Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Rod Serling

By Bill Ectric on Wednesday, January 7, 2004 06:11 pm


It's common among Beat aficionados to scorn the popular media version of the Beats, especially the term "beatnik", and the stereotypical goatee-sporting hipster. But to a youngster growing up in a small town, like me, sensing there was more out there than what they taught in middle school, even the cliche hints of downtown jazz and nightlife and hip lingo were welcome. I could tell right away that Rod Serling was cool, from the subdued bongo drums in the opening theme to his sly, out-of-this-world countenance. He almost seemed to wink knowingly when he shared his imagination and vision with me, the viewer.

I remember the episode about the trumpet player, down on his luck and questioning his very reason for living. In a kind of jazz version of It's A Wonderful Life, the musician is hit by a car, killed, then finds himself hanging out with another, older, trumpet player whose chiseled features, goatee, and night club suit are a sharp contrast to the pudgy angel Clarence in the Frank Capra classic, though he is an angel, nonetheless. After giving the young musician a new lease on life, we learn the angel's name as he makes his exit.

"I didn't catch your name!"

"Just call me Gabe," says the goateed veteran horn-blower. "Short for Gabriel." He holds up his trumpet to illustrate his point. Gabriel is the trumpet blowing angel in the Bible. But this wasn't my parents' church, it was the concrete-neon jungle where the hipsters dwell and Doctor Sax blows jazz in a smoky bar room.

In this episode and others, Serling's scripts brought it all together for me -- a reconciliation -- which I would experience again years later upon reading Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac -- between the anchor of home vs. the don't-look-back call of the open road. Kerouac was known for his rhythmic, energetic "bop-prose", and Rod Serling, to me, had a similar style.

Actor Jack Klugman, who played the younger jazz trumpeter in the aforementioned Twilight Zone episode, was featured in a PBS documentary about Rod Serling called Submitted For Your Approval. Klugman compares Serling to playwright Clifford Odets, saying, "His words were put together almost the same way that Odets put his words together. They had a snap, crackle, pop to them, you know -- they were crisp and they were wonderful to roll around in your mouth and say them." In the same PBS documentary, actor Cliff Robertson says, "He had an ear -- his words sparkled. It was the kind of dialogue that actors protected rather than resented."

The TV executives didn't always let Rod Serling write what he wanted to write. The companies that sponsored television shows were afraid of being too controversial. Sometimes, in order to comment on the evil of prejudice, the horror and futility of war, or the greed of corporate America, Serling used the medium of science fiction to make his stories less threatening. He once said, "On the Twilight Zone I knew I could get away with Martians saying things that Republicans and Democrats couldn't." Serling wrote 99 of the 159 Twilight Zone episodes himself, and had input on many more, during the show's five-season run (1959-1964). The series is popular still.

But the Twilight Zone is not the beginning of Rod Serling's story. Before then, he won Emmy awards for three television screenplays back when TV dramas were actually performed live in the studio without the "safety net" of retakes; the broadcasts went out live to curious and eager viewers in their homes with their black and white sets. The first teleplay, Patterns (1955), dealt with corporate greed. As Serling said, "I was writing about the values of a society that puts such stock in success and so little preoccupation with morality once success has been attained." The second teleplay, Requiem For A Heavyweight (1956), was made into a movie in 1962. In the televised version, the washed up boxer is played by a young Jack Palance. The movie version featured Anthony Quinn as the boxer. The third teleplay, The Comedian (1957), stars Mickey Rooney as a successful TV comedian who is loved by his audience but feared and hated by those close to him because of his abusive behavior and inflated ego. This teleplay was adapted from a novella written by Ernest Lehman.

Serling wrote or adapted so many other teleplays it would be impossible to discuss them all here. He went on to write movie scripts as well, the most famous of these being Seven Days In May (1964), a cautionary tale calling for nuclear disarmament, and Planet of the Apes which he co-wrote with Michael Wilson in 1968 (based on the novel by Pierre Boulle).

Rod Serling was born on December 25, 1924 in Syracuse, NY. When he was two years old his family moved to Binghamton, NY where Rod grew up. He joined the Army during World War II, became a paratrooper, and was awarded a purple heart for being wounded in the knee by shrapnel. He was haunted by nightmares about the war off and on for the rest of his life.

Upon his discharge from the Army in 1946, Serling enrolled in Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, tuition paid for by the G.I. Bill. There he met Carol Kramer. They would later marry and have two daughters. As Rod was Jewish and Carol was Protestant, their parents on both sides were against the marriage. They compromised by becoming members of the Unitarian Church, which was the church affiliation of Antioch College. The Unitarian Universalist Association states in their literature written by Alice Blair Wesley, "At a Unitarian Universalist meeting, you are likely to find members whose positions on faith may be derived from a variety of religious beliefs: Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, naturist, atheist, or agnostic. Members might tell you that they are religious humanists, liberal Christians, or world religionist." This liberal view of religion seemed suited to Rod and Carol Serling. He graduated from Antioch College with a degree in Literature in 1950.

His first job after college was writing for a radio station in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was also writing at night and sending scripts to New York, where the action was for the relatively new medium of television. Soon he and his wife moved to New York where he continued to write and won his three Emmys. They followed the TV industry's shift from New York to Hollywood, moving to Pacific Palisades, California in 1957.

In 1959 he created the Twilight Zone. As stated previously, Serling often battled with censors and sponsors to present themes and issues which he felt were important but which the sponsors feared were too controversial. He became known as "Television's Angry Young Man."

He not only battled with TV executives, but also with other writers. He was accused of plagiarism. According to Dr. Todd Eklof, it was mainly "other writers struggling to succeed in the area of science fiction, [but] one very loud accuser, more than Serling's equal as a successful sci-fi writer, and his fellow Unitarian, was Ray Bradbury." Dr. Eklof adds, "Serling countered that he had never intentionally stolen another writer's work. Indeed, all the suits against him proved unsuccessful, with the exception of one in 1963 which, on the advice of his lawyer, Serling settled out of court for sixty-five hundred dollars." Keep in mind that early science fiction introduced many concepts that are today taken for granted and there may have been questions as to what can or cannot be copyrighted. There's been a plethora of books, movies, TV shows, and comic books, all dealing with variations on themes of time travel, extra-terrestrial life, utopian and anti-utopian societies ("big brother is watching"), "Matrix-type" worlds within worlds where people seem to be in one place but are actually either hooked up to machines or inside sensory depravation chambers or dead , dolls and dummies and mannequins that come to life, and so on. It is generally agreed that Rod Serling never intentionally plagiarized anyone.

In 1962 he accepted a year-long position at Antioch College, teaching writing, drama, and a survey course about the "social and historical implications of the media."

Rod and Carol Serling were actively involved with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He spoke out against racial prejudice, war, and intolerance, sometimes in interviews, other times in letters to newspapers.

Serling was asked to host the TV show Night Gallery from 1970 to 1973 but he had no creative control over the series and expressed the feeling that he was just a figurehead over a show which he considered mediocre. Serling's writing during this time, however, has received a glowing review by Eugene Wiley, who says, "The Night Gallery Reader, published four years before his death, represents Serling's prose at its peak, though the Night Gallery television show signaled Serling's eventual swan-song from the top of the Neilsen ratings. This collection of short stories is highly readable and contains one of the most beautifully articulated stories of nostalgia ever penned."

In 1975, while mowing his lawn, Rod Serling had a heart attack. It is assumed that heavy use of cigarettes contributed to his heart disease. Approximately one month later, during bypass surgery, he died unexpectedly. He was only 50 years old.

There is a quotation by Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, on the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation website. He says, "No one could know Serling, or view or read his work, without recognizing his deep affection for humanity ... and his determination to enlarge our horizons by giving us a better understanding of ourselves."
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