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Searching for Rod Serling beyond The Twilight Zone'

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Searching for Rod Serling beyond The Twilight Zone' Rod Serling with Anne, 1974. Photo by Joan Barnes Courtesy of Anne Serling
Anne Serling on her new book, As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling'

Through 156 episodes, from 1959 to 1964, Rod Serling, creator and executive producer of 'The Twilight Zone,' used the fantastic and surreal to tell stories or make a point that would have been impossible in conventional contemporary broadcast settings without the meddling of persnickety network censors.    

With earlier teleplays 'Patterns,' 'Requiem for a Heavyweight' and 'Noon on Doomsday,' Serling had written some of the most indelible scripts of the 1950s only to see them picked apart by executives fearful of controversy with advertisers and viewers.  

Enter 'The Twilight Zone.' Serling theorized that he might have better luck bringing his substantive scripts to air if his words came from aliens, robots or time travelers instead of ordinary human beings.  

America knew him as a celebrated and sometimes controversial writer, but who was the real Rod Serling? Who was the person behind (as much of Hollywood saw him) 'The Angry Young Man?'  

In the new book 'As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling' (Kensington Books), daughter Anne Serling reveals a considerably different man than the one most of America thought they knew. We saw the slightly ominous exacting and stoic figure with raised eyebrow, cigarette in hand and a piercing glare into the camera as he intoned a brief episode introduction or epilogue with the timbre of a studied announcer. That was someone Anne didn't know.  

In 'As I Knew Him', Anne Serling has crafted an expressive and flowing portrait of the man she remembers. She writes of Rod's playful sense of humor and love of practical jokes. He would leave notes for her signed 'S. Little' (short for Stuart Little, one of Anne's nicknames for her dad). He would call her Miss Grumple, Bunny or Little Raisin, while she would sometimes call him Roddy Raisin. 

In her book, we see a man who quietly longed for his own idyllic childhood. Growing up in Binghamton, New York in the 1930s, Serling was surrounded by encouraging and loving parents. Those worry-free and seemingly endless boyhood summers later found their way into some of Rod Serling's most endearing 'Twilight Zone' episodes, including 'A Stop at Willoughby' and 'Walking Distance.'  

In some of the book's most engaging sequences, we are invited into the Serling summer cottage on Cayuga Lake, a respite from the ceaseless demands and pressures of the entertainment world. The lakeside family retreat, located close to Binghamton, is the setting for many of Anne's golden memories of her father, expressively recalled in 'As I Knew Him.' She reveals that her father nearly always made a solitary drive back to his hometown at least once per summer an attempt to reconnect with lost youth.  

Barely 18 years old, Serling enlisted in the U.S. Army and served as a paratrooper in the 511th parachute infantry regiment. His letters home to his mother and father (reprinted in 'As I Knew Him') vividly reveal his feelings about war, his loneliness and his appreciation for the life he left behind.

Rod Serling's longing was partially driven by the sudden death of his beloved father, Sam, taken by a heart attack at age 52. The fact that Serling was not allowed a temporary leave from the Army to attend his father's funeral compounded the loss.  

The ache that Serling felt at the loss of his father, coinciding with the shock of war, occupied part of his heart for the rest of his life. Anyone who has lost a close family member, especially at a young age, knows that ache. That kind of grief is something that Anne Serling knows too well, and this is where her book excels on another level.

Dow: As you were searching for your dad to gather details and information for this book, where did you look?  

Serling: It was sort of a balancing act. Thankfully, I saved all of the letters that he had written to me. I found some of his old friends, I found one of his old war buddies and I researched a lot of his work. I also reached out to an old friend named Mark Olshaker (Emmy-winning filmmaker and bestselling non-fiction author) who had planned to write about my dad and had spoken with him about it. After my father died, Mark was too upset to continue with his book.  

I had letters that my dad had written to his parents and that his parents had written to him when he was in training camp before being shipped to the Philippines in World War 2. That part of the book was actually very difficult for me because my son was 18 when I wrote it and it really drove home how young these kids are when they go off to these horrific wars.

Dow: There were several war-themed episodes on 'The Twilight Zone.' It seems that the subject was still very much on his mind in those years.  

Serling: When he went to college after the war, he was going to major in phys. ed. He changed his major to language and literature because, as he said, 'I needed to get this out of my gut. I needed to get it off my chest.' He was still quite traumatized from experiences in the war and writing was a cathartic vehicle to help him release those demons. I knew that my dad was traumatized by the war because he would have nightmares. When I asked him in the morning what happened, he would say, 'I dreamed the Japanese were coming at me.' Beyond that, he didn't really talk about it. I have a close friend whose dad was also in the war and it seems that these guys never talked about their experiences. Post-traumatic war syndrome wasn't even a consideration back then.

Dow: How much of the real Rod Serling appears in the scripts that he wrote for 'The Twilight Zone?'  

Serling: I think to the best of his ability, he's certainly there. He launched into 'The Twilight Zone' because, as he said, 'An alien can say what a Democrat or a Republican couldn't,' and he felt quite passionate about a lot of these issues. It allowed him to bring out a lot of social issues and moral issues that he couldn't talk about in other ways. You certainly see him in the autobiographical episodes like 'Walking Distance' and 'A Stop at Willoughby.'  

Dow: He wasn't as hands-on with the series 'Night Gallery' (1969-1973). Was that by design or was it out of his control?  

Serling: I'm not completely sure how it happened, but you're right, he didn't have the same creative control with 'Night Gallery' that he had with 'The Twilight Zone' and that was extremely frustrating to him. He said that it was a series that was not commentative on anything and that ticked him off. That said, there were some great episodes of Night Gallery, including 'They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar.' (The episode was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Single Program on U.S. television in 1971. It's a wonderful piece of work. Watch it for free at www.hulu.com.)

Dow: Did he leave any clues about his plans beyond 1975?

Serling: Open-heart surgery in 1975 was brand new but he was feeling, as we all were, very positive about the surgery. He was very much looking forward to possibly doing a Broadway show, writing a novel, and he certainly would have wanted to know his grandchildren. He had lots of plans and a very positive outlook about the future.  

Dow: Your father was so prolific (Rod Serling wrote or co-wrote 92 of 'The Twilight Zone's' 156 episodes. Anne Serling estimates that her father wrote more than 250 scripts between 1950 and 1975). Was he tolerant or patient with other people who maybe didn't have that sort of tireless work ethic?  

Serling: On 'The Twilight Zone,' it was a pretty seamless team. I think the team of writers all had equal respect for one another. I was quite young when the show was airing, but I never remember hearing any frustration from him regarding the other writers. The same could not be said of 'Night Gallery.' I vividly remember my father saying the producer's name (Jack Laird) through gritted teeth. He was not happy about that.  

Dow: If your dad could somehow come back for a day, how do you think he would perceive the state of the world in 2013?

Serling: If only he could. I think it would be a mixed reaction. Technically, I think he would be stunned by what has happened since 1975. I think he would be horrified by some of the things in the news the shootings for example. The fact that prejudice still exists would cause him a lot of anguish. I think he would be impressed by some of the television that's out there now and horrified by many of these reality shows.

Dow: Did the network realize what they had in 'The Twilight Zone?' I get the impression that your father really slipped one past the goalie and often left CBS and the sponsors scratching their heads.  

Serling: I think that's it exactly. He got it all under the radar and they didn't know what the hell had hit them (laughing).

Mike Dow can be heard each morning on 'The Big Morning Show with Mike Dow' on Big 104 FM, airing on 104.7 (Bangor/Belfast) 104.3 (Augusta/Waterville) and 107.7 (Bar Harbor). 

Last modified on Thursday, 06 June 2013 12:50

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