The Serling Zone - Rod Serling


It's A Good Life

"Hollywood's a nice place to live - if you're a grapefruit." --- Rod Serling

With the announcement of Rod Serling's involvement in The Twilight Zone, there were those who questioned why a man of Serling's distinguished writing pedigree would suddenly get involved in such an effort.

"I had heard people say that he's a kind of 'Euripedes of television,'" director Lamont Johnson recalled to WNET for American Masters. "'Why is he degrading his talent to this extent?'"

In an episode of The Mike Wallace Interview, which aired just prior to the premiere of The Twilight Zone, Serling was asked if he was now "writing easy?"

"These are very adult, I think, high-quality, half-hour, extremely polished films," Rod answered. "But, because they deal in the areas of fantasy, and imagination, and science fiction, and all of those things, there's no opportunity to cop a plea or chop an axe, or anything."

When Wallace asked if he had, in essence, given up on "writing anything 'important' for television," Serling replied, "if, by important, you mean that I'm not going to try to delve into any current social problems dramatically, you're quite right, I'm not."

But, that wasn't quite the case.

"He carried his Playhouse 90 sensibility right into The Twilight Zone," writer Richard Matheson told WNET, "and found that stories of social commentary that that you could not sell anywhere else, under any other circumstance, but you put it in a fantasy story and you could say all kinds of things."

Buck Houghton told WNET that even the network had some concerns about what Rod might do with the series.

"CBS had some reservations about giving Rod Serling too much power," he said. "Here's this outspoken little guy who came out from New York with all that reputation."

In fact, The Twilight Zone proved to be the perfect sketchpad for Serling to paint his visions. And, they were his visions, as demonstrated by his presence as host and narrator of the series.

"On The Twilight Zone," Rod said later, "I knew I could get away with Martians saying things that Republicans and Democrats couldn't."

To understand the impact that the premiere of The Twilight Zone had on the television landscape, one can look at the other series that premiered in the fall of 1959. These included Dennis The Menace, The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis, The Betty Hutton Show (a sitcom featuring the 1940s film star and favorite WWII pinup girl) and Mr. Lucky (an adventure series based on the 1943 Cary Grant film) on CBS; Bourbon Street Beat (a private eye series set in New Orleans), Hawaiian Eye (a private eye series set in Honolulu, with Robert Conrad and Connie Stevens), Robert Stack in The Untouchables and The Detectives - are you detecting a theme here? - on ABC; and the perennial favorite western Bonanza, Riverboat (with Darren McGavin and Burt Reynolds on an 1840s Mississippi steamboat), another western, Laramie, and Fibber McGee And Molly on NBC.

Returning series that year included the westerns Maverick, Lawman, Colt .45, Cheyenne, The Texan, Gunsmoke, The Life And Legend Of Wyatt Earp, Tales Of Wells Fargo, Bat Masterson, Zane Grey Theater, Rawhide, Have Gun Will Travel - a golden age for horses - along with The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet, Lassie, Peter Gunn, Father Knows Best, The Danny Thomas Show, The Real McCoys, The Donna Reed Show, Perry Mason, The Perry Como Show, The Lawrence Welk Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, Bachelor Father, and game shows such as To Tell The Truth and The Price Is Right.

The Twilight Zone was different, and audiences and critics alike quickly began to see that "this little half-hour series" was well above the ordinary.

To show proof, the episodes that aired in successive weeks after the premiere, "Where Is Everybody" on Oct. 2, 1959, were "One For The Angels," with Ed Wynn as a sidewalk salesman, always yearning for his "best pitch," keeping "Mr. Death" from taking a little girl; "Mr. Denton On Doomsday," an Old West tale with Dan Duryea as a once-great gunslinger, now the town drunk, who learns to battle the town bully (Martin Landau) and regain his dignity, thanks to a peddler named Henry J. Fate, played by Malcolm Atterbury. He gives Denton a chance to "remember the night that Fate stepped in."

This was followed by "The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine," with Ida Lupino as a fading movie star who spent her time reliving the past on the screen in her projection room, and finally entered it.

And then came "Walking Distance," which Lamont Johnson termed "the epitome of Rod at his very, very best."

The episode told the story of a harried ad exec, Martin Sloan (played beautifully by Gig Young) who, on a weekend drive to escape the rat-race of New York City, suddenly finds himself near his old hometown. Leaving his car at a garage for service, he walks to Homewood, and finds everything exactly as it was when he was 11 years old, including the house he grew up in, and his parents and his younger self!

He learns, of course, that there is only "one summer to a customer," after chasing his 11-year-old self around the old merry-go-round. The young "Marty" falls off the carousel and breaks his leg. After a heartfelt talk with his father, who tells him that "you've been looking behind you, Martin. Try looking ahead," he returns to the present - with a limp he received from falling off a merry-go-round as a child!

"I didn't realize until 'Walking Distance' that nostalgia for his old hometown had played such a tremendous part in his life," Robert Serling told WNET. "How much he loved Binghamton, how much he wanted to go back to it. Which in itself was kind of contradictory because he loved the glamour of Hollywood. He was almost like two people. It's as if ... he got his fill of the glamour every once in a while, and he had to go home to the simpler life."

With the outstanding performances by Young, Frank Overton and Irene Tedrow as Martin's parents, and a gentle but moving score by Bernard Herrmann, "Walking Distance" ranks as one of the true highlights of The Twilight Zone, and demonstrates how much different this series really was from the standard TV fare.

And this was only the first month!

More classic episodes (see the "Best Of The Zone" section for more details) followed, with 36 episodes in all airing during the first season. Along the way, Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont - two gifted writers with distinguished credentials in fantasy fiction - had come onboard and contributed the first of their important scripts to The Twilight Zone legacy.

 

At the end of the season, Emmy voters responded, selecting Serling for Outstanding Writing Achievement, Drama. It was Rod's fourth Emmy award.


Rod with Emmy number four, and
 two more to come (Courtesy RSMF)

Along the way, Serling, now fully settled in his spacious home in Pacific Palisades, was becoming a star.

"Actually, it's been kind of enjoyable," he said of his early days in Hollywood. "I've been rubbing bony elbows with bony-elbowed stars, acting the part of a chic, terribly intense New York television writer." And he had the trappings to show for it, including a white convertible and a 30-foot boat that "has everything but the kitchen sink." He added that "now I drink my beer at Ciro's," although he said "I really don't think that Hollywood will spoil me."

Serling, above all writers, was the one that people recognized on the street. And he enjoyed the attention, signing autographs and posing for photos with fans.

 


"I'm the mayor of this town," Rod tells Jack Benny. "I'm Mr. Zone"
 (The Jack Benny Program)

"Rod liked being a celebrity," John Frankenheimer told WNET for American Masters. "Rod liked being recognized. Rod liked all the things that went with it. Oh, yeah. I mean, don't fool yourself for one moment. Rod was very, very happy to be a celebrity. It fed all his insecurities ... it made him feel better."

This fame did pose some problems. Rod's youngest daughter Anne recalled "kids used to say to me, 'Are you something out of the Twilight Zone?' What can you say?"

"Apparently, on the screen, I look tall, dark, and close to omniscient," Serling said, "issuing jeapardy-laden warnings through gritted teeth ... and then they look at me (in person) and say, 'Why, God, this kid is five-foot-five, he's got a broken nose ... and looks about as foreboding as a bank teller on a lunch break."

To Serve Man

"Someplace between apathy and anarchy is the stance of the thinking human being. He does embrace a cause, he does take a position, and can't allow it to become business as usual. Humanity is our business." --- Rod Serling

 

Over its first three seasons, The Twilight Zone produced 102 episodes, with 70 of those coming from Serling. The balance of the other 32 came either from Matheson, Beaumont or George Clayton Johnson, who came aboard during the second season.

CBS had cut the series back to 29 episodes for the second season, citing production costs, and asked Serling to shoot six episodes on videotape, which he reluctantly agreed to do. The network, seemingly satisfied with this arrangement, then ordered 37 episodes for the third season.


Rod, in a typical pose, introducing a segment of Twilight Zone (CBS)

Serling netted his fifth Emmy award for writing for the second season of the series. He was nominated for the third season, but was not selected this time by the Emmy voters.

These three years are widely cited as the best of The Twilight Zone, and there is little evidence to argue with such claims. The show's consistent high quality and imaginative scripts had lured a number of excellent directors, and a number of the best actors around.

Among those actors were Jack Klugman and Burgess Meredith (who each starred in four episodes over the course of the series' run), John Anderson (who appeared in four), Gladys Cooper (three episodes), Cliff Robertson (two), Inger Stevens (two), William Shatner (two), James Best (three), Lee Marvin (two), Don Gordon (two), young Billy Mumy (three), Fritz Weaver (two), Anne Francis (two), Joseph Schildkraut (two), Arlene Martel, William Windom, Kevin McCarthy, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Jonathan Winters (his first dramatic performance), Charles Bronson, Buddy Ebsen, Dean Stockwell, Donna Douglas, Carol Burnett, Robert Duvall, Peter Falk, and a host of others.

Actors as well as writers enjoyed the challenge offered them by The Twilight Zone.

"I had such respect for Rod," Beverly Garland told The Whitewolf Zone. "It was one of the highlights of my career. I just will never forget it."

She added a footnote, involving the shooting of "The Four Of Us Are Dying," in which she played a jazz singer.

 


Rod, Beverly Garland & Ross Martin (CBS)

"I can only tell you it was a high for me," she said. "What made it so was that after Ross Martin and I had finished our scene, Rod came up to me and said that he really did not know just who the girl was. He said to me, 'You gave her so much depth and substance, I was just amazed.' You can imagine how wonderful I felt."

Writer George Clayton Johnson offered a different reason for the series' success.

"It's absolute realism in the total realistic school of writing," he told WNET, "no matter how fantastic the situation was, the lingo and the approach to the writer was - mainstream. But then it would have a touch of strange. It would get a twist to it."

"The structure was such that it grabbed you immediately," Richard Matheson told WNET, "and held onto you, and then gave you a little 'zapper,' an unexpected surprise, at the end."

Matheson added another explanation for the show's continuing appeal.

"One reason that Twilight Zone did work was the great, charismatic quality of black and white," he said. "These were like miniature film noirs."

After three wonderful seasons, however, big changes were in store for The Twilight Zone.

The Face Of Autumn

"My crime has been committed and there's very little defense for it. I was not conned into doing the beer commercial. Rather, a sizable check was thrust in front of me and I plowed in with no thought to its effect or ramifications." --- Rod Serling

 

During the 1962 Emmy awards telecast, there was Rod Serling - the man who had so often criticized sponsors - standing in front of a poster of a large beer glass, promoting Schlitz beer.

For some who remembered the "angry young man" days, this had to come as quite a shock, particularly those who recalled Serling's statement complaining of the inability to present quality drama when the proceedings "are interrupted every 15 minutes by 12 dancing rabbits with toilet paper."


There were few "cheers" for Rod the pitchman among his critics. (Schlitz beer ad.)

There was no immediate fallout from this commercial, although its impact would be felt by Serling in future years.

And, surprisingly, CBS decided not to place The Twilight Zone on its 1962-63 schedule. There was no official announcement of a cancellation, although, to many, it seemed that the show was over.

Many of the directors who had worked on the series simply found other jobs, and, after a long wait, Buck Houghton finally decided to jump ship as well, accepting an offer from Four Star Productions.

 


Rod with an unidentified student, circa 1962. "He always felt like he learned more than they did," wife Carol said. (Courtesy RSMF)

Serling himself seemed to think that the series had ended, and accepted a teaching post at Antioch College from September of 1962 until early '63.

When asked why he accepted the Antioch post, he offered three reasons. "First is extreme fatigue," he said. "Secondly, I'm desperate for a change of scene, and third is a chance to exhale, with the opportunity for picking up a little knowledge instead of trying to spew it out."

He also said that, since he had never taught before, the college might drop his option, and, if CBS didn't renew the series, that he "may just go fishing the rest of my life."

There had been a true sense of community on The Twilight Zone those first three years. Serling commented that "we used to finish up at two in the morning, have a beer in a place across the street and discuss the work. Everyone was interested, in other words."

The series would return, and still had some classic episodes up its sleeve. But, with the loss of the driving force of Serling and Houghton, it would never quite be the same again.

 

Serling actually used part of his time at Antioch to create a screenplay upon the request of old friend John Frankenheimer, who had just finished directing the film The Manchurian Candidate.

Seven Days In May, with a stellar cast including Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner and Fredric March, was a political thriller concerning a military takeover of the U.S. government.


Kirk Douglas & Burt Lancaster
 in Seven Days in May

Very late in 1962, CBS ordered the series back into production as a midseason replacement, to air on a different night, and in a one-hour format. Eighteen episodes were ordered, to begin airing in January of 1963.

There was only about two months to secure a new producer, somehow fire out some one-hour scripts, and get some episodes produced in time for the return to the air.

Although CBS didn't realize it, slashing the "the" from the series title, which was now simply Twilight Zone, was somehow prophetic. This new series was something that resembled the original show, but wasn't quite it.

Herbert Hirschman, whose credentials somewhat paralleled Houghton's in that he had spent many years working his way up in the business, was installed as producer. Fortunately, director of photography George Clemens and production manager Ralph T. Nelson were still aboard to maintain at least some continuity.

Serling, however, was still at Antioch, mailing in scripts and discussing others by phone with Hirschman. He would never again be as involved as he had been the first three seasons with the series that he himself had created.

Whenever his schedule allowed, Serling would visit the studio and film his opening and closing narrations. "We'd get Serling out here and do as many as we could," Clemens told The Twilight Zone Companion author Mark Scott Zicree, "three or four at a time. We'd do things before the picture was made and hope that the things he spoke about would come to pass in the picture (episode)."

Hirschman, who directed these segments, also created the series' new main title footage, with the opening door, passing clock and shattering window.

Hirschman also purchased scripts from as many good writers as possible, including Reginald Rose, along with TZ veterans Matheson, Beaumont, Johnson and Earl Hamner Jr. (the creator of The Waltons, Hamner had written a couple of scripts for the series in the first three years). Some directors from the earlier seasons, whenever possible, were brought back, including John Brahm, Buzz Kulik, Abner Biberman and Don Medford.

Unfortunately, many of the hour-long Twilight Zone episodes began life as half-hour TZ scripts, and were padded into hour-long stories. Others, however, were prepared specifically for the longer format.

Matheson contributed a script based on his own short story, "Mute," which starred a 12-year-old named Ann Jillian in her first real dramatic role, while Beaumont chipped in with "Miniature," featuring Robert Duvall as a shy man who becomes obsessed with the interactions inside a museum dollhouse. Hamner, with very little time to prepare, wrote perhaps his best TZ episode, "Jess-Belle," with James Best and Anne Francis in a tale of backwoods romance and witchcraft.

Serling's best scripts of the abbreviated fourth season were undoubtedly "On Thursday We Leave For Home," a futuristic story of a group of people who had left the Earth for a barren planet, and its leader (James Whitmore) who did not want them to return, "Death Ship," a science fiction drama with Jack Klugman, Ross Martin and Fredrick Barr, and "The Bard," a humorous story with Jack Weston, John Williams and Burt Reynolds in a tale about a would-be writer who, thanks to a book of black magic, is able to conjure up Shakespeare himself for assistance.

Late in the production of the 18 episodes, Hirschman's contract expired, he was offered an opportunity to produce a series in Europe, and he accepted. Twilight Zone needed a new producer, and fast. The man who was hired was the man who had, in essence, produced the original episode, "The Time Element," Bert Granet.

CBS realized that a longer Twilight Zone did not make for a larger audience, and renewed the series for a fifth season, back in its original half-hour format.

"The bulk of our stories lacked the excitement and punch of the shorter dramas we intended when we started five years ago and kept for a while," Serling said.

There were other problems than just padding, however. After four seasons, three producers and 120 episodes, Twilight Zone was beginning to wind down.

The After Hours

"In these last few years, I've written so much I'm woozy. If only I could take off about six months and replenish the well." --- Rod Serling

The fifth season of 36 half-hour episodes would see yet another change in the producer's chair. CBS made an attractive offer to Granet to take over another series, The Great Adventure, which was woefully over budget. He decided to accept the deal. William Froug, a producer with a long list of radio and TV credits, was brought in for the remaining episodes of the fifth season.

Froug himself may have been quite enthusiastic about Twilight Zone, but many others - including, to a degree, Serling himself - were not. The end was now near.

Froug decided to drop many scripts which Granet had purchased, including some from TZ veterans Matheson and Jerry Sohl (who was now ghostwriting for an ailing Beaumont). Some crew members remarked that TZ was no longer an enjoyable, creatively exciting experience, it was now a job.

 


Rod's fatigue was beginning to show in the last season of TZ (CBS)

The quality of the writing slipped badly, despite a few classic episodes that can rank with the series' best. "Toward the end," Serling said later, "I was writing so much I felt I had begun to lose perspective on what was good or bad."

In January of 1964, CBS announced its fall schedule. Twilight Zone was not on it. Froug told The Twilight Zone Companion that James Aubrey Jr. "was sick of the show," adding that "he claimed it was too far over budget and that the ratings weren't good enough."

In actuality, the ratings were still quite good, and the decision to purchase a short French film, An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge, as the final episode brought the series in under budget for the season. That film, set in the Civil War, went on to win an Oscar in the short subject category (another first for TZ, having an episode of a TV series winning an Academy Award).

In February, the trade paper Variety reported Serling's thoughts that the series would not make it to a sixth season, therefore he "decided to cancel the network."

Serling's agent thought the series might be picked up by another network, although CBS owned the rights to the title Twilight Zone. ABC initially showed some interest in a series which Rod wanted to call Rod Serling's Wax Museum. There were disagreements over content, as well as title, and the deal fell through.

 

After five seasons and 156 episodes (92 written by Serling), Twilight Zone had found its own "purple testament," a subject of one of Serling's scripts. The series was no more.


By season five, Twilight Zone itself
was looking terminal (CBS)

 

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