Sunday, June 19, 2011

Me and Rod Serling - Enter the Twilight Zone

Rod Serling

Witness one Rod Serling – Standing alone, flesh, blood, muscle and mind. A frustrated actor turned writer, he stands forever in the nightmare of his own creation, pressed into service in the role of narrator for a weekly television drama – The Twilight Zone.

For those who watched and listened, he showed how thin a line separates that which we assume to be real and that which is a product of our own minds.

There is that hauntingly repetitious four-beat score that opens the show, as Serling, dressed conservatively in dark suit and tie, steps out of the shadows and stands in the starry night. With his hands clasped in front of him, he says in his distinctive voice, talking out of the side of his mouth:

“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is also an area we call the Twilight Zone.”

Marc Scott Zicree, in his book The Twilight Zone Companion (Bantam, 1982) tells us that the original music for the show was composed by Bernard Herman, who also did such classic film scores as Citizen Kane, Psycho and The Day The Earth Stood Still. Zicree describes it as, “a subtle and lonely piece scored for strings, harp, flute and brass,” but that was replaced after on season “by the more familiar rhythmic theme by French avant-guarde composer Marius Consant.”

As for the name of the show, Serling said, “I thought I’d made it up, but I’ve since heard that there is an Air Force term relating to a moment when a plane is coming down on approach and the pilot cannot see the horizon, it’s called the twilight zone, but it’s an obscure term which I had not heard before.”

Since then the lexicon should show that the CIA psychologists used the term to denote the state of mind of subjects to whom they administered LSD.

But from now on the term “Twilight Zone” will forever be associated with Serling, who conceived the idea for the TV show and wrote many if not most of the scripts. He made the show unique, parlaying an award wining TV drama into the half-hour weekly program that didn’t have the continuity that plots and characters give sit-coms and soap operas.

When word got out that the show would be scary, Serling rejected the advances of agents representing various monster and robot actors who monopolized other sci-fi shows, politely telling them he had something else “in mind.”

And indeed, the Twilight Zone would stimulate endless nightmares, portraying ordinary people in frightening predicaments. But it made people think, and come back for more.

Serling’s contract only called for him to write 80% of the shows, and for Orson Wells to do the narration, but when Orson Wells required more money than they were allocated, and others just didn’t seem right, Serling volunteered to do the narration himself. While it turned out to be the most familiar and endearing part of the series, it was also Serling’s own personal nightmare, as he had stage fright.

The producers and director were at first skeptical of Serling himself doing the opening dialog, but then, as Serling put it, “They looked at me and said, ‘Hell, at least he’s articulate and speaks English, so let’s use him.’ Only my laundress knows how frightened I was.”

According to Zicree, “Serling had more problems adjusting to his on screen role than just stumbling over the occasional word.”

Director Lamont Johnson said, “Rod was a very nervous man before the camera. When he had to do lead in time he would go through absolute hell. He would sweat and sputter and go pale. He was terribly ill at ease in front of a camera.”

Like all successful TV programs, they last only as long as the scripts maintain a certain quality, and writing is what Serling did best.

Born Rodman Edward Serling on Christmas day 1924 in Syracuse, New York, Serling was the second son of Ester and Samuel Serling, his father a wholesale meat dealer.

Popular, outspoken and confident, Serling read pulp paperback novels and mimicked movie actors as a kid. He went in for dramatics in high school, and served as a paratrooper in the Philippines during World War II. After the service he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and started writing radio scripts and bad poetry.

His wife Carol, who published a Twilight Zone magazine that featured original short fiction, recalls that Rod’s writing habits got him up at dawn. After grabbing a cup of coffee, he would “dictate his scripts into a tape machine.” Often, if the weather was nice, he’d take the machine outside with him and sit by the pool.”

One friend noted, “He is the only person I knew who could get a tan and make money at the same time.”

After five seasons of the Twilight Zone, Serling hosted another TV weekly, The Night Gallery, which also developed short story themes.

Then, years after Serling’s death, they made The Twilight Zone movie, which adapted a few of the original shows to film. It partially succeeded, but the death of actor Vic Morrow and two children in its making put a stigma on the production.

While Serling wrote most of the Twilight Zone TV segments, only “It’s a Grand Life,” about a spoiled boy with supernatural powers, was written by Serling that is included in the film. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which originally stared William Shatner, was written by Richard Matheson, and first published in the Anthology “Alone By Night” (Ballentine, 1961), while “Kick the Can” was written by George Clayton Johnson.

Johnson once said, “On the Twilight Zone, there was an attempt to keep it literary, to keep it bright, to keep it good. No one in the show ever suggested that something would be good enough – although that’s common today in commercial television. Just to do it good enough. Quality control counted in the Twilight Zone.”

In his last published interview several months before his death, Serling said, “I just want them to remember me a hundred years from now. I don’t care that they’re not able to quote a single line that I’ve written. But just that they can say, ‘Oh, he was a writer,’ That’s sufficiently an honored position for me.”

In May, 1975, Serling suffered a mild heart attack while scheduled to give a lecture at a college in upstate New York, and had to have a coronary bypass operation.

When I read in the news papers that he was in the hospital, I sent him a small note, mentioning that I too had attended classes at Antioch College while a student at the University of Dayton, Ohio, and included a poem by William Bulter Yeats, from Supernatural Songs – The Four Ages of Man.

“He with body waged a fight, but body won, it walks upright.
Then he struggled with the heart, innocence and peace depart.
Then he struggled with the mind, his proud heart he left behind.
Now his war on God begins; at stroke of midnight, God shall win.”

A few days later, on June 28, 1975, after ten hours of open heart surgery, complications arose and Rod Serling died. I heard about it on television at home in Ocean City, and wondered if he ever got my note.

The next day I went out on the porch and took the mail from the mail box and was surprised to see one postmarked from upstate New York. The corner of the envelope said it was from Rod Serling.

I could hear the music from the Twilight Zone as I opened the envelop – Da da, da da, da, da, da da....

It was brief and to the point, typewritten, apparently dictated and signed, thanking me for the poem, and saying that he was really worse off than what the newspapers had let it out to be, and that he wouldn’t be working on any projects for awhile.

And now he’s stuck in that middle ground between light and shadow, and is remembered not as a writer, but as our host in his personal nightmare – the Twilight Zone.
Now whenever anything strange or unexpected happens, we hear the faint strains of that music, and quickly turn around, half-expecting to see him standing there, in dark suit and tie, hands clasped in front of him, welcoming us.

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