June 11, 2013
Television was seemingly born into a "Golden Age". Even before the new visual medium had national reach and when some stations would suspend programming for a few hours in the afternoon because they had nothing good to show an audience comprised largely of curious shoppers, there were those rare individuals whose talents were perfect for the small black-&-white screen. That little screen might cost around $400, a big bite for the average household, so initially the viewing public consisted of a higher proportion of better educated people in the upper income brackets. From the late 1940s to the mid 50s broadcasters could feel confident airing programs other than wrestling matches, roller derby and old travelogues. Live drama on shows like "Studio One" and "Lux Theater" attracted some of the day's most venturesome dramatists, who were willing to do their best work for television. It could be frustrating to labor within the time constraints and corporate policies of commercial television, but the scripts by playrights like Reginald Rose and Paddy Chayevsky stand as some of the best drama of their time. Of all those writing for the emergent medium and stepping into the new position of "writer-producer" none had the influence or the celebrity of Rod Serling.
Rod Serling grew up in Binghamton, served as a paratrooper in the Pacific during World War 2, returned home shaken by the war and uncertain of his future. He enrolled at Antioch College in Ohio and had his first exposure to broadcasting during an internship at New York radio station WNYC. He later worked in local radio in Binghamton and Ohio, and began writing for TV when the first television stations went on the air in Cincinnati. His initial success prompted Serling to leave Ohio for New York and pursue a freelance writing career. His teleplays "Patterns", "The Entertainer" and especially "Requiem for a Heavyweight" defined the "golden age". It was also during this time that Rod and his wife Carol became parents of two daughters, Jodi and Anne.With dramatic production moving to Caifornia, in 1958 the Serlings also moved west. Anne recalls entering the family's new home in Pacific Palisades, California as her earliest clear memory. Every summer the family would come back to their cabin on Cayuga Lake.
Rod Serling is well remembered today for the science fiction series "The Twilight Zone". It premiered on CBS in 1959 and ran for five seasons; Serling wrote 92 of the 156 scripts in the series as well as serving as executive producer. His on-screen presence at the open and close of each episode brought him into the nation's living rooms in a way few other writers would attain. His ongoing battles against network censorship, his crusading voice against discrimination and for justice and equality, gave him the reputation of an "angry young man". And his death of a heart attack at age 50 in 1975 would bring a sudden and tragic ending to a creative life, leaving behind a sense of a good man devoured by the pressures of the television industry. In what turned out to be his latter years, Serling had extended his career (and, some felt, soiled his standing) by such mundane professional activity as hosting a game show and doing commercial voice-overs.
If there was something that kept Rod going through those years of writing twelve to fourteen hours a day, it was love for his family and especially devotion to his daughters. It is this side of the man from "The Twilight Zone" -- warm, funny, joyful, in some ways still a kid -- that Anne Serling writes about in "As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling". The book is a combined biography and autobiography, a rollicking tale of family life and a poignant memoir of a woman struggling to deal with the weight of personal loss. But it is also a memoir of childhood and the ritual of her father checking to assure her there were no monsters under her bed, or the performance he'd put on to make Anne drink her milk.
I never feel...that his attention is in short supply or that he is unavailable. Perhaps because when you are in his presence, you are very much center stage, and he is continually entertaining you. Whether it is pulling quarters out of my ear, or appearing, suddenly, in the doorway wearing a poncho, playing endless games of "Go Fish", or walking with my sister and me through the ravine searching for salamanders -- to be with my father is, almost always, exhilarating. And because he has an uncanny talent for interpretation and a seemingly endless number of different voices and dialects, funny expressions, and jokes, it is like having a different playmate every day. -- from "As I Knew Him"
The years after her father's death were difficult ones for Anne. She earned a degree in elementary education from Elmira College and for a while taught special needs children. But she also fell into depression, tried haplessly several times to write about her father and finally succeded in visiting his grave, mourning him and then recollecting their good times together. Anne visits OFF THE PAGE to speak with Bill Jaker about the father and creative artist who showed us how good television can be.