March 4, 1975: Not knowing that he has less than four months to live, Rod weighs in eerily on awards, prejudice, censorship, compulsion, immortality, (not) planning ahead …and crying.
- Writers’ Digest Magazine, 1976
- Writers’ Digest Yearbook, 1977
- Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone The Magazine, April 1982
- On Being a Writer, (a 1989 Writer’s Digest anthology)
Photos by Christine Lyons
copyright 2000 [ BIO ]
Rod Serling: The Facts of Life An Interview by Linda Brevelle
Rod Serling’s last interview took place at Franco’s La Taverna on Sunset Strip on March 4, 1975—just a few months prior to his sudden death at fifty. The restaurant was a favorite hangout of Serling’s, a place where he could observe a wide range of human types who might conceivably become models for characters in his scripts—and where, as a celebrity, he was often observed by them as well.
Serling was as cooperative an interviewee as I have ever met. There was no pre-rehearsed or packaged dialogue, no bored or weary let’s-get-this-over-with routines such as one so often finds in the famous. Without getting side-tracked, I found it easy to take in his wit, compassion, and crusading spirit.
I regret that he was unable to complete the screenplay he was writing (an adaptation of Morris West’s The Salamander). Looking back, it seems the frequent references to mortality lent a haunting foreshadowing to his untimely death, and only now, as his words come drifting back, do I wonder if he knew our interview would be his last.
“I’ve never planned ahead,” he told me. “I just sort of go through life checking the menu of three meals that day. I never worry about tomorrow. It’s only since I’ve gotten older that I’ve begun to wonder about time running out. Is it sufficient unto itself that I don’t plan? Because maybe next Thursday won’t come one day. And then, I’m concerned about that. But that’s not uniquely the writer’s concern, that’s the concern of every middle-aged man who looks in the mirror.”
I miss the full-bodied voice now faded from the airwaves, except for occasional reruns of Twilight Zone and Night Gallery at ungodly hours on local tv stations. As for Franco’s, it too is now gone—having been replaced by another establishment not long after Serling’s death. But I can’t think of a more appropriate epitaph than what was said that day.
Brevelle: You have been cited for your outstanding achievements in writing in the dramatic form. You have won countless awards, including six Emmies, the Peabody, and Sylvania awards. Your peers and the public respect your talent. Rod Serling is a household name. My question is, where do you go from here? How can you top your previous record if you have any real need to top yourself?
Serling: Well, first of all, I’ve never really topped myself, because awards in themselves really don’t reflect major accomplishment. It’s kind of a strange, backslapping ritual that we go through in this town where you get awards for almost everything. For surviving the day you’re going to get awards. So I can’t suggest that those things represent any pinnacle of achievement. If indeed they did, I suppose I’d be worried about how do I top myself. But if indeed I’m a household name, it’s a fortuitous event, really singularly undeserved, and caused by a whole lot of extraneous, fortuitous things that have occurred. But again, it’s part of the business of really not caring about topping myself because I really don’t care what’s going to happen. I think just surviving is a major thing. I’d like to write something that my peers, my colleagues, my fellow writers would find a source of respect. I think I’d rather win, for example, a Writer’s Guild award than almost anything on earth. And the few nominations I’ve had with the guild, and the few awards I’ve had, represented to me a far more legitimate concrete achievement than anything. Emmies, for example, most of that’s bullshit. Oscars are even worse. We have a strange, terrible affliction in this town. Everybody walks around bent-backed from slapping each other on the backs so much. It looks like arthritis but it isn’t. It’s hunger for recognition. And it’s sort of like, well, I’ll scratch you this time if you’ll scratch me next time. That kind of thing.
Brevelle: Is it really true what they say in Hollywood that most of it is luck or a big push from the right person at the right time in the right direction?
Serling: I think a lot of it is luck and continues to be. That in no way discounts the terrible urgency that you have talent. It’s always who you know, what marvelous moment in time that you find him or meet him. I think one of the problems sometimes with the writer is the personality of the writer, because it becomes a very personal medium. Selling yourself is sometimes almost half the problem. If you meet a producer, you have a story in mind, if you’re not personable—you know, if you’re a shit, you can’t deal with people—frequently that negatism moves over into the script area. If the producer doesn’t like you, consequently he reads the script with a very negative view. But I wouldn’t preoccupy myself with that, I don’t give a damn. You can be a hunchback and a dwarf and whatall. If you write beautifully, you write beautifully, that’s all.
Brevelle: Do you recall your breaking into this business, making your first sale?
Serling: It’s an incredible event. The most important thing about the first sale is for the very first time in your life something written has value and proven value because somebody has given you money for the words that you’ve written, and that’s terribly important, it’s a tremendous boon to the ego, to your sense of self-reliance, to your feeling about your own talent. I remember the first sale I made was a hundred and fifty dollars for a radio script, and, as poor as I was, I didn’t cash the check for three months. I kept showing it to people.
Brevelle: In the past when you were starting a writing career, how did you deal with rejection? Has it gotten any easier?
Serling: It’s gotten easier because now it’s only a blow to ego, it’s no longer a blow to pocketbook. I’m sufficiently independent to know that I can live well and comfortably all the rest of my life whether I’m rejected or not. In the old days, Linda, you were rejected, and not only was a piece of your flesh cut to pieces, your pocketbook was destroyed. You know—you don’t have bread for rent.
Brevelle: Writers didn’t get the same money for their work they get these days.
Serling: That’s right, that’s right. You can become much more independent, much more courageous with a bank account. And also, much more independent and self-reliant when you know you have money behind you. But rejection is still rejection. It’s a very difficult, bleeding process.
Brevelle: Do you have any encouragement for writers who accumulate a lot of rejection slips?
Serling: Only that somehow, some way, incredibly enough, good writing ultimately gets recognized. I don’t know how that happens but it does. If you’re really a good writer and deserve that honored position, then by God, you’ll write, and you’ll be read, and you’ll be produced somehow. It just works that way. If you’re just a simple ordinary day-to-day craftsman, no different than most, then the likelihood is that you probably won’t make it in writing. You’re going to wind up either getting married, working for an insurance company, joining the regular army, or what-all. But if you have a spark in you, a cut above the average, I think ultimately you make it.
Brevelle: Should a writer who makes his first sale hold out for money or sell for the credit?
Serling: Well, actually that carries with it the suggestion that he has an option. Usually he doesn’t. Most shows, buying shows, have a standard fee for the first shot of the writer and if you have a very militant agent, I suppose he might jack it up four percent or something. But in essence, you sell for what is the going rate. I don’t think you’re going to be penalized for virtue of the fact that you’re not known and suddenly find yourself getting minimum for it. No, I don’t think that will happen. Conversely, you’re not going to get top of show, either. But that’s the nature of it. But I would guess that the price of the script really is secondary. The credit is much more the essence.
Brevelle: You were a member of the Council of the Writer’s Guild of America, West from 1965 to ’67. A young screenwriter was quoted as saying a lot of young writers are very anti-union and not interested in becoming a Guild member. For those who are critical of the union, what would you say to them in defense of the WGA?
Serling: Well, I think the essence of the argument has always been, first of all, the Guild doesn’t want writing on spec. And that’s been a major problem over the years. But obviously, to the young writer that’s unfair and it’s discriminatory, and it can be very hurtful to one’s career. But over the long haul, the minute that you establish the propriety of writing on speculation, then you’re destroyed by it. It’s the beast that will bite you. Because you’re going to find yourself over the years, much later on, exposed to five thousand writers who will write speculatively, and it’s cheap-jack labor just like in any Depression situation. They’ll go pay a fruitpicker five cents an hour if they can get him. And the rest of us will starve. And that’s what’s going to happen on the basis of speculative writing. People are going to starve, because a lot of hungry sons of bitches are going to take advantage of us.
You must always assume that the relationship between writer and producer is that of adversaries—however you slice it. They may be your dearest friends, and they’ll invite you to dinner, but when all the smoke clears and the ozone lifts, your enemy is the producer, that’s the guy you’re competing with, and you have to battle him, just as if you were an adversary. So I would have to say that the Guild is well advised to lay down certain rules that they do lay out.
Brevelle: What has been your relationship with agents?
Serling: I don’t have close relationships with agents. They’re friends, but they’re not confidants. I don’t know too many agents that analytically read properly. The good agent probably is not the reader, he’s just the guy who can put together a deal. It would be a marvelous asset if there were a literate man who could read stuff and make judgments. Not too many are.
Brevelle: Do you ever get tired of talking about writing?
Serling: That essentially is my craft. If I don’t know about that, I don’t know about anything. My concern about that is that…Well, the other night I met William Goldman at a party. He wrote Boys and Girls Together and a few others. And I looked at him in awe, because he’s written novels—brilliant novels that I’ve never been able to write—and so when I’m chosen to do an interview on writing I think to myself, “My God, what am I doing here? Why isn’t William Goldman sitting here with you?—who could tell you probably a helluva lot more than I can.”
Brevelle: What are you currently writing that you’re excited about?
Serling: I just finished a—I’m not exactly excited about it—but I just finished a Movie of the Week for ABC for Aaron Spelling called Where the Dead Are, which is a gothic horror piece. And I’m doing a screenplay for Carlo Ponti in Italy based on the Morris West novel, The Salamander, which is a ball-breaking script, very difficult. That’s what I left today to meet you here.
Serling: No! It’s great to get away from it. It’s beginning to destroy me piecemeal.
Brevelle: What do you do to avoid writing? I know that sounds funny…
Serling: Everything. Everything.
Brevelle: And your friends? How do they avoid writing?
Serling: I don’t know what my friends do. Generally they become producers. That way they can stop writing! It’s the only way really to get the monkey off the back. But in the last three months I’ve been so busy writing that I really haven’t been able to conjure up the luxury of excuses to keep from writing because I’m on a clock and I have a deadline. But there are millions of ways to not be writing. You say you’re not in the mood, you’ll pick it up tomorrow. You can take on interviews with pretty girls. (Grins)
That’s a cop-out right there. That’s natural and normal, because I don’t think it’s man’s function to write. I don’t think it’s a normal thing like teeth-brushing and going to the bathroom. It’s a supered position on the animal.
Brevelle: What causes you to write?
Serling: I never really thought about it. If I could really conjure up an answer to that, I suppose I’d be able to answer a lot of questions that bug me.
Why do I write? I guess that’s been asked of every writer. I don’t know. It isn’t any massive compulsion. I don’t feel, you know, God dictated that I should write. You know, thunder rents the sky and a bony finger comes down from the clouds and says, “You. You write. You’re the anointed.” I never felt that. I suppose it’s part compulsion, part a channel for what your brain is churning up.
But I don’t subscribe to the “Know Thyself” theory. I’m afraid that if I started to ponder who I am and what I am, I might not like what I find. So, I’d rather go along with this sense of illusion that I’m a neutral beast going along through life doing everything that’s preordained. I’m out of control anyway, so why fight it. I suppose we think euphemistically that all writers write because they have something to say that is truthful and honest and pointed and important. And I suppose I subscribe to that, too. But God knows when I look back over thirty years of professional writing, I’m hard-pressed to come up with anything that’s important. Some things are literate, some things are interesting, some things are classy, but very damn little is important.
Brevelle: Is there a script you’ve been holding onto in your mind that you really want to write?
Brevelle: You’ve written it all?
Serling: I’ve written all that I’ve wanted to write to date. This is not to say I might not find something. I mean, I’m not an old man. I’m not a young man, admittedly, but I’m not an old man, either.
Brevelle: Who do you write for?
Serling: Myself. If I enjoy it.
Brevelle: What do you enjoy about writing?
Serling: I don’t enjoy any of the process of writing. I enjoy it when it goes on if it zings and it has great warmth and import and it’s successful. Yeah, that’s when I enjoy it. But during the desperate, tough time of creating it, there’s not much I enjoy about it. It tires me and lays me out, which is sort of the way I feel now. Tired.
Brevelle: So it’s a suffering process for you…
Serling: It is. Giving birth, you know. Waiting. Should we call the doctor? You know, for the caesarean. It’s obviously not going to come out normally.
Brevelle: What is most difficult for you about writing?
Serling: In terms of screenwriting adaptations it’s trying to cut out stuff that’s extraneous, without doing damage to the original piece, because you owe a debt of some respect to the original author. That’s why it was bought.
That’s been the problem with this current project, The Salamander. It’s a big book, very heavy with people and complexities and interwoven plotlines. I’m finding it very difficult to decide what can I cut away without doing damage. Or without leaving an audience saying, “Well, wait a minute. How did he come into this? I never saw him before. Who’s this person?” That kind of thing.
Brevelle: What’s your system for getting writing done? You know, some writers use colored paper, others write in longhand on legal pads…
Serling: I don’t have any system. I dictate a lot, through a machine, and I also have a secretary. But I used to type just like everybody else. I find dictating in the mass media particularly good because you’re writing for voice anyway; you’re writing for people to say a line and, consequently, saying a line through a machine is quite a valid test for the validity of what you’re saying. If it sounds good as you say it, likely as not it’ll sound good when an actor’s saying it. The tendency when you dictate is to overwrite, because you’re not counting pages, you don’t really know what the hell the page count is. But in terms of standing up when I write, what hour I write, that all relates very specifically to the individual. Writers vary tremendously. Was it Tom Wolfe who stood up or was it Hemingway who had to stand up? I don’t know.
Brevelle: Hemingway. He had to space three times between words to slow down.
Serling: Was it Hemingway who had to put the thing on the mantel or something? And I think Wolfe wrote in longhand. You know, it depends on the animal, particularly who’s doing it. In my case, the only thing I would say was part of the discipline is that I have to start writing quite early. I write much better in the nonconfines of the early morning than I do the clutter of the day.
Brevelle: How much time do you spend actually writing?
Serling: I would guess three full hours a day, and in terms of the pre-writing activity, God, that’s endless, it’s constant, almost constant.
Brevelle: Can you write when you’re angry or depressed?
Serling: Yes, I think so, except very frequently—and I’m not alone in this—your depression and your anger find their way onto the page, and if you’re writing a comedy that can be very damaging.
Brevelle: What makes you angry?
Serling: Interesting question…Some petty things, really. But bias and prejudice make me angry…more than anything. Somebody sent me a copy of the American Nazi newspaper the other day—published in, I guess, Arlington, Virginia—there were words in it like “coon” and “kike” and things like that, and I was very distraught. That made me terribly angry. Viciously angry. Even to creating daydreams about how I could go there and bump off some of these pricks. But it’s short-lived. I’m much too logical for that. That ticks me off. I can’t think of anything else that really makes me angry.
Brevelle: What was the lowest point of your life? Emotionally.
Serling: Emotionally? I think that was during the war. I was convinced I wasn’t going to come back.
Brevelle: You told a story in class (ed. note: Sherwood Oaks Experimental College, Hollywood) about a near-fatal experience you had in the Philippines during the war. A Japanese soldier aimed his gun at you, you knew he would get off a clean shot and kill you. He couldn’t miss, there was nothing you could do to avoid being a perfect target. As you stood frozen in time, unable to move, a fellow G.I. shot the enemy soldier over your shoulder…
Serling: That incident, yeah. Well, that was sort of symptomatic of the way I was. Fatalist, you know. About everything. And I survived through no dint of my own courage; it was just somebody up there. But professionally, when I first went into freelancing, I think there was a period of about eight months when nothing happened. Everything that I wrote crumbled up, and then it became a self-destructive thing—when you begin to doubt yourself, when doubt turns into—it’s sort of like impotence. Once impotent, you’re forever impotent. Because you’re always worried about being impotent.
Brevelle: Fear of fear.
Serling: I’m told, Linda, I’m told.
Brevelle: How did you get out of that or did it just run its course?
Serling: Oh, it ran its course. I made a sale. It’s as simple as that, a little funny external thing like that. And that’s all it took.
Brevelle: Tell me, is the magic still there? About writing?
Serling: Oh, yeah. There always is. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t be doing it. I’d go back in the regular army and…live my life.
Brevelle: If you weren’t writing, what would you do?
Serling: What would be the second choice? Jesus, I’ve never really thought about it. I’d make a marvelous retiree.
Brevelle: Just sit back by the pool and—
Serling: I couldn’t sit by the pool. I’d have to do something a bit more active than that!
Brevelle: If you could, would you go back to live TV instead of filmed TV?
Brevelle: Do you miss those days? The urgency, the excitement…?
Serling: I miss…I miss the comraderie of live television—the fact that you were on the set, you worked closely with the director and the cast, that I miss. But, no, I’m happy, I’m happy doing film.
Brevelle: What did you feel about making the transition from live television to film?
Serling: It wasn’t very difficult. Essentially, the scripts are not that different. Let’s say, in literary terms, it’s the difference between writing horizontally and writing vertically. In live television, you wrote much more vertically. You had to probe people because you didn’t have money or sets or any of the physical dimensions that film will allow you. So you generally probed people a little bit more. Film writing is much more horizontal. You can insert anything you want: meadows, battlefields, the Taj Mahal, a cast of thousands. But essentially, writing a story is writing a story. And certainly there are differences in technique and in attitude. The major difference frequently is in time. The motion picture, for example, gives you considerably more freedom of expression than does the confined thirty-minute television show. But in essence, they’re not that dissimilar.
Brevelle: Are teleplays today as innovative and fresh as in the fifties?
Serling: Yeah, I think they are, except that they have to much more hew to the line because most of them are series that have to use people who are pre-set in the series. Unlike the old days when the anthology ruled the roost, you could write a different play each week.
Brevelle: Did you find there were any more taboos in television in those days than in movies?
Serling: Oh, infinitely more taboos, on television. Oh, yeah. Even then you could do much more in movies than you could on TV, and even movies were heavily censored. But in television, the areas of timorousness were fairly laid out. Race relations. Sex. Politics. There was a whole conglomeration of taboo themes. And even to date, though television has become a much freer medium, it’s still far less free, far less creatively untrammeled than are the movies. They’re infinitely more adult in that respect.
Brevelle: What script changes have you most vehemently rebelled against because of TV censorship?
Serling: I haven’t rebelled vehemently against any of them. I have compromised down the line. I’ve disliked it intensely in the old days when you were trying to talk race relations and they would not allow you to talk about the legitimacies of race relations. In the old days, you didn’t talk about black, you talked about Eskimo or American Indian, and the American Indian was assumed not to be a problem area. Now we realize that they, too, are, in terms of their altogether legitimate concerns. I find it very difficult to live through the censorship of profanity on television. I find that the most ludicrous of the censorships. Damn. Hell. Goddamn. And all that. I find that it’s part of our colloquial language, and that there’s nothing sacrilegious or profane about any of it. It’s the way we speak. What the hell is so dirty about the word “hell?” And you can say “death” all you want. You can say “kill.” You can even say “rape” now. And that’s not supposed to be bad. But you can’t say “hell” or “damn.” You know, it’s going to reach a point where you’re going to do a travelogue on Holland and you’ll say, “Well, here we are in Rottergosh and Amsterdarn!”
Brevelle: Is a dramatist of your calibre expected to make script changes dictated by the powers-that-be, producers and the network?
Serling: Absolutely. You have to compromise all the way down the line no matter who you are. Unless, of course—you say I’m an affluent screenwriter and all that—I’m a known screenwriter, but I’m not in the fraternity of the very, very major people. I would say a guy like Ernie Lehman, William Goldman, and a few others are quite a cut above. There’s a marvelous and unique man named Frank Gilroy. He’s the only writer I know who absolutely, pointedly refuses to do any changes that he doesn’t feel are absolutely essential and totally in keeping with his own view and perspective. But not too many writers are that independent and that strong-willed.
Brevelle: Have you ever removed your name from the credits because of changes that didn’t meet your approval?
Serling: No, I don’t think I ever have. I wanted to a couple of times. But I found out too late and I couldn’t remove it, but I wanted to.
Brevelle: What projects were those?
Serling: I think one was an old Studio One and another was…I think Night Gallery.
Brevelle: Do you think you can say more about topics of social significance through a contemporary drama or more through the framework of science fiction and fantasy?
Serling: I think you can say more obviously in the framework of an honest-to-Christ contemporary piece so that you don’t have to talk in parables, in symbolisms and the rest of it, but this is not to say that you can’t make a point of social criticism using science fiction or fantasy as your backdrop. We did that on Twilight Zonea lot, but there’s no room for that kind of subtlety anymore. The problems are so much with us that they have to be attacked directly.
Brevelle: What contemporary issues are you most eager to write about but feel restricted by network and sponsor censorship?
Serling: I suppose there’s only one now and that’s politics. The…what do we call it—the Nixon mentality. I’d love to be able to write an in-depth piece of what causes men like Nixon and Haldeman and Ehrlichman and all the rest of them not only to run, but what causes us to vote for them.
Brevelle: What teleplays that you’ve read do you think stand up as good on paper but not as good after they’ve been shot?
Serling: Jeez, there may be legion. I know one on Night Gallery, for example. I did a show called “The Different Ones,” about a boy who was a freak and ultimately he was sent to a different planet where he would be more accepted.
It was beautiful, a very sensitive screenplay which was a piece of shit when it was done. It was a kind of an American International bug-eyed monster kind of film which it wasn’t intended to be at all. Chuck Beaumont, God rest his soul, could tell you a lot about this because he had many shows on. The Circus of Dr. Lao was Chuck’s, and he always deeply resented what they did in the film. I would guess that Ray Bradbury would be equally resentful of what they did with Illustrated Man, which, you know, took a central idea thesis of his and pissed all over it—made it into one of the worst movies ever made.
Brevelle: Are you frequently surprised by the way actors interpret lines that you’ve written?
Serling: Yeah, I’m frequently surprised, sometimes bugged off, and sometimes happy, depending on the actor. It’s a fact of life that just as often as not an actor can breathe life into a line as he can destroy it by misinterpretation, and I’ve been blessed frequently by having good actors. You get certain guys like Klugman—Jack Klugman—Jack Warden, Marty Balsam—solid, dependable, consummately skilled men, who invariably take lines and breathe great life into them, and great vibrance, and great truth.
Brevelle: What can a director’s interpretation do for a script?
Serling: Depends very much on the director. There are directors like Frankenheimer, Schaffner, George Roy Hill, Bob Parrish, who are interpretively the tops. Very creative guys. Also the writer who turns director, uniquely, is sensitive to this—a guy like Richard Brooks. And then, occasionally you’ll come a cropper with a director who fancies himself the whole creator, who will dictate interpretively different things that are quite incorrect as they stand. But again, it depends on the individual. But over the long haul I’d say that most directors I’ve worked with have been pretty sensitive to the quality of the interpreted scenes.
Brevelle: Do you have a script of your own that you have special feeling for?
Serling: I’m thinking about that…Well, I guess Requiem for a Heavyweight as old as it is was as honest a piece as I’ve ever done. Tearing Down Tim Reilly’s Bar (from Night Gallery) was one of my favorites. And then one that I just wrote called The Stop Along the Way, which is, I think, a lovely script. But I don’t know, there are a lot I’m proud of, and a lot I wish the hell I’d never written.
Brevelle: How important is the screenplay to overall production?
Serling: You’ve got to be joking!
Brevelle: No. A lot of people would say it’s just a blueprint.
Serling: I’d say…sixty percent of it. No, no, that varies. No, let’s pursue that a minute. An Ingmar Bergman film would probably owe a sizeable bulk of its import and its direction and its quality to the directorial end and to the director because it’s uniquely a Bergman film. But that again is not the general—no, that’s much more the exception than the rule.
Most screenplays, most motion pictures, owe much more to the screenplay. He has such an economy of language, so little language in his piece, it is so visual, his moods are introduced and buttressed by camera rather than by word or character. But again, that’s unique.
Brevelle: Someone like Bergman’s a total filmmaker. Have you ever thought of having your own production company and doing what you want to do?
Serling: No. I just want to write. I—well, I couldn’t direct because I’m too impatient and I couldn’t put together a package because I don’t understand money. I’d rather just do what I’m doing. Do I want to start my own production company? No, I doubt it. I’m too old for that. I don’t want to start anything.
Brevelle: Do you think writers are better off producing their own scripts through independent financing?
Serling: I suppose so because that carries with it a degree of creative freedom that they wouldn’t get working with a major company.
Brevelle: What do you think entering the television writing arena does for a writer’s sensitivities?
Serling: It probably bends them out of shape. It frustrates—makes him feel inferior. It makes him deathly preoccupied with his own value and his own worth, and if he is even normally sensitive, he will very likely weep the rest of his life and also wind up with a terrible, terrible lack of awareness of his own worth. Because people are put down in television now, not because they’re not qualitative, not because they’re not talented—but because there’s no room for them, and worse than that, there’s nowhere they can find exposure. Their own good talent may die of mourning, just for want of having somebody read what they’ve written. I don’t presume to say how we can best provide platforms for new writers to get read. I don’t know. But therein lies the major problem. I suppose it’s very much like actors and actresses who trod pavements and get doors slammed in their faces. Well, the writer’s no different. When he’s rejected, that paper is rejected, in a sense, a sizeable fragment of the writer is rejected as well. It’s a piece of himself that’s being turned down. And how often can this happen before suddenly you begin to question your own worth and your own value? And even worse, fundamentally, your own talent?
Brevelle: Then you don’t think a writer can separate who he is from what he writes?
Serling: He can write completely different things from his own character, but it’s nonetheless his creation, so an extension of his mind. You know, he can write about the Foreign Legion without ever having been in the Foreign Legion, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that what he’s written doesn’t necessarily reflect the nature of him as an individual—or her. Using the male gender because it’s me speaking. I don’t mean to put down the female.
Brevelle: We hear a lot about network executives having business sense and little creative tastes. What has been your experience with network decision-makers?
Serling: I can’t generalize. It depends on the individual. I’ve met some very literate, very imaginative men who are network executives. I’ve also met dullards and dolts and clods who are just barely literate and who may understand a ledger but know nothing about professional writing. It depends on the individual, but you can’t generalize. There are good and there are bad.
Brevelle: Most of us can usually find what’s wrong with television and find much to criticize. On the other hand, what would you say are television’s good points?
Serling: Well, first of all, most of it’s very polished, professional. The performances are quite good, usually, even obscure little series do pretty damn good.
Brevelle: Do you envision a particular kind of tv audience when you write?
Serling: I don’t. I choose to think of them as nameless, formless, faceless people who are all like me. And anything that I write, if I like it, they’ll like it. I don’t categorize them. I don’t suggest that they’re idiots with negative I.Q.s or that they’re massive intellectuals. I just think they are quote “an audience,” like any audience. There are astute, thoughtful, sensitive people amongst them, and then there are assholes who couldn’t understand anything no matter what you said.
Brevelle: What, then, does the television industry need most?
Serling: People in positions of decision with guts and courage and a respect for other people’s creativity and less timorousness about what they assume is going to be popular. If all three networks on their own decided “Oh, what the hell, we won’t follow what is the current rage, we won’t stick on private eyes because they happen to be successful. Some guy comes in with a marvelously brilliant notion of a contemporary piece, let’s try it, let’s see what happens.” I remember when George Scott did East Side, West Side—that was twenty-six weeks of the finest half-hour drama ever done. Little half-hour street stuff, and it was brilliant. That died of wanting. Where is it?
Brevelle: How about some “fun questions” now?
I reeled off a series of what I called “fun questions,” which Serling was perfectly willing to answer off the top of his head.
The supernatural was a recurring theme in Serling’s work, so it wasn’t too unusual that I should choose a series of questions revolving around death, the unknown, and worlds beyond. Looking back, I find our concentration on these areas peculiar so short a time before the writer’s own death.)
Brevelle: If you’re reincarnated, what will your next life be?
Serling: I don’t believe in reincarnation. That’s a cop-out, I know. I don’t really want to be reincarnated. I think one time around…I think Willa Cather did a short story called “Paul’s Case,” and in it, when he finally commits suicide, it says, “He surrendered to the black design of things.” And that’s what I anticipate death will be: a totally unconscious void in which you float through eternity with no particular consciousness of anything. I think once around is enough. I don’t want to start it all over again. She said, “What happens now if I come out as Louis XIV’s donkey or something?” Or I come out as a rose? You know, in my case, with my kind of luck, I’ll have rose bugs and things eating my leaves!
I suppose if I had it to do over again, I’d like it to be just as it’s been. And to be able to make the decisions sometimes better than they’ve been made. That kind of thing.
Brevelle: If you could live in another time, another era, what period would that be?
Serling: That’s a good one. Well, if I had the means, I think I would like to be in Victorian times. Small town. Bandstands. Summer. That kind of thing. Without disease.
Brevelle: When life was simpler?
Serling: Much. I think that’s what I would crave, a simpler form of existence. When you walked to a store and sat on the front porch. That’s what I think I would like to do: rock the rest of my life. I don’t mean “rattle and roll.” I mean…you know…creak-rock. (He stubs out his cigarette.) I’ve failed. This was the acid test. The first time I’ve sat down since I’ve given up smoking or cut down when I was in a situation where it called for smoking, and I succumb. Weak, weak man.
Brevelle: Is that a habit you have trouble giving up?
Serling: Oh, God. Jesus, would I love to give it up! I’ve been very good the last seven days, smoking less than half a pack a day and there was three in…half an hour. That’s very bad. Very bad, Linda. I knew you were a destructive, negative force the minute you sat down! (Laughs)
Brevelle: What, these days, has given you the most pleasure?
Serling: (Laughing) I refuse to answer that! Getting this last screenplay assignment has been very pleasureable for me because it’s brought back certain self-faith that I—that had started to chip away a little bit. Personally, my daughter’s wedding gave me a tremendous pleasure. I have a daughter who is about your age.
Serling: Jodi, Jodi! How’d you know that?
Brevelle: I read up on you.
Serling: Ah. And the wedding was a radiant event and I enjoyed it. I was afraid I’d cry.
Brevelle: Did you?
Serling: I’m given to crying at odd times, and I was very much afraid of the emotionalism of that moment, but I didn’t even come close to crying. Now that I’ve met her husband, I’m…(laughs) No. Very nice boy, I was just kidding.
Brevelle: When’s the last time you cried?
Serling: Oh, Jeez, I don’t remember.
Brevelle: Do you cry often?
Serling: Infrequently. But the urge is there.
Brevelle: The urge is there?
Serling: Frequently. But because I’m a Western-cultured man who subscribes to the ancient saw that men do not cry, I don’t cry either. I’ll go to a movie, for example, and not infrequently something triggers the urge to weep, but I don’t allow myself. I think before I die, just for the hell of it, one night I’ll spend an entire night weeping, and I’ll draw up a list of things that will motivate it. I’m now weeping for the following reasons: chronologically, for all the shit that’s out there that I should have wept at and didn’t.
Brevelle: Ray Bradbury said—
Serling: I’m afraid of what he said.
Brevelle: He said, “All through history in every culture we’ve had to make up mythology to explain death to ourselves and to explain life to ourselves.” Do you have any thoughts on that?
Serling: Very provocative statement. That may be, but now death is with us in such abundance and hovers over us in so massive a form that we don’t have time to invent a mythology, nor is our creativity directed toward same. Now it’s to prevent death. It matters not one whit what form it takes—whether it’s an old man with a scythe or a pale rider on a horse or what it is. Now it’s become so omniscient and so constant that our major battle is warding it off. (Long pause) I yield to no man in my respect for Ray Bradbury, however.
Brevelle: What do you like for people to say about your writing?
Serling: Well, I guess I like for people to enjoy it.
Brevelle: And what do you want them to say about the writer Rod Serling a hundred years from now?
Serling: I don’t care. I just want them to remember me a hundred years from now. I don’t care that they’re not able to quote any single line that I’ve written. But just that they can say, “Oh, he was a writer.” That’s sufficiently an honored position for me.
Brevelle: Then that’s what it all boils down to really?
Serling: I guess we all have a little vaunting itch for immortality, I guess that must be it.
Linda Brevelle is Executive Editor of New Media Review, and a long-time observer of mass media and popular culture with a background in magazine and newspaper journalism. In the 70s and 80s, Hollywood was her beat, and she specialized in analyzing that era’s high-profile content developers—television and screen writers—as a correspondent for Writer’s Digest. This article may be her best-known piece for that publication. Contact her at: The New Media Review feedback page.
Christine Lyons has interviewed and photographed many famous and fascinating people, among them: Michael Crichton, Ray Bradbury, Arthur Hailey, lyricists Alan & Marilyn Bergman, director Nicholas Myer, and Ted Neeley, who played Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar.