This interview accompanied publication of the first edition of “As Timeless As Infinity,” Editor Tony Albarella’s memorable presentation of Rod’s 92 Twilight Zone scripts.
By William P. Simmons
Previously published in Cemetery Dance magazine, reprinted by author’s permission
“There is a sixth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space, and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow – between man’s grasp and his reach; between science and superstition; between the pit of his fears and the sunlight of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area called the Twilight Zone.”
These words proceeded one of last century’s most influential television dramas, a series whose stories offered escape and instruction, encouraging viewers to perceive humanity, time, and imagination outside of normally defined parameters of thought and possibility. Exploring the shadowy by-ways between thought and dream, the possible and the surreal, the stories comprising the series challenged socially immediate issues of gender, politics, mob mentality, and moral complexity. The Twilight Zone offered to a viewing audience weaned on over simplistic tales of good vs. evil unique parables that dared face the disturbing ambiguities of perception, honor, truth, and identity – culturally sensitive issues that neither straight drama as an art form or the restrictive policies of censorship offered either the opportunity to adequately explore.
Merging intimately involving crises of the self, soul, and intellect with political, social, and moral conflicts , Rod Serling found in the Twilight Zone a symbolic borderland between knowledge and dream, emotion and idea – a forum encouraging stories crafted as both surface entertainment (itself an admirable achievement) and as thought provoking, emotionally poignant allegories. A fluid arena of terror and joy, the internal transformations of characters often mirrored universal conflicts, merging the mythic, the supernatural, and the scientific with a conscience and sense of heart – of true depth and feeling – impressive to behold. Plots of moral complexity and were often enriched during the show’s five year run by a paradoxical sense of realism, adding both authority and mysticism to a primal genre long ignored by the relatively new medium of television.
Addressing human needs, fears, and desires in stories that employed fantasy as both a means to an end and as a venerable tradition of literature, Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone scripts combined sensitivity with showmanship. The first writer-star of his day, raising the status of the men behind the stories, Rod Serling also used the Twilight Zone as a weapon against intolerance and censorship in his struggle against prejudice, ignorance, and the capitalist-based greed that he found hovering at the edges of the industry which he both fought against and defended, resisted and embraced. A fighter by nature, rallying for his ideals, Rod Serling’s career was one of hard work, persistence, and no little amount of skill.
Rod Serling joined the Army in World War II, serving as a paratrooper in the Pacific. He was also a Golden Gloves boxer, quitting after having his nose broken. Twice. Serling hosted one of his best known creations, the Twilight Zone, for 156 episodes – a 5 year period through which he battled uncertain ratings, leery sponsors, and a daunting workload. While many people are aware of his contributions to the art of the fantastic, too few recall that Serling was a top television writer before creating the series that would become his landmark. Rod Serling won six Emmy awards for his television plays beginning with Patterns (1955), a taut story analyzing corporate politics and the battle of industry over individual conscience. He also won critical recognition for Requiem for a Heavyweight, one of his personal favorites, and The Comedians. His television play, A Town Has Turned to Dust, won him a fourth Emmy, and appropriately enough, his fifth came courtesy of his work for the Twilight Zone. Rod struck what may very well have been his highest dramatic note with the Twilight Zone, which, after six years, was cancelled. Afterwards he went on to writer for (and star in) the series Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, a series with more direct if less engaging stories of the occult and science-fiction.
The aesthetic world of television – and the art of scripting– owe much to Serling’s dramatizations of Patterns, Requiem For a Heavyweight, and the Twilight Zone. And his personality remains as much a part of our everyday culture as his stories. Perhaps this is only natural, as his words were deeply connected to his own desires, fears, and conflicts. A vital force in the development of television as a means of storytelling, he was an influential dramatist who sparked enjoyment with controversy, stretching the boundaries of what was acceptable, broadening the minds of a generation with modern myths whose symbolic truths often spoke louder than realism.
Rodman Edward Serling was born December 25, 1924 in Syracuse, New York. Two Army experiences in World War II after graduation served as a precursor to his writing career. After the war (which formed many of his political and moral leanings), he enrolled at Antioch College in Ohio and became manager of the college’s radio workshop. After graduation, he worked as a radio writer before he began selling scripts to such respected anthology series as Lux Video Theatre, Hallmark Hall of Fame and Kraft Television Theatre. After critical acclaim came the work offers, the fame, and the controversy. The pressures of sponsors and political censorship led to his creation of the Twilight Zone – a menage of fantasy, terror, and science-fiction that could explore controversial issues without such intense opposition.
Rod Serling’s scripts for the Twilight Zone infused the science-fiction and fantasy genres with humanistic concern. Social and psychological, mystical and terrifying, these stories explored the agonies and senselessness of war, mechanistic society, and human frailty. And while he was just as prone to occasional failures as any other writer, Rod managed to maintain a surprising degree of excellence. For the first time, his work may be fully appreciated and enjoyed, thanks to AS TIMELESS AS INFINITY: THE COMPLETE TWILIGHT ZONE SCRIPTS OF ROD SERLING, a 7-10 volume collection authorized by his wife. This series will include not only the scripts (reprinted from Serling’s personal collection at Ithaca College) but also handwritten notes, varied drafts, and commentary. Carol, who has for years preserved her husband’s legacy, kindly agreed to speak with us about her husband’s work, their life together, and the Twilight Zone.
* * *
WS: Gauntlet Press is publishing all 92 of your husband’s Twilight Zone scripts in a 7-10 volume collection entitled As Timeless As Infinity: The Complete Twilight Zone Scripts Of Rod Serling. Why did you lend your support to this project?
CS: Partly because of the editor Tony Alberella. He seemed like a very good person to be involved, very knowledgeable. He came to me, as I recall, and suggested Gauntlet. I knew that some other writers like George Clayton Johnson and Richard Matheson had published their scripts, so it sounded like a good idea.
WS: And Tony was the right man to handle the project.
CS: You got it!
WS: What are your hopes for the book?
CS: It’s a limited edition and it may go into trade paperback later, we don’t know. There are a lot of “Zonies” out there and hopefully your magazine will help us find some more. A lot of people are really very steeped in the Twilight Zone, love everything about it, know everything about it – know a lot more than I do. It just seemed like a good way to preserve Rod’s work. It’s an offering, I hope, that people will find very worthwhile.
WS: What do you recall most about Rod?
CS: I never knew him when he wasn’t a writer. Even in college, he was spending a lot of time writing for courses, working as manager of the radio station, and on radio dramas. He was always writing. He also had a wonderful sense of humor. He was a very funny guy, really. A very caring guy. I think you must see that from the work he did. He said at one point, that he just hoped he would be remembered. But he didn’t think he would.
CS: I think that he felt he didn’t do anything very important. He always wanted to write a novel. He always wanted to write a play that would get to NY. And of course that happened after he died.
WS: Why didn’t he ever complete a novel?
CS: I don’t know. He worked on one. I guess there were too many other demands on his time with fans and people wanting him to do television and so on and so forth. He never really said “Okay, don’t bother me anymore. I’m going to take a year off.” I kept trying to encourage him to do just that. But, he never seemed to be able to.
WS: So, he felt comfortable tackling the narrative form?
CS: I’m not sure. The Twilight Zone scripts were turned into short stories by him. I think he did a real good job with them.
WS: What personal and artistic ambitions drove Rod as a writer? What do you believe were his chief aspirations?
CS: I think it was something that he had to do. You know, he called it therapy in the beginning, having come back from World War II. He wrote stories about his experiences. He wanted to write the great American novel, and the great American play. Like I say, he would be pleasantly surprised that there is such interest in the work that he did do. He felt his live-television plays were his most important work. Like Patterns and Requiem for a Heavyweight. He said once, when asked why he wrote, “I’m incompetent at anything else, and another reason is I enjoy it. I like to entertain people. Also I believe that some things can best be said in written form.” I think this sums him up best.
WS: Would you say then that he was more proud of his live dramas than the scripts he wrote for the Twilight Zone?
CS: I think he felt they were probably more important. He would spend a lot of time on those ninety minute plays. The Twilight Zone scripts just sort of rolled out of him. They were easy. They came almost instinctively.
WS: What influence would you say that Rod exerted on culture? On television? On the fantasy and science-fiction genres?
CS: It was such a strange time, the late 50s and early 60s. Twilight Zone bridged the time of complacency, the Eisenhower years, and then into the psychedelic years – the years of the assassinations and they were really, really tough times. A lot of Rod’s scripts were an invitation for us to sort of look at ourselves and at what was going on in the world. And I think through this vehicle, the science fiction (although we don’t always call it that), he was able to address issues that he wanted to. And the heavy hand of the sponsors didn’t stop him as they had with his straight dramas.
WS: How would you say that Rod influenced television?
CS: Well, I don’t know. Maybe it would be a little pretentious, to say he changed television. But he was one of the very early and important writers! In the early days the writers had a lot of recognition, which of course they never did with the moving pictures or in the theater. He was born at the right time. Although he started with the radio, he didn’t stay with the radio, and that’s when television began. If he hadn’t came along on the scene in 1950, when television was so hungry for material, who knows? It was a lucky happenstance for him.
WS: Rod often used his writing to explore such controversial themes as racism, prejudice, and the dangers of mass mentality. Why? For what personal or artistic reasons?
CS: Well, I think he thought it was the responsibility of the writer. He was probably one of the greatest advocates of television. He thought that television had the potential, and it did – and still does – to really change the world . . . to educate it, explain it. It’s fallen into a lot of pure crap now. As an artist, Rod felt that television could be important. Of course, you can write a story about Survivor, but where are you going with it?
WS: What was Rod’s opinion of fantasy, horror, or science fiction as art? Did he approach the fantastic as a “means to an end” or did he value fantasy for its own sake?
CS: That’s an interesting question . . . Oh, he loved them all, fantasy and horror and the rest. He spent a lot of time in the evening reading these stories, going through Poe and Lovecraft and some of those other wonderful horror writers. In a sense it was a vehicle for him, and as I said, he was not bothered by the sponsors when he got into outer space and allusion. He was able to say what he wanted. That was one of the reasons he went to the Twilight Zone in the first place. There was an interview with him and Mike Wallace right before Twilight Zone aired and Wallace asked “why have you deserted important television?” Rod said, “Well, I haven’t really.” He didn’t want to tip his hat and tell the sponsors what he was really doing . . . that there would be material about the war, the holocaust. Issues he cared about were still going to be there.
WS: Many of Rod’s Twilight Zone scripts featured a man or woman longing for a return to a nostalgic past. Was this reflective of his own desires?
CS: No doubt about. In fact, every summer he took us back to Binghamton and he’d wander around the streets. I don’t think he spoke to many people. There weren’t that many people around that he knew. He’d walk up and down the streets, go to the park, walk by his old house. He longed for a simpler time. Looking back, he thought he had a pretty idyllic childhood.
WS: How important were Rod’s political views to him? And how did they effect his writing?
CS: Very, very important. We have enough people out here in the entertainment business running for public office too. That started back with the senator, and then we had a governor, and now another governor. I think Rod would have been good at that. He was so articulate, spoke so well! I think he would have been a wonderful political person. He loved speaking. His speeches, as time went on, became more and more political and he was not afraid to say what he wanted to.
WS: Di you recall times when his political beliefs and desire to speak his mind effected his life adversely?
CS: Yeah. (Laughs) He ran into a woman in the supermarket once, she belonged to the John Birch society, which is probably before your time, but was terrible McCarthy type of stuff. She yelled at him as he was driving by (in those days he was driving a Lincoln) “Would you be driving that kind of car in Russia!?” So, yea, there were people and problems like that around.
WS: Censorship flourished in the fifties. How did Rod deal with this?
CS: Not well. He kicked and screamed and he was known as television’s angry young man for many years. He did go out and bite the hand that fed him. But, he loved it too. He loved television. So, it was kind of double-edged sword.
WS: CBS network, the sponsors, and audiences sometimes didn’t approve of Rod’s stories. Could you share with us an account when Rod butted heads with a studio or sponsor?
CS: The censorship was intolerable. Foolish things like not allowing the Chrysler building to be shown on a NY skyline because Ford was sponsoring the show. You couldn’t deal with gas for a certain episode about the Holocaust because the gas company was sponsoring the show! Rod wrote a script about the south and they took the Coke bottles off the table. A lot of it was ludicrous and foolish. He wrote a script about a young black man that was killed in the south. He felt very strongly about this, The sponsors got hold of it and told him he had to change the locale, the time of the script, etc. By the time the script went on, it was placed in the 1880s instead of 1950, in the southwest, and the victim was a Mexican kid. The whole thing was totally changed, and Rod said that by the time the script got on the air, the script had turned to dust. It was terrible! He had another story about the Senate where the senators couldn’t talk about anything prevalent to the day. By the time the sponsors got through, it was like, “are we going to have Coke or Pepsi?”
WS: In which ways did his service in WWII influence Rod’s desire to be a writer? His stories?
CS: In WWII, we didn’t hear a lot about young men coming back with psychiatric problems. In subsequent wars, you hear more about that. But in WWII, they came back and they had the same problems. I think Rod worked his out through his writing.
WS: Did Rod ever become disenchanted with the Twilight Zone?
CS: I think toward the end he said he was beginning to meet himself coming around the corner. As I said before, those early scripts just rolled right out of him. He’d walk right into a place and all of a sudden he’d have this wonderful idea. But the Twilight Zone stories weren’t really long and involved, they were short.
WS: Was he ever dissatisfied with writing?
CS: Oh no, I don’t think so. He was writing right up until the end of his life. What bothered him is that he never had the creative control afterwards that he had at the Twilight Zone. As you know, there were other series.
WS: How did the cancellation of Twilight Zone affect Rod?
CS: I think he was ready for it. I think that he had tired of it. You know all of these shows now, like Friends, are going off the air. I think people come to a point where they have just had enough and want to move on, do something else. Rod felt he was starting to meet himself coming around the corner. How many trips to Mars can you take? And what happens when you get there? You know, by that time the show had changed too. The original producer, Buck Houghton, was a wonderful man, and he was no longer working on the series. A lot of the crew had moved on, too. I think Rod would have rather said “I quit” than have been told he had to quit. But, yea, I think he was ready.
WS: Where did he feel he had to do next as a storyteller?
CS: The next thing was Night Gallery.
WS: Is that how he originally intended it?
CS: No, I think he said after the Twilight Zone, that he’d never do another series. Of course there was the Night Gallery, and then a western that was pretty good – a thinking Man’s western. It only ran thirteen episodes. I don’t think it was ever in syndication.
WS: Do you believe that The Twilight Zone overshadowed Rod’s other work?
CS: Sure! That used to bother him. He said he had done a lot of other things too. WS: Returning to Night Gallery, an anthology series focusing on dark fantasy and horror. How did Rod feel about this show? About his involvement in it?
CS: He didn’t have the control, and someone else was producing it. He didn’t have a lot of give-and-take with that person so he would basically turn in his scripts and they would be shot. And then of course he would be up in front of the cameras, and that was a problem, because when he introduced them (like he used to for the Twilight Zone) everyone assumed it was Rod Serling’s show. But it wasn’t. The man who did it liked to write these crazy, stupid little three minute affairs, so he’d throw those in. There were some good ones. I think they were five or ten Night Galleries that were pretty good. Rod didn’t write them all. He wrote 92 of the 150 Twilight Zones. He didn’t write nearly that many for Night Gallery.
WS: Rod worked with several other influential fantasists, including Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, George Clayton Johnson, Earl Hamner, and others. How would you say his work differed from the storytelling of, say, Matheson?
CS: Matheson you usually associate with the horror stuff, like the creature on the wing (Nightmare at 20,000 feet) and “the Invaders.” They weren’t bad, they were classic horror. And Shuck Beaumont contributed something very different to the programs, Chuck really almost lived in the Twilight Zone most of his life! And of course there was George Clayton Johnson. He was one of the “three.” One of his stories, “Kick The Can,” was the story that Steven Spielberg picked to use in the Twilight Zone movie. The fellows all had a good relationship. We had a film club – watched old movies and the guys all came over. Great!
WS: How did Rod’s career influence your marriage?
CS: It just kind of happened. It was exciting. We lived in Connecticut in the last television days, and then had to move to California when the business itself moved into film (and live television was dying). I don’t think either one of us wanted to move to California, but we did. Because that’s where the business was.
WS: How have you endeavored to keep your husband’s memory alive?
CS: It’s been an entry into the world that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I have made a business out of his legacy. Quite obviously the Twilight Zone. We’ve also made several two hour movies for television out of Rod’s non-Twilight Zone material. And of course, there was Twilight Zone magazine.
WS: Yes, edited by T. E. D. Klein.
CS: He was a wonderful, wonderful editor! We had two or three others but he was the best. That was a fascinating experience for me. No one’s going to hire me to edit and publish a magazine unless I have something they want, and what I had was Twilight Zone. I think what happened with the magazine was that the people who put the money up had delusions of a tremendous amount of circulation. We had circulation of a quarter million, which is not bad for a magazine like that, but they envisioned half a million or more. So, as time went by the magazine went downhill and eventually they said “that’s it.”
WS: Are you involved in any new Twilight Zone endeavors?
CS: There is always something. Sometimes I say this is it, then the phone rings. For instance, someone is talking about doing Requiem again. You know, the phone rings. It’s just amazing. And I think Rod would be the most surprised person of all.
WS: You’ve edited also edited anthologies. Have you ever wrote for publication?
CS: No. Once in awhile I think about it, but I don’t think I’m capable. But I enjoy being involved.
WS: In your husband’s scripts, a specific incident was often symptomatic of a larger, universal problem. In this way his scripts were allegories as well as stories. Do you agree?
CS: Oh, yeah absolutely. As I said, he felt there was a responsibility as a writer not to just entertain but to enlighten. He felt strongly about this. He was a man of strong conviction. He hated a lot of things going on this country and he wanted to speak out about them.
WS: Lastly, Rod once said, “A writer – at least this writer – measures his career not so much in terms of years as in individual moments.” Which moments do you believe he would have remembered most? Which do you think may have been the moments most important to him?
CS: That’s interesting. I’ll have to answer that in terms of what I remember. Obviously the very first sale he ever made was the most exciting – a sale to a radio program which brought him to New York and gave him a check for $500.00. That was the first time somebody had bought something that he had written (worked on for weeks, months, years). The first time somebody said, “I think your work is good, and here’s some money for it!” You know, that’s the most exciting thing. Another I would say was Patterns. As Rod used to say, he was getting calls after that all the time. Nobody knew his name before that, and suddenly they learned how to spell it! Then he felt he had to prove himself, that it wasn’t a one shot deal. So he came up with Requiem, which was also very well received. Basically the live-television was the most exciting time for him.