Where exactly did this disrespect for authority, this all-around cheekiness, come from? Well, between prime 50s TV guys like Groucho Marx and Allen Funt, what would you expect? “You Bet Your Life” and “Candid Camera” were the essence of chutzpah. We didn’t know about the Marx Brothers movies yet, but here was Groucho on his quiz show with his impudent cigar, cracking wise and mercilessly twitting his solid-citizen guests. And here was Allen Funt, balding overgrown imp, making a career out of playing elaborate, fabulously puerile tricks on unsuspecting everyday folks. “Ozzie and Harriet,” believe it or not, was a slyly cheeky show—the Nelsons, disguised as Eisenhower-era “normals,” were as witty, droll and amusing as Noel Coward characters. Even comparatively wholesome Steve Allen did his part—his show was groundbreakingly spontaneous and nonconformist. He made live, unrehearsed phone calls to complete strangers, he had a repertory gang of comedian-actors (Louie Nye, Tom Poston, Don Knotts) who did hilariously satirical bits (“Hello. I’m Gordon Hathaway, and I’m from Manhattan….”), he did man-on-the-street interviews. The message of all these guys? Loosen up. Have fun. Don’t be obedient. And whatever you do, don’t, for God’s sake, be “normal.”
Which brings us to this: Close your eyes. Picture a guy in a Jack Webb-like suit and tie standing under a streetlight smoking a cigarette. It happens on a black-and-white TV screen, right? And the guy is trim, good-looking, dark-haired and intense. “Here's what it is,” he says, speaking in clipped tones. “It's an anthology series, half hour in length, that delves into the odd, the bizarre, the unexpected. Here's what it isn't: it's not a monster rally or a spook show. It probes into the dimension of imagination but with a concern for taste and for an adult audience too long considered to have IQs in negative figures. It’s a wondrous land of the very different. No luggage is required for the trip. All that the audience need bring is imagination.”
No luggage required for the trip! Rod, we hardly knew ye.
Rod Serling left us way prematurely, at age 49 in 1973, but like certain other geniuses whose lives were short—Mozart, Aubrey Beardsley, Frank Norris, Flannery O’Connor—his legacy is long. Rod lives. The Twilight Zone lives.
Rod Serling concentrated a lot of accomplishment into his relatively short life, and the work itself represents an amazing concentration and confluence of ethics, philosophy and artistic creativity. Rod came from an upper-New York State middle-class liberal Jewish background. He went to high school in Binghamton, where he had one of those extraordinary destiny-shaping teachers you sometimes hear people talk about. This woman, Helen Foley, taught drama and English literature, and Rod was one of her star pupils. When he graduated in 1942, WW2 was in full swing. He was 18 and went directly into the service and active duty in the Philippines. When he got out, he went to Antioch College in Ohio, a known hotbed of progressive thinking. And what did he major in? Why, English literature and drama, of course.
Rod had a powerful social conscience. He’d seen some awful stuff during the war, and he saw awful stuff back home in his own country, all of which helped form in him, as it says in one of countless biographical sketches of him, “a profound concern for a moral society.”
He also had talent and drive to spare, and won an award for his first TV script soon after he was out of college. There was no stopping him from then on. He wrote for radio and TV, and was doing it full-time by the early 50s. He wrote for “Playhouse 90,” and also put himself on the map with “Patterns,” a mid-50s TV drama about ruthless, hard-driven business people. The show was so popular that it was run a second time, something they never did back then. Probing investigative dramas dealing with bigotry, lynching, exploitation of workers and the poor became his passion. Next came “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and “A Town Has Turned to Dust.” But the better known he became, the more he was hounded by conservative censors trying to gag him. The solution? He turned to moral fables in the genre of science fiction and fantasy. “I found,” he said, “that it was all right to have Martians saying things Democrats and Republicans could never say.” The Twilight Zone was born, premiering in October of 1959.
And what more perfect medium for TZ than television? The device itself was a thing of science fiction and fantasy—the mysterious little electronic portal to other worlds, translating invisible vibrations into moving, talking images, right there in your normal living room in your normal house on Maple Street, Anytown, USA! We were already in the Twilight Zone—we just didn’t realize it yet. We needed Rod the canny visionary to come along, on that little screen, stroll out of the shadows and stand under that streetlight, cigarette smoke curling upward, define it and populate it for us. And how perfect that TV was, technically speaking, still relatively primitive then, just a smallish contraption with knobs, a crude antenna that you had to move around and a black-and-white picture that sometimes went fuzzy and staticky. It was so…Twilight Zonish! TZ making its debut on a big, modern, liquid-crystal brilliant-color flat-screen TV just wouldn’t have cut it. And watching old episodes now, you have the fun of spotting dozens of now-famous stars looking ridiculously young, anonymous and unformed as they made their early TV debuts: Leonard Nimoy, Martin Landau, Jack Nicholson, Jonathan Winters, Telly Savalas, Robert Redford, William Shatner, Burt Reynolds, Jack Klugman, Dennis Hopper, Theodore Bikel, and even Don Rickles and Shelly Berman. And Rod got one of the greats of all time to act in an episode—that giant of the silent movie era, Buster Keaton.
Rod Serling was hardly the first politically and socially aware artist to cloak important social messages in allegory—in the literary world, Arthur Miller, George Orwell, William Golding and plenty of others preceded him. And sci-fi was always a rich allegorical landscape where C.S. Lewis, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein had blazed many a trail. But Rod, even though he was a top-drawer intellectual equal to any of those guys, had a true “people’s” touch. He recognized the incredible potential of television, still fresh and full of unplumbed possibilities, as a bridge between the rarified world of abstract imaginative thought and the regular world where most of us lived.