In 1961, the most recognisable writer in America—Rod Serling—crossed professional paths with the most recognisable face in Hollywood—Marilyn Monroe.
by Spencer Lloyd Peet
In 1961, the most recognisable writer in America, Rod Serling, crossed paths with that of the most recognisable face in Hollywood, Marilyn Monroe, for a TV project that would leave them both, and all others involved, disenchanted. You would think that this was going to be a match made in heaven, but as Keith Badman, author of the enthralling biography The Final Years of Marilyn Monroe – The Shocking True Story, discovered, this wasn’t to be the case and proved to be a very expensive lost cause.
Monroe was offered $100,000 to appear in a 90-minute television adaptation for NBC of W. Somerset Maugham’s “Rain,” playing the part of prostitute Sadie Thompson, a role she was keen to embrace. Other stars set to appear included Fredric March and Florence Eldridge. Richard Burton was approached to play Reverend Davidson, but he declined due to Monroe’s reputation for always being late on set which could have interfered with his evening stage appearance in the musical “Camelot” at the Majestic Theatre. On loan from CBS, television’s Golden Boy, Serling, was hired at a cost of $25,000 to write the script.
On 15 June, a few hours after Monroe flew in from Los Angeles (a place she loathed immensely), Serling met with the jet-lagged blonde bombshell at her home in Manhattan where they conversed about the project; they spoke until the early hours of the morning.
Serling turned in two drafts but heard nothing from the studio. After contacting NBC a second time, he was told Monroe favoured the original 1923 play version, “Rain: A Play in Three Acts,” by John Colton and Clemence Randolph and was privately rehearsing that rendition. When told this, Serling, understandably, was outraged. He had no interest in writing a script that was similar to the original and only took on the assignment because he was on the understanding that the producers wanted a more up-to-date rendition, and thus saw the task of keeping close to the original as being “pointless.”
However, the ill-fated production of “Rain” continued on but was soon cut short one last time when Monroe was admitted into hospital for a gall bladder operation.
NBC had earmarked the play to premiere on Sunday 29 October where it would run back-to-back with a new comedy variety entitled The World Of Bob Hope and would be sponsored by the cosmetic company Revlon. But the studio decided to cut its losses and called it a day, underwriting the production cost of an estimated $350,000.
According to Badman, there was probably more than one reason why the project was finally scrapped. Rumours within the industry suggested Monroe’s drama coach, Lee Strasberg, was partly to blame as a dispute between him and Rain’s director, George Roy Hill, had arisen, causing the director to threaten to quit if Strasberg continued to interfere with the directing of Monroe. Reports about Monroe’s unstable mental health and her visit to a psychiatric clinic were also rife and thus her illness most likely contributed to the final decision being made too.
Alas, Monroe’s hopes of appearing in her first teleplay were dashed and Serling’s script fell to the wayside. But this demonstrates perfectly that even for such talents like Serling and Monroe, things don’t always work out.
“Had Rain been made,” surmises Badman, “it would have shown Monroe’s capabilities as a serious actress. The Misfits had demonstrated this; Rain would have cemented it, especially in the television format. Serling described the tragic sex goddess as “a warm, friendly, beautiful, but odd girl.”
As a point of interest, Serling made reference to Monroe in the teleplay “The Rack” when Lieut. Steve Wasnik, played by Keenan Wynn, spoke the following line to Capt. Ed Hall, portrayed by Marshall Thompson, in an attempt to get his attention: “I also got a cablegram from Marilyn Monroe. Wants to know if you’re busy tonight.”
Badman has triumphantly pieced together the facts surrounding Rain and has presented in his book – which has been five years in the making – the most authoritative account of Serling’s involvement with Monroe on what would have been her first ever appearance in a television drama. Whereas other biographies of both Serling and Monroe only mention Rain briefly, and often contradicting one another, Badman has dedicated two whole pages to the doomed project. “I made it a point to put everything I found in my publication,” says Badman. “I wanted to make my coverage of Rain definitive, a focal point of everything to do with the ill-fated play. However, if anyone comes across new information on the project, I would love to learn about it.”
A long-time columnist for Record Collector magazine, Keith Badman has assisted in footage searches for DVD releases by the Rock Gods, Queen and The Beatles, been enlisted for archive assistance by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Rhino and VH-1 and is responsible (or partly responsible) for ten music books; subjects range from The Beatles and The Beach Boys to The Rolling Stones and Small Faces. The attention to detail in all his books has earned him the reputation as being a meticulous and top-class author and researcher within the world of entertainment, and is often referred to as being the Columbo of investigative journalism.
With special thanks to Keith Badman. The Final Years of Marilyn Monroe – The Shocking True Story is published by JR Books.
The Official Keith Badman Website: www.keithbadman.com
The Official Spencer Lloyd Peet Website: www.slpeet.com