The Twilight Zone Forever

Rod Serling's Early Career

Rodman Edward Serling was born in Syracuse, New York, but raised downstate in Binghamton, which lay somewhere in that twilight zone between large town and small city, urban and suburban, endemic of the northeast United States in the early part of the century, replete with perfectly kept parks, town centers with vintage carousels and gazeboes, homes with front porches and back yards—enough bucolic, Rockwellian Americana to give the adult Serling such pangs of nostalgic longing that it brought forth two of his greatest Twilight Zone episodes, “Walking Distance” and “A Stop at Willoughby,” both from the Hall-of-Fame first season of 1959–60 (a startling quantity of 36 original half-hours of anthology drama of unparalleled quality, depth, and breadth in the history of television).  


Serling and his father, circa 1942.

The sister episodes each had thirtysomething ad men—Serling’s doppelgangers—burned out from years in the Madison Avenue trenches, looking for some kind of respite; one finds it in a literal return to his childhood home (“Homewood” in “Walking Distance”), the other even further back, to a nineteenth century idyll (“Willoughby”), which turns out to be an illusory death. Either way, Serling was saying to himself, “I can’t go home again.”

Leaving Binghamton and entering World War II as a paratrooper in the Pacific theater—and surviving—was a loss of innocence Serling, like his entire generation, never really recovered from, but instead, channeled into a creative, compassionate consciousness and an empathetic, wizened worldview as a writer; the specters of war and time, good and evil, mortality and immortality, hover over and through Serling’s entire body of work, but especially in The Twilight Zone, with two episodes taking place specifically where Serling saw action, the Philippines. 

“The Purple Testament,” also from the remarkable first season, is the purple glow of death Lieutenant Fitzgerald (William Reynolds, later of The FBI, a Quinn Martin production) can clairvoyantly, preternaturally see on a doomed soldier’s face before his death; in the third season’s “A Quality of Mercy,” Dean Stockwell (Blue Velvet) is a callous American lieutenant who, in the final days of the war, is about to bombard the last, holed-up Japanese, when suddenly, in classic, ironic Twilight Zone juxtaposition, he’s transformed into a Japanese soldier, and experiences the same mercilessness towards trapped American GIs from his cruel commanding officer. “We have met the enemy and it is us,” indeed.

Serling was at the right place at the right time after the war ended, at the transition between radio and the new media kid on the block, television. While attending Antioch University on the GI Bill, Serling first broke into radio writing scripts freelance, then, after graduation, took a staff writing job for a station in Cincinnati. Soon after, he crossed over into TV, and never looked back: by 1955 he had written over 70 scripts for live television anthology drama—the forerunner of The Twilight Zone—eventually moving to the East Coast (Westport, Connecticut, where Luci and Desi “moved” to in 1957, where 1968’s The Swimmer and ‘75’s The Stepford Wives were filmed, was Serling’s model for the suburban/commuter milieus of episodes like “Willoughby” and “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”) to be closer to live TV’s production home, New York City. 

“My future is unquestionably in TV. Television is much more intimate. You’re looking at people close up, both physically and psychologically.”
—Serling, 1955

Early Emmy Award–winning triumphs like 1955’s “Patterns” about ageism and office politics and ‘56’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight” about mortality and prizefighting (Serling himself was an amateur boxer), which CBS Chairman William Paley proudly announced had “...advanced TV by 10 years,” established Serling, along with peers Reginald Rose (“Twelve Angry Men”) and Paddy Chayefsky (“Marty”), as a new commodity on the cultural scene: a “television playwright.”

Serling’s “television playwrighting” had been heavily influenced by Norman Corwin, a major figure during the Golden Age of Radio in the 1930s and '40s, who was one of the first producers to regularly use entertainment to tackle serious social issues. But by the mid-fifties, when McCarthyism and the Cold War chilled the broadcast air, Serling’s Corwinesque scripts, tackling controversial subjects like race, war, and politics, put him at loggerheads with the censors of the nascent industry, and its de facto censors: TV’s financial sponsors, the advertisers and their agencies who exerted an inordinate amount of control over the content of its clients’ programs like Kraft Television Theater and United States Steel Hour, named for their patrons like today’s stadiums bear the names, and logos, of their corporate benefactors. 

Their creative interference ranged from the sacred to the profane—a coffee maker didn’t want characters drinking tea; a gas company demanded references to concentration camps’ gas chambers removed. After they gutted his ‘57 Capitol Hill drama “The Arena,” Serling maintained he would have had a more “adult” play if he had transposed the setting 100 years in the future and peopled the Senate with robots. Cue The Twilight Zone theme... 

"The Twilight Zone Forever" pages: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 

 


Gig Young in "Walking Distance," 1959; James Daly in "A Stop at Willoughby," 1960.


William Reynolds' fractured image in "The Purple Testament," 1960; Serling on the set, with actors Reynolds and Dick York (later of Bewitched, 1964).


Dean Stockwell, GI, and as a Japanese soldier, in "A Quality of Mercy," 1961.


Serling, circa early 1950s


Closeups from the anarchic conclusion of "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," 1960.


Ed Begley, Everett Sloane, and Richard Kiley in the live “Patterns,” 1955; Keenan Wynn, Jack Palance, and Ed Wynn in the live “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” 1956.

 
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