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Rod Serling: Tortured Genius

This is basically a transcript of a podcast segment (www.plotpoints.com) done about great writers we admire. 

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Rod Serling photo portrait 1959

 So goes one of the most iconic monologues in television history by TV pioneer Rod Serling who wrote, directed, produced and acted in the series, The Twilight Zone.

A small anecdote that came out of my research is that Rod Serling initially had it as sixth dimension until a producer asked him what happened to the fifth one.

Among the resources I tapped for this article was the American Masters documentary called "Submitted for your Approval."

It opens in an operating theater - tense moments ala The Twilight Zone.  Black and white.  Men and women in masks in tight shots.  Eyes darting...

Actress Lee Grant's voice says:

Submitted for your approval.  The man in cardiac crises is Mr. Rod Serling: writer, producer and agent provocateur of a certain electronic medium he helped to create and which, by way of thanks, kindly ushered him out the door.  But that is of no particular concern of his at the moment because this is Tuesday, June 28th 1975 and thanks to a million cigarettes and a heart with its own a flair for the dramatic Mr. Serling is on the cutting edge of infinity. Mr. Rod Serling who once remarked that he'd like to be remembered as a writer is about to get his wish.  During a short stay in a small town called yesterday - found on any map...in The Twilight Zone.
    American Masters Rod Serling: Submitted for Your Approval

The American Masters documentary starts with that excellent voice over and rolls into a sometimes harsh but always contemplative examination of a true writer's writer.  Someone who was as tortured by his work as much he was celebrated for it.  Who loved success but hated the hypocrisy he knew he participated in as part of that success.

"Writing is a demanding profession and a selfish one." he said. "And because it is selfish and demanding, because it is compulsive and exacting, Idoctor and ms tyler didn't embrace it. I succumbed to it.  My diet consisted chiefly of black coffee and fingernails."  

Which spoke to both his constant self-doubt and the crushing deadlines he faced.

That obsession for perfection would eventually kill him.  But what a ride he had.

Rod Serling was one of the most prolific writers in history.   His biography is almost too big for any single sitting.  He wrote so much that it's nearly impossible to list all the companies he wrote for.

He also is one of the most celebrated writers, earning four Emmys, a Hugo, a Writer's Guild Award for children's programming, a Peabody and many more awards for his work.

Rod SerlingAwards
- Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series
1961, 1960 · The Twilight Zone
- Peabody Award 1957 · Playhouse 90
- Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation
1962, 1961, 1960 · The Twilight Zone
-Primetime Emmy Award for Best Original Teleplay Writing
1956 · Kraft Television Theatre
PubTThou01- Laurel Award for TV Writing Achievement 1976
- Writers Guild of America Award for Television: Children's Script
2001 · A Storm in Summer
- Primetime Emmy Award for Best Teleplay Writing - One Hour or More
1958, 1957 · Playhouse 90
- Golden Globe Award for Best TV Producer/Director
1963 · The Twilight Zone
- Writers Guild of America Award for Drama, 60 Minutes or Longer in Length
1957 · Requiem for a Heavyweight
- Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama - Adaptation 1964 · Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre

Serling was active in politics, both on and off the screen, and helped form television industry standards. He was known as the "angry young man" of Hollywood, clashing with television executives and sponsors over a wide range of issues including censorship, racism, and war.

More on that a little later.

Personal:

5'4" size kept him out of football.

Twilight ZoneParatrooper (Philippines, WWII) Serling was transferred to the 511th's demolition platoon, nicknamed "The Death Squad" for its high casualty rate.
Boxer (flyweight) who had his nose broken on numerous occasions.

Bad knee - constantly buckle on him and he'd fall down.

Antioch College radio station - wrote, directed, acted in many of the programs there.  In fact one year he wrote the stations entire slate.

For extra money in his college years, Serling worked part-time testing parachutes for the United States Army Air Forces.  He got $50 for each successful jump and had once been paid $500 (half before and half if he survived) for a particularly hazardous test.  In one instance, he earned $1,000 for testing a jet ejection seat that had killed the previous three testers.

Serling volunteered at WNYC in New York as an actor and writer in the summer of 1946.  The next year, he worked at that station as a paid intern in his Antioch work-study program. He then took odd jobs in other radio stations in New York and Ohio.  "I learned 'time', writing for a medium that is measured in seconds," Serling later said of his early experiences. (wikipedia)

While attending college, Serling worked at the Antioch Broadcasting System's radio workshop and was managing the station within a couple of years. He then took charge of full-scale radio productions at Antioch which were broadcast on WJEM, in Springfield. He wrote and directed the programs and acted in them when needed. He created the entire output for the 1948–1949 school year. With one exception (an adaptation), all the writing that year was his original work. (wikipedia)

While in college, Serling won his first accolade as a writer. The radio program Dr. Christian had an annual scriptwriting contest.  Serling won for his radio script "To Live a Dream."

He signed with an agent and sold nothing for a year.  He said of that 1st sale that it was a high point of his career - that he didn't think anything images copyequaled that feeling.  "That's the one that comes with the magic," he said.

Which is sad because it implies that the writing he did after that lacked any sort of thrills which I find hard to believe since he was so celebrated.  But it's clear he truly was so tortured he couldn't always enjoy his successes.

TV was just starting, mostly in New York.  Serling was perfect for it.  He was good and fast and had a relentless drive.

LIVE dramas were just beginning to emerge - a way for TV to move beyond cheap quiz shows and crime dramas.  These were written by such notables as Paddy Chavesky, Reginald Rose, Abby Mann.  

That's where the phrase Television playwrite or teleplay came from.  They were literary plays filmed for television.  Live.  Every week.

Rod Serling was emerging quickly in that new group of writers.

His script for "Patterns" was his first huge success.  It was the first and only production to be rerun by audience demand.  It also won him his first Emmy and a Peabody Award.  It was a horribly difficult piece to watch.  It dealt with an older man being replaced by a younger man - the to serve man17unconscionable circle of life in business and the world.

"I was writing about the values of a society that places so much stock in success and has so little preoccupation with morality once success has been obtained.  This is not the morality of good and evil; this is morality's shady side of the street."  And in many ways, this shade was Serling's metier.

Serling became an "overnight" success.  It propelled him into the stratosphere of writers.

He wrote several more live television scripts.  These moral tales that he fashioned would also become the basis for the Twilight Zone.

Serling said after Patterns  he sold anything he had in his war chest - but shouldn't have because they were rejected for a reason.  But it's hard to turn off that hunger for more, especially since you've been starving for so long.

The backlog of material he so gleefully released after Patterns was savaged by the critics.  They torn him to shreds over it.

doctor and ms tyler copyIt was the beginning of a lifetime of self-doubt.  Everything he wrote had to be as good as Patterns, as insightful.  He couldn't relax any more.  He couldn't "just write" - he had to be genius and it tortured him his entire career.

"Requiem For A Heavyweight" based on his boxing experiences helped ease some of that burden.  It won him another Emmy, five in all for the production  As did "The Comedian."

But this also marked the beginning of Rod Serling's lifelong war for creative freedom.  He fought with producers, sponsors, television execs for the privilege to write what he wanted.

He mentioned a line that was cut from one production.  "Do you have a match" was taken out because one of the sponsors was Ronson Lighters and they didn't want matches mentioned.  A small thing but it built.  And one case in which the sponsor, Ford Motor Company, had the Chrysler Building removed from a picture of the New York City skyline.

Serling also wrote a powerful script about Emmett Till (Noon to Doomsday.) Till was a black man brutally murdered by white men because he supposedly whistled at a white woman.  The murderers were exonerated. A horrible piece of American history.  The network forced Serling to change it to a town in the southwest and twenty men in hoods became twenty men in masks.  Till became an amourous Jew and then a generic Romeo.  It lost most of what it made it powerful although it still had tremendous emotional punch.

Serling felt you couldn't deal with real social issues on television.  This was the appellation of  "angry young man of television."

Flash Forward to

L.A. 1956 - eventually the live playhouse in New York died.  Serling went west.images copy copy

Serling didn't love Hollywood.  

"Hollywood's a great place to live ... if you're a grapefruit."

He was highly critical of the lack of culture, the posturing - even, as he himself bought into the trappings of a star.  He had the house, the car, the boat...he surrounded himself with his success as a writer and at the same time railed against it thoroughly understanding his hypocrisy.

But in the greatest tradition of writers, Serling tried to exorcise his demons by writing about them in The Velvet Alley.  His fall into the Hollywood rat trap was semi-autobiographical and unblinkingly brutal.

patterns4FROM VELVET ALLEY:
“Here’s the trap, they offer you a great deal of money for what you do, your lifestyle gradually rises to the point that you now need that money, and then they threaten to take it away. And then they own you."

Then came the show that was to define him forever.  The Twilight Zone (1959) which actually had a precursor in an idea Serling had about a young boy and girl who traveled the country by train and had different stories each week.

Many of the TZ eps are considered television's best all time because Serling thought that a science-fictional setting, with robots, aliens and other supernatural occurrences, would give him more freedom and less interference.  He could take on the issues that hamstrung him in normal TV writing.

His script "The Time Element" was Serling's 1957 pilot pitch for his show. It was a time travel adventure about a man who travels back to Honolulu in 1941 and unsuccessfully tries to warn everyone about Pearl Harbor.

This script pilot was rejected but eventually made its way to be produced as an episode of Desilu Playhouse in 1958. That production was a huge success and opened the door to The Twilight Zone in 1959.

The first episode (which wasn't the pilot BTW) was inspired when Serling walked through the backlot of an empty studio.  Houses, streets, streetlamps, shrubs but no people.  That became the Earl Holiman episode called "Where Is Everybody."  Holiman searches and can't find anyone in this empty town although there is coffee steaming, cigarettes burning, water running, and doors closing.  And of course, in what was to be the Zone's signature coda, it had a scifi twist ending.

With the Twilight Zone, Serling could explore anything, anywhere, in any time.  He could do the social and moral tales he wanted.  He could inform, preach, lecture, teach - something he also felt television should be about.   Entertainment - yes - but teaching lessons and morals - an even bigger yes.

Cincy0653Gene Rodenberry did the same thing years later in "Star Trek."  ST wasn't "Wagon Train" in space as is widely believed.  Like Serling, Rodenberry could examine social issues on the Enterprise that he couldn't on Earth.  He aped Serling in this way and created an equally enduring legacy.

Serling made the Twilight Zone his bully pulpit.

The opening to "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" shows the kind of moral tale that Serling so loved:  "The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout.  There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices.  And for the record, prejudices can kill."

Serling felt prejudice was the biggest sin mankind committed.  Here was Serling writing large across the small screen.  His own private medium.  Don't forget that this was a time just after Joseph McCarthy and the blacklist.  Serling's friends were dragged in front of McCarthy's committee on communism.  The episode of Maple Street ends with the aliens saying that the towns people have picked the most dangerous enemy they could find to blame - themselves.

He was writing aliens but he meant McCarthyism.  

"The Eye of the Beholder" was another great example of Serling's morality tale telling.  But it wasn't just about beauty, it was about conformity.   The idea that we're seeking to look the same, sound the same, act the same.   There's a leader in a vaguely Russian coat on TV talking about singular purpose.  Preaching that conformity if you watch.

On and on, the morals came in the form of mystery, suspense and science fiction.

rod serling twilight zone premiere 1959Out of 156 scripts in five seasons, Serling wrote ninety-two.  That's 60% of the Twilight Zone.

The others were written by such luminaries that Serling respected like Ray Bradbury who adapted his short story "I Sing the Body Electric", Charles Beaumont "The Howling Man", and Richard Matheson "The Invaders" (Agnes Morehead) and "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (Shatner).

ODD NOTE: Though he spoke fondly of Serling through his entire career, Zone teleplay writer Richard Matheson (“Steel,” “The Invaders”) found one mandate puzzling: According to Matheson, only Serling could use the word “God” in his teleplays. It was off-limits to the rest of the writing team. “I used to get ticked off at Rod because he could put ‘God’ in all his scripts,” Matheson said. “If I did it, they’d cross it out.” Matheson never asked, and was never told, the reason behind the rule.

Some of the Twilight Zone scripts tore your heart out like "Nothing in the Dark" which featured a young Robert Redford trying to convince a fearful elderly woman it's okay to let go, to die.  Here was a young man like Serling in his thirties writing about the paralyzing fear of death - with insight that belied his years.

And some of the episodes just scared the shit out of you like the Hitchhiker (Ingar Stevens) To Serve Man, It's a Good Life (kid in cornfield),  and the aforementioned Nightmare at 20,000 feet.

The Twilight Zone was an instant success.  Serling became even more famous than he could have imagined.  He appeared in interviews and variety shows.  People recognized him on the street.

What's wonderful about Serling is even as he became famous and successful and was simultaneously going through the self-hate on becoming Hollywoodized, feeding the ego he felt was out of control like some spotlight junkie, his self-examination and inner honesty forced him to put those feelings down on paper and flagellate himself with his own words.

"Walking Distance" was one result.  Every once in a while he had to go home to that small town, to touch the values he felt he had lost.  At least in his mind.  He said he felt disconnected from himself, who he is.  And he wrote about it brilliantly.

manulisThe genius of The Twilight Zone is that it really was a place of mind.  A place to go to live and dream and be scared and cry and anything else you needed to do.  And Serling was definitely our host, the person saying "Come on it's okay.  I've been there and back, and it's better to face it all that to cower in darkness."

Serling wrote in universal themes. Someone coined the phrase for his work as Wisdom Fiction to describe it.

He wrote about his life with his unique lens but it reflected us all and still does.  Soldiers, aliens, death, second chances, hope, fear, anger, bitterness... he lived it all and put it all out there for us to experience with him.

And this should be true of all writers.  If we're not writing from a place of personal anger, fear, pain, joy, learning...we're not writing.  we're just putting words on a page.

Serling had PTSD from his war experiences but he did therapy through his writing.  If you listen to his interviews or read his biography and then watch the episodes he wrote you can see him reflected directly in everything he was.  He poured himself out onto the page and wrung out every bit of self-examination he could muster.

06ReynoldsEventually that well ran dry.  He began to feel drained of ideas.  They no longer came rushing to him like a pack of enthusiastic puppies.

The Twilight Zone ran for five years.  It was cancelled three times and renewed twice and Serling said he was happy to walk away from it when it finally ended.  He was done.

Although he continued to write Serling never achieved the measure of success he did with the show that defined him.  His feature films were less than spectacular.  Except for the drama "Seven Days in May" and the original "Planet of the Apes" which he's listed as a co-writer, none were all that notable.

Night Gallery was not his work - he was just a host.

He retired to Ithaca NY to a lake house and he taught at Ithaca College for a time.  Wouldn't it have been great to take a class from him?  Wow.

The saddest thing to me about Serling's life is that this genius, this pioneer because he was so brutally honest with himself, never felt like he'd done enough.  He actually puts that theme in a lot of his work including "A Pitch For The Angels" in which a man prevents Death from taking a little girl.  At the end, the man is satisfied to go with death because he's done something worthwhile - for once.

I hope, somehow, when Serling was lying on that table in the hospital, and his heart was beating out of his chest, squeezing the life out of him, he had at least a moment of Twilight Zone prescience.  A peace in the understanding that he'd moved generations of people and writers.  That he'd set standards for other writers and for television than are continually maintained even decades later.

Because that is certainly true about him for me.

Rod Serling is a personal hero of mine.  I admire him for his work ethic, his persistence of vision, his lack of ego when it came to his work, the ability to always be self-critical.  His stead fast adherence to his principals but paired with the wisdom to compromise when he had to.  And for his unerring images copy copy copyself-awareness.

Remember, that the next time you see a Twilight Zone episode, you're not just watching a cautionary tale; you're peering directly into the soul of Rod Serling, master storyteller.

He truly lives on in his work that changed the face of the world via a small screen but with words and ideas...as large - or larger - than this universe.

Rod Serling was fifty years old when he died.  

He was a writer.

 

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