Assessing the Astonishing Impact of Rod Serling’s ‘Twilight Zone’ : Television: KTLA Channel 5 presents its eighth annual marathon of the venerable hit today. Serling’s widow calls the show a ‘cottage industry.’
An almost legendary aura now surrounds “The Twilight Zone” and its creator, Rod Serling, and his widow says it’s “a total surprise” to her, “as I’m sure it would have been to him.”
When KTLA Channel 5 presents its eighth annual Fourth of July “Twilight Zone Marathon” today--13 consecutive hours of the classic series starting at 9 a.m.--it will be yet another example of the show’s astonishing impact from one generation to another. It was first broadcast three decades ago and ran from 1959 to 1964 on CBS.
For Carol Serling, a straight-talking woman who married the writer in 1948 when both were students at Antioch College in Ohio, the reason for the special appeal of “The Twilight Zone” seems clear:
“It has a lasting quality. If you watch it on July Fourth, even an hour of it, you’ll see that those stories stand up very well. Most of it is quite timely. If they colorize it, I don’t know what that’s going to mean. They always talk about it, but I don’t know whether they will or not. I’m not going to make a big fuss. But I think it would be a big mistake. The black-and-white look is part of the beautiful photography.”
In fact, she says, “There’s an art book (of the series) coming out this fall"--it is titled “Visions From the Twilight Zone"--and, she notes, “It is still photographs taken right off the air.” The compilation, by graphics designer Arlen Schumer, will be published in October by Chronicle Books of San Francisco.
Perhaps the single most lasting image of “The Twilight Zone” is that of Serling himself as narrator of the science-fiction anthology. Three decades later, he is still one of the great individual on-air stylists in the history of television, and his success in this role was also a surprise, says his widow.
“I know it was an accident,” she says. “He was the cheapest person to get. The story goes, and I have no reason to doubt it, that they wanted Orson Welles and Westbrook Van Voorhis (who had narrated ‘The March of Time’). They did want someone of great stature. Welles was not available. He wanted too much money.”
In the definitive book about the series, “The Twilight Zone Companion,” author Marc Scott Zicree quotes Bill Self, the CBS executive who oversaw the show, as saying Van Voorhis’ big voice eventually was regarded as “too pompous-sounding.” Self adds, “Finally, Rod himself made the suggestion that maybe he should do it. It was received with skepticism.”
Carol Serling, who lives in Pacific Palisades, said in a phone interview last week from a family home near Ithaca, N.Y.: “They didn’t have the money to hire these other people who cost a lot. So Rod just sort of was there, and I think he was quite nervous in the beginning. He wasn’t an actor, he was a writer.
“To get up in front of the camera, I think, was very difficult for him. But as the years went by, he got more and more comfortable with it. But it really was an accident that it happened.”
Did he enjoy the role once he got into it?
“I think he probably did. It changed his life somewhat in that people began to recognize him. Nobody ever recognizes a writer.”
Did he like being recognized?
“Yes and no. I mean, it’s wonderful not to be recognized and to be able to go and do exactly what you want, when you want, and not be bothered by people. But on the other hand, it’s very flattering. And he knew that if that stopped, that meant that there was trouble there, too.”
But even with his fame as an on-air TV personality, she says, “I don’t think he ever considered that that was his bailiwick at all. No. He never considered himself anything but a writer.”
And as for his tight-lipped, clenched-mouth TV persona, it was not, to his widow, an accurate image of the way he really was:
“No. I don’t think he ever looked like that in person. It may have been that when somebody suddenly comes to you and says, hey, you’re going to do something--well, think if it was you: You might do something that wouldn’t be the way you really are. I can’t answer any more than that.”
So what was he really like?
“A very funny guy.”
Serling died 15 years ago last week. He was only 50, and considering what he accomplished on “The Twilight Zone” and as the playwright of such other important dramas as “Patterns” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” there is no telling what further grand legacy he might have left in addition to his giant achievements for the young TV medium.
“He was trying all the time,” says Carol Serling. She recalls discussing his work with him over the years, “partially because of physical proximity--he always worked at home. So if he felt there was something he was particularly proud of, or that he wanted to talk about, it was easy for him to pick up the sheet of paper and walk 50 yards and say, ‘Hey, I’ve just done this.’ ”
What was he proudest of?
“Whatever he was working on. Looking back, ‘The Twilight Zone’ was only five years, and when it was over, I think he breathed a sigh of relief and was very happy to put it behind him. Oh, yeah. I think what he said was that he really felt he was beginning to meet himself coming around the corner. There are only so many ideas. And they did come easily to him and he wrote the scripts very quickly. But I think at the time, he was really written out.”
Still, the series has proven timeless. “It won’t go away. It keeps bobbing up,” says his widow, acknowledging that it’s turned into a cottage industry, and not only in such television excursions as KTLA’s annual “Twilight Zone” marathons on the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving Day.
There was “Twilight Zone--The Movie” in 1983 and a new CBS version of the series in 1985. And for nine years there was Twilight Zone Magazine, for which Carol Serling was consulting editor and associate publisher.
“We went belly-up in June of 1989,” she says. “Promotion was lacking, though we had a circulation of between 80,000 and 120,000. It was mostly a magazine of short stories, fiction in the genre of ‘The Twilight Zone,’ and we had some pretty heavy writers who contributed--Joyce Carol Oates, Harlan Ellison, you name them. And in the beginning, there was some old TV memorabilia.”
In another act of homage, old friends of the “Twilight Zone” creator in his hometown of Binghamton, N.Y., formed the Rod Serling Foundation to keep his memory alive. But despite the ongoing fascination with the series and the writer, Carol Serling, a native of Columbus, Ohio, says, “Each year, I think, well, that’s it--and then something else turns up.”
“The latest thing we’ve done is that an educational publishing house called Sundance has come out with a (‘Twilight Zone’) video package for junior highs and high schools, with scripts and a teachers’ guide. I think it would be used mostly in English and drama. I oversee it. The whole rationale is that young people should learn to watch television with critical thinking.”
Then there’s the art book, “Visions From the Twilight Zone.” It will include essays by both Rod and Carol Serling and producer Buck Houghton, as well as the entire script of one of the great episodes, “Eye of the Beholder,” about a beautiful young woman who lives in a world where beauty is regarded as a horrible deformity. It is the first episode mentioned by Carol Serling when asked to name her favorites.
Did it seem, back in college, that her husband--who had enrolled just after serving as a paratrooper in World War II--was already thinking of the things we remember him by?
“Well, at Antioch,” she says, “you spend a lot of your matriculating time off on a job in the field that you’re studying. So his jobs were all, at that time, in radio stations, where he’d do just about anything that was needed--on-air work, continuity, writing advertising, writing some scripts, acting in some. He worked in Binghamton, New York City, Springfield, Ohio, and other places in Ohio. We graduated in 1950.
“I think Rod would have been one of the first to say he hit the new industry, television, at exactly the right time. During the years at college, he started writing radio scripts. He won a prize for the ‘Dr. Christian’ show, which was really very exciting. And he had a couple of sales to another radio program, ‘Grand Central Station.’ But it didn’t seem clear that would be the way he’d go. The first job he got out of school was as continuity writer at (radio station) WLW in Cincinnati.
“He worked there for over a year before he could free-lance. At that point, he was really working on television scripts. As I say, in 1951 and 1952, the new industry was grabbing up a lot of material and needed it. It was a very propitious time to be graduating from school and getting ready to find a profession.”