By Luaine Lee
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Before the sappy “Twilight” movies there was another “Twilight” that shone far brighter and lasted far longer. It was, of course, Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone,” which always makes regular yearly orbits on various TV marathons.
“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. . .” Serling would begin the anthology, his mouth taut, his voice staccato and mesmerizing.
Each episode was a small morality play played out in modern times. They were stories that could be taken on several levels—from the simple roundelay of a tale to a shattering subtext with deeper meaning – all in the context of science fiction.
“The Twilight Zone,” which beamed up long before “Star Trek,” “The Outer Limits,” or “The X-Files,” became one of the most popular series ever on TV and marked Serling as one of the first creators to bring timeless writing to the television medium.
Serling, who died 39 years ago of complications following heart surgery, earned Emmys for “The Twilight Zone,” as well as dramatic TV plays like “Patterns,” “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” “The Comedians”—which were part of TV’s live, Golden Age.
A veteran of World War II’s Pacific campaign, Serling was a wiry, tough guy who’d once been a Golden Gloves boxer.
But he was a very shy man, said the late Ernest “Buck” Houghton, who produced the first 100 episodes of “The Twilight Zone.”
“He was a very complex man, a very nice man, a very cooperative man who had a social conscience that he tried to put into his stories, and who was even-tempered in a high-temper business,” said Houghton. “He never believed that he was nearly as talented as he was.”
Actor Earl Holliman, who appeared in the very first “Twilight Zone” episode, “Where is Everybody?” says, “He had a great sense of humor. I remember if he disagreed with you he’d smile, and his eyes would twinkle and he’d say, ‘Let me put it this way—you’re wrong.’”
Houghton categorized Serling as a perfectionist. “He was never satisfied with what he did. He always wanted it to be better. He was a guy who was driven, I think.”
Serling began writing for radio shortly after the war. He moved into television scripting for many of the top shows of the day including “Studio One,” “The U.S. Steel Hour,” “Playhouse 90.”
Holliman recalls that one time he made a brash suggestion to Serling about what his character ought to do in the script. “He took out his pencil and started jotting the words down and basically used those words.
“It was just amazing. I never got over that. I mean, usually somebody would say, ‘Go screw yourself’ or ‘Stick to your own field. You’re an actor, what do you know about that?’ He was terrific, I thought, with the lack of ego.”
Few people know that Serling penned the first script for “Planet of the Apes.” The late Mort Abrahams, who was associate producer on that film, revealed, “Rod broke the back of that script by finding the ending. That ending was so startling that we really did a strange thing. We all worked backwards from the ending. Rod had done, I think, something like 18 drafts, and he finally called me one day and said, ‘Hey, Mort, I’m written out. I’ve just had it.’”
Someone else wrote the interior of the script and another writer was pulled in to punch up the dialogue. But it was Serling who conceived the indelible ending.
As television consumption widened, the quality diminished and Serling’s jewels began to lose their luster. Robert Redford remembers that time. “One of the things that I loved in early television, when I started in television – I did the last ‘Playhouse 90’ that was done, and that was thrilling because that was an anthology of the best literature you could find,
with the best talent: directing, writing. And it went out after that, Rod Serling along with it. So I always felt bad that a certain part of television went away, the anthology and more literate things. . .”
There were 156 episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” with Serling writing 92 of them. Eighty of those aired the first three years of the series, which began with a 30-minute anthology. At the beginning of the fourth year it was expanded to one hour, but the longer format was discontinued the following year.
Susan Lacy, who produced a documentary about Serling for PBS, says he became disenchanted when television began to cater to the common denominator, forsaking its literate bent for more common clay.
“When he finally realized that the golden era of live television drama had come to an end, vanquished by commercial interests, he said: ‘We tilted at the same dragons for seven or eight years, and when the smoke cleared, the dragons had won.’”