Review: Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination - Nicholas Parisi

by Sergio Angelini

Of the screenwriters who emerged on American television in the 1950s, Rod Serling remains by far the most famous and the most written about. Known initially for his intense dramas with a strong social conscience and a marked political edge, he ultimately became a star in his own right. Although already something of a celebrity after winning awards for many of his plays, his stardom was largely the result of his role as creator, host and main writer (92 out of 156 episodes) of that classic anthology, The Twilight Zone (1959-64). The show was sold entirely on the back of his status as a successful television writer and soon he was such a celebrity that he would even earn an authorial suffix for his later series, Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (1970-73). He even played himself in 'The Man in the Funny Suit,' Ralph Nelson’s drama (produced in 1960 for the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse anthology) about the making of Serling’s classic 'Requiem for a Heavyweight' that recreates the on-set tensions between actor Keenan Wynn and his father, the celebrated comedian Ed Wynn, who also played themselves.

And yet for all his fame, awards and success, he was a man riddled with self-doubt, something that is captured beautifully in dozen upon dozen of his plays. Serling was hugely prolific, predominantly on television, though he also crafted the scripts for several exceptional movies. These include: Patterns (1956) and Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), both adapted from his own award-winning television plays; Seven Days in May (1964), John Frankenheimer’s audacious conspiracy thriller about an attempt to overthrow the US government; and the first three drafts of that science fiction perennial, Planet of the Apes (1968) for which, inter alia, he created its celebrated twist ending. However, what about the over 100 other film and television dramas that he wrote and which were produced across a period of 25 years, what were they about and how personal were they to him?

Book cover

Rodman Edward Serling was born in 1924 to a Jewish household and spent his childhood in Binghamton, New York, a time and place of happiness and tranquillity that would become a touchstone in his work after being displaced by the horrors of War (he enlisted in the Paratroopers at age 18, the day after graduating from high school). He belonged to a generation of young male writers who, after serving in the Second World War, found their voice in 1950s New York working in a new artform: television. Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose and Serling were the most celebrated writers of what was quickly anointed as the ‘Golden Age’ of live American television for their passionate and original dramas that brought a freshness, seriousness and dynamism to the nascent form. (I am excluding Gore Vidal from consideration, despite the importance of his two 1955 TV plays, 'The Death of Billy the Kid' and ‘Visit to a Small Planet,’ as he was already well-established as a novelist in the 1940s before turning to the small screen).

Looked at in retrospect, their milestones from that era are easy to pinpoint, all greeted by the press and public with increasing acclaim. The first was 'Marty,' Chayefsky’s 1953 kitchen sink drama of loneliness and romantic love, which was produced live on the Philco Television Playhouse - which ran on NBC from 1948-1955 - and was later turned into an Oscar-winning film starring Ernest Borgnine in the title role. This was followed the next year by Rose’s intense jury room perennial, 'Twelve Angry Men' (Westinghouse Studio One, CBS, 1948-1958), which subsequently was filmed by Sidney Lumet with Henry Fonda playing the anonymous everyman battling for a young boy’s life. Four months later, in January 1955, came Serling’s 'Patterns' (Kraft Television Theatre, NBC 1947-1958). A tale of boardroom double-cross and ascension - in which an ambitious young executive is brought in to replace a burned out older man who has dedicated his life to the company - it was such a resounding success that a little over a month later it was performed live again by popular demand, at the time a remarkable event.

All three of these plays were about men feeling isolated and under pressure, the protagonists to a large degree recognisable as portraits of their authors. What made 'Patterns' stand out even then was not just its explicit critique of the cruelty of capitalism and the debris left behind on the corporate ladder but its complex sense of empathy. All viewers will feel sorry for Andy Sloane (a surname incidentally that recurs throughout Serling’s work, taken from one of his war comrades), the older man dying a death by a thousand cuts under the thumb of his unscrupulous but not monstrous boss (played respectively by Ed Begley and Everett Sloane in both the original television broadcasts and the expanded cinema release). More surprisingly however Serling also displays a somewhat ambivalent attitude to the motives of his likeable young protagonist (played on television by Richard Kiley, in the film by Van Heflin). The effect - compared with the basic human simplicity of 'Marty' and the effective but often contrived plot mechanics of 'Twelve Angry Men' - is one of depth, clarity, maturity and complexity. Serling was just 30 years old.

By the time Patterns was broadcast, Serling had had well over 70 of his television plays already produced as well as dozens of radio scripts too – and yet he still had serious doubts about his own talent. According to all his biographers Serling had enormous drive, a thirst to dramatise important themes, enjoyed his success and liked being the centre of attention – but could be extraordinarily insecure and self-critical too. In fact, the huge success of 'Patterns' quickly became a millstone round the author’s neck. This was not just because it was followed by some much less critically successful work but because, as Serling was quick to point out, 'Patterns' as broadcast was very much a collaboration with the creative staff at Kraft Theatre. It was the show’s director, Fielder Cook, who took a strong hand in reworking the script to make the first act more fluid and cinematic, while it was the series’ story editor, Arthur Singer, who suggested to Serling that he amend the finale to make it more ironic by having the young man lambast his cruel boss but agree none the less to stay. Serling in later interviews especially was often very damning of his own efforts but he never stopped working, his output prodigious by any standards. Inevitably then, given the speed at which he was working (he averaged 10 new plays a year on television throughout his 25-year career, not including the many that were not produced), not all his work can be considered successful.

However, despite some fumbles along the way, Serling proved himself time and again as a peerless dramatist of the struggles of the post-war American male. This can be seen in such varied television plays as: 'A Long Time Till Dawn' (Kraft Theatre, 1953) about an ex-con, starring James Dean; 'The Rack' (US Steel Hour, 1955), focusing on a Korean War vet who is accused of collaborating with the enemy (faithfully adapted into a Paul Newman movie of the same name the following year). And perhaps most successfully, the 11 feature-length dramas he wrote for CBS’ prestigious Playhouse 90 anthology between 1956 and 1960 (the first and last plays produced on the series were by Serling). Of these, the most memorable is probably his single greatest play, 'Requiem for a Heavyweight' (1956), his Emmy Award-winning story about a boxer on his way down, though there were many others that still stand out. 'The Comedian' (1957), adapted from the 1952 novella by Ernest Lehman, also won an Emmy for best script and is a splenetic look at a television star played with extraordinary ferocity by Mickey Rooney and directed with febrile energy by John Frankenheimer.

The most self-revealing (and self-lacerating) was 'The Velvet Alley' (1959), about a principled writer who, in search of fame and fortune, sells out his dedicated agent and ‘goes Hollywood’. Probably the most personally meaningful to Serling however, and the one that ultimately disappointed him the most (despite its excellent qualities) due to the cuts and changes that were imposed on him, was 'A Town has Turned to Dust' (1958). Starring Rod Steiger - who incidentally played the role again in 1960 when it was produced in the UK for the BBC’s Sunday Night Play series - this was one of several plays by Serling that attempted to deal with racism in the wake of the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955, all of which were changed following objections by sponsors.

In the 1950s, Serling was labelled as ‘TV’s Angry Young Man’ for his criticism of censorship and the heavy hand of the sponsors that ultimately controlled the content of the shows they backed. In those days an individual sponsor would support an entire show (hence their name in the series title) but Serling was not silent when changes were made on a whim to placate the advertisers. After several years of success (he ultimately won six Emmy Awards for dramatic writing, a still unbeaten record) in which, none the less, much of his work was censored, Serling decided to try a more oblique approach.

In August 1959 the Binghamton Sunday Press published an interview with the writer in the run-up to the premier of The Twilight Zone entitled, ‘Angry Young Man? Serling Too Busy.’ With live drama starting to dwindle, along with the commitment to producing serious scripts in favour of more generic, lower brow fare to appeal to broader audiences now that television sets were cheaper and more widely available, Serling relocated to Hollywood and decided to try and get his own filmed anthology off the ground. The Twilight Zone was his attempt to tackle serious subjects in oblique ways that would blindside the advertisers by using fantasy, science fiction and horror, a genre for which he had had a long affection. Eventually launched in October 1959 after several setbacks (and the rejection or shelving of several pilot scripts), the show would last five seasons and, on the whole, worked superbly, tackling such topics as racism, the Holocaust, lynching, mass hysteria, totalitarian regimes, Cold War paranoia and even the Vietnam War without having to kowtow to those holding the purse strings. As with so much of his work though, ultimately its main subject was trying to bring to the surface the human qualities in even the weakest or most savage of men. And it was nearly always men that he wrote about. Serling, being acutely self-critical, was aware of this gender bias and even mocked it on air:

‘Next week I try to settle an argument to the effect that I am not at my best when writing scripts for women. Miss Vera Miles is on my side in a most unusual and unique story we call ‘Mirror Image.’ I hope to see you next week, you in your living room and Miss Vera Miles and the rest of us in The Twilight Zone.’ – Rod Serling’s on-screen promotion for the 21st episode of The Twilight Zone in February 1960.

As usual, Serling was being much too tough on himself. He would of course remain best-known for his portrayals of men at physical and spiritual braking point but his output was nothing if not varied. And indeed, during just that particular season of The Twilight Zone he wrote several exceptional episodes with female protagonists. Most notable among these are: 'The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine’ starring Ida Lupino as a Hollywood star of yesterday who vanishes into one of her own films; Serling’s terrific adaptation of Lucille Fletcher’s seminal 1941 radio play The Hitch-hiker but with the protagonist changed from a man to a woman (played here by Inger Stevens); ‘Nightmare as a Child’, with Janice Rule as a troubled teacher who gets help from a mysterious young girl; and ‘The After Hours’, with Anne Francis locked inside a department store at a night. This episode, superficially reminiscent of John Collier’s ‘Evening Primrose’ and Jack Finney’s ‘The Third Level’ (pulp writer Frank Gruber also got in touch with Serling about this one), led to many unfair accusations of plagiarism from within the then still quite small and parochial science fiction community. This led to Ray Bradbury ultimately dropping his support for the series though his proteges, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont and George Clayton Johnson, would contribute to over 40 episodes between them, including such celebrated entries as ‘Nothing in the Dark’ with Gladys Cooper, ‘The Howling Man’ and the much-loved (and parodied) ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’ with William Shatner.

Nicholas Parisi in his new book - Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination - tries to find out how Serling expressed his personal philosophy of life through his work and also bring a measure of attention to that part of his output that is now much less well-known. Previous books about Serling have fallen into one of two main categories: less than flattering biographies of the man’s life and studies of his work tending towards the hyperbolic in their praise, the latter focusing exclusively on his authored anthologies, The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery. Of these the most notable include Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion (1982), now in its third edition and probably still the warmest and most sympathetic treatment of the series; and Martin Grams Jr’s The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic (2008), an 800-page behemoth that while very narrowly focused includes vast amounts of valuable factual information. Also worthy of note are Peter Wolfe’s closely argued study, In the Zone: The Twilight World of Rod Serling (1997) and Rod Serling and the Twilight Zone (2009), co-written by Douglas Brode with Serling’s widow Carol, both of which take a thematic look at the series and are probably the best-written and most-widely read analyses of the show currently available.

Biographies of Serling the man are far fewer. The most factually valuable, based on the first 100 or so pages published so far, could turn out to be Amy Boyle Johnston’s long-in-the-works Unknown Serling (volume 1, 2015), but final judgement will have to be suspended until the final two thirds appear. The first to print was Joel Engle’s Rod Serling: The Dreams and Nightmares of Life in the Twilight Zone (1989; 2014 as Last Stop, The Twilight Zone: The Biography of Rod Serling), followed by Serling: The Rise and Twilight of TV's Last Angry Man (1992) by Gordon F. Sander. Neither was authorised by the family (though Sanders’ did start out that way) and in 2013 Serling’s daughter Ann published her memoir, As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling. She also provides a forward to Parisi’s book, which tends to settle much that we already knew or suspected. It also provides welcome new information on some of his earlier work, most notably The Storm (WKRC-TV, 1951-52), a series made in Cincinnati and only shown there that ultimately served as a testing ground for much of his more celebrated later work.

Parisi goes for a truly integrated approach, attempting to provide a chronological portrait of Serling through his work, exploring his recurring themes and motifs (such as boxing, Christmas, war, baseball, gun control, mob rule). He makes decent use of primary documentation including private family letters as well as scripts for shows that were only ever performed live and never recorded. Along with details on the formative experience of The Storm - only one complete episode of which is available (out of 30 Serling scripts produced for the series) - Parisi provides synopses for dozens of other shows no longer extant. On the other hand, he also does this for the 130 or so of Serling’s episodes from The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, which seems redundant given that all of them are easily available commercially. Moreover, rating the episodes from these two shows with marks out of three (Three = classic, Two = good, One = poor) seems misjudged and belongs in a completely different sort of book frankly. Occasionally Parisi, whose first book this is, does seem a little too hide-bound to his sources, or stumbles when striving awkwardly for absolutes. For instance, in discussing Serling’s opinion of pacifism, this is what Parisi has to say on page 182:

‘Likely the most convincing evidence that Rod Serling was not a complete pacifist is the fact that he did not reflexively oppose the US involvement in Vietnam.’

The ‘evidence’ is from a 1966 student talk he gave at UCLA, which perhaps predictably expresses doubts about the involvement but concern for the men already out there.

Parisi is on safer ground when dealing with Serling’s creative work, though the aforementioned integrated structure is problematic. While ambitious, the strategy of trying to divine the real Serling as reflected in what he wrote as fiction proves almost immediately unwieldy. In particular, this approach tends to dilute the book’s greatest asset: its very extensive filmography. It does this by spreading that information across the entire book in 15 large chunks, attached in the main to chapters devoted to specific series to which he contributed. Rather than providing a summary of the scripts for each period or series under consideration and putting the more detailed filmographic information at the back of the volume, Parisi puts the complete data in each section. Which means that almost every chapter gets really bogged down with lengthy synopses and detailed production credits. Too often this means the book then has to backtrack after those chapters dealing with sections that crossed long periods to deal with what went on in between. Moreover, because Serling wrote standalone items too, this necessitates appendices for some 40 odd titles that did not fit this approach along the way.

The result is often confusing and frustrating, not least because you will need a good memory to eke out some terrific material, which is not always where you would expect to find it. For instance, Serling’s best-regarded script from the fifth and final season of The Twilight Zone is generally held to be the 1963 season opener ‘In Praise of Pip,’ a fine story about a father and son that is also historically important as the first American drama to depict the war in Vietnam. Parisi has unearthed that the first part of the episode was in fact recycled almost verbatim from Serling’s 1953 television play 'Next of Kin'. This is discussed on page 59 in the section and filmography (or to use Parisi’s word, ‘videography’) devoted to Serling’s work for Kraft Theatre but not in the relevant section on The Twilight Zone (200 plus pages later) other than as a reference to the earlier series. Which may seem a bit perverse given that ‘In Praise of Pip’ is well-known and very easy to find while 'Next of Kin' is currently only available to researchers who personally visit the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. In addition, while the attempt to build a thematic chronology is a bold one, it is let down badly by an almost complete lack of context. While there are often fascinating snippets from Serling’s private correspondence and script drafts, we are given little idea of the environment in which he toiled. We know next to nothing of the work of his friends, colleagues (and competitors) from around this time and very little of the gigantic pressure he worked under throughout most of his life.

Despite these limitations, at nearly 600 pages this is an often impressive volume that feels close to definitive in providing the credits and details of his career, though it is a bit of a shame that Serling’s work for radio and the cinema is generally sidelined (his screenplays for the kidnap drama Yellow Canary (1963) and the Frank Sinatra caper, Assault on a Queen (1966) are not mentioned at all). One is also duty bound to point out that there are a few small factual errors along the way (for example, his episode of Suspense, ‘Nightmare at Ground Zero,’ was directed by Robert Mulligan not Robert Stevens). There are also some uncertainties (Parisi states on page 28 that the 1952 play ‘As Yet Untitled’ for The Storm was broadcast live on 4 April and on page 29 says it was 5 April). These are minor issues however.

While there may be flaws in the structure, overall Parisi’s book is a great starting point. Along with its thorough filmography, the book also provides a detailed look at Serling’s early life and the effect that the war had on him (today he would almost certainly be diagnosed as having been suffering from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder). And Parisi does try very hard to draw threads together in Serling’s work. While these can on occasion be somewhat facile, some work very well indeed such as a revealing analysis (admittedly first essayed by Zicree) of the development of male executives from youthful enthusiasm to middle-aged burnout as depicted sequentially in three of the writer’s greatest television plays: Patterns written in 1954, the Twilight Zone episode ‘Walking Distance’ (1959) and the Night Gallery standout, ‘They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar’ (1971). There is little in this volume about personal problems at work or at home (any hint of family controversy has been omitted) but it does occasionally provide some fascinating titbits about his life, though one of the strangest anecdotes relates to his death. Apparently, after being picked up by an ambulance for a heart bypass operation after he suffered his second and ultimately fatal coronary in 1975, Serling convinced the drivers to stop en route so he could get out to have a smoke by the roadside before getting back in to reach the hospital. He made it that far but no further.

There is much more to Serling’s legacy than just The Twilight Zone but inevitably one has to return to his most famous show, one whose impact has been unprecedented and continues to have a quite extraordinary afterlife. There have been excursions into the cinema (Twilight Zone: The Movie, 1983), the stage (the eponymous 2017 play by Anne Washburn) and audio (176 episodes released between 2002 and 2012) as well as comics and assorted print spinoffs. The latest small-screen revival (earlier ones appeared in 1985-87; 1988-89; 2002-03) comes from Jordan Peele, the writer-director of the decidedly Serling-esque polemical horror films Get Out (2017) and Us (2019). He is producing, has directed one of the segments and like Serling is hosting the new show, which launched in April 2019. We wish him well. He has big shoes to fill.

About the Author:

Sergio Angelini is Head of Membership Services and Information at Learning on Screen.

Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imaginationby Nicholas Parisi (University Press of Mississippi, October 2018) ISBN: 978-1496817501 (Hardback), 584 pagesASIN: B07KCMWLBK (Kindle)