“When I think of true genius and Binghamton, New York, there are two people who come to mind. One of them … is Rod Serling.”
—Mike Doll, Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, June 30, 1975
When Rod Serling finished a college internship at a local radio station, he decided to check with his boss about the prospects for a future career in radio.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, son,” the station manager said, “but I think you ought to start looking for something else to do. This just isn’t your business.”
A year later, while still a student at Antioch College in Ohio, Serling won a nationwide radio script contest for a tale about a prize fighter slowly dying of leukemia.
The story—for which Serling collected $500—launched him on a career that ultimately led him to the pinnacle of writing and broadcast success.
Serling died at 2:15 p.m. Saturday at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester after complications developed during open heart surgery.
Perhaps his death, as the stories he wrote and the audiences he enthralled, took him into that mysterious place that he called during life “The Twilight Zone.”
Serling, who was born on Christmas Day, 1925, went to public schools in Binghamton. He graduated from Binghamton Central in 1942, and promptly enlisted in the Army, serving with the demolition platoon of the 511th Paratrooper Infantry Regiment in the Pacific.
After being discharged in 1945, he enrolled in Antioch College, and under a work-study program he came back to Binghamton to work for WINR Radio. It was there he received the dismal analysis of his future.
In all, Serling is a holder of six Emmy Awards, mostly for his work with NBC’s “Four-in-One” series, consisting of four different six-week series. [WEBMASTER: Incorrect. [All of Rod’s awards are listed here, and none are for Four-in-One or what his segment became: Night Gallery.]
In 1959, Serling created, wrote and produced The Twilight Zone, which had a highly-successful five-year ran on television. In addition to winning an Emmy [WEBMASTER: two Emmys] for outstanding writing of the series, he also received honor ranging from TV-Radio Mirror’s Golden Dozen Award for the most original series, to Fame’s Annual Critics’ Poll Award.
Two of Serling’s Emmy Award-winning teleplays, “Patterns” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight”—a spin-back to his own days as a lightweight Golden Gloves boxer and his prize-winning college script—were made into movies.
He also shared in plaudits for such honored “Playhouse 90” dramas as “Dark Side of the Earth,” “The Velvet Alley,” “Rank and File,” and “The Comedian.”
He was the first writer to win the Peabody Award, and also received two Sylvania Awards, the Christopher Award, and Four Writers’ Guild of America awards.
He served for two years as president of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the first writer to hold the post. As an actor, he portrayed himself in “The Man in the Sunny Suit,” a television account of the presentation leading to the broadcast of “Requiem for a Heavyweight.”
Although small in stature, Serling gave the television viewer a vision of a much larger man, with a ruddy complexion, dark, wavy hair, sparkling eyes and a deep—almost monotone—voice.
Once, when returning to Binghamton in 1969 to attend a dinner honoring his former high school English teacher, Serling was accosted by two women in the hallway of the Treadway Inn.
“You look just like Rod Serling,” one of the women said, “but you can’t be. You’re too small.
“Sorry m’am” Serling replied, a trifle embarrassed. “But, I’m him.”
The women promptly asked for his autograph, pulling from their purses two cocktail napkins. He quickly signed them; said goodbye and walked off.
For the most part, Serling’s work dealt with the mysterious and the mind-boggling. His typewriter churned out seemingly endless tales of death and destruction—usually concluding with a surprise, 0. Henry-type, ending. But he once said, his occult and supernatural writing did not come from personal encounters.
“I’m not an aficionado or experienced in this field, but I love it as a story frame,” he said. “It permits me, as a writer, to let my imagination run amuck.
“A writer is almost omniscient anyway. HE plays God. Writing in this area gives him the added impetus of not being controlled by gravity, inertia or death.”
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Serling showed the nation a side of him that was much different from the TV personality he had developed. It was that of a liberal and concerned American, who spoke openly and frankly about the nation’s Vietnam policies and its leaders.
In 1968 he joined the presidential campaign of Minnesota’s Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy, a liberal Democrat who was largely responsible for the unexpected retirement of former President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Serling described the Vietnam conflict as ”a tragic bleeding mess—dishonest, immoral and self-defeating.” He called for an for an immediate cessation of bombing and an attempt to find “some kind of honorable pullout.”
To an interviewer, Serling admitted that to be opposing the nation’s Vietnam policy in his home-city of Binghamton was difficult but necessary. With his usual quick humor, he added that “for me to espouse this cause in Binghamton is a little bit like an Irish Republican Army officer being invited to a Black and Tan picnic.”
As the war lengthened, Serling’s frustration—together with that of many of his countrymen—grew. In the early ’70s, he demanded a Vietnam pullout, notwithstanding the nation’s honor.
Serling also became indignant with the administration of former President Richard M. Nixon, as the scandal of Watergate touched the nation’s capital. In a speech delivered in Binghamton, he said:
“The use of illegal wiretaps to spy on reporters and political opponents; the secret and illegal bombing of Cambodia; the authorization of ‘plumbers’ to burglarize and spy upon political opponents, the withholding of evidence in criminal cases, the defying of court orders, the obstruction of justice—this is the province of President Nixon and all the rest of that shabby crew who have written indelible chapters in the threadbare saga of the most corrupt, incompetent and downright immoral administration in the history of the American Republic.”
For the last three years Serling made his permanent residence at Interlaken on Cayuga Lake. He frequently lectured at colleges and taught a writing course at Ithaca College.
He was married to the former Carolyn Kramer, who he met during his college days as a student at Antioch. The couple had two children, Jody and Nan.
One well-known Binghamton man, who asked not to he identified in a news story when asked for his comments on Serling’s life and friendship, said:
“When I think of true genius and Binghamton, New York, there are two people who come to mind. One of them is Ed Link, the scientist. The other is Rod Serling.”