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Remembering “The Twilight Zone” Program Creator Rod Serling



Remembering "The Twilight Zone" Program Creator Rod Serling

It’s often said that the good have a habit of dying young. That’s certainly true in the two areas of popular culture that I follow most closely: baseball and horror. From the National Pastime, we’ve seen the deaths of far too many heroic figures, including Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, and Thurman Munson; at 53, Robinson was the oldest of that group, while the others never made it to the age of 40. And from our genre of horror, there have also been many tragic losses at young ages. We can date those deaths back to the great Lon Chaney, Sr., who was 47 when he succumbed to cancer. Another impactful actor, Colin Clive of Frankenstein fame, lived only to see the age of 37, in large part due to alcoholism. Dwight Frye, so skilled at playing Renfield and a variety of hunchbacked assistants, was taken by a sudden heart attack at 43. And then there was cult favorite Rondo Hatton, victimized by a rare growth disorder called acromegaly, which resulted in his death at age 51.

In the cases of Chaney, Clive, Frye, and Hatton, they all made their names long before my time, and they all passed long before I was born. So for me, the impact of their deaths was not felt until years later, when I became a fan of horror. In contrast, the tragic death that struck me far more directly, happening while I was a child and making it resonate more, involved one of the genre’s most creative and brilliant minds. It happened 45 years ago, on June 28, 1975. That’s when Rod Serling died, two days after undergoing surgery that had been necessitated by a second heart attack. He was only 50 years old.

Serling might not have been in the prime of his career—after all, “The Twilight Zone” had been off the air for more than a decade—but he was still young and full of ideas. With better health, Serling might have been able to continue writing screenplays and creating TV shows for another 15 to 20 years. Perhaps he could have overseen the new TV adaptation of “The Twilight Zone”, which aired during the 1980s but with little impact. Maybe Serling could have contributed to a Twilight Zone movie, which sadly resulted in the deaths of Vic Morrow and two young children in a needless tragedy and then played to mediocre reviews upon its release. Given Serling’s ability to imagine and prod, who knows that other new projects he might have developed during the 1980s, at a time when strides were being made with special effects and directors were becoming more daring in terms of the horror and sci-fi themes. The 1980s could have been a very good decade for Rod Serling.

Rod Serling Writing

I was all of 10 when Serling died, so my memories of his passing are rather scant. I do remember hearing stories of how he had chain-smoked for much of his adult life, a habit that almost certainly led to the heart problems that claimed him. (Some accounts have claimed that Serling smoked an average of three to four packs a day.) Those stories of smoking were only confirmed when I first watched reruns of “The Twilight Zone” on television during the 1970s. So often, Serling delivered his opening and closing narration while holding a cigarette in his fingertips. He didn’t smoke while the camera was on, but we can only imagine how often those lit cigarettes touched his lips before and after those wonderful introductions and closing summaries.

It’s easy to dwell on Serling smoking habit, but that’s much simpler to do today, at a time when we know the full effects and the danger of cigarettes. In Serling’s day, smoking was certainly regarded as risky, but it was also widely viewed as an acceptable habit, one that carried with it connotations of being stylish and cool. Let’s also remember that cigarette ads on television remained in vogue until January of 1971 (only four years before Serling’s death), when Congress and President Nixon banned them from the airwaves. In fairness to Serling, he had begun smoking many years earlier, at a time when the breadth of cigarette dangers were not conclusive. It was a different time and a different place.

Rather than focus on the habit that took Serling from us on that summer day in ‘75, I believe it’s much more appropriate and useful to emphasize what Serling accomplished in those 50 short—and eventful years. There’s plenty to draw from in that area, including his first big success, a live television episode that was called “Passions.” He also wrote the screenplay for a very good telefilm, Requiem for a Heavyweight, which sprang up from his own experiences as a boxer in the Army. He penned the original screenplay for the 1968 adaptation of Planet of the Apes, the best of all the movies that have been done in that long-running series. And then there’s his early stewardship of the underrated “Night Gallery”, a show that took “The Twilight Zone” concept, altered the genre from sci-fi to supernatural horror, and then dressed it up in color instead of black and white. Those accomplishments alone made Serling a significant contributor to television in general, and more specifically to horror. They also gave him a chance to offer subtle subtext lessons on the sins of racism (a frequent theme of his scripts), war (a subject that he knew well, having earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart during World War II), drug abuse and censorship (both of which he hated), and even efforts at mind control and brainwashing.

Night Gallery Rod Serling

Of course, with Serling, any remembrance of his public life always begins with “The Twilight Zone”. It was his signature show, his greatest accomplishment in the medium of television, and a program that has become so lasting that it remains relevant to this day. Why else would the SyFy Channel air an annual Zone marathon every New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day? SyFy doesn’t do it simply because their executives like Serling’s content and message; they do it because advertisers and fans show up in abundance. Incredibly, the interest in this timeless show remains high, even more than 55 years after CBS issued its final cancellation notice.

For me, the memories of “The Twilight Zone” begin in the mid-1970s, right around the time that Serling passed away. I first watched the show on WPIX Channel 11, a local station emanating from New York City and one that was very popular in my town of Yonkers. The station aired reruns late at night, often after Yankees baseball games had reached their conclusion. I remember watching “The Twilight Zone” in the very late hours, often after 11 pm, sometimes in a darkened room and occasionally alone, while my parents travelled on business and my sister was in college.

One of the very first episodes of “The Twilight Zone” that I remember seeing was also one of the most frightening. Called “Mirror Image,” it starred Vera Miles as a young traveler, Millicent Barnes, in upstate New York. She is seen in a bus station, waiting for the arrival of a bus to Cortland, when she starts to realize that someone else in the station appears to be impersonating her, even stealing her suitcase at one point. No one else in the station believes her, even a sympathetic man played by Martin Milner, who tries to console her, but also calls the police to the station to have her taken away. At one point, Millicent sees her doppelganger, a moment that freaked me out to no end and had me looking around to see if my own doppelganger was lurking in one of the darkened corners of my bedroom.

The Twilight Zone Mirror Image

I didn’t realize at the time, but the episode was an homage to Serling’s upbringing in New York, and included references to Cortland, Syracuse, and Buffalo, all bus stops mentioned in the episode. Born in Syracuse, Serling and his family moved to Binghamton at a young age. It was a place that he fondly called home throughout his youth. In his later years, after becoming fed up with the phoniness and elitism of Hollywood, beliefs that had prompted him to become known as the “angry young man of Hollywood,” Serling moved back to upstate New York. Beginning in the late 1960s, he taught classes about film and writing as a professor at Ithaca College. Serling, his wife Carol (who passed away earlier this year), and his two daughters typically spent their summers on Cayuga Lake, a peaceful location near the college.

In some ways, it was most appropriate that “Mirror Image” was the first “Twilight Zone” I remember watching. After all, I have lived in upstate New York continuously since graduating from college in the late 1980s, and those small town bus stations certainly strike a chord with me. More to the point, “Mirror Image” was one of several “Twilight Zone” episodes that brought Serling back to his roots, to life in small towns and the more relaxing nature of day-to-day residence in rural upstate New York. Serling was a man who never abandoned those roots, always downplaying notions of fame and celebrity, preferring to be humble and approachable while remaining grounded to the way in which he had been raised.

Those principles come to mind when I think of Serling’s death, now 45 years in the past. There’s no doubt that he was a celebrity, an icon of the genre, but he didn’t act like one. He certainly could have been excused if he had, given his enormous contributions to horror, sci-fi, and stories of the supernatural.

It’s rather remarkable what one man, particularly a brilliant and driven man like Rod Serling, can accomplish in a life of 50 years. It was a short life, but an awfully good one.

Author’s Note: The Bundy Museum in Binghamton, which houses the Rod Serling Exhibit, will re-open to the public this Saturday, August 5th. To make an appointment to see the Serling exhibit, click on the following link: Bundy Museum.

The Bundy Museum in Binghamton

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