ROD SERLING, FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION
By John Pietaro
In the annals of film and television history, the name Rod Serling usually conjures up visions of fantastic realities and unsettling characters from within “The Twilight Zone”. But a glimpse beneath the surface of the man, let alone his masterful writings, exposes the depth of social consciousness, of political commentary and a bold outspokenness rarely seen at the height of the Cold War. The ultra serious, cigarette wielding image of the man in the black suit and skinny tie emerging from the shadows to offer a story for our consideration is but one tiny segment of this revolutionary author’s make-up.
Rodman Serling was born on December 25, 1924 and raised in the northern reaches of upstate New York. By all accounts he lived a rather unspectacular early life, summering at Cayuga Lake with his family. Short in stature, the teenage Serling gravitated towards the unlikely sport of boxing before joining the military during the Second World War. Apparently as a means to test of his own machismo, he served as a paratrooper and would later be awarded both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. His experiences overseas would later manifest in his fantasy-related writing, yet this was not enough to exorcise the demons of battle from his mind. Serling suffered from nightmares for decades after VE Day.
Serling graduated Antioch College in 1950, brandishing a literature degree and seeking work almost immediately in the expanding medium of television. After some initial successes outside of the major networks, he became a staff writer with CBS TV in New York and soon came to prove his mettle. The teleplays he authored contained numerous layers of probing, intelligent content; always, the ingredient of irony spoke loudest. His protagonists were subjected to trying expositions and challenged on psychological or sociological levels, often both, frequently simultaneously. A common theme for Serling, who’d later become a member of the Universalist Unitarian order, was one’s aloneness in the throes of struggle. Throughout his career, his tales reflected growth through strife and were guided by a powerful morality.
Serling’s scripts for the live TV drama anthologies “Playhouse 90”, “Kraft Television Theatre”, “Lux Video Theatre” and “Studio One”, among others, produced some of his greatest writings. The power inherent in these pieces easily revealed the progressive in Serling, for the basic plot of most was the plight of “the little guy”--the proletariat in any case, regardless of social standing--in the face of an oppressive power. His Emmy-winning script for Patterns told the story of a young upcoming business executive who moves rapidly up the corporate ladder, relocating from a suburban Ohio branch office into the Wall Street limelight. Quickly he learns that even valuable, successful executives are just so much chattel for the insatiable greed of the corporate structure; they are used up until too old to produce, and then simply and coldly replaced. Perhaps Serling never did read Marx, but one would not know that from the brash anti-capitalist opinion expressed in this brilliant piece. The manipulations of the company CEO, the disregard for the needs of the elder partner and the depiction of a brutal business ethic stand out in stark contrast to the era’s usual white bread storylines.
Patterns was first produced for television in 1955, around the time the Korean War was concluding and shortly after the televised Army-McCarthy hearings put an end to the infamous senator. Still, few writers would have ventured into this territory. Most Left-wing writers had become victims of the blacklist as early as 1948, so such topics were scarce. Yet, Patterns was so highly acclaimed that it was also made into a feature film one year later, securing a legendary status for Serling who was now a hot property in the business of television and film.
Of note is Serling’s 1956 piece, Noon on Doomsday, which was openly inspired by the racist murder of Emmet Till. Though his story depicts the murder victim not as a young African-American man but an elderly Jewish pawn shop owner, Serling maintained the vital aspect of the community’s closed-mindedness which resulted in their refusal to acknowledge the guilt of one of their own. As it had occurred in the all-too-real Till case, the murderers are never convicted. The writer was later to state that, “the antagonist was not just a killer, but a regional idea” (Serling, Introduction to paperback edition of Patterns, 1957, Bantam Books). Thousands of letters of protest from White Citizens Councils and other conservative and racist groups were sent into the network prior to the play’s airing and Serling’s script was forcibly doctored. Countless threats of boycott by southern-based organizations had the network executives fly into a frenzy and the ultimate show, airing months late, was barely recognizable. No allusions to anywhere near the south could be made (thus it became a New England locale) and the Jewish victim became a faceless immigrant. It took all of Serling’s fortitude to prevent the network brass from transforming the murderer into a good boy caught up in one wrong moment. Still somehow, his brilliance as a writer showed through and allowed him to conquer new ground.
Serling’s next offerings included teleplays The Rack (about the torture of a Korean War vet) and his most famous story from this period, Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956). Even among Serling pieces, Requiem stands out as a heart wrenching masterwork. Starring Jack Palance as a boxer who experiences a career-breaking injury just before he has the chance to achieve his dream of becoming heavy-weight champion, this piece viscerally moves the viewer into the sad, short career of the nation’s gladiators. One is moved to tears as the lead character, ‘Mountain’ McClintock, is torn down and cast aside before taking steps forward into another chapter of his life, one which contains newfound hope. Requiem won a prestigious Peabody award was also realized in television productions in the UK (starring Sean Connery) and Holland. This teleplay was also offered the second life of a full-length film version starring Anthony Quinn and a uniquely vicious Jackie Gleason. The expanded script redoubles Serling’s imagery of the main character’s inner loneliness and the industry’s greed. There was no room for another chance for ‘Mountain’ this time around; Serling’s film script was a tragedy in the classic sense. In addition to the masterful craftsmanship, the author’s plea for the proletarian is clear. And to further enhance this, both scripts call for the use of real boxers in walk-on parts. Always, Serling’s genius had not only his characters on the edge, but he spent much time there himself.
In order to secure creative control, Serling successfully pitched his idea for “The Twlight Zone” to CBS’ brass. With this show, which debuted in 1959 and ran through 1964, Serling served as executive producer and head writer as well as host. What made “The Twilight Zone” so brilliant was the element of fantasy, science-fiction and horror that allowed him to present progressive, even controversial ideas masked enough to avoid the furor of the reactionaries. While not every episode had connections to a socio-political issue, most did, even if through symbolism. The show featured a wealth of actors, apparently clamoring for a part on this hip, intelligent show, among them Jack Klugman, Ed Wynn, Burgess Meredith, Agnes Morehead, Robert Duvall, Elizabeth Montgomery, Lee Marvin, Cliff Robertson and Dennis Hopper. The show also hired some of Hollywood’s greatest composers including Bernard Herrman, (usually associated with the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles), Jerry Goldsmith and Franz Waxman. Serling sought artfulness in all aspects of “The Twilight Zone”.
While Serling’s writings in all genre contained parables and symbols we can derive an almost Marxist message in, outstanding progressive statements in “The Twilight Zone” include:
1) I Am the Night, Color Me Black, the story of an unjust execution scheduled for a dawn which never arrives. Sober acting, tense direction and a ravenous, blood-thirsty town make for a powerful statement on violence, lynchings and xenophobia. Serling’s original script featured an African-American prisoner awaiting the gallows, but the final version included a white man condemned to die and a Black preacher caught in a crisis of conscience, tearfully standing with the lynch mob in view of his own precarious status in this otherwise homogenous one-horse town.
2) The Big Tall Wish: a Black cast stars in this moving drama about an aging boxer (Ivan Dixon) who loses faith. The symbolism of the young boy who ultimately loses hope in the future and especially in his power to change his destiny is startling in light of the fledgling civil rights movement of the time. The child inevitably stands for the fragility of the hope in all of us as much as it does for the fight against institutionalized racism.
3) Night of the Meek, starring Art Carney as a Bowery dweller who experiences the hardship of despair, poverty and alcoholism on Christmas Eve, before realizing the possibility of giving to the poor in his community as a real-life Santa Claus. Serling’s scripting for some of Carney’s speeches are nothing short of revolutionary.
4) The Obsolete Man features Burgess Meredith as a former librarian condemned to die as “obsolete” in an Orwellian society. Here, the power of literature and the liberation of the mind take center stage as the mild protagonist turns the tables on the state prosecutor who so coldly sought his termination and laughed at his lack of usefulness.
5) The Shelter tells of a close-knit community torn asunder by the perceived threat of a nuclear assault. The kindly doctor who refuses to let his neighbors into his bomb shelter at the height of the hysteria is as glaring in this tale as is the phalanx of friends who turn on the doc and break down his lead-lined door with a battering ram. In the process, one of the cardigan-wearing suburbanites turns into an arrogant America Firster as he assaults another neighbor, an immigrant.
6) A Quality of Mercy is a morality play about the demonization of the enemy during wartime. Here we see an obnoxious young officer (Dean Stockwell) brutally leading an exhausted World War 2 platoon into battle against a Japanese enclave, even as the war is fading to a close. His merciless view of the Japanese becomes his own fate as the story fantastically transforms him into a Japanese officer looking out at a bloodthirsty American platoon intent on killing him. Serling was to use this type of vehicle several times over the years, but always to a powerful end.
7) Four O’Clock features none other than Theodore Bikel as Oliver Crangle, a paranoiac reactionary who’s a perfect depiction of what the editor to ‘Red Channels’ or some other red-baiting periodical must have been like. His character keeps files on hundreds of people he classifies as “evil” and engages on a tireless campaign to harass them and ruin their careers and lives. Serling’s opening monologue described the antagonist as “poisoned by the gangrene of prejudice”, but Crangle falls victim to the power of his own hate by story’s end.
8) The Gift also symbolizes a right-wing assault on reason, albeit in the form of a small, impoverished Mexican town reacting to “a stranger” in their midst. Said stranger tries to offer them a gift he brought with them, from either his home planet or perhaps a more spiritual place, but they reject it out of ignorance and xenophobia. The man they try to mark as a devil quite possibly may have represented the second coming and the gift was a cure for cancer.
9) He’s Alive was plagued by Serling’s occasional use of preachy morality but needs to be cited here for its clear anti-fascist imagery alone (the “he” in the title is Hitler). It tells of a young man (Dennis Hopper) who becomes entangled in a neo-Nazi movement even as it belies the many years he spent under the protective wing of an older Jewish neighbor. Classic Serling was evidenced in the closing narration which stated:
“Anyplace, everyplace, where there's hate, where there's prejudice, where there's bigotry. He's alive. He's alive so long as these evils exist. Remember that when he comes to your town. Remember it when you hear his voice speaking out through others. Remember it when you hear a name called, a minority attacked, any blind, unreasoning assault on a people or any human being. He's alive because through these things we keep him alive”.
10) The Brain Center at Whipple’s offered Serling’s most clear-cut statement on behalf of the working class of any Zone story. It concerned a business in an unnamed factory town which was coldly installing robotics and dismissively laying off hundreds of workers without notice. Factory foreman Dickerson (Ted De Corsia) offers an impassioned speech where he shouts back at the silver-spoon exec (Richard Deacon): “I’ve worked here for thirty years, and I’ve been a foreman for seventeen of ‘em! In my book that gives me some rights…Men have to eat and work! I’m a man and that makes me better than that hunk of metal!!”.
11) The Encounter is a startling tale of two men trapped in an attic who engage in a grudge match, not only with each other, but their inner-most ghosts. One man is a bitter racist and World War 2 veteran (Neville Brand), the other a Japanese-American (George Takei), each of which have lost a piece of their souls during the attack on Pearl Harbor some twenty years earlier. Another amazing irony in this drama is the lead actor’s status as the fourth most decorated US Army soldier in the Second World War
12) The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street remains Serling’s finest moment in presenting a progressive, even radical message during a Red Scare period. Here’s the perfect small-town street on a calm summery weekend afternoon, where neighbors enjoy a warm relationship. However, soon into the story, fear of other plagues them and the close-knit community devolves into hysteria. Taken as metaphor, the tale of a strange power-outage accompanied by isolation reveals much about the human condition. The vision of neighbor turning on neighbor in response to a perceived alien threat could only have been a Milleresque symbol. Here were all of the trappings of McCarthyism in one 30-minute drama. The final scene’s inclusion of space aliens structuring the manipulation of the people notwithstanding, Serling was sure to tell us how easily we as a society fall prey to the machinations of power. His closing statement was so strong, that I’d like to conclude this essay on the man with it in its entirety:
“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosives and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own; for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to The Twilight Zone.”
-John Pietaro is a cultural worker and labor organizer from New York – www.flamesofdiscontent.org
THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED IN ‘POLITICAL AFFAIRS’ MAGAZINE ONLINE 1/09