On December 25, 1924, Rod Serling was born. Serling was a television writer, one of the major figures in early television. His best-known creation, The Twilight Zone, has become cultural shorthand for surreal and inexplicable events.
Serling grew up in Binghamton, New York. In elementary school, he had a reputation as the class clown, but he began to figure out what his talents were in high school. He joined the debate team and wrote for the school newspaper. His work for the paper included several editorials supporting the American effort in World War II, and he was ready to drop out of school as soon as he was old enough to enlist. His teachers convinced him that he should finish school and get his diploma.
But the morning after graduation, Serling enlisted in the Army. He served in the Philippines, then in the American occupation force in Japan. He received several combat injuries, including a knee injury that bothered him for the rest of his life.
After his discharge in 1946, Serling enrolled at Antioch College, where he received a degree in Literature in 1950. He earned extra money during college by testing parachutes for the Army Air Force, at $50 for each successful jump, and was once paid $1,000 for testing an ejection seat that had killed several previous testers.
During his time at Antioch, Serling worked at the campus radio station as a writer, actor, and director. By the time he graduated, he was managing the station and writing virtually all of its programming. That experience carried over into his first post-college job, writing at a Cincinnati radio station. During his time there, he sold several radio drama scripts to the station’s parent company, and one of his proposals for a new series became (after some significant changes) the radio drama Adventure Express.
By 1952, Serling had quit to become a freelance writer. He moved to New York in 1954 and began writing scripts for the live TV dramas that made up much of early television programs.
Serling’s first big success came in 1955 with “Patterns,” a corporate drama he wrote for Kraft Television Theatre. It was so popular that the network restaged it again a month later, another live production with the same cast, meaning that Serling is arguably responsible for inventing the rerun. His success continued with a pair of Playhouse 90 episodes, the boxing drama “Requiem for a Heavyweight” in 1956, and the show-business story “The Comedian” in 1957. Serling won Emmy Awards for writing all three programs.
As the television industry moved from live broadcasts to taped programming, the industry shifted from New York to California, and Serling moved to Los Angeles in 1957. It was still the norm for each program to be presented by a single corporate sponsor, and Serling was increasingly frustrated by the restrictions placed on his writing by the sponsors. Some of those restrictions were silly—he wasn’t allowed to refer to the Chrysler Building in a show sponsored by Ford—but some were more consequential. Serling’s 1958 Playhouse 90 episode “A Town Has Turned to Dust” was written about the lynching of a young black man in the south, inspired by the Emmett Till case, but for fear of offending Southern viewers, the sponsors insisted that the story be moved to the southwest and that the victim be a Mexican-American.
Serling decided that the only way around such corporate censorship was to create his own show, and in 1959, The Twilight Zone premiered. It was an anthology series, with each episode telling a separate story. The stories tended to be science fiction, which Serling thought would give him enough distance from the real world that he’d be better able to sneak serious ideas into the storytelling, and episodes often ended with an ironic twist and a moral, presented by Serling himself as the show’s host.
The show lasted for five seasons, but while the critics loved it, it was never an overwhelming success with the public and came close to being canceled every year. Serling wrote 92 of the show’s 156 episodes, winning two more Emmy Awards during the show’s run. Kenneth Reynolds looks at each episode in The Twilight Zone: Rod Serling’s Wondrous Land; and Douglas Brode and Carol Serling (Rod’s widow) are the compilers of Rod Serling and the Twilight Zone: The 50th Anniversary Tribute.
The public may not have loved the show while it aired, but it has since become one of the most beloved TV series of all time. The title has entered the language, and the first few notes of Marius Constant’s theme music, which didn’t arrive until the show’s second season, have become shorthand for “something weird is going on,” even among people who’ve never seen the show. The series has been revived for television three times; there was a 1983 film version; and between 2002 and 2012, a radio version featured updated versions of many of the original episodes. The full run of the radio version is available for streaming at hoopla.
After The Twilight Zone, Serling created The Loner, a short-lived western starring Lloyd Bridges, and hosted the first version of the game show The Liar’s Club. He wrote a few movie scripts, most notably the film version of his own Requiem for a Heavyweight, the political paranoia thriller Seven Days in May, and with Michael Wilson, the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes, which had one of the twist endings that Serling was so fond of.
He returned to television in 1970 as the host of another anthology series. Night Gallery leaned more towards horror, and each hour-long episode contained two or three stories, which Serling introduced through paintings in the show’s titular gallery. He wrote many of the episodes but didn’t have the same degree of creative control as he’d had on Twilight Zone. The show lasted for three seasons.
Serling shifted primarily to radio for the rest of his career. The 1973-74 radio series Zero Hour ran for half an hour, Monday through Friday. In the show’s first season, a single story was told in five installments each week; the format shifted in the second season, which featured a new guest star each week, appearing in a different short story each day.
In 1975, Serling produced the radio concert Fantasy Park, an imaginary 48-hour live rock concert created from various live albums, with crowd noise and sound effects inserted. There were disclaimers every hour, read by Serling himself, describing the event as “the greatest live concert never held,” but radio stations that broadcast the “concert” were flooded with phone calls from people wanting to know how to get to the concert.
In May 1975, Serling had the first in a series of heart attacks. He underwent open-heart surgery on June 26 and died two days later. He continues to be a familiar presence in pop culture. In 2005, using digitally manipulated old footage and a voice impersonator, Serling was recreated as a character in an episode of the supernatural drama Medium; in 2019, the newest revival of The Twilight Zone used similar techniques, and the same impersonator, to make him a central character in an episode.
Nicholas Parisi is the author of the biography Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination; Koren Shadmi is the author of The Twilight Man, a biography in comic form. Serling’s daughter, Anne, is the author of the memoir As I Knew Him.
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