Writing As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling (Citadel Press) was clearly a cathartic experience for Anne Serling, who was 20 when her father died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1974 at age 50.
Yet her beautifully written book somehow becomes cathartic, too, for the reader. True, Rod Serling was her father, this kindly but intense gentleman of stern yet comforting voice and ever-present cigarette. As he described himself, he looked tall, dark, and close to omniscient on screen, issuing “jeopardy-laden warnings through gritted teeth.” But in person he was five-feet-five, had a broken nose, and looked altogether “about as foreboding as a bank teller on a lunch break.”
Such self-deprecation extended to Serling’s self-criticism. Of an early attempt at writing a western, he said, “I gave better dialogue to the horses than the actors.” But with The Twilight Zone, short as he may have been in height, Rod Serling, with “that wide, captivating smile and those dark eyes that I know so well,” in his daughter’s warm description, became a towering cultural figure, indeed, even a father figure as he guided the new baby boom generation through the twilight terrors he conceived.
Most of us, of course, know him mainly through The Twilight Zone. But Anne Serling, who required years of therapy to deal with his loss, shows just what a special man he was beyond it, both as innovative talent and devout humanitarian. And while she was forced to withstand the pain of his absence, his life, as she relates, was likewise full of doubt, but above all else, the internal stress brought on by empathy, conscience and commitment.
And censorship. Serling recounts her father’s various struggles with network higher-ups, like when he couldn’t show a scene with New York’s Chrysler building due to Ford sponsorship. Worse, he had to change a story inspired by the infamous 1955 murder in Mississippi of the young African-American Emmett Till to a northern setting—and an elderly Jew character.
His script for the TV movie Carol For Another Christmas—based on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol—brought forth huge protests that he was furthering the Communist conspiracy, and promoting the United Nations as a means of establishing a single world government superseding that of the U.S. As he would tell an audience in the Library of Congress auditorium, “From experience, I can tell you that drama, at least in television, must walk tiptoe and in agony lest it offend some cereal buyer from a given state below the Mason-Dixon.”
Inevitably, Rod Serling became TV’s Angry Young Man—and with reason: Because of sponsors’ fears of upsetting southern customers, they chopped up his script, he wrote, “like a roomful of butchers at work on a steer.” Eventually he found that “a Martian can say things that a Republican or a Democrat can’t,” that is, via The Twilight Zone.
For The Twilight Zone gave him license to intone, at the end of the classic “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” episode from 1960, how “prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own—for the children and the children yet unborn.”
His own nightmares (his daughter would hear him awaken screaming in the night) from his service in World War II also surfaced throughout the series, in episodes like “A Quality Of Mercy,” which takes place in the Philippines, where he served, and “The Purple Testament,” in which a lieutenant, again in the Philippines, sees a strange light showing on the faces of soldiers who are about to die.
Not surprisingly, death itself—along with justice and hope–are central themes in Anne Serling’s account.
A student at Antioch College who later taught writing there, Rod Serling absorbed its first president Horace Mann’s words, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity,” inserting them into the script of The Twilight Zone’s “The Changing of the Guard” episode about an old professor wrongly convinced that his life has no meaning left.
In a letter to The Los Angeles Times in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, he wrote: “We must look beyond riots in the streets to the essential righteousness of what he asked of us. To do less would make his dying as senseless as our own living would be inconsequential.”
Prophetically pointed as well as extraordinarily eloquent, he said, in a 1970 commencement address at the University of Southern California, that if we don’t respond to the screams of those suffering from poverty, hunger, racial tension and pollution, “we may well wind up sitting amidst our own rubble, looking for the truck that hit us—or the bomb that pulverized us. Get the license number of whatever it was that destroyed the dream. And I think we will find that the vehicle was registered in our own name.”
Like his daughter, Rod Serling was forever haunted by the death of his father, at 52, from a heart attack, before he could return home from the war. The letters to and from his father—and to and from his daughter—are deeply moving; there’s also a tender introductory letter from him to a Korean foster child (“We are tremendously interested in your welfare, and to that end we’ll do all we can on your bhelf”)—one of two he supported (the other being Filipino).
These letters and speeches fully flesh out this most remarkable man, still so much a part of our lives “35 years after my father’s death, four decades after The Twilight Zone went off the air,” writes Anne Serling, adding, “its parables are still relevant today”—even though he felt, according to her quote, “I’ve pretty much spewed out everything I had to say, none of which has been particularly monumental, nothing that will stand the test of time.”
Tell that today to the legions of fans, old and new, who tune in to those holiday Twilight Zone marathons that Syfy sure enough butchers as if it were a steer. Those legions of fans who discover, in his daughter’s loving reminiscences, this slight giant who is everything anyone could want in a father, a storyteller who in only 25 years of professional writing, wrote the definitive book on decency, courage, integrity, brilliance and pioneering creativity.
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