SERLING, ROD

U.S. Writer-Producer

Rod Serling was perhaps the most prolific writer in American television. It is estimated that during his twenty-five year career, from the late 1940s to 1975, over 200 of his teleplays were produced. This staggering body of work for television has ensured Serling's place in the history of the medium. His emphasis on character (psychology and motivation), the expedient handling of incisive, direct and forceful and painfully penetrating dialogue, alongside his moralizing subtext, placed him in a unique position to question mankind's prejudices and intolerance as he saw it.

Following army service Serling entered Ohio's Antioch College as a student under the GI bill and began writing radio and television scripts, selling a number while still an undergraduate. Upon leaving college he went to work as a continuity writer for a Cincinnati television station, WLWT-TV, and then began writing a regular weekly series of live dramas for the anthology show The Storm, produced by Robert Huber for WKRC-TV Cincinnati. Turning freelance in 1952, Serling sold scripts to such network anthologies as Lux Video Theatre, Hallmark Hall of Fame, The Doctor, Studio One, and Kraft Television Theatre. It was for the latter show that Serling wrote "Patterns" (ABC, 12 January 1955), a powerful drama about corporate politics and big business power games. It was an instant success with both the viewers and critics, winning him his first of six Emmy Awards (for Best Original Teleplay Writing) as well as a Sylvania Award for Best Teleplay.

He followed this with, among others, an adaptation of Ring Lardner's "The Champion"/Climax (1955), "The Rack"/United States Steel Hour (1955), "Incident in an Alley"/United States Steel Hour (1955), "Noon on Doomsday"/United States Steel Hour (1956), and "Forbidden Area"/Playhouse 90 (1956). "Forbidden Area" was his first for Playhouse 90 (an adaptation of a Pat Frank story) and was also that show's première episode. But it was Playhouse 90's second presentation that brought him his greatest success: "Requiem for a Heavyweight" (CBS, 11 October 1956). This compelling yet overlong story of a boxer who knows that he's washed up but does not know anything else than the world of the ring projected Serling to the top ranks of the TV writing élite and brought him a gallery of awards, including another Emmy (for Best Teleplay Writing), a Harcourt-Brace Award, another Sylvania Award (for Best Teleplay Writing), a Television-Radio Writers' Annual Award, a Writers Guild of America Award, and the first ever George Foster Peabody Award for writing. Playhouse 90 and CBS promptly signed him to a contract and he became one of the show's chief writers (among such distinguished names as Horton Foote and Reginald Rose). Serling's next Playhouse 90, "The Comedian" (CBS, 14 February 1957), based on Ernest Lehman's story about an egomaniacal entertainer, gave him his third Emmy for Best Teleplay Writing.

But then, from 1958 on, his conflicts with networks and sponsors over censorship of his work became increasingly intense. "I can recall the blue-penciling of a script of mine called 'A Town Has Turned to Dust'", he said in a 1962 TV Guide interview, "in which a reference to a 'mob of men in masks and sheets' was cut because of possible affront to Southern institutions". Eventually these censorship battles led to Serling making a transition from live drama to filmed series television, and his own The Twilight Zone.

Stemming from a (Serling-scripted) Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse entry called "The Time Element" in November 1958, Serling created, executive produced, hosted and (for the most part) wrote the half-hour science-fantasy anthology The Twilight Zone, networked by CBS from 1959 to 1964. The series not only created a whole new programming genre for television, it also offered Serling an opportunity to say things he could never get away with in more conventional dramatizations. The weekly tales remain memorable for allowing the viewer to enter "the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition..." which lay "between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge".

The Twilight Zone added two more Emmy awards (Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama) to Serling's already impressive collection of tributes. His sixth and final Emmy came during Twilight Zone's run for the 1963 Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theatre segment "It's Mental Work" (also for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama, Adaptation). But it was with The Twilight Zone that Serling reached the peak of his success, for most of what followed after this period would be below Serling's personal standard.

In the fall of 1965 CBS premiéred Serling's The Loner, a half-hour post-Civil War Western about a wandering, introspective cowboy in search of life's meaning, starring Lloyd Bridges. The story behind The Loner went back almost five years to the time when Serling believed that his Twilight Zone would not be renewed by CBS and, as an alternative, he came up with a one-hour pilot script about a character he called The Loner, heading West after the Civil War. CBS turned it down. However, around the same time, The Twilight Zone was given the go-ahead for another season and The Loner script was shelved. When in early 1965 CBS was looking for a half-hour Western for their Saturday night schedules, independent producer William Dozier, remembering Serling's The Loner proposal from his CBS days, sold the package (now consisting of Serling as writer, Bridges as star, and Dozier as producer) to the network. The series of 26 episodes (14 of them by Serling) opened to poor ratings and lukewarm reviews. When CBS demanded more "action" (meaning less character and motivation, and more "running gun battles") Serling refused to comply, causing a rift between the writer and the network. The Loner left the schedules in April 1966.

For the next few years Serling occupied himself with various projects and programs. He served a two-year term as President of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, hosted TV entertainment shows (The Liar's Club, 1969; Rod Serling's Wonderful World of ..., 1970), and turned, once again, to screenplay work with adaptations of novels for Planet of the Apes (1968; based on the novel by Pierre Boulle) and The Man (1972; from the novel by Irving Wallace, which had actually started out as a telefilm). Not unlike other 1950s TV writers, Serling had based his earliest screenplays on his own television work: Patterns (UA, 1956), The Rack (MGM, 1956), Incident in an Alley (UA, 1962), and Requiem for a Heavyweight (Columbia, 1962).

In 1969 he was approached by producer Aaron Spelling to write a pilot for a series called The New People (ABC, 1969-70), featuring an assorted group of young Americans stranded on a South Pacific atoll. Serling delivered his script but later commented on the sub Lord of the Flies theme that "It may work, but not for me". NBC's horror-fantasy anthology Night Gallery (1970-73) was to occupy his time during the early 1970s, following the pilot TV-movie (NBC, 1969), adapted from his short story collection (The Season to Be Wary) published in 1967. Based on the three stories (one directed by the young Steven Spielberg), the Mystery Writers of America presented him with their special Edgar award for the suitably suspenseful scripts. Also known as Rod Serling's Night Gallery (he acted as host and sometime contributor), the series failed to come anywhere close to his Twilight Zone sense of "seriousness", as Serling had hoped, and the show quickly deteriorated, according to Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, into "the supernatural equivalent of Love, American Style". There were, however, two Serling episodes that remain outstanding for their sense of compassion and morality: "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" and "The Messiah on Mott Street"; both Emmy nominated.

After Night Gallery was cancelled in 1973, he retreated to Ithaca College, in upstate New York, and taught writing. Teaching the art of writing sustained him more than anything else during the last few years of his life. The Twilight Zone, in constant reruns, remains a cultural milestone to Serling's art and craft and practice.

-Tise Vahimagi

 


Rod Serling

ROD SERLING. Born Edward Rodman Serling in Syracuse, New York, U.S.A., 25 December 1924. Educated at Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio, B.A. 1950. Married: Carolyn Kramer, 1948; two daughters. Served as paratrooper in U.S. Army during World War II. Worked as writer for WLW-Radio, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1946-48, WKRC-TV, Cincinnati, 1948-53; freelance writer, from 1953; producer, television series The Twilight Zone, 1959-64, and Night Gallery, from 1969; taught at Antioch College, 1950s and Ithaca College, 1970s. Honorary degrees: D.H.L., Emerson College, Boston, Massachusetts, 1971, and Alfred University, New York, 1972; Litt. D. from Ithaca College, 1972. President, National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, 1965-66; member of the council, Writers Guild of America West, 1965-67. Recipient: six Emmy Awards; Sylvania Awards, 1955 and 1956; Christopher Awards, 1956 and 1971; Peabody Award, 1957; Hugo Awards, 1960, 1961, and 1962. Died 28 June 1975.

TELEVISION PLAYS (selection, writer)

1953 "Nightmare at Ground Zero" Suspense
1953 "Old MacDonald Had a Curve" Kraft Television          Theater
1954 "One for the Angels" Danger
1955 "Patterns" Kraft Television Theater
1955 "The Rack" U.S. Steel Hour
1956 "Requiem for a Heavyweight" Playhouse 90
1956 "Forbidden Area" Playhouse 90 (from Pat Frank's          novel)
1957 "The Comedian" Playhouse 90
1959 "The Lonely" Twilight Zone
1959 "Time Enough at Last" Twilight Zone
1965-66 The Loner, 14 Episodes
1966 The Doomsday Flight
1970 "A Storm in Summer" Hallmark Hall of Fame
1971 "Make Me Laugh" Night Gallery

TELEVISION SERIES (producer)

1959-64 The Twilight Zone
1970-73 Night Gallery

FILMS (writer)

Patterns, 1956; Saddle the Wind (with Thomas Thompson), 1958; Requiem for a Heavyweight, 1962; The Yellow Canary, 1963; Seven Days in May, 1964; Assault on a Queen, 1966; Planet of the Apes (with Michael Wilson), 1968; A Time for Predators, 1971.

STAGE

The Killing Season, 1968.

PUBLICATIONS

Stories from the Twilight Zone. New York: Bantam, 1960.

More Stories from the Twilight Zone. New York: Bantam, 1961.

New Stories from the Twilight Zone. New York: Bantam, 1962.

Requiem for a Heavyweight (novel). New York: Bantam, and London: Corgi, 1962.

From the Twilight Zone (short stories). New York: Doubleday, 1962.

Night Gallery (short stories). New York: Bantam, 1971.

Night Gallery 2 (short stories). New York: Bantam, 1972.

Rod Serling's Night Gallery Reader. Greenberg, Martin H., Carol Serling, and Charles G. Waugh, editors. New York: Dembner Books, 1987.

FURTHER READING

Engel, Joe. Rod Serling: The Dreams and Nightmares of Life in the Twilight Zone. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989.

Sander, Gordon. Serling: The Rise and Twilight of Television's Last Angry Man. New York: Penguin, 1992.

 

See also Anthology Drama; "Golden Age" of Television; Playhouse 90; Twilight Zone