“You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead -- your next stop, the Twilight Zone.”
With those now-famous words, TV audiences 50 years ago were introduced to Rod Serling’s breakthrough sci-fi series “The Twilight Zone.” The series, essentially morality plays with evocative twists of fantasy, ran for five seasons on CBS -- and endlessly in reruns and the public imagination.
One week viewers could be on a plane with a troubled young man who insists he sees a monster on a wing; another week, an elderly woman could invite death into her house. Performers included veterans such as Ida Lupino and newcomers like Robert Redford and William Shatner.
“He created a new form of television,” said screenwriter Marc Scott Zicree, author of “The Twilight Zone Companion.”
“Science fiction was basically viewed as kids’ stuff,” he says. “There is a great interview that Mike Wallace did with Rod just prior to ‘The Twilight Zone’ where he says to Rod, ‘Now you are doing this kind of kids’ stuff, are you giving up writing anything important?’ ”
The American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre is paying tribute to this seminal series, which paved the way for countless shows such as “The Outer Limits,” “Star Trek” and even “Lost,” with a three-hour program Friday including screenings of some of the best-loved episodes, as well as discussions with Zicree; Serling’s widow, Carol Serling; and writers Earl Hamner Jr. and George Clayton Johnson, who wrote such memorable installments as “Kick the Can,” starring Ernest Truex as an old man in a retirement home who quite literally returns to his childhood.
During the 1950s, Serling -- along with Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose and Tad Mosel -- was among the top writers for TV, turning out brilliant scripts for such live anthologies as “Climax” and “Playhouse 90.”
The Emmy-winning Serling’s classic live dramas include “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and “The Comedian.”
Still, he ran afoul of censors. “Rod was very socially committed and very politically committed,” Zicree says. “Whenever he tried to write about race and social issues of his day or whenever he tried to make a statement he was heavily censored.”
Serling realized that if he wrote about such issues as intolerance, racism and ageism and cloaked it in the trappings of science fiction, he could avoid problems. “So Rod wrote a pilot, ‘The Time Element,’ and eventually it got made as an episode of ‘Desilu Playhouse,’ ” Zicree says.
“Then he wrote several pilots until he wrote one, ‘Where Is Everybody?’ starring Earl Holliman, that sold the show to the sponsors and the network.” Over the next five years, Serling wrote 92 of the 156 episodes.
“He was also writing features and books,” Zicree says.
One writer Serling wanted very much to use was Ray Bradbury, who had a huge influence on the show. That didn’t work out, but Bradbury sent along two proteges, Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. Also hired were Johnson and Hamner, who later created “The Waltons.”
Before “The Twilight Zone,” writers didn’t run series. “Rod set the mold for what is known as ‘show runners,’ ” Zicree says.
Johnson was a young writer 50 years ago and “wanted to be Ray Bradbury, but that job was filled,” he says. “So I wrote short stories and sold some of them. When I heard about ‘The Twilight Zone,’ I went through my file and found a short story and typed it up.”
An agent submitted it to the series, and Serling bought “The Four of Us Are Dying,” about a con man who can change his face.
Serling’s adaptation aired Jan. 1, 1960. “Suddenly, I was collaborating with this guy who had won all of these Emmys and a Peabody,” Johnson says.
“No one else could have ever pulled off ‘The Twilight Zone’ where he could be creative director and call all the shots. He didn’t have anybody second-guessing him.”
Serling, who died at 50 in 1975, was an honorable man, Johnson says.
“He was trustful. He didn’t change his mind. When he agreed to do something, he would follow through. He was like what Confucius would call a ‘superior man.’ I believe he had some inner vision of manhood that he was attempting to live up to.”
Among the episodes tentatively scheduled to screen Friday are: “It’s a Good Life,” by Serling, starring Billy Mumy as a 6-year-old boy who is a little monster; “Kick the Can”; “The Howling Man,” by Beaumont, about a scholar who unleashes the devil; “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” by Matheson, about a young man (Shatner) recovering from a nervous breakdown who sees a monster on the wing of the airplane; and Serling’s “Time Enough at Last,” about a bookish man who survives a nuclear holocaust.
For more information, go to www.americancinematheque.com.