The crew that put on SerlingFest 2022: RSMF Board members (except Zicree) Mark Dawidziak, Andy Polak, Jeff Serling, Mark Olshaker, Nick Parisi, Anne Serling-Sutton, guest speaker Mark Scott Zicree, Tony Albarella, Gail Flug, Joe Bardales, Shelley McKay Young
Opening Remarks by RSMF President Nick Paraisi
Why Rod Serling?
Over the past few weeks, I have been asked (even more often than usual) ‘Why Rod Serling?’ ‘Why is there a Foundation dedicated to Rod Serling?’ ‘What’s so important about Rod Serling?’ So, I figured that an answer might be in order.
Last night, during our video marathon across the street, one of the shows that we screened is a rare one called “The Challenge.” It was co-written by Rod and Reginald Rose – one of the few times that Rod actively collaborated on a script with another writer. I mention this show because of one line of dialogue that comes right at the end. The protagonist has been through a bit of an ordeal and he has an epiphany – he says, “You know, I learned something today. I learned that no man’s got a right to feel strongly about something until he’s taken the trouble to figure out why” he feels that way.
I can’t say with certainty whether Rod wrote that line or Reginald Rose did, but it certainly sounds like Rod. I say that partly because Rod would often make a similar point during speeches and lectures. Whatever the topic was that he was talking about, he would often say something to the effect of, “I know I may be emotional about this, but I’m not speaking solely from emotion – this is something that I’ve applied some logic to, given some thought to, and as a result, I think I’m justified in speaking out about it.”
So, what I’m getting at is that I’ve had to do a little more thinking about this question, ‘Why Rod Serling?’ Why do I – and we – feel so strongly about this man’s place in history?
Our friend and fellow board member, Mark Dawidziak, has likened Rod Serling to Mark Twain, saying that both Serling and Twain are – quote – moralists in disguise – unquote. I have a feeling that Mark would agree that, at least in Serling’s case, the disguise was pretty thin. I know of no other writer who wore his heart on his literary sleeve more obviously than Rod Serling did.
There’s a very common piece of writing advice that I’m sure you’ve heard, and which I do not completely ascribe to, that says ‘write what you know.’ A more valuable piece of writing advice, I think, is ‘write what you’re passionate about.’ That was Rod Serling’s approach. Passion is something that we can all recognize in the arts and it’s what we respond to most strongly. We know when a writer or a filmmaker or a musician is just going through the motions. That was never Rod Serling.
[Video of Rod Serling on “The Mike Wallace Interview”]:
“In my twelve years of writing, Mike, I can at least lay claim to this: I have never written beneath myself. I have never written anything that I didn’t want my name attached to . . .”
Integrity and passion – two qualities that Rod Serling displayed in abundance. So, what was Serling most passionate about? Likely everyone here could rattle off that list of topics. Racial prejudice. Antisemitism. Intellectual freedom. The dehumanizing effects of violence and war. Societal or governmental oppression. So that I don’t overstay my welcome up here, I’m going to highlight just one of the many themes that recurs in Serling’s work. That is Serling’s belief in the basic goodness of individual human beings.
Thanks to Twilight Zone episodes like “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” and “The Shelter,” it would be easy to conclude – incorrectly – that Rod Serling was a misanthrope; that he thought of human beings as barely removed from animals, just one small step away from behaving like savages. So I want to first deal briefly with this misconception. I say it’s a misconception, but here’s what Rod Serling said about that in relation to “Maple Street”:
“I don’t suggest that I am so hopelessly and totally resigned to the ultimate destruction of the human race, that this is what motivates my writing. I submit that, philosophically, if anything could be drawn from that piece, is that there are forms of violence which are simply prejudice and bias, naked hatred, which find ultimately its projection in violence, which can be self-destructive. I don’t suggest that, yes, this is what’s going to happen to every Maple Street, I simply submit that this conceivably could be the end result of our mutual hatred, and I think we’re seeing a lot of that today.”
That’s Rod Serling making the point explicitly, rhetorically. Dramatically, a good explanation for this distinction can be found in an episode of The Loner called “Widow on the Evening Stage.” In this episode, Bill Colton, our hero played by Lloyd Bridges, is protecting a native American woman from a lynch mob, and he tells her, “I know this much: If you take good men and you stick them into a mob, take away their names, faces, identity, take away their responsibility, they’re no longer good men.”
“Maple Street” and “The Shelter” are not statements of belief – they are warnings. They are warnings about what can happen if we subjugate our individual morality – our good, sound, individual morality – to the unthinking emotionalism of a mob.
Serling’s belief in the inherent goodness of individual human beings is obvious all over his body of work. One somewhat odd example that I particularly admire is from a television movie that Rod wrote called “The Doomsday Flight.”
“The Doomsday Flight” deals with a terrorist plot to blow up an airplane. Late in the film, the villain, who has already planted the bomb on a plane, is having a drink in a bar, and from the way he is behaving, it’s clear that this guy has a few squirrels running loose in his attic. The bartender – who doesn’t yet know anything about the bomb plot – is becoming annoyed with this guy’s strange behavior, and he gets even more annoyed when this very odd person is the only one left in the bar – it’s late, and the bartender just wants to close up and go home.
But here’s what happens. The villain – who is never named, by the way – suddenly clutches at his chest and seems to have trouble breathing, exhibiting the signs of a heart attack. The bartender’s tone immediately changes from annoyance to concern. He says “Hey buddy, you all right? Let me get you a glass of water.” He tells him that his mother-in-law has a heart condition and that she takes medications for it – he asks if the guy has any medications on him that he needs to take.
If a writer other than Rod Serling had written that scene, some very different dialogue suggests itself. In another writer’s hands, couldn’t you easily imagine this character saying something more like “Hey Buddy, don’t you die in here! If you drop dead in here, I’m never getting out of this place!”? Of course, I’m not saying every or even most other writers would have handled it that way, but the point is that Rod Serling would never have handled it that way. Way back in 1951, one of his earliest scripts, “Finchley versus the Bomb,” contains this line of dialogue: “I believe that every human being would sacrifice anything at a given moment to save somebody else.” Schmaltzy? Pollyanna? Yeah, probably. But Rod Serling believed it.
Why Rod Serling?
I don’t think that I need to name names, reference specific dates, or run the enormous risk of mentioning political parties to support the position that it is important for all of us to take the trouble to figure out why we feel strongly about the things we feel strongly about, to listen to our better angels, to tune out the demagogues who encourage mob mentality, and to have faith in the idea that every one of us is basically good. Rod Serling used his genius to deliver these messages not in tracts, not in newspaper editorials that might be read at the breakfast table and forgotten by dinner – he delivered these messages in stories that mesmerized us and expanded our imaginations. He delivered them in a form that was so good, so – to use one of Rod’s favorite words – so qualitative – that we are still absorbing these messages and watching these shows sixty years after they were first broadcast. These messages are important – and so is the messenger.
This is why Rod Serling. This is why Rod Serling deserves to be acknowledged, honored, and remembered.
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