Rod Serling and “The Twilight Zone”

Herbie J Pilato
The Classic TV Preservation Society

The development and execution of The Twilight Zone and its induction into the annals of TV history is a story of an obsessive need for acceptance on many levels.

Submitted for your approval:

Exhibit A: Rod Serling, Zone’s creator, executive producer, central writing force, and charismatic host. The show’s popularity preyed upon his endless reservoir of ideas, originally inspired by his obsession with the past and his preoccupation with aging, mixed in with a measure of courage and faith, and the survival techniques he learned in the army.

With monumental tenacity, Serling went on to seek and gain reign over his creation on what was nearly a daily basis, all the while delivering top-notch scripts at a frenetic pace. With a strong desire to succeed, and an intense need for creative control, this small-in-stature (he stood 5'5"), though foreboding and critically-acclaimed non-stop talent, employed a no-holds-barred approach to getting his product on the air — as he saw fit — and settled for nothing less. He protected his turf, circumvented the typically charted waters of TV production, and opposed the demands placed forth by network executives, with a back-door approach to realizing the fruition of his “other-worldly” dreams.

Serling believed in his vision and rarely bowed to editorial invasion, fiercely guarding the end results of his Zone.

In effect, The Twilight Zone presented weekly excursions into an unknown, yet familiar territory, which showcased morality plays and controversial topics, presented under the guise of science fiction. Characters with dimension were introduced to the audience with arresting aplomb, many of whom were granted a second chance against the odds — much like Serling himself. Though almost canceled twice before its original network demise, The Twilight Zone stayed afloat due to Serling’s tactful maneuvers around Hollywood minds that were uncertain of anything — and everything — related to Zone — except Serling’s undying passion. In the end, however, Serling himself died young, at 50-years-old, never reaching the twilight of his years, though not before he explored, unobtrusively, the senior mentality, and other untapped areas of legitimate topics of conversation, with several, very-real trips into The Twilight Zone.

Serling was born Rodman Edward Serling in Syracuse, New York, on December 25, 1924, to father Samuel Lawrence Serling, a wholesale meat dealer, and Esther Cooper Serling. Shortly thereafter, his family moved to Binghamton, a small city in Upstate, New York. As a youth, Rod, along with older brother Robert (a novelist, best known for The President’s Plane Is Missing), became enamored with the science fiction and fantasy articles published in magazines such as Astounding Stories and Weird Tales. He enjoyed all sports, and his approach to life became somewhat more realistic when he later joined the U.S. Army 11th Airborne Division paratroopers.

Rod started boxing, winning 17 out of 18 bouts — during the last of which he earned what came to be his trademark broken nose. He was discharged from the Army in 1946, and enrolled at Antioch College of Yellow Springs, Ohio because he was interested in “working with kids.” He majored in Physical Education but switched to Language and Literature, during which he wrote, directed, and performed in radio productions for the Antioch Broadcasting System that was transmitted over radio WJEM, Springfield.

While still in college, he experienced two life-altering events. In 1948, he married Carolyn Louise Kramer. And in 1949, he sold his first teleplay, “Grady for the People,” for a mere $100.00, to NBC’s Stars Over Hollywood.

Upon graduation from Antioch College, he moved to Cincinnati to become a staff writer for WLW radio, pursued his career as a freelance writer, and collected more than 40 consecutive rejection slips as a reward for his efforts. Those early signs of disapproval did not hinder his persistence in seeking additional approval of his work.

From 1951 to 1955, Serling penned over 70 teleplays, one of which was his 72nd script, titled, “Patterns,” which aired on January 12, 1955, on the Kraft Television Theatre.

“Patterns” was about a power struggle between a ruthless president of a major organization, an aging vice-president who’s pressured into resigning, and a new young executive brought in to replace the vice-president. (Does this foreshadow to the frequent producer replacements that take place on Zone?)

Serling followed the success of “Patterns” with scripts for one of some of TV’s most respected anthology series, including “The Time Element” for Desilu Playhouse and “Where Is Everybody?” for Playhouse 90.

First, “Element” debuted on Desilu. Serling originally penned it as a time-travel story for “The Storm,” back in 1951. He then expanded the story to sixty minutes and submitted it to CBS in 1957. CBS purchased it, only to shelve it until Bert Granet, producer of the Desilu Playhouse, buys it for use on his show. Granet essentially begged the sponsor to allow “Element’s” filming. It finally aired on November 24, 1958, and became the most popular production aired this year.

Thanks to that and the positive reviews by the critics, CBS finally surmised Serling’s genius.

Next up, “Where Is Everybody?” aired on Playhouse 90 during the 1958–59 season. It ultimately showcased a somewhat unique, almost mystical story that unabashedly arrived at a logical conclusion. Along with “The Time Element,” “Everybody” was an unrealistic, yet believable teleplay that served as a backdoor pilot for The Twilight Zone, for which Serling soon exited Playhouse 90 to establish.

Serling dreamt up the central premise for what becomes The Twilight Zone while, one day, pacing through an empty studio lot at MGM. He sensed evidence of a community, but with no people. He sensed a form of isolation and despair; a frightful feeling of what it would be like to wake up one day in a city with no residents.

“Where Is Everybody?” embraced such traits of an unknown origin and quality. It was seemingly a tale of the last man on Earth (played by Earl Holliman). Wherever he ventured, there was evidence of someone having left, but never being there. We learned these incidents transpired merely in his mind. It was all part of an experiment conducted for research into space travel. Scientists sought to discover if one as able to withstand the isolation involved with an expedition to the moon. Holliman’s character could not. He lost his grip, and the scientists had their answer: Man must earn to conquer his own fears before he attempts to overcome the foreign elements connected with leaving home.

With “Everybody?” Serling’s twists were so slightly the well-oiled, safety-net structure maintained so rigidly by network and studio executives, creating what ultimately became one of the few episodes of Zone to actually climax with a “rational” final act.

Though it eventually became part of The Twilight Zone, “Where Is Everybody” was, for the moment, only a highly-rated episode of Playhouse 90.

By September 1959, CBS and General Foods, one of the network’s major sponsors, ordered Zone as a series. Serling won approval once more, but again, after much rejection, and walking through another dimension, if you will: the back door. “I’m not writing anything controversial in the new series,” he said at the time. “Now that we’re petulant aging men, it no longer behooves us to bite the hand that feeds us.” But he was being facetious.

By December 1959, episodes such as “Walking Distance” (with Gig Young playing a man who travels back in time to his boyhood and hometown) continued to examine Serling’s bi-lateral obsession with youth and old age. The Twilight Zone was clearly the most controversial program he ever created. He may have fooled a few executives, but the audience and the critics were on to his game — and they seemingly wanted to keep on playing. But for CBS and its sponsors, the stakes were too high.

In between the first and second season, CBS was taken over by Jim Aubrey, who became more interested in what makes money, and not so much quality. He began to cancel most of CBS’s respected dramatic shows and replaced them with silly comedies. Meanwhile, too, he continuously messed with Zone’s budget which, by now, was approximately $65,000 an episode.

By September 1960, the second season arrived, though with seven fewer episodes. Without these seven shows, Jim Aubrey saved close to $500,000 in production costs. Another of his cost-cutting ploys was utilizing videotape, instead of film — and videotape was cheaper.

Aubrey convinced Serling to tape six segments, instead of film them. Yet the disadvantages of video outweighed the advantages. The video episodes had to be shot on a sound stage. Except for stock footage, there were no scenes shot on location.

Since so much of Zone’s essence had to do with “going somewhere,” again, into “another dimension,” not having locales was a glitch in the way of plot development and aesthetic appeal.

Another video handicap was the limited use of camera sets and angles, due to editing. The use of video was then abandoned after six episodes, and Serling would later call the experience “disastrous.”

By this time, CBS had strong reservations about granting Serling too much creative control. However, it was too late. Serling had carried his Playhouse 90 sensibility into the Zone and told stories with social commentary, masked behind the premise of science fiction.

Many of Zone’s episodes were morality plays and parables in disguise. His choice for characters began to become clear. There were only two kinds: Likeable characters that were granted a second chance, and unlikable characters who received their comeuppance.

Serling rallied only the finest scripts and scribes. He becomes unstoppable. Besides himself, early Zone segments rely on feature film names, including Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man), Charles Beaumont (The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao), and the like.

According to Serling, each episode was to be “complete in itself.” The series was not, he said, “an assembly line operation. Each show was a carefully conceived and wrought piece of drama, cast with competent people, directed by creative, quality-conscious guys and shot with an eye toward mood and reality.”

Yet the show was challenged in the ratings. Sponsors became nervous. CBS began to bend to pressure. But not Serling. He remained true to form, kept his ground, and refused to let the show die. Word of mouth spread. Critics poured their praise. The ratings improved. Subsequent episodes aired with stories such as an angel-like man of “Death,” a once-hot Hollywood star who literally abided in the dream-world of her films, and a child who could make dreams come true.

Meanwhile, Serling’s reveries came to fruition. Each episode of Zone explored the human condition, the ups and downs, the sorrows and joys of everyday life. He also enjoyed playing host, his celebrity, and being recognized. It fed his insecurities. He once remarked, “Apparently, on the screen, I look tall, ageless and damn close to omniscient, delivering jeopardy-laden warning through gritted teeth. But when people see me on the street, they say, ‘By God, this kid is 5’5”. He’s got a broken nose and looks about as foreboding as a bank teller on a lunch break.”

By the third season, Serling was writing faster than ever before. Some of the scripts he wrote for Playhouse 90 used to take him from six months to a year to complete. Each Twilight Zone teleplay now took him from thirty-five to forty hours. “It’s the kind of schedule that if I drop a pencil, and then bend over to pick it up,” he revealed, “I’m two weeks behind.” A Zone episode from the first season, “A Stop at Willoughby,” seemed to represent Serling’s frantic pace. It featured an over-worked big-city ad exec who finds peace in a tranquil, mystical small town.

Meanwhile, in this third year, Serling continued to obsess about getting older, and episodes like “No Time Like The Past” and “Of Late, I Think of Cliffordville” were the proof in the pudding. “Past” was about a man who lept in time in an effort to change things for the better, but he made mistakes at every turn. He turns to the present in an effort to help change the future.

“Cliffordville” is about a millionaire who was given the opportunity to travel back in time to the early years of his life in an attempt to win back his great fortune, just for the fun of it. Did these segments, in perspective, represent Serling’s lot in life at the time? Did he sit back and wonder, “When am I to begin enjoying the riches that The Twilight Zone afforded me? Could this have been his initial period of acceptance into reality, after so many years of struggling to find success and win his way, creatively, with his writing? Was he ready to give in?”

Maybe so.

One thing is for sure, Buck Houghton who, essentially was his producing partner on the show, would soon no longer be there to carry half the load. As producer Houghton’s contributions became almost as imperative to Zone as Serling’s. Houghton had been a producer for MGM for six years before signing on to produce Zone. He was the man that performed many of the behind-the-scenes duties that were required for a show to come together. He was the perfect partner for Serling, and for Zone’s first three years their bond is strong.

Houghton, however, exited The Twilight Zone in the third year, mainly because of a technicality, and not because of some huge feud or anything of the sort. After the third season, Zone is having trouble finding a sponsor for the next year. As a result, it’s off the CBS fall schedule. Houghton was offered a job with Four Star Productions that he found difficult to reject.

CBS then decided to bring Zone back in January of 1963, by which time Houghton was already on The Richard Boone Show, and has no intention of leaving.

Meanwhile, Serling was growing tired, in part because Houghton had jumped ship, and Serling was now carrying the load on his own. “I’ve never felt quite so drained of ideas as I am at this moment,” he said. “Stories used to bubble out of me so fast I couldn’t set them down on paper quick enough, but in these last few years I’ve written so much I’m woozy. If only I could take off about six months and replenish the wealth.” “I want out,” he later added, “I get more and more tired of the whole business. I’ll never do another TV series as long as I live.”

By the Fall of 1962, Serling was offered a chance to teach at Antioch College. He accepted it, and The Twilight Zone was placed on hiatus. CBS scheduled Fair Exchange in Zone’s time slot. “Fair” was an odd, hour-long situation comedy that lasted only half the season.

By January 1963, Serling continued to teach after CBS picked up Zone as a mid-season replacement when new producer Herbert Hirschman was hired to replace Houghton.

By this time, Zone as a weekly half-hour had run its course. Its episodes were extended to a full sixty minutes, while its title had been shaved. It’s no longer known as The Twilight Zone, but just Twilight Zone with no “The” in front of the title.

The hour-format alteration jarred Serling. “Ours is the perfect half-hour show,” he complained. “If we went to an hour, we’d have to flesh-out stories, soap-opera style. Viewers could watch fifteen minutes without knowing whether they were in a Twilight Zone or Desilu Playhouse.”

No matter. Against his better judgment, Serling struck a deal with CBS for 13 one-hour Zone episodes, and the show began to fade.

Serling was indeed ready to surrender his creative control. He later switched his perspective and offered a seemingly half-hearted attempt at positive thinking. “In the half-hour form we depended heavily on the old O. Henry twist,” he told TV Guide. “So the only question is: Can we retain the Twilight flavor in an hour? We may come up with something totally different.” And instead of integrating himself into the tease and tags, as he had in previous seasons, all of Serling’s narrations for the fourth season were performed against a gray background. His teaching at Antioch College prevented him from visiting the sets regularly.

When he flew in for other business, Hirschman films several narrations at once. But he also decided to leave during the fourth year and accepted another offer — to produce Espionage, a live spy drama that’s filmed in London. The opportunity of going live and work in Europe, which he had never done before, had appealed to him.

Ironically, he’s replaced for the rest of the year by Bert Granet, the producer of “The Time Element.” The CBS plan to expand Zone into a full hour to increase ratings is a bust. The show’s writing suffered. The episodes were not as memorable, so the network returned the show to its original regular half-hour format.

Then arrived the fateful date of November 22, 1963, and President Kennedy was assassinated. The Zone episode set to air, titled, “Night Call,” was postponed until February 7, 1964.

Granet left the series during the fifth season when he was offered $250,000 to take over The Great Adventure, another show for CBS that was massively over-budget. Serling was unable to make a counter-offer, Granet goes on The Great Adventure, and William Froug (who would later produce Bewitched) steps in to replace him.

The Twilight Zone then ends production in January 1964 and is canceled. CBS president Jim Aubrey claimed he was tired of the show. He said he was tired of it after the end of the second season.

By now, Serling knew Zone was not what it used to be — and it hadn’t been for some time. So he agreed to close up shop.

Serling continued writing with screenplays such as Planet of the Apes, which was released theatrically in 1968, and TV’s Night Gallery (which struggled for three seasons on NBC, from 1969 to 1971). He returned to Antioch College, as a Professor, and rallied against the Vietnam War.

He died at age 50 on June 28, 1975, from complications from bypass surgery. Apparently, all the men in Serling’s family died young. The statistics scared him. So he wrote about it in The Twilight Zone.

Serling’s older brother Robert once lamented, regarding Rod: “I didn’t realize until “Walking Distance” [the TZ episode from the first season] that nostalgia for his old hometown had played such a tremendous part in his life, how much he loved Binghamton, how much he wanted to go back to it, which in itself was kind of contradictory because he loved the glamour of Hollywood. He was almost like two people. It’s as if he couldn’t…he got his fill of the glamour every once in a while and had to go home to a simpler life.”

Rod Serling himself once concluded: “Everybody has a hometown. Binghamton’s mine. In the strangely brittle, terribly sensitive makeup of a human being, there is a need for a place to hang a hat or a kind of geographical womb to crawl back into, or maybe just a place that’s familiar because that’s where you grew up.”

Clearly, it was in his hometown of Binghamton that Rod Serling had for years subconsciously begun to plant the seeds of his genius for what ultimately became The Twilight Zone.

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including RETRO ACTIVE TELEVISION, THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, and has worked for Reelz, Bravo, E!, TLC, and hosted THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA

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