“If they can have a stamp for W.C. Fields, that drunken old sozzler, they can have one for Rod Serling.” — Helen Foley
From somewhere in the twilight zone of memory, the spirit of Rod Serling lived again in the performance of two superb actors, alone on a stage, remembering fondly the man and his words. The actors were Richard Kiley and Keenan Wynn; the stage was in Pasadena, California, and the occasion was the Prime-Time Emmy Awards of 1984.
“He was a realist in the dream world and a dreamer in the real world,” said Kiley of Serling, who died in June 1975 of complications from heart surgery. He was only fifty.
Serling had been president of the Television Academy, and he had won six Emmys over the years. It was Serling who once, contemplating his shelf of plaques and trophies, wryly muttered, “God, how we honor ourselves.”
And so, on this September evening, the two actors recalled the Serling artistry. There were black-and-white clips from his classics—Patterns, that sizzling play about big business that made his reputation early on, and Requiem for a Heavyweight. Wynn—who, along with his father, the great comic Ed Wynn, starred in the original production of Requiem—electrified the audience with his own dialogue from the show. The he delivered the speech of shattering pathos that his father, in his first dramatic role, had given so many years before. And Kiley, a star of the original Patterns, enacted explosive lines from that production.
Television’s glorious yesterday had suddenly been given life.
Now, in Serling’s hometown of Binghamton, in upstate New York, they are campaigning on behalf of a postage stamp in his honor. Helen Foley, a retired schoolteacher who taught Serling in the long ago, says about the proposal, “If they can have a stamp for W.C. Fields, that drunken old sozzler, they can have one for Rod Serling.”
The U.S. Postal Service is saying that the earliest a stamp could be issued—assuming the agency agrees that Serling deserves one—would be 1992. That would be the thirty-third anniversary of the debut of The Twilight Zone.
The main lobby for the Serling stamp is a 100-member organization known as the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation, which was formed in Binghamton in 1985. The group has unveiled a plaque in Serling’s honor as well as a star on the town’s new “Walk of Fame.” The foundation issues mugs graced with Serling’s picture and buttons with his quote: “Everyone has to have a home town. Binghamton’s mine.” Last year it published “Rod Serling’s Hometown Calendar,” filled with photographs of Serling in his Binghamton days.
For Serling, a writer obsessed with the phenomenon of time, the ultimate and surpassing irony is that he was granted so little of it. As the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald said, there are no third acts in Americans’ lives, meaning in particular the lives of American writers. What might have unfolded from the typewriter of Serling, had he been granted those added years, his own third act?
Serling belonged to the trip-hammer school of writers. There was, in a Serling script, always that trademark of crackling buckshot for dialogue in which the colloquial and the literate were somehow deftly fused. His writing, as someone once remarked of Fitzgerald’s own, had “bones” in it, along with a pungent imprint that was distinctly, unmistakably Serling.
A paratrooper in World War II, when he was private, first class, of the 11th Airborne, Serling saw combat in the Pacific; he was a battalion boxer, a feisty guy who stood five feet five and weighed in at 135.
In the spring of 1964, to celebrate his fortieth birthday, Serling hit the silk at Fort Bragg in North Carolina with 120 other jumpers. He made a leap with 35 other men from a C-124 Globemaster 2,000 feet above the earth. Serling was the second man out. I recall asking him how it felt.
He grinned. “There was one guy to lead me—and thirty-four to push me out.”
This was the Serling that I like to remember—good-natured, self-deprecating, candid, tough-minded. Rod Serling—you thought of him always as a guy who laughed more than most, a very likeable man who took sharp bites out of life, and who, even while sitting quietly at a table, created in himself the odd tension of a prizefighter about to enter the ring.
How ironic that Serling’s voice—the voice of a writer—would become so recognizable. You could hear him narrating the Jacques Cousteau specials on ocean life, and you could also hear his voiceover commercials, a lucrative sideline.
Once, in the spirit of banter, I asked Serling why he wasn’t hammering away at his typewriter instead of talking into a microphone on behalf of some product.
I remember his shrug, which was slightly rueful, and his smile. “It’s not easy to turn down,” he replied. “For one aspirin commercial, they give me a fast $4,000 up front, and it brings maybe $15,000 over a year—all this for twenty minutes’ work. On the other hand, I may work on a script for months, and it may not satisfy me or a producer, and that’s time down the tube.
Time down the tube. And then the time ran out.
All they want for him now, in his old hometown, is a stamp. It seems so little to ask.
by Don Freeman
Reproduced by permission of the author.
That Serling Stamp appeared in the August 1989 OUTTAKES column of EMMY Magazine,
published by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
Don Freeman is the “Critic-at-Large” columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune.