Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, and Gore Vidal on the Genesis
of “Walking Distance,” the Beloved Twilight Zone Classic
by Christopher Conlon
“Martin Sloan, age thirty-six. Occupation: vice-president, ad agency, in charge of media. This is not just a Sunday drive for Martin Sloan. He perhaps doesn’t know it at the time, but it’s an exodus. Somewhere up the road he’s looking for sanity. And somewhere up the road, he’ll find something else.”
With these somberly-intoned words, Rod Serling ushered America into the world of “Walking Distance,” the fifth broadcast segment of the now-classic Twilight Zone series. The episode proved to be a high-water mark for the program and, for many viewers, its peak of artistic accomplishment. A simple (perhaps deceptively so) story of a miserably unhappy man who makes a journey back in time to the hometown of his youth, “Walking Distance” has an emotional resonance unmatched by any other Twilight Zone—and so, indeed, by little else American television has ever offered. The episode has routinely ranked in the top ten in fan polls, from a survey conducted by Twilight Zone magazine in the mid-1980s to Internet bulletin boards today. It was a personal favorite of Serling’s as well as of producer Buck Houghton, who called it “a beauty…as good as any we made.” Lead actor Gig Young, later an Oscar-winner, is remembered today almost exclusively for “Walking Distance,” and the original score by Bernard Herrmann – the iconoclastic genius behind the music for Citizen Kane, Psycho, Taxi Driver, and countless other film classics – has appeared on compact disc at least three times.
If the show lacks the iconic status of some Zones, it may be simply because its themes – loneliness, loss, the disappointments of age – are too painful, strike too deep. After all, it’s easy to chuckle through the horror of an episode like “It’s a Good Life” (with Billy Mumy as a monstrously-powerful, mind-reading child around whom everyone must think “happy thoughts”: “That’s a good thing you done, son, a real good thing!”) A similar reaction sets in with “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” with William Shatner as a former mental patient who sees a monster on the wing of the plane in which he’s flying. These segments have become universally-recognized cultural templates, familiar to young and old alike and instantly recalled when parodied on a program like The Simpsons. But for all its fame and indisputable beauty, we’re not likely to ever see a cartoon version of “Walking Distance” on The Simpsons. It’s a bleak, psychologically intimate tale of one man’s overwhelming emotional desolation.
That one man has long been believed to be, in thin disguise, Rod Serling himself. Also in his mid-thirties at the time (and also “in charge of media”), Serling bears strong and obvious resemblances to his fictional creation Martin Sloan. The hometown to which Sloan returns is strikingly similar to Serling’s own, as well, and this autobiographical reading of “Walking Distance” was encouraged by the author in interviews.
But just as we know that failure is an orphan, success has many fathers – and “Walking Distance,” certainly a success, has had its share. In fact, this painfully personal story has seen two other well-known writers claim it as their own and accuse Rod Serling of plagiarism. If these others were obscure fly-by-nighters, would-be artists simply hunting for publicity, their charges would not deserve a hearing.
But they aren’t.
In fact, the claimants to the glory of “Walking Distance” are two of America’s best-known authors: science-fiction master Ray Bradbury and novelist, playwright, and cultural critic Gore Vidal. Bradbury presented his case during the program’s original run, while Vidal has only recently gone public with his claim; but both say, in essence, the same thing: “Walking Distance,” while ostensibly the original creation of Rod Serling, is in fact derived from their work.
Who’s right? Did Serling steal another author’s words or ideas and cloak them in his own autobiographical references? And if so, which author? Can both Bradbury and Vidal be correct?
Are they both wrong?
Or does the truth lie somewhere in the middle?
Among the several pretenders to the throne, who is the real father of Martin Sloan?
1. Binghamton, New York: Serling’s “Homewood”
When Martin Sloan walks through the looking glass into the world of his past, he finds himself in a town called Homewood. This quiet, pleasant village of white clapboard houses and long summer afternoons bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Serling’s own hometown of Binghamton, New York. Indeed, Serling biographer Gordon Sander writes that “most of the millions of fans of The Twilight Zone would readily feel at home in the Binghamton of today. More than thirty years after Serling memorialized his Hopperesque hometown on his hit television series, the city’s pastoral character hasn’t changed very much.”
The Homewood into which Martin Sloan wanders is a peaceful, restful place, an Eden from which he was parted in high school and to which he has been trying to return ever since. “I had to come back here,” he tells his father (now miraculously alive again, in this resurrected world of the past). “I had to come back and get on a merry-go-round and eat cotton candy and listen to a band concert, to stop and breathe and close my eyes and smell and listen.” The theme of the lost Eden is, of course, a central one in American narrative: one need look no further than the green light at the end of Gatsby’s pier or the “Rosebud” of Citizen Kane for earlier examples. But unlike those vanished paradises, Homewood has a definite real-life counterpart, one that is proud of its association with Serling. Binghamton is the home of the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation, which has staged numerous events honoring its namesake; there is a Rod Serling School of Fine Arts located there, and a Rod Serling Dance Company. Most notable, however, is the merry-go-round that bears a striking resemblance to the one that plays the role of time machine in the episode. The Foundation placed a plaque in a gazebo near it several years ago, commemorating both Serling and “Walking Distance” itself.
A single viewing of “Walking Distance,” with Serling’s early life in Binghamton kept in mind, yields autobiographical riches. The young Martin Sloan, who will be chased so desperately by his older self, is seen carving his name into one of the posts of the bandstand – just as the young Serling did with his initials in 1936 (according to Sander, the initials are still there). The time period depicted corresponds with the years in which Serling was growing up. The layout of the town is similar. At one point a young mother is seen calling for her son to get down from a tree: the boy’s name is “Bobby,” almost certainly a reference to Serling’s childhood friend Robert Keller (now on the Board of Directors of the Serling Memorial Foundation).
But more than any specific point, it is the mood and atmosphere of Homewood that reveal it to have been derived from Serling’s Binghamton. “Everybody has a hometown,” he once wrote. “In the strangely brittle, terribly sensitive make-up of a human being, there is a need for a place to hang a hat, for a kind of geographic womb to crawl back into. Binghamton’s mine.” “Walking Distance” helps reveal just how much of a “womb” Binghamton truly was for Serling. For the rest of his life, he would “crawl back into” the Binghamton area on a regular basis, always willing to make an appearance for charity or give a graduation speech. Serling and his wife would eventually purchase property at Interlaken, on Lake Cayuga, only sixty miles away; using it as a summer residence, he would often drive by himself back to Binghamton just to look around the old neighborhoods. It was an umbilical cord he would never, like Martin Sloan, quite cut.
But what of the story itself? Where did it come from? Serling once offered a simple answer: “I was walking on a set at MGM when I was suddenly hit by the similarity of it to my hometown. Feeling an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, it struck me that all of us have a deep longing to go back – not to our home as it is today, but as we remember it.” It was this “simple incident,” said Serling, that led to the script “Walking Distance.”
It is not, to be sure, a perfect film. In terms of the writing, there is the occasional lapse in logic, as when, at the beginning, Martin – who has apparently been driving a long time and is in a great hurry – suddenly decides, only a mile and a half from his destination, to get an oil change and lube job! He also proves himself a poor mathematician, since he claims more than once to have been gone for “twenty, twenty-five years,” but also says that he was in Homewood “right through third year high” (since he is now thirty-six, he needed to be eleven years old in “third year high” to have been gone twenty-five years). And one performance – that of a very young Ron Howard as a neighbor boy – is, even for a child actor, sub-par: he clearly has difficulty delivering his lines.
But “Walking Distance” is certainly one of the most sensitively-written scripts of Serling’s career, with glowing dialogue and perfect dramatic structure. Robert Stevens’s direction is subtle and gorgeous, making what is in fact a low-budget TV show look like a top-flight motion picture. The casting is inspired: Gig Young is, in Houghton’s words, “just superb” – and it’s difficult not to wonder, given Young’s later personal disasters (in 1978 he murdered his wife of three weeks and committed suicide), if he weren’t drawing on deep wells of his own despair in order to deliver such a brilliantly nuanced performance. Frank Overton, as Martin’s father, is Young’s equal, with the added bonus that he and Young actually look somewhat alike, making them utterly convincing as father and son. And Bernard Herrmann’s score lives up to what Alfred Hitchcock once said about the composer’s music for Psycho: that it deserved “33%” of the credit for the success of the picture. All in all, “Walking Distance” must be accorded the rare status of television masterpiece.
But it’s that very status, perhaps, that led others to scrutinize it, consider it, and come to the conclusion that, somewhere along the way, their own work had been hijacked. Yes, the hometown depicted is Serling’s own, without question; but what about his story? Was Serling’s inspiration as simple and clear-cut as he presented in his convenient reminiscence of walking down a back lot at MGM? Or were other stories at work in his imagination, too? Serling was, in fact, sued for plagiarism several times during the series’ run, sometimes successfully. A man using a carnival ride as a time-traveling device? A man who revisits his hometown and finds his younger self there?
In the minds of two famous writers, these notions rang a bell.
2. Bradbury: The Martian Chronicler Exits the Zone
The story of Ray Bradbury’s troubled relationship with Twilight Zone and Serling himself has been recounted in print several times (including once by this writer: see “Southern California Sorcerers,” Filmfax magazine #75). But there are aspects of the tale particular to “Walking Distance,” an episode which is not only immediately identifiable as “Bradburyesque” – the lyrical writing and warm, Dandelion Wine-like nostalgia for small-town America – but which also includes an actual on-screen reference to a “Dr. Bradbury.” Although clearly intended by Serling as a small acknowledgment of his debt to the author of The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, the presence of his very name within the script would ultimately be used by the aggrieved Bradbury as evidence that “Walking Distance” was plagiarized from his work.
On one level, Bradbury’s frustration with what he saw broadcast each week on Twilight Zone is perfectly understandable. The Zone is in fact drenched in Bradburian notions and plot devices, and from the outset Serling himself was well aware of Bradbury’s central place in mid-century fantasy fiction. “Serling came over to the house one night,” Bradbury later recalled, “and told me what he was doing. He said, ‘Can you suggest some writers?’ I said, ‘Sure!’ I went down to my basement and came back with paperback copies by Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, George Clayton Johnson, and John Collier. I said, ‘These are good people. And you can use me, too.’ ” The Serling and Bradbury families began to socialize, and Bradbury was given Serling’s first nine Twilight Zone scripts (which would have included “Walking Distance”) to read. And when Zone was officially announced as an upcoming series, the major contributors, in addition to Serling himself, were listed as Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont – and Ray Bradbury.
But while Matheson and Beaumont – both close friends and disciples of Ray Bradbury – fitted smoothly into the series, becoming major contributors, there was trouble between Bradbury and Serling almost immediately. Bradbury’s first script, “Here There Be Tygers,” was rejected outright, while a second, “A Miracle of Rare Device,” got as far as the preproduction stage, but was never actually filmed. In the meantime the series, now on the air, was broadcasting episodes such as “Where Is Everybody?”, “The Lonely,” and “Walking Distance” – all of which were written by Rod Serling, but any of which might have been written by Ray Bradbury. Due to the overpowering influence of television, Rod Serling was rapidly becoming known as the one-and-only king of the sort of story Bradbury had in fact pioneered and developed. The fact that only a year or so before the networks had rejected Bradbury’s own proposed series, a Zone-like anthology to have been called Report From Space, surely fueled the writer’s resentment. No doubt it must have been difficult too to swallow the fact that Bradbury’s followers, Matheson and Beaumont – both of whose careers Bradbury had helped nurture – were having such easy success with the series, while the master himself was having his scripts bounced as if he were some sort of amateur. In the end only a single Bradbury script, “I Sing the Body Electric,” was produced for Twilight Zone.
The episode, however, seems to go a fair length toward explaining the problems Bradbury had. For all his undisputed genius as a writer of prose fiction, Bradbury’s career as a screen writer has been of uneven merit, and “I Sing the Body Electric” displays all of his worst faults as a dramatist. From his own evocative short story of love and loss, Bradbury crafts a saccahrine-sweet, cloying melodrama of a robot grandmother and its relationship to a family’s children, a piece of writing in which the situations and characters are utterly unreal and the dialogue corny and unbelievable. (Similar troubles exist in Bradbury’s 1982 film, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and a significant portion of the Ray Bradbury Theater segments.) Bradbury would later blame the failure of the episode on the last-minute exclusion of one scene from the finished production, but no scene could have saved “I Sing the Body Electric,” a production which – given its sterling authorial pedigree – must certainly be ranked as the single most disappointing in the entire series.
Serling himself understood the problem inherent in adapting Bradbury’s work quite well, as he revealed near the end of his life: “Ray Bradbury,” he said, “is a very difficult guy to dramatize, because that which reads so beautifully on the printed page doesn’t fit in the mouth – it fits in the head. And you find characters saying the things that Bradbury’s saying and you say, ‘Wait a minute, people don’t say that.’ ”
In any event, while Bradbury would later claim that it was the removal of the scene from “I Sing the Body Electric” that led to his leaving the series (“I told [Serling] that I couldn’t trust him”), evidence from the period of the program’s original run suggests otherwise. According to Serling biographer Joel Engel, Bradbury soon began to tell journalists “off the record” that he and other science fiction writers were furious at Serling for stealing their work. In particular, he claimed, two episodes – “Where Is Everybody?” and “Walking Distance” – were lifted from his own short stories. “Walking Distance,” he said, was derived from his tale “The Black Ferris” – and Serling’s guilty inclusion of Bradbury’s name in the script proved it.
It’s a curious assertion, given the fact that two stories more dissimilar in plot, character, and mood could scarcely be imagined. “The Black Ferris” (available in The Stories of Ray Bradbury and several other Bradbury collections) deals with a man who rides a Ferris wheel backwards in order to turn into a child and steal an old widow’s money, thereupon riding the wheel forward again and escaping undetected. His end comes when two children, Peter and Hank, foil his plot by forcing the wheel to keep revolving forward; the man dies of old age and becomes a skeleton, “a paper bag of money in its hands, a brown derby hat on its head.” (This idea is revisited in Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes film, this time using, ironically enough, a merry-go-round.)
“The Black Ferris” is a chilling tale, superbly atmospheric and brilliantly written, but it is difficult to see what Bradbury was complaining about in terms of “Walking Distance.” The sole similarity – and even this one is vague – is in the use of a carnival ride as a time-traveling device; other than that, the stories simply have nothing in common.
The Ferris wheel was going up and up into the sky, a big nebula of stars caught on the dark earth and turning forward and forward, instead of backward, and there sat Joseph Pikes in a black-painted bucket-seat, laughing up and around and down and up and around and down at little old Hank standing there…The merry-go-round was still, but its music played and crashed in the open spaces….
Now the carnival was ablaze with sudden light. Men sprang out of tents, came running…
“Stop, stop the wheel!” In the wind the voice sighed away.
The voice repeated and repeated.
The dark carnival men tried to apply the brake. Nothing happened. The machine hummed and turned the wheel around and around. The mechanism was jammed.
“Stop!” cried the voice one last time.
If there are no specific similarities between “The Black Ferris” and “Walking Distance,” there is nonetheless a clear relation in terms of what might be called “emotional imagery.” Indeed, it could well be difficult for the “Walking Distance” fan to read Bradbury’s hallucinatory description of the wild Ferris wheel ride and not think of Martin Sloan’s similarly dreamlike experience at the merry-go-round of his past. The crazed lights, the insanely jarring carnival music, panic followed by eerie silence…All are familiar to devotees of Serling’s “Walking Distance,” and this must certainly be what so pained Ray Bradbury.
Whether or not it amounts to plagiarism, is, of course, another question. But by the mid-1990s, it became clear that Martin Sloan was not yet done giving birth to his fathers.
Vidal: “Any Time a Friend of Mine Succeeds, a Little Something in Me Dies”
In 1996, while on the set of the film Gattaca – in which he co-starred – world-renowned writer, critic, and wit Gore Vidal, in the middle of a wide-ranging interview, made a casual assertion regarding Rod Serling. Serling had, he said, “stolen” a story of Vidal’s, “A Moment of Green Laurel,” for use in one of his television scripts – specifically, for a Twilight Zone. Indeed, said Vidal, he later confronted Serling about it at a party. Serling’s response?
“He denied it,” Vidal said.
Vidal did not name or describe the Zone he believed came from his own short story, but a single reading of “A Moment of Green Laurel” (available in Vidal’s The City and the Pillar and Seven Early Stories) leaves little room for doubt that the culprit is, once again, “Walking Distance.” Vidal’s tale is narrated by a man visiting his hometown – in this case, Washington D.C. – for the first time in ten years. He has arrived on Inauguration Day, and finds himself at a crowded party attended by the social elite of the city, a group which includes his mother – who, strangely, does not seem to recognize him. They soon lose each other, however, in the noise and press of the crowd, and finally he wanders to the outskirts of Rock Creek Park, his boyhood home, there encountering a young boy, “half-grown with silver-blond hair and dark eyes.” The boy, who says he is twelve years old, carries several branches of laurel in his arms, and he and the narrator engage in a strange dialogue. The narrator asks if the house on the hill is the boy’s.
“Yes…It’s my grandfather’s house.”
“Have you lived there long?”
“Most of my life. You know my grandfather?”
I said I did not. “But I used to live in that house, too…when I was about your age. My grandfather built it thirty years ago.”
“No, I don’t think so. Mine built it a long time ago: when I was born.”
Somehow the narrator knows that the boy’s favorite activity in school is reading, and that his favorite place to read is in the attic. The two like the same books, as well – primarily history – and the narrator reveals that he knows what the boy is going to do with the laurel: “Make wreaths, the way the Romans did.” At the end they hear a woman’s voice from the house call a name which makes “both of [them] start,” and as the boy leaves the narrator wonders if he will ever recall “an old encounter with a stranger who had asked me odd questions about our house, and about the green laurel which I carried in my arms.”
“A Moment of Green Laurel” is short, precise, and effective. It’s also as autobiographical to Vidal’s life as “Walking Distance” is to Serling’s: the author, a member of a politically elite family (which includes, at some remove, Al Gore Jr.), did in fact grow up in his grandfather’s house in Washington D.C.’s Rock Creek Park, and did love reading history – a fact amply demonstrated in Vidal’s later career through such novels as Burr, Lincoln, and Creation. The emotional worlds of the two stories are completely different – indeed, Vidal’s narrator describes himself as having been away from home so long “without regret or longing.” This is a far cry from Martin Sloan’s aching nostalgia, and lends “A Moment of Green Laurel” an ambiguous, somewhat creepy tone. But the story, which appeared in a Vidal collection published in 1956, certainly contains the same germ of an idea as the Serling teleplay, written three years later.
Is it likely that Serling was familiar with “A Moment of Green Laurel”? It’s certainly a possibility. Serling and Vidal knew each other in the early days of live television, tackling some of the same markets and even alternating script-writing chores on one series, The Tell-Tale Clue, using pseudonyms because the program was, according to Vidal, “awful stuff.” Despite the fact that Vidal had already published several novels, both writers made their national fame through television drama: Serling through such now-classic shows as “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and “The Comedian” for Playhouse 90, Vidal through such contributions to Studio One as “Visit to a Small Planet,” a brilliant science-fiction satire (later destroyed by Jerry Lewis in an inept film version).
Vidal himself, a notoriously competitive artist who once said “Every time a friend of mine succeeds, a little something in me dies,” seems to have harbored mixed feelings toward his highly successful friend Rod Serling. In his 1995 memoir Palimpsest, he goes out of his way to take a swipe at Serling; describing the numerous requests he receives for interviews by other people’s biographers, he writes that on his desk at that moment are queries from writers interested in “Carson McCullers, Mary McCarthy, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner – thank God I never met Hemingway – J.F. Kennedy, Truman Capote, Antony Tudor, Anais Nin – Rod Serling! Apparently, there is no one so obscure that he or she has not at least one biographer.” (It’s worth noting that at the time of the publication of this memoir, Rod Serling had already been the subject of two biographies – which is two more than Vidal had.)
But in cooperating with the Serling biographer – Gordon Sander – Vidal took a more moderate approach, his tone perhaps best described as “friendly condescension.” Ignoring Serling’s writing, he instead chose to praise superficialities: “Don’t forget, he saw himself as a leading man…He had a lot of charm, was nice looking, lovely voice, and he was really sort of the star of his own inner drama.” Much the same might be said of Vidal himself, who, if he has never quite reached the status of “leading man,” at least has made it to the rank of supporting player in such films as Bob Roberts and With Honors.
While it’s not at all difficult to imagine that Serling was familiar with “A Moment of Green Laurel,” it should be said that Vidal’s story, for all its quality, is not terribly original. Stories of time travel paradoxes had already been thoroughly mined by the likes of Robert Heinlein and Clifford D. Simak long before Vidal (or Serling) entered the field, and Jack Finney was publishing his charming stories – “The Third Level” being the best-known – at the same time. The idea of a man meeting his past self had been used before, and it would be used again (see Harlan Ellison’s 1969 story, “One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty”; a female variant appears in the 1998 Tori Amos music video “Jackie’s Strength”).
Indeed, it might almost be said that “Walking Distance” virtually starts where “A Moment of Green Laurel” ends. Vidal simply stops his tale at the moment of recognition; there is a brief dialogue, and the boy runs off. Serling, in contrast, stages the same moment less than halfway through his teleplay, and the most intense and emotional moments of the script come after, as Martin tries to understand what he must do. “Walking Distance,” then – like so many of the best Twilight Zones, and, indeed, like “A Moment of Green Laurel” – is less a stunningly original concept than a brilliantly-handled version of a familiar science fiction idea.
“Walking Distance”: The Anxiety of Influence
In his biography of Tolstoy, A.N. Wilson describes how the great Russian writer would sometimes turn to reading of English classics, particularly Dickens, whenever he suffered a sticking point in a story or novel. “Nothing so crude as imitation was at work in the mature Tolstoy,” he writes. “Rather, the absorption in a different mind engaged in an analogous creative process released something within him, providing, when it worked, the right blend of distraction and impetus.” Tolstoy’s wife is quoted as saying, “[W]hile he was reading Dickens’s Dombey and Son, he suddenly announced to me: ‘Aha! I’ve got it!’ When I asked what he meant he would not tell me at first, but eventually he said: ‘Well, I’ve been imagining this old woman – her appearance, her manner, her thoughts – but I haven’t been able to find the right feelings to give her.’ ” Reading Dickens somehow released those feelings within Tolstoy, and made it possible for him to complete his story.
Something similar to the creative process of Tolstoy seems to have been at work in the creative imagination of Rod Serling, particularly in connection to “Walking Distance.” It’s quite likely that he knew both “The Black Ferris” and “A Moment of Green Laurel,” as his famous antagonists contend. From Bradbury he seems to have gleaned the “emotional imagery” of the mad carnival and the notion of time travel as the purview of childhood things: a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round. From Vidal he may have picked up the germ of a story in the image of a meeting between a man and his younger self. This “blend of distraction and impetus” then channeled through his mind, superimposing itself onto memories of his youth in Binghamton: “The music,” as the episode says, “the merry-go-round…And the cotton candy, the ice cream, and the band concerts. Nothing quite as good, ever.” By the end the material was transformed into his own, uniquely personal tale.
The father of Martin Sloan, then, must always and forever be Rod Serling, but that isn’t to discount Bradbury and Vidal, who might be considered something like grand-uncles. The influences behind any work of art are impossibly complex, consisting of nothing less than every memory and experience the artist has ever had. In this case, Rod Serling took everything he knew of storytelling and life, all he understood of magic, myth, and memory, and turned them into the timeless classic known as “Walking Distance.”
Christopher Conlon‘s work has been praised by the likes of poet William Heyen, novelist Donald Windham, and television scenarist George Clayton Johnson. His poems have appeared in some two dozen periodicals including Santa Barbara Review, Wind, Poet Lore, and America Magazine; his fiction (recently collected in Saying Secrets: American Stories and the chapbook Ghosts in Autumn) has been published in The Long Story literary journal and Interrace. Read more by and about Chris at his website, ChristopherConlon.com.
“The Many Fathers of Martin Sloan” first appeared in the Dec 2000—Jan 2001 issue of Filmfax magazine. It is reproduced here by permission of the author.
The Recreation Park Carousel that likely fueled Rod Serling’s fond memories.
Sadly, the renovations that enclosed it also destroyed Rod’s carved initials.