learn and to perfect. He must hunt and peck until he finds a more acceptable minority than the Negro—often the American Indian. This is, of course, somewhat limiting—since it is a difficult minority problem to play in New England, but television sponsors and agencies are prone to accept slight inconsistencies when it comes to skirting a sticky issue. I am afraid that eventually we TV writers may run out of substitutes. I suppose, then, because we are pretty inventive and imaginative guys, the standard minority scapegoat will turn out to be a robot, and this will step on no toes whatsoever. But in the meantime, a medium best suited to illumine and dramatize the issues of the times has its product pressed into a mold, painted lily-white, and has its dramatic teeth yanked one by one.
Sometimes television is faced with a problem where it is physically impossible to substitute an idea. Last year I was faced with such a problem when I wrote a script called The Arena, which was done on Studio One. In this case, I was dealing with a political story where much of the physical action took place on the floor of the United States Senate. One of the edicts that comes down from the Mount Sinai of Advertisers Row is that at no time in a political drama must a speech or character be equated with an existing political party or current political problems. Some of these problems, however, are now so hoary with age and so meaningless in modern, context that they are stamped as acceptable. Slavery, for example, can now be talked about without blushing. Suffrage is another issue that need make no one wince. The treatment of the lunatic in chains and dungeons can no longer be considered controversial. But The Arena took place in 1956, and no juggling of events can alter this fact. So, on the floor of the United States Senate (at least on Studio One), I was not permitted to have my Senators discuss any current or pressing problem. To talk of tariff was to align oneself with the Republicans; to talk of labor was to suggest control by the Democrats. To say a single thing germane to the current political scene was absolutely prohibited. So, on television in April of 1956, several million viewers got a definitive picture of television’s concept of politics and the way the government is run. They were treated to an incredible display on the floor of the United States Senate of groups of Senators shouting, gesticulating and talking in hieroglyphics about make-believe issues, using invented terminology, in a kind of prolonged, unbelievable double-talk. There were long and impassioned defenses of the principles involved in Bill H. R. 107803906, but the salient features of the bill were conveniently shoved off into a corner of a side-of-the-mouth sotto voce, so that at no time could an audience have any idea what they were about. In retrospect, I probably would have had a much more adult play had I made it science fiction, put it in the year 2057, and peopled the Senate with robots. This would probably have been more reasonable and no less dramatically incisive.
The problem of censorship in television is not only a writer’s problem. What narrows his frame of reference must of necessity narrow the area of television entertainment available to the audience. When the television drama is forced to go around Robin Hood’s barn tying itself into verbal knots to evolve as stainlessly nonpartisan, whatever nonsense comes out as the replacement is the nonsense that an audience must live with on its television sets. Perhaps if some thoughtful people would write to sponsors, pleading for an adult airing of issues on a dramatic program, to counteract those cranks who hoist up the Stars and Bars whenever a play suggests a racial controversy, the sponsor or agency would realize that not to attack a controversial theme might be just as destructive as attacking it.
Television critics have tried to champion the writers’ cause in the area of censorship but have done so obliquely and as a result, in many ways, have hurt instead of helped. For when these St. Georges of the Press tilt their lances at what is humdrum, ineffectual and hackneyed, too often the victim they single out is the writer or the program’s producers. They slay a dragon, but it’s often the wrong one. The people who put on a television play, from the writer on through the entire staff, are not the people to make bleed for what is an innate weakness in the treatment or theme. Let the critics go on record as condemning the whole pressure system of sponsors, agencies and networks. These are the only ones who can appreciably alter the conception of TV drama and widen its horizons of theme selectivity.
Television drama is probably at no crossroads at the moment. It can go on and on, improving or not improving, and still remain a pretty important fixture on the American scene. But what can happen is that it can, in a sense, commit itself to its own creative rut by not fighting for something a little bit better, and not looking for something that is new. Radio drama, after 20-odd years as king, left no lasting imprint of any importance.
It left no legacy of particularly memorable moments in drama. It produced very few talents who could be remembered uniquely for their contributions to radio drama. From the point of view of the writer, there were no Chayefskys and no Roses and few anybody ekes. Beyond Norman Corwin, Arch Oboler, and perhaps Wyllis Cooper, go look for a known name among radio writers. I don’t think there are any, at least that the public knows about. Radio, in terms of its drama, dug its own grave. It had aimed downward, had become cheap and unbelievable, and had willingly settled for second best. It is quite conceivable that the television drama may well get stuck tighter and tighter into a mold of mediocrity. Creative people, particularly writers, can only be censored, sat on, and limited so much and for so long. After a time, fighting back seems relatively unimportant. The sponsor may continue to sell his soap just as the radio soap operas did for him, but by then the television drama will be a dull, sloppy old man who sits contemplating his widening paunch without interest, without energy, and with no horizon left at all.
No matter what a man or a woman does for a living, it is part of the human mechanism to expect and need recognition of some sort. Beyond the security and the pay check is the palpable hunger of a person to have an identity of his own. This need, in a writer particularly, is probably mare pronounced and yet less satisfied than the like needs of any other creative group in the arts. The anonymity of the writer in early television was simply a carry-over of a policy established in the motion pictures. The motion-picture writer was probably the best paid and least known person in the industry. The television writer, in the beginning, had not even the benefit of the pay to rationalize the fact that his name would never be associable with his product. I’ve already mentioned that in the early days of my writing the writer’s credit attached to any dramatic show usually crossed the screen in a fraction of a second, propelled both by the urgency of the brief time allotted and the unstated, though generally accepted, belief in the relative unimportance of the person who wrote the script. Writers, like most human beings, are adaptable creatures. They can learn to accept subordination without growing fond of it. No writer can forever stand in the wings and watch other people take the curtain calls while his own contributions get lost in the shuffle.
I remember, at the Awards dinner of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 1955, I had been nominated in the category of Best Teleplay Writing for my play on Kraft, Patterns. I was resigned to the fact that the announcement of the award came late in the program after awards for Best Scenic Designer, Best Live Photography, and Floor Director Who Tripped Over the Cables the Most Times. Further, I felt no misery that the Writing category had been allotted the tail end of the show, past its national telecast, so that the proceedings had gone off the air prior to its announcement. For even at this stage of the presentations it was a thrill to hear my name called off, to rise, walk onto the platform to accept the beautiful and elusive Emmy. For no matter how you slice it, the little bronze statuette is recognition. It’s identity. It’s a reward and a compliment and a culmination that comes after a lot of years of banging a typewriter. But after the applause had died down, I remained there on the stage with a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach, realizing, as did everyone else, that there was no one on the stage to give me the award. Somewhere along the line, plans had got fouled up, and Ed Sullivan, who was to hand me the Emmy, had been called off the stage by a photographer. So there I stood, lonelier than I shall ever again be the rest of my life, wondering what in the hell I should do next. There was a ripple of laughter from the audience—embarrassed laughter. And finally, a gentleman from the firm of Price Waterhouse, who handle the vote tabulation, in a perfect spasm of compassion, grabbed an Emmy off the shelf, thrust it into my gut like a quarterback handing off to a right half, pointed to the stairs, and nodded me off. It was later that evening, as I carried the Emmy through the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria, that suddenly it seemed to grow a little light, and when I looked down at it, it appeared just a little bit tarnished. It was wonderful and deserved that Phil Silvers took three major awards at that dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria. It was altogether proper that Peter Pan was the best single program and that the Caine Mutiny Court-Martial was the best television adaptation. But there is something just a little bit straining to the stomach to know that the writer comes in, in the last column, in the last segment, and receives the award in circumstances that make it appear to be almost an afterthought. Not too many months ago there was another awards dinner, for the annual Sylvania presentations. One of the programs was designated the Best Public Service Documentary of the year. It was a program on CBS called Out of Darkness, and it had been repeated three times. It was a moving, powerful and telling story of the effects and treatment of mental illness, and it also was the work of one individual—A1 Wasserman, who conceived it, wrote it, and produced it. When the award was announced, the recipient was not Mr. Wasserman but one Sig Mickleson. Later on, in almost a bone-throwing gesture, Mr. Wasserman did receive a Certificate of Merit, but the major award went to one of the vice-presidents of the network, not to the man who was singularly responsible for the program itself. I have no doubt that Mr. Mickleson gave great moral and perhaps physical aid to the creation and ultimate production of Out of Darkness. But, as always, it is a fact that “first came the word” and that any kudos to be offered should have gone to the writer from whose mind and at whose typewriter the idea was given life and nurtured—not to a network executive whose major claim to recognition in this case was simply that he was permissive to the idea of the program.
I cite these Emmy and Sylvania Award dinners as somehow characteristic of the almost begrudging attitude the industry saves for its writers. For the rank and file among them never, or at least rarely, appear as an important adjunct to a press release. When a show is publicized, it is always the star, sometimes the story, and almost never the writer. And when the awards are made, despite the fact that every program owes its basic existence to the efforts of a writer, he himself stands nearest the end of the line to get his.
I cannot complain because of a lack of identity. I am one of a handful of fortunates who have been able to grub and battle our way into relative limelight. I get my publicity—perhaps too much publicity—with little effort. Chayefsky is the same way. And so are Reginald Rose, Core Vidal, Bob Arthur and a few others. But to the average men or women who supply the raw materials of entertainment via the typewriter, recognition is sadly lacking, and if there are any fingers to be pointed, they must point to the networks and the agencies who cry for material, but at the same time find the name value of its creators immaterial.
The Anatomy of Success
On January 13, 1955, the Kraft Television Theatre presented Patterns. One minute after the show went off the air my phone started to ring. It has been ringing ever since. There are two ways for a writer to achieve success. One is the long haul, the establishing of a record of consistent quality in his work. The other way is the so-called overnight success, charged and generated by a single piece of writing that captures the imagination and the fancy of the public and the critics. Patterns was that kind of piece. It came on the air unheralded, but pushed me into the limelight with a fabled kind of entry. In two weeks after its initial production ( it was telecast again one month later), the following happened to me:
I received 23 firm offers for television writing assignments.
I received three motion picture offers for screenplay assignments.
I had fourteen requests for interviews from leading magazines and newspapers.
I had two offers of lunch from Broadway producers.
I had two offers to discuss novels with publishers.
In addition to the above, I sold six television pieces in a row—plays that had been knocking around for anywhere from six months to three years—and they all went quickly, with no price-haggling. All of a sudden, with no preparation and no expectations, I had a velvet mantle draped over my shoulders. I treaded my way through a brand-new world of dollar-sign mobiles hanging from the sky, shaking hands with my right hand, depositing checks with my left, watching my bank account grow, reading my name in the papers and magazines, listening to myself being complimented unreservedly and extravagantly. It had all the glittering, dreamlike quality of the sudden and spectacular rise to the top and it was great to live with for a while—very great. There were moments of disquiet in the beginning, the sudden cooling off of friends who were afraid to phone because they were afraid of misconstrued motives. They wanted to remain friends, not to be glad-handing hangers-on. Into the breach that they left came the other phone calls from the long line of phonies, the people who a month before didn’t care if I lived or fell off a bridge. And now they were the loudest in their praise. They were the perspicacious ones who had “recognized my talent many years before.” Some of them weren’t phonies really. This is a caste business. Sometimes you have to wait for people to get into your league before you invite them to play ball. And this was the case with me. Some producers’ waiting rooms that had provided many hours of heelcooling for me in years passed suddenly became my old alma mater, and I was the prodigal son when I walked through the door. These are some of the little accouterments to success that you never can prepare for but learn, to get accustomed to damn quick once you’ve achieved it.
And then, almost according to plan, there are new aspects to your living and your writing that follow this success. For one thing, I had a spotlight on me and a spotlight on my work. It was constant, bright and revealing. Like a good horse, or a swivel-hip halfback, I was the guy to watch. I had the ball, I was up top, and I was fair game. I was studied, assessed, and dissected. In the month that followed, everything I had on television was plugged, bugled and advertised. It was also carefully watched and reviewed. The big thing, the important thing, was that whatever I had on was invariably compared to the one successful thing I had already done, and also, almost as invariably, the new piece didn’t t take to the comparison. Overnight successes are almost always something special. They hit some kind of basic nerve of reaction; they achieve some fantastic universality; they accomplish by accident so much more than can usually be accomplished by design. In my case, the first reviews of the shows after Patterns were charitable; benefits of doubt were freely exchanged. It was as if the critics were wary of throwing a brickbat at a successful author for fear that their own analysis might be incorrect. (After all, this is the guy who wrote Patterns.) But after a time, when the comparisons became even more obviously negative, the needle was unsheathed. It got longer, it probed deeper, and I began to bleed. For on the periphery of every success, in the shadows just outside the limelight, is a hulking, brooding monster known as a “flash in the pan”1 Patterns wasn’t my only success, but it evolved as the single standard by which I was judged. It was a point of comparison. It was the stock reference for quality. And where once its title conjured up the sweet smell of success, the odor now became just a little acrid and unpleasant and I began to get sick of it. I’d written other things, I assured people. I made it a point in interviews to slough off the title and I became preoccupied with the old plays that preceded it and the new ones to follow. And it wasn’t too long before I realized that sometimes the writing that brought you success on a platter was also the writing that evolved as your principal competition. I now had to fight myself or at least something I’d done. I had something to prove, first to others and then to myself. I had to prove that Patterns wasn’t all I had. There had been other things before and there would be other things to follow.
As it turned out, it look a long time to prove. Almost two years. I thought that The Rack was better written than Patterns. I thought that Noon on Doomsday had more innate power. I Thought The Strike, done on Studio One in June 1954, had more universality and more appeal. But I was a minority of one. On a network radio interview a few months ago, I was introduced as “Rod Serling, the man who wrote Patterns and” (a long pause)… and… well… here he is—Rod Serling.” One of the plays in this volume turned out to be the one that, for the moment anyway, pushed back this specter of the “flash in the pan.” This was Requiem for a Heavyweight. It appeared in October 1956 on Playhouse 90 on CBS. In many ways it seemed to catch the public imagination just as Patterns had. Its reviews were fabulously good. And now in the columns I’m “Rod Serling, who wrote Patterns and Requiem for a Heavyweight.”
To any writer, or to any human being for that matter, who has not slept with success, breathed its rich oxygen, and gamboled through the crazy, pink, whipped-cream world that it opens up, all this may sound carping and unimportant. I’ll concede the point that a good bank account, a paid-for car, and a guarantee of your kids’ education go a long way to compensate for some momentary hurt feelings and some bad reviews. But I guess it’s part of the strangely complex human mechanism to want to savor success. Television makes this impossible. It changes its diet not only weekly and daily, but hourly. A writer’s claim to recognition doesn’t take the passage of time very well. This claim gets lost in the shuffle and is forgotten. Marty becomes obscure when Twelve Angry Men. takes its place. And then Patterns takes over. It moves to the rear when A Man Is Ten Feet Tall comes to the fore. That, in turn, gets replaced by A Night to Remember, which is not long remembered when suddenly appears Requiem for a Heavyweight.
The challenge, the competition, the frenetic, staccato pace of television is forever pushing people off the pedestal, shoving someone else up there and continuing the process. To the viewing audience this is a guarantee—almost—of continuing quality or at least an attempt toward it. To the writer it dictates the purchase of a scrapbook, which is probably the only way he’ll find permanence in recognition—in the written record of what he has already done. Because for better or for worse, television takes all its achievements and makes them history within a few hours of their presentation.
Whatever the psychological disturbances that stem from the overindulgences of the overnight success, there are obviously a lot of kicks to becoming known, financially independent and in demand. Here is a smattering of day-to-day accouterments to being a reasonably well-known writer.
1) 1 receive on the average of five to ten letters a week with offers of collaboration (“a guy who writes as much as you must certainly need some fresh ideas from the outside”). I invariably try to answer every letter, probably from a sense of compulsion and a good memory. I wrote a lot of correspondence myself with collaborative ideas before I was eating gravy.
2) 1 drive a 1957 white Lincoln convertible, so long, so garish, so obvious, that my wife blushes when she looks at it in the driveway. It’s the first big luxury car I’ve ever owned, and it’s one of the few overt gestures of ostentatiousness on my part.
3) 1 fell almost immediately into the speech pattern of the theater with its propensity for terms of endearment (“sweetie,” “baby,” “darling,” “dear”) . I hate to hear other people use these terms, but I’m aware of using them constantly. Why?
4) I’m considered to be a cooperative writer—even now. I don’t get my back up at requests for rewrites. I rarely, if ever, give producers or directors trouble. But now, as I never did in the early days, I’ll at least speak my mind about what I consider to be a wrong approach or an incorrect interpretation. In the pre-Patterns days, I would unquestioningly do any rewrite, change or delete any conception without a single question asked.
5) I have never ceased liking publicity. This isn’t ego for its own sake, because I don’t drop names and I don’t purposely seek it. But I still get a kick when I see my name in the paper, and I probably always will.
6) Bad reviews jar me down to the instep. I will never become philosophically resigned to a negative reaction to something I’ve written. The difference now is that I’m more prone to want to share the blame for a bad show. I try to analyze where the writing was at fault, as opposed to where the production let it down. In the old days, I invariably made the assumption that it was always uniquely my fault.
7 ) I have a hell of a schedule and I’m never without a writing project of some sort. If it isn’t a screenplay it’s a television play.
8 ) I discovered along the way that movies and television are separate entities, and each makes different demands on writing. You write “big” for the movies. You let your camera tell considerably more story than you do in television. You write with a much more pronounced sense of physical action than you’re permitted in the electronic medium. Television also demands a visual sense, but very often the progression of a story must be indicated by dialogue. In the movies, it can often be externalized just by what is seen and not necessarily by what is heard.
9 ) I like Hollywood and motion pictures, though I felt intimidated when I went out there to do my first picture. I was at Metro at the time and was given an office 40 feet long and a secretary, both new to me. Sitting at my desk the first day, I was approached by a secretary from the hall who had seen my coffee pot on the desk ( I drink coffee from morning till night) and who asked me if she might borrow some sugar for a Kaffeeklatsch being held by some writers down the hall. I gave her the sugar with a little penciled note saying, “This sugar comes to you courtesy New York television.” The next day the sugar came back, each cube marked with a skull and crossbones, with the legend, “TV writer—go home.” This went a long way toward breaking the ice. The next morning I was invited to the klatsch and I began to make some good and lasting friends from that moment on. I’m beginning to feel that the Hollywood I felt so intimidated about is a Hollywood that in many ways doesn’t exist any more—if it ever did. There once may have existed the Odets version of a phony, falsely glittering world full of sick people satiated with money, sex, and applause, a flimsy, unreal world that would disappear if someone were to yell “cut!” But the Hollywood of today, at least the one I found, had no more than its share of phonies or neuroses. It was no better and no worse than the New York television world or, for that matter, any area in the theater. I met a lot of adults in Hollywood—producers, directors, writers, and some agents whom I was proud to know. They were sober, intelligent, as-normal-as-I human beings. As in any social sphere or profession, you pick your own friends and your own social milieu. You don’t walk on the wild side unless you choose to.
10) In looking back over the relatively short span of my career, I sometimes make mental notes of the people I’m indebted to. They are legion. But a few of them bear special mention. There was my first agent, Blanche Gaines, who took me on when no one else would have me, who browbeat me, mothered me, argued with me, and did some considerable swinging for me, and to whom I owe a great deal. There was Dick McDonagh, already mentioned, who gave what is so much at a premium in this business—time and trouble. There were directors like Ralph Nelson, Johnny Frankenheimer, Dick Goode and Dan Petrie, who respected me long before a writer got much respect from most quarters. There were producers like Felix Jackson, Martin Manulis, Mort Abrahams, who judge a man several feet way from the bandwagon. And there were the editors like Florence Britton of Studio One and Ed Rice of Kraft, who professionally and personally gave me many a boost up the ladder. In the final analysis, it is relatively simple to buy properties from a well-known writer. I think it takes a helluva lot more insight and a much more knowledgeable feeling for the profession to buy scripts from unknown authors—which all of these people did, and continue to do.
11) I don’t know where I’m going and I’m not sure where I am. My erstwhile success stems from a comparatively small number of plays—far too few, really, to lay any legitimate claim to permanence in the literary scene. I think it’s really a moot question as to how I’ve got this far with the present track record that I lay claim to. I think that I’m a good writer but an undeveloped one. And I rather think that this applies to most young television writers. They have benefited enormously from the public attention that has come to them in far greater degree than that received by most writers in pre-television days. All of us have an obligation to our craft and to the audience to justify this attention. We must aim higher, write better, dig deeper. There are some basic values that apply to all writing, be it television, movies, the novel or anything else. A writer has to write as best he knows how. And ultimately, if this effort shows talent, he will be recognized.
Television is a potpourri of good things and bad, a medium of promise and intelligence and, at the same time, an electronic oat-burner in the always-always land of cliché.
On the negative side, here are some practices in television I feel strongly enough about to mention. For example, I find it shoddy and inexcusable for dramatic shows to pick up their actors and actresses after the curtain in the so-called “Star Dressing Room” and have them ,plug products. Whether or not their performances during the program were good, this is an absolute guarantee that they won’t be remembered. All that remains is the memory of a gratuitous, phony pitch thrust in at the end.
I am embarrassed when movie actresses hired as “Show Hostesses” flounce into tacky living rooms on certain dramatic film anthologies against a background of oversweet violins. The embarrassment becomes even more acute when they launch into a patently ridiculous reason for the plot of the show that night. For example: “We got a beautiful letter from a farm woman in Idaho telling us of the romance of corn husking. It’s called She Found Romance While Corn Husking, and we’ll bring you Act I after this important word to you ladies about protecting your hands.” I get a violent reaction to certain dramatic-show emcees who preface each act with a resume of what happened in the previous act. I assume this is based on a belief that a one-minute commercial destroys memory and a recapitulation is necessary. But this carry-over of the old soap-opera technique has no place in the theater, and there is no excuse for it on television.
I hate most beer commercials, with the notable and refreshing exception of the Piel Brothers and the incomparable Bert and Harry. The majority of the cousin brews are littered with catchwords, slogans, and raucous singing jingles that dent the ears. Cigarette ads seem to be no less offensive on television. And the worst commercial of any, bar none, is the dramatized doctor-pitchman in a white medical coat who juggles test tubes and ponderously exhorts you to do what his “patients” do. Perhaps this is the natural evolution of the old traveling snake-oil shows, but then, at least, the hucksters did sleight of hand and a few buck-and-wings before launching into the pitch.
Probably because I am a writer, I am acutely aware of the next television fault, which makes me wince whenever it is in evidence. This is simply what I think of as the “oblique slant” of language or theme that is meant to be earthy, gutsy or tough. Since profanity is frowned on, the medium has devised its own compensatory language.
“Devil” replaces “hell.” “Blast you” is the alternative to “damn.” And for anything with more passion, the’ actor just bites his lips in soundless fury. I remember an emotional second-act curtain in a television play called The Strike, which I wrote for Studio One in June 1954. An Army officer is called upon to ask for an air strike on an area where he knows twenty of his own men are. The scene calls for him to throw a bottle against a map board and say that he’s just about to give the order to blow his own men to hell! It took exactly nine days to impress upon the legal department of CBS that in this given situation an officer wouldn’t say “darn,” “shucks,” or “gosh.” To retain the one word took all the efforts of the program’s editor, Florence Britton, the producer, Felix Jackson, and the director, Frank Schaffner, but finally we won our little semantic victory. And I remember Floss Britton coming back into the studio the day of the show, bussing me lightly on my flushed and excited cheek and saying “We’re in business, Roddy. We traded them two damns for the hell!”
This is a more specialized dislike, but very often the writer is called upon to pad a part to make it more palatable to a sought-after actor or actress. But this goes on all the time when a script is submitted by the writer and in turn sent over to the agency for the actors to read. These people owe their careers to exposure and the right kind of exposure, but many a good script has died aborning because it has been constitutionally unable to withstand the onslaught of padding a role, or twisting a story line to change a characterization. In the miserably tight time framework of a television play, there is room for only so many lines and so much story. For every added line, one must be deleted, and it is this cycle of add and withdraw that does irreparable damage to a story.
But there are a lot of things in the medium I write for that I like and admire. They are more than things really; they are people as well. I like most of the editors I’ve worked with. The editor is in the totally untenable position of acting as a catalyst in a weekly situation that involves the writer on one end and the advertising agency on the other. His is the constant hassle of passing on the agency’s fears to the writer with enough diplomatic finesse to keep the writer from cutting his throat. At the same time, the editor has to keep the script as intact as possible without the agency’s yanking it o$ because of their fears. This latter action is not an everyday occurrence, but it does happen. One script of mine called The Bomb Fell on Thursday was cast and had one rehearsal, and the sets were ordered, when the agency yanked it because of a question of “taste.” Writers and editors together have to face up to one basic truth: the agency is all-powerful. It is extremely difficult to cross the Young and Rubicam!
I also like the television directors. They are mostly a young lot. And if the reader has ever watched a television drama produced in a studio, he realizes the consummate talent required of them. They must know acting and actors, sets and designs, lighting and sounds, blocking and business, story and writer. And at that point where the legitimate play director quietly steals off into the darkness in the rear of the theater to entrust his work to the opening-night cast–this is when the TV director works the hardest in the most trying, frenetic, inhuman tension imaginable. At this point he’s an obstetrician assisting at a birth, but he’s also nurse, anesthetist and general manager of the hospital. When it’s close to air time, and I happen to be on the set, I invariably break into a cold sweat, wondering how in God’s name this show will ever get on the road. Nerves, like the common cold, are easily transmitted. I can remember one time on the Danger show when I was bodily removed from the set by John Frankenheimer (6’5”) because I was turning his actors’ sense of well-being into a shambles by gratuitously reminding them of their cues and stage directions. A couple of years later, on another show directed by John, he saw to it that I received a little gift just prior to air time. It was a beribboned box that on being opened revealed a neatly wrapped package of adhesive tape.
I can’t say that I “like” television critics because I really don’t know many personally. But I respect them and I’m glad they’re around. Their presence is a tacit assertion that the television program is an art form that warrants and merits critical analysis. The function of the television critic is somewhat different from that of his counterparts who review movies and plays. The latter are, in a basic sense, previewers. Their writing is read to determine whether a movie or play is worth the price of admission and the inconvenience of getting there. The television critic analyzes a play or program that is already a fact. He can bring no one in, and discourage no one to keep away. His is a critique and not a preview. It’s a needle or a back-slap that can in no way affect whatever is in the record. My own feeling is that the television critic has one primary purpose. He’s there to needle and prod the industry into quality. He’s there as a reminder that nothing can be slipped by. His very presence sets up certain absolute standards to be aimed at. His approval is solicited, his disapproval keenly felt and pondered. When Jack Gould or J. P. Shanley in The New York Times dislikes something, this precludes the possibility of a “smash,” and, conversely, their benign approval is cause for celebration on the part of the writer and all concerned. In the case of my own Patterns, the demand for a repeat was generated by the critics and columnists. Jack Gould’s calling it “. . . one of those inspired moments that make the theatre the wonder that it is . . .” did more to make it a TV legend than the thousands of letters sent in by viewers. Critics, in short, pack weight. As to the legitimacy of the various analyses, this is not nearly so absolute as the standards the critic sets up for the industry he writes about. Ten different TV critics will come up with ten different reactions to a given television play. Check the following box score, for example, as it applies to the critical reaction toward one of my shows on Studio One.
HARRY HARRIS, Philadelphia Inquirer:
“In The Arena on Studio One last night, Serling did much to regain his Patterns prestige.”
ERNEST SCHIER, Philadelphia News:
“I doubt if anything quite as childish transpires as that depicted in Rod Serling’s contribution to Studio One last night…”
BURTON RASCOE, syndicated columnist:
“An instructive, semi-documentary on the initiation of a new senator in Washington, with a salutary and agreeable sermon, implied rather than stated…”
JACK ROSENSTEIN, The Hollywood Reporter:
“Rod Serling must have had to blast his way through the cobwebs with a blowtorch to get to the old trunk from which he resurrected The Arena… An hour is a real long time for an issue such as this, with characters so conventional and with long maudlin speeches of mawkish idealism and pat dialogue.”
DAVE KAUFMAN, Daily Variety:
“Chalk up another powerful teleplay for Rod Serling. This time he incisively explores the practice and moral climate of politics…”
GEORGE CONDON, The Cleveland Plain Dealer:
“Rod Serling’s Studio One story, The Arena, turned out to be one of the finest dramatic productions of the year… it was thrilling to encounter a show that went past the superficial plot into the real dramatic conflict that rages inside men who are torn between good and evil…”