December 25, Christmas Day, is the birthday of
Edwin Rodman Serling,
best known as the creator, writer, and producer of the uncannily surreal television
series, The Twilight Zone, which first aired in 1959. Serling felt
that it is the job of a writer to "menace the public consciousness," and
he considered television and radio to be the most effective venue for social criticism.
Born in Syracuse, New York, in 1925, Serling served in the
Army before entering Ohio's Antioch College as a student on the GI Bill.
He began writing radio and television scripts, selling several of them while
he was still an undergraduate.
Upon leaving college, he went to work as a continuity
writer for WLWT-TV in Cincinnati and began writing a regular weekly series
of live dramas for the anthology show, The Storm, produced by Robert
Huber. Going freelance in 1952, Serling sold scripts to various network
anthologies such as as Lux Video Theatre, Hallmark Hall of Fame, The Doctor,
Studio One, and Kraft Television Theatre. It was for Kraft
that Serling wrote Patterns (ABC, January 12, 1955), a stinging drama
about corporate greed and big business power games. It was an instant
success with both viewers and critics, and it won him the first of six Emmy
Awards (for Best Original Teleplay Writing), as well as a Sylvania Award for
that up with an adaptation of a Ring Lardner novel entitled The Champion
for Climax (1955). Then came The Rack (1955), Incident in an Alley
(1955), and Noon on Doomsday, all for United States Steel Hour
(1956), plus Forbidden Area for Playhouse 90 (1956).
Forbidden Area was the premiere episode for Playhouse. But it was
Playhouse 90's second presentation that brought him his greatest success:
Requiem for a Heavyweight (CBS, October 11, 1956), the compelling,
touching story of a boxer who knows he's washed up but doesn't know how to
do anything else except box.
The story brought Serling
instant celebrity status, along with a host 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 quickly signed him to a contract, and
he became one of the hottest writers in all of television. His next Playhouse 90
script, The Comedian (CBS, February 14, 1957), was based on Ernest
Lehman's story about an egomaniacal entertainer. It garnered for the
writer his third Emmy
for Best Teleplay Writing.
From 1958 on, conflicts with networks and sponsors over censorship
brought Serling increasing frustration. "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." In time, his censorship battles led
him to jump from live drama to filmed serials, the first of which was his own
show, The Twilight Zone.
Stemming from a Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse entry called The Time
Element, which aired in November 1958, Serling created, executive produced, hosted,
and wrote most of the half-hour science-fantasy anthology, which
ran on CBS from 1959 to 1964. The series not only created a whole new
programming genre for television but also offered Serling an opportunity
to say things he couldn't say in conventional drama on live TV. The
weekly tales promised the viewer that he would enter "the middle
ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition...between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge."
Serling grabbed two more Emmies for
The Twilight Zone (Outstanding Writing
Achievement in Drama). His sixth and final Emmy came during the
1963 Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theatre segment, It's Mental
Work (Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama, Adaptation).
In the fall of 1965, CBS premiered Serling's The Loner, a half-hour
post-Civil War Western about a wandering, introspective cowboy in search of
life's meaning. It starred Lloyd Bridges. The story behind The
Loner went back almost five years to when Serling believed that CBS was
planning on canceling
The Twilight Zone. He came up with the new script as an hour-long pilot about a character he called The Loner,
heading West after the Civil War. CBS turned it down, and they
extended The Twilight Zone for another season; so Serling shelved
the new series.
In early 1965, when CBS was looking for a half-hour Western
for their Saturday night schedules, independent producer William Dozier put
together a package consisting of Serling as writer, Bridges as star, and Dozier as
producer of The Loner. The series of 26 episodes
(14 of them by Serling) opened to poor ratings and lukewarm reviews.
When CBS demanded more "action" (fewer characters and motivation and more
"running gun battles"), Serling refused, creating a rift between
himself and the network.
The Loner was dropped from 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, and returned 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).
In 1969, producer Aaron Spelling asked him to write a pilot for the
series, The New People (ABC, 1969-70), featuring an assorted group of
young Americans stranded on a South Pacific atoll. Serling delivered
the script but later commented on the Lord of the Flies theme that
"It may work, but not for me."
He next involved himself with NBC's horror-fantasy
anthology, Night Gallery (1970-73). The series was based on
three stories, including one directed by a fledgling to the small screen, Steven Spielberg. The
Mystery Writers of America presented Serling 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 close to The Twilight Zone's popularity, and it soon
degenerated, according to Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, into "the
supernatural equivalent of Love, American Style."
After Night Gallery was cancelled in 1973, Serling
retreated to Ithaca College in upstate New York to teach writing, which
sustained him more than anything else during the last few years of his life. Today, The Twilight Zone, in worldwide reruns,
remains a cultural tribute to Serling's art and craft of writing.
Rod Serling, who once said, "It is difficult to produce a television
documentary that is both incisive and probing when every twelve minutes one
is interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits singing about toilet paper,"
died of a heart attack in 1975.
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