The Serling Zone - Rod Serling


No Time Like The Past

"We had some real turkeys, some fair ones, and some shows I'm really proud to have been a part of. I can walk away from this series unbowed." --- Rod Serling

Following the end of production of The Twilight Zone in 1964, Rod sold his half-ownership of the series to CBS for $600,000. The network had complained that it would never recoup its production costs.

In the years since, syndication fees, video sales and merchandising revenues have earned CBS more than enough to make up for its production costs. Some estimates have placed the revenues to CBS at over $220 million.

Serling immediately immersed himself in other work, notching his sixth Emmy award for writing "It's Mental Work," the story of a bar owner (played by Lee J. Cobb) who suffers a heart attack, for Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theatre on NBC.

It wasn't long, however, before Serling was back with a new series, which William Self said Rod termed "a thinking man's western."

 

The Loner starred Lloyd Bridges as William Colton, a former Union cavalry officer during the Civil War, who headed west to seek a new life. Along the way, he encountered different people, some good, some bad, and used these experiences to broaden his understanding of humanity, and himself.

In other words, Johnny Ringo, this wasn't.


Lloyd Bridges in The Loner, 1965 (CBS)

Premiering on Sept. 18, 1965, the series lasted only until the end of April, '66, when CBS dropped it. There were numerous disputes between the network and Serling over content.

"CBS bought it, thinking it was going to be much more of a traditional western than it was," William Self recalled to WNET for American Masters. "And I think that from day one we had a problem with the network. They didn't feel like we were delivering what we sold them, and we felt we were. They just didn't understand what we were selling them, I guess, and it became a serious problem with CBS. They wanted more action, more violence."

Self added that Serling was less-than-thrilled when CBS pulled the plug on The Loner so soon. "It wasn't given a fair shot, in his judgment, and in mine," he said, adding that "this was his old network ... it hurt him a great deal."

Serling stayed busy over the next couple of years, serving a two-year term as president of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and more writing projects, such as the political drama "Certain Honorable Men" (with Van Heflin, Will Geer, Pat Hingle and Peter Fonda), and the premiere episode of The New People, a short-lived series he created for ABC about a group of young people, on a cultural exchange tour, whose plane crashed on an isolated island formerly used as a U.S. atomic test site (meaning it had all the trappings of a city, just no people).

He also wrote a 1966 TV film, The Doomsday Flight, which led to national headlines. The film, about an unstable former airline mechanic who plants a bomb inside a commercial flight, with the bomb set to explode if the plane dropped below 4,000 feet. The plot was foiled by the pilot, who managed to land the plane in Denver, the "mile high city," at an altitude of 5,300 feet.

The film drew very high ratings, and, unfortunately, numerous bomb threats across the country.

"A writer can't be responsible for the pathology of idiots," he said of the threats, although he clearly was upset by this turn of events. "I wish to Christ I had written a stagecoach drama starring John Wayne instead," he said. "I wish I'd never been born."

Among his other writing projects were a United Nations special, "A Carol For Another Christmas," and the Hallmark Hall Of Fame presentation of A Storm In Summer, which earned Emmys as Best Dramatic Program and for star Peter Ustinov. Serling also wrote the initial screenplay adaptation of Pierre Boulle's novel Planet Of The Apes. The producers, however, deemed Serling's script too expensive to actually produce, and hired Michael Wilson to rewrite Serling's original script (the two shared on-screen credit).

Serling also appeared in numerous commercials, hosted the game show The Liar's Club, and narrated the initial Jacques Cousteau specials.

He was still a star, but there seemed to be a different perception of him within the business.

"There seemed to be a strange attitude at networks and studios," old friend Del Reisman, former story editor for Playhouse 90 and The Twilight Zone, told WNET, "that Rod was from another time, another time that was just a few years previous. And here was Rod, still young, and still vigorous, and still talented. It was like he was a comet bursting across the sky of television and then was, in a sense, fading out. And it was a strange thing because nothing happened to his talent."

"Rod had to face the question of 'what next,'" Buck Houghton told WNET. "Somebody - fate, life, time, what have you - had taken the throne right out from under him, and where was there another one? To a man who was driven and impatient, that was very tough for him."

"All writers go through cyclical times," Carol Serling explained to WNET. "There are times when you're high and times when you're low. And I remember - I lived with this for many years - Rod would write something, and it would be great, and then everybody would want him, and he'd take everything on. And then he would have too much on, and then some of them wouldn't be so great, and then the offers would, sort of, not be there anymore. And you start to doubt yourself, and think 'My God, maybe I can't write anymore,' and you take the long slide down. And then, at the bottom, comes an offer which you should never have taken."

The Last Laurel

"Every now and then, you write something that you think at the moment is quite adequate and then many years later you suddenly realize you have given birth to a turd." --- Rod Serling

On Nov. 8, 1969, NBC aired a TV film, Night Gallery, a trio of Serling-written stories, two of which came from his 1967 book The Season To Be Wary. The stories included The Cemetery, with Roddy McDowell as a man who murders his uncle to obtain his inheritance, only to discover frightening changes in a painting of the family cemetery; and Eyes, with Joan Crawford as a spoiled, blind rich woman who tries to purchase someone else's sight; this segment of the film marked the directorial debut of Steven Spielberg. The other segment was The Escape Room, with Richard Kiley as a former Nazi in hiding.

The film fared very well with viewers and critics, and the Mystery Writers Of America presented Serling with a special Edgar Allen Poe award for his writing on the film.

NBC decided to give the series a try, with Jack Laird producing at Universal. Rod Serling's Night Gallery would air, every fourth week, in a "wheel" format which was very popular with NBC at the time. The umbrella title for the series, which also included the dramas The Psychiatrist, San Francisco International and McCloud (loosely based on the 1968 Clint Eastwood film Coogan's Bluff, and later a separate series), was Four-In-One. Other examples of the "wheel" format would be NBC's popular Mystery Movie series (eventually airing on two different nights), which featured such programs as Columbo, McMillan And Wife, Banacek, Cool Million and others.

Eventually, Night Gallery would be spun out of the wheel, during the final two seasons of its three-year run.

 


Rod on the set of Night Gallery, circa 1970 (NBC/Universal)

Serling agreed to lend his name to the series, and serve as a script contributor. He did not, as he did with Twilight Zone, serve as executive producer, telling a reporter that "there's not enough money in the world to take a guy over 40 and make him go through that grind again, at least not me."

Rod assumed that the producers would defer to him for decisions on content and the like. It turned out to be a huge mistake on his part.

Serling complained about the lack of quality, but, he said, when he did, "they would pat me on the head, condescend, and then hope I'd go away," adding that the producers were interested in "Mannix in a cemetery."

Serling friend Del Reisman told WNET that Rod "was terribly troubled about that experience," as "he was really not involved creatively in that particular series. He was just used as the host, a figurehead, a front."

"On Twilight Zone, I took the bows, but I also took the brickbats, and properly, because when it was bad it was usually my fault," Serling said. "But when it was bad on Gallery I had nothing to do with it, yet my face was on it all the time ..."

In spite of all the problems, there were a few fine episodes, two of which, both from Serling, received Emmy nominations.

"The Messiah On Mott Street" told the story of an elderly Jewish man (played by Edward G. Robinson) anxious to stay alive for the sake of his young grandson, while "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" featured William Windom (in a wonderful performance) as a lonely executive who rediscovers his past at the site of a watering hole set for demolition.

"They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" is probably the best of Serling's latter efforts, in its own way equal to "The Velvet Alley," "Walking Distance" or others among his most personal, introspective pieces.

Windom's character is a man whose greatest achievements are behind him, who feels that his best friends are those ghosts of his past.

Other stories of interest from Night Gallery include "The Caterpillar" (adapted from an Oscar Cook short story), an eerie tale in which Laurence Harvey discovers the anguish of breaking the Tenth Commandment; he plans to kill the husband of the woman he desires with the use of an earwig (an insect that will eat its way across a person's brain). Harvey's character falls victim to his own scheme, and then learns that the earwig that has eaten its way across his head is a female, who has filled his head with eggs!

There was also "Little Black Bag" (based on C.M. Kornbluth's short story), with Burgess Meredith as a discredited 20th Century doctor who begins to perform miraculous healing with the aid of an accidentally-transported 21st Century medical bag. Meredith's character becomes a star, and, for the benefit of an audience of doctors, announces that he will slice his own throat - and then heal it. At that exact moment, the bag's whereabouts are detected by monitoring parties in the future - and they destroy it.

There was also "Certain Shadows On The Wall," adapted from a 1902 short story by Mary W. Walkind-Freeman, with Agnes Moorhead and Louis Hayward in a tale of a woman under the care of her evil brother. She dies, although her shadow remains cast on a parlor wall.

A few other episodes of Rod Serling's Night Gallery are of interest, but these are exceptions rather than the rule. In general, the producers sought out stories of suspense, more interested in "boo" quality than true quality.

Serling honored his contract, and stayed with Night Gallery until it was cancelled in 1973.

Serling wasn't seen as often on television after this, although he was still heard, as the narrator of several specials based on the writings of Erich von Daniken (Chariots Of The Gods).

 

He also made appearances on the lecture circuit in the late 60s and early 70s, taught writing in Los Angeles and at Ithaca College in New York state, and, in 1968, returned to his old high school in Binghamton to address the graduating class.

The remarks were vintage Serling, as he asked the seniors to grant him a brief period of nostalgia.


Rod with Ithaca College students, early 1970s (Courtesy RSMF)

"Allow him this moment of recollection and keep in mind that 25 years from now," he said, "you may well retrace your steps as I have and come back into this ugly and beloved room and wish in your heart of hearts, as I find myself wishing, that the 25 years had not gone by and that they could be relived. With more wisdom, perhaps, with more farsightedness, with more logic and reason and balance - but, however, to be relived so that the mirror would once again reveal the unlined, marvellous face of youth that looks back with no fears and no trepidations, with an acceptance of challenge and with a dedication to meet that challenge."

A Little Stroll To The End Of The Line

"As I grow older, the urge to write gets less and less. I've pretty much spewed out everything I had to say, none of which has been particularly monumental, nothing which will stand the test of time ... The good writing, like wine, has to age well, and my stuff is momentarily adequate." --- Rod Serling

 


Rod at his desk, circa 1972 (Courtesy RSMF)

Rod had moved back to New York state in the early 70s, away from the Hollywood scene. Carol Serling told WNET that "he never stopped writing, that he had his office there" at their home, but that being away from Hollywood was also important. Daughter Jodi added that it was "the only time I really saw my dad relax."

There were those who felt that Serling never realized his own potential.

"He was such a dichotomy," John Frankenheimer told WNET. "He was an enigma. He wanted success, he wanted money, he wanted celebrity, status, he wanted to be a star. And yet, underneath it, was this terribly honest, very gifted artist. And I don't think he could ever reconcile the two driving forces of his psyche.

"It was almost like a character out of a Rod Serling play," Frankenheimer continued. "It's almost like his worst fears came to pass."

Serling had a mild heart attack in May of 1975, and was admitted to a hospital in Rochester, N.Y. He returned to the hospital a month later for triple bypass surgery. After ten hours on the operating table, Serling had another attack, this one proving to be fatal.

On June 28, 1975, Rod Serling was dead at the age of 50.

"I just think he was a motor that had been running so fast for so long," Buck Houghton told WNET, while other friends confided that Serling's voracious cigarette smoking (four packs a day, some say) contributed heavily to his early demise.

A memorial service was held on July 7, 1975. Producer Dick Berg eulogized his friend by saying that Rod came to us through "intellectual stories, fantastic stories, stories of social content, even one-liners about man's lunacy. However, they were always seen through his prism, becoming never less than his stories. And because he came to us with love ... seeking our love ... we invariably let him tell us a story. And how much richer we are for it."

Actor Don Gordon, who starred in two Twilight Zone episodes, told author Mark Scott Zicree that Serling was "truly a gentleman and a gentle man," adding that "he was soft-spoken and very kind. He always had a smile, and it wasn't a fake smile either - he liked you. He was a terrific man. You miss someone like that very much."

"He was so in touch with what happened in the world," Jack Klugman told WNET, "and what was right and what was wrong. Great sense of morality."

"No one could know Serling," said Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, "or view or read his work, without recognizing his deep affection for humanity, his sympathetically intense curiosity about us, and his determination to enlarge our horizons by giving us a better understanding of ourselves. He cared and, I suspect, perhaps too deeply too much of the time. He dreamed of much for us and demanded much of himself, perhaps more than was possible for either in this place and time. But it is that quality of dreams and demands which makes the ones like Rod Serling rare ... and always irreplaceable."

"There is just one thing I would like on my headstone," Serling said in 1970. "A line that read only, 'he left friends.'"

That, Rod Serling did, and the number has only served to grow in the years since his passing.

 

As the world grows more and more uncertain, with terrorism, threats of war, media manipulation trying to rob the individual of his right to think for himself, vast advances in technology which could, or could not, be put to good use, and more, it's easy to see why Serling's work, including The Twilight Zone, still stands above the fray on the TV landscape. Though written long ago, those stories - termed "morality tales" or "wisdom fiction" - still stand as parables, stories that hold a mirror up to ourselves. Through his vision, Serling challenges us to look at ourselves, face our weaknesses, correct our faults and find our own basic dignity.


"I just want them to remember me a hundred years from now... 'Oh, he was a writer.' That's sufficiently an honored position for me."

His vision is immense, and timeless.

"But most major here - simply believe. There's no alternative to faith, and, God help us, there's no salvation without it." --- Rod Serling


The author greatly, and gratefully, acknowledges the excellent book by Mark Scott Zicree, The Twilight Zone Companion, published by Silman-James Press and available at bookstores everywhere, and the WNET-TV American Masters presentation Rod Serling - Submitted For Your Approval, which first aired on PBS in 1995, and now available on DVD and VHS.
We also offer heartfelt special thanks to Andrew Polak and the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation, for allowing us to peruse through the foundation's archives. For more information on how to join the RSMF in its efforts to preserve and promote Serling's legacy, visit the foundation website at http://www.rodserling.com.

To Carol, Jodi, Anne and the Serling family - I hope you like this. And special thanks to Rod, for the inspiration.

 

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