The Serling Zone - Rod Serling


Forbidden Area

"Rod loved the controversy of sociological themes," John Frankenheimer told WNET. "Those were the things that really interested him. And Rod really kept battling to do controversial, socially relevant material." Of particular consternation to the network and the sponsors was a planned episode dealing with the murder of a black teenager from Chicago, visiting Mississippi in the summer of 1954.

"Martin Manulis and Rod and I had an idea for the second season of Playhouse 90," John Frankenheimer told WNET, "to do a program about what happened to the men who killed Emmett Till."

According to most accounts, the youth had the nerve to whistle at a white store owner's wife, and was beaten and shot, with his body tossed in the Tallahatchie River in north central Mississippi.

"There was a trial," Manulis told WNET, "but the perpetrators were not brought to justice." In fact, the accused kidnappers and murderers were acquitted.

 

Serling's script, "A Town Has Turned To Dust," caused a huge fury among sponsors and network officials. Numerous changes, alterations and deletions were ordered to the script. Frankenheimer termed it "a terrible compromise."


"A Town Has Turned To Dust," remade in 1998 as a science fiction film (CBS)

The setting was transformed to the Southwest in the 1870s, the Till character became "a romantic Mexican," and, as Serling noted, "by the time 'A Town Has Turned To Dust' went before the cameras, my script had turned to dust." He added that "they chopped it up like a roomful of butchers at work on a steer."

Somehow, though, "A Town Has Turned To Dust" was still nominated for an Emmy for Serling's script, as hacked up as it may have been.

This was not the first time that Serling had battled with sponsors and networks. In a 1956 episode of The United States Steel Hour, "Noon On Doomsday," Serling's script dealt with a disturbed man who killed an elderly Jew and was subsequently acquitted by a jury of local citizens. When asked by a reporter prior to the broadcast if this script was in reference to the Till case, Serling responded, "If the shoe fits ..."

Some publications reported that this script actually was based on the Till case, and the program received thousands of letters of protest and a threatened boycott. The sponsor, U.S. Steel, demanded changes in the script. The setting was moved to somewhere in New England, the murdered Jewish man became an unspecified foreigner, and the sponsor wanted the killer to be "just a good decent, American boy momentarily gone wrong."

Serling described the melee over his script as "a Pier 6 brawl to stop this alteration of character."

Another 1956 production, the Studio One episode, "The Arena," met with similar problems. Serling's story dealt with the U.S. Senate, although, as he later noted, "I was not permitted to have my Senators discuss any current or pressing problem," and "to say a single thing germane to the current political scene was absolutely prohibited.

"So, on television in April of 1956," Serling continued, "several million viewers got treated to an incredible display on the floor of the United States Senate of groups of Senators shouting, gesticulating and talking in hieroglyphics about make-believe issues, using invented terminology, in a kind of prolonged, unbelievable double-talk."

 


Art Carney & Jack Klugman in "The Velvet Alley," Jan. 22 1959 (CBS)

Serling, undaunted, continued to fire out meaningful scripts. Of particular interest was a 1959 Playhouse 90 episode, "The Velvet Alley."

"Boy, that was one script where he let his guilt hang out," brother Robert Serling told WNET for American Masters, "on falling into the Hollywood rat-trap, the infatuation with power and success, his relationship with an old agent. And I always felt that that 'Velvet Alley' gave more insight into Rod's personality than anything he ever wrote or anything he told any of his friends."

The story centered around Ernie Pandish (Art Carney), a struggling freelance television writer living in an apartment building in New York City, whose career is bolstered by a believing, supportive agent (Jack Klugman). When Ernie sells a script to a major Hollywood-produced program, he, urged by a boozing TV producer (Leslie Nielsen) struggling to maintain his position, moves west and "goes Hollywood." In the process, he breaks with his longtime agent, divorces his wife and, in so doing, loses his father's respect.


Art Carney & Leslie Nielsen in "The Velvet Alley" (CBS)

"A lot of Rod is in 'The Velvet Alley,'" John Frankenheimer told WNET. "A lot of Rod is in everything he ever wrote."

Slow Fade To Black

"If you want to prove that God is not dead ... then first prove that man is alive." --- Rod Serling

As the 1950s drew to a close, so did the "Golden Age Of Television." The great dramatic anthology series, one by one, were vanishing from the small screen. At CBS, where so many such shows were a part of the landscape, the end was near when programming chief Hubbell Robinson resigned.

"It was written on the wind what was going to happen," John Frankenheimer told WNET for American Masters.

Loring Mandel, a writer friend of Serling's, agreed. "It was very clear that (CBS) had gone gone from a network that was interested in subject matter and quality to one that was interested in the bottom line, primarily, and almost exclusively."

Serling, however, still had a last blast or two before Playhouse 90 folded for good.

 


"In The Presence Of Mine Enemies," last Playhouse 90, May 18, 1960 (CBS)

"In The Presence Of Mine Enemies," featuring Charles Laughton and Arthur Kennedy, dealt with the horrors related to the occupation of Warsaw by the Germans in World War II. Again, problems were encountered.

"The first sponsor turned it down cold," Serling said, adding that he had spent some nine months working on the script. "Why is everybody so timid, so afraid?"

As it turned out, however, James Aubrey Jr., who replaced Robinson, had already dropped the axe on Playhouse 90. "In The Presence Of Mine Enemies," which aired May 18, 1960, was the last episode.

"He, and the other writers of his time," John Frankenheimer lamented to WNET, "defined a time in television that will never be again. An American art that will never be again."

"We had tilted at the same dragons for seven or eight years," Serling said. "And, when the smoke cleared, the dragons had won. Live television was history. So, the summons came, and the writers moved west."

The Gift

"I wanted to do it for years, but they said, 'No, no no. Fantasy in any form is out.' An irony." --- Rod Serling

With the passing of the live dramatic anthology series, more and more of television's content was being shot on film, and the emphasis shifted from New York to Los Angeles.

Part of the reasons for this were economic, of course. A live broadcast could air only once, unless it was preserved on a kinescope (a technique involving placing a film camera in front of a live television monitor; the end result usually of less-than-stellar quality).

Videotape technology was still in the process of being developed, while film offered a great deal more flexibility with regard to in-studio, backlot and location use.

And, by 1957, it seems that Rod Serling had begun thinking of making the move toward series television.

Serling examined the state of the business that year, and commented on its progress - and limitations. 

"Television today remains a study in imperfection," he said. "Some of its basic weaknesses and mediocrity are still with us. There is still wrestling, soap opera, overlong commercials and some incredibly bad writing. There is really no defense for any of this, but there is an explanation. 

"You need only look at a calendar to remember that only seven or eight years have gone by and the medium remains a young one and a groping one," Serling continued. "There still remain new techniques to learn, new fields to examine and a myriad set of roadblocks to progress that have still to be breached."

Early that year, he had dusted off an old idea from his days in Cincinnati, a script called "The Time Element." For submission to CBS, he had installed a series title over the script - The Twilight Zone.

The script sat around at CBS, unused, for over a year, until Bert Granet, who was producing Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, met Serling, and learned that he had a script that CBS had not used.

Desilu Playhouse, a production of the studio founded by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball (Desilu is a combination of their first names), featured sitcoms starring the soon-to-be-divorced couple every fourth week, with the other three weeks featuring dramatic presentations.

Granet tried hard to keep viewer interest by hiring top-name film actors to star in the episodes, and by finding scripts from the best writers.

Learning that an unused Serling script was available, Granet bought it from CBS, and "The Time Element" aired during the 1958-59 season of Desilu Playhouse.

However, the finished product as aired on the series wasn't exactly the same script that Granet had bought. The sponsor, of course, demanded some changes.

"The Time Element" dealt with a bartender named Pete Jenson (William Bendix) who tells a psychiatrist, Dr. Gillespie (Martin Balsam) that he has had recurring dreams of being in Hawaii on Dec. 6, 1941 - the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor - and trying to warn people about it, although he is ignored.

When the psychiatrist tries to console him, the man says he thinks he really is going back in time.

Jenson, on the psychiatrist's couch, sees his dream resume where it had earlier left off, and he sees Japanese planes attack as he stands in a hotel room. An explosion sends the walls of the room down on top of him.

The psychiatrist suddenly finds himself alone in his office, knowing that something isn't quite right, although he isn't sure what. He walks to a nearby bar, and notices a photo of a man on the wall. It is Jenson. When he asks who the man is, he is told that Jenson once tended bar there, before he was killed at Pearl Harbor!

Desi Arnaz, the host of Desilu Playhouse, appeared at the end of the program and, in yet another move to placate the sponsor, offered a "rational" explanation for the events of the teleplay.

"The Time Element" was no masterpiece, but it did receive good reviews, and attracted more mail than any other episode of Desilu Playhouse that season. And that helped convince CBS that Serling just might have a good series on his hands.

William Self was given the task of overseeing the project, as assigned by CBS West Coast Programming VP William Dozier. Now, of course, Serling needed a new script, and submitted one called "The Happy Place," a tale of a futuristic society in which people who reach the age of 60 are automatically dispatched to concentration camps (or "happy places," euphemistically) and subsequently executed. Late in the tale, it is proposed to lower the extermination age to 50. Three generations of one family are depicted in the script, and how each one deals with this totalitarian society.

Self didn't like the script, told Dozier so, and, in a meeting with the writer, told Serling so. Self thought it was too dark, too depressing, and would never sell as a series.

Serling, realizing that the important thing here was to sell the series, wrote a new script, called "Where Is Everybody?"

In this story, a man who seems to have amnesia wanders into a town, where everyplace he goes, it appears that someone has just left. Despite his best efforts, he can locate no one in the town. At the end, it is revealed that he is an astronaut in training, placed in an isolation chamber. His mind has snapped, and all the events that have transpired were a hallucination.

The script used science fiction overtones, but was totally based in reality. In other words, it was "safe" enough to get past the network and the sponsors.

A friend of Dozier's, Robert Stevens, was hired to direct the pilot, and Earl Holliman was cast as Mike Ferris, the astronaut who is the centerpiece of the story.

 

"I got goosebumps reading this story, this little half-hour script," Hollimon told WNET for American Masters. It was like a Last Man On Earth kind of thing, you know, and every place he went ... there'd be a smoking cigar, there would be water running in the sink. There would be evidence of somebody having just left, but nobody was there. And it was very spooky and very exciting."


Earl Holliman, "Where Is Everybody?" (CBS)

With music by Bernard Herrmann, and nine days of rehearsal and shooting, "Where Is Everybody" was then flown to New York to be screened for prospective sponsors.

"It was the fastest sale of a pilot that I have ever been involved with," William Self told WNET.

In fact, the pilot sold just six hours after the screening.

CBS then entered into a contract with Serling, giving each party 50 percent ownership of the series. Serling, through his Cayuga Productions (named after a favorite vacation spot in New York state, Cayuga Lake), would produce the series, and own the original negatives. It was also stipulated that Serling himself would write the vast majority of the scripts for the series.

Some two months later, a crew was assembled, and production of the series began in earnest.

As a footnote to the pilot, Serling himself was very unsatisfied with the straightforward ending, although it was clearly written with a purpose.

In his 1960 collection of short stories adapted from scripts for the series, Stories From The Twilight Zone, Serling made the ending more to his liking, and more inline with the series itself. At one point in the script, Ferris enters a movie theater in his search to find other people. In the revised version of the story, he takes a ticket at the counter, and tears off the stub, placing it in his pocket.

"And then you play the whole thing," Serling explained later, "and when he gets out of the isolation booth and they're carrying him on the (stretcher), he reaches into his pocket and there's a ticket stub. Now, it doesn't mean anything except, 'Wait a minute' - Bwaang! - 'What happened here?'"

But those type endings would come soon enough. "Where Is Everybody" did what it needed to do - it got The Twilight Zone on the air.

A Portrait In Celluloid

"Twilight Zone is about people, about human beings involed in extraordinary circumstances, in strange problems of their own or of fate's making." --- Rod Serling

Other than Rod Serling himself, the single most important person in the history of The Twilight Zone was the man chosen by Serling to serve as producer. Initially, Serling offered the job to William Self, who declined, choosing instead to remain at his post with CBS. Self, however, recommended a man who had been his script editor when he produced the Schlitz Playhouse Of Stars series a few years earlier.

That man was Archible Ernest "Buck" Houghton, and he and The Twilight Zone were a perfect fit.

Douglas Heyes, who directed several episodes, explained to The Twilight Zone Companion author Mark Scott Zicree why Houghton was the right man for the job.

 


Producer Buck Houghton, circa 1959
 (Courtesy RSMF)

"I think Buck was the best producer I ever worked with," Heyes said. "He would listen to suggestions and try to support the director or the actor or whomever in their own originality as much as he could. He brought out the best in everyone and he made me feel like I wanted to do innovations and do exciting things for Twilight Zone, much more than I ever felt for any other series."

By this time, Houghton had almost 20 years of experience in the industry, having previously worked at Selznick International Pictures and RKO Studios, before moving into television with the Schlitz Playhouse Of Stars. He then produced the syndicated series China Smith, which starred Dan Duryea, Wire Service, the detective series Meet McGraw, and, perhaps his best-known series of that era, Yancy Derringer, a western set in New Orleans with Jock Mahoney as a riverboat gambler. He then produced a drama series about a freelance photographer, Man With A Camera, which starred Charles Bronson.

Houghton was the perfect compliment for Serling. His expertise in dealing with studios, directors and technical people allowed Serling, the series' executive producer, to concentrate more on his own scripts and selecting those from other contributors.

Serling, Houghton said, was always involved, in script development, rewrites, and viewing dailies of the episodes.

Serling later complimented those that Houghton chose to work on The Twilight Zone, saying that "we had some real giants on our team."

Among those were director of photography George Clemens, production manager Ralph W. Nelson, and art director William Ferrari. William Self suggested a fine casting director, Mildred Gusse, and music - an important element of The Twilight Zone - came from Bernard Herrmann (who composed the original theme, and scored several individual episodes), Marius Constant (who wrote the more familiar "spastic piano" piece which eventually became the series theme), Van Cleave, and others.

Houghton chose Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, or MGM, as the primary source of production space and facilities because, as he put it, "I knew it had the best storehouse of sets in town. MGM traditionally kept everything they ever made."

In June of 1959, some four months before the series premiered, work began on shooting more episodes of The Twilight Zone. Rod himself was a constant presence on the scenes of the series, as Carol Serling told The Twilight Zone Companion.

 

"He would get up very early," she said, "grab a cup of coffee, and he'd be out there at the crack of dawn. In his office in the back of the house, he'd dictate his scripts into a tape machine. Often, if the weather was nice, he'd take the machine outside with him and sit by the pool. Usually, he finished writing by twelve or one o'clock; he'd written himself out. Rod would then drive from Pacific Palisades to MGM in Culver City. There, he would work until late into the evening."


A dictaphone had replaced the typewriter, which was too slow (Courtesy RSMF)

Serling's personal involvement in The Twilight Zone was a key factor to its success.

"Rod worked with great writers, and inspired them to bring him great scripts," director Lamont Johnson told WNET. "And then he would be invovled in the final little 'hand-stitching,' that went into creating this elegant and subtle, web-like thing that is the magic of the imagination of that show."

And, of course, there was Serling's own unique gifts as a writer, a huge element in the originality, and lasting effect, of The Twilight Zone.

"Rod had such a wonderful imagination," actor Cliff Robertson told WNET, "and that triggered off your imagination. He wrote with the actor's sensitivities in mind. And he had an ear, he had an ear. His dialogue sparkled, and it was the kind of dialogue that actors protected rather than resented."

Actor Jack Klugman agreed, telling WNET that Serling's words "had a 'snap, crackle, pop' to them," adding that "they were crisp, and they were wonderful to roll around in your mouth and say them. His characters were easy to make your own."

Another important factor in The Twilight Zone was that this series was the product of a writer, not a network executive.

"For the first time in television," Serling said, "a writer will have the opportunity to let his imagination take him wherever he wants to. The sky is no longer the limit."

 

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