The Twilight Zone is one of the most important sci-fi series of all time. It influenced those to come and helped support the idea of TV as a valuable medium for storytelling.
It was the brainchild of one Rod Serling. He always had something to say and fought to get it portrayed the way he wanted it. He was dedicated to everything he viewed as important in his life, including his family.
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A Simpler Time
Rod Serling was born in 1924, in Syracuse, New York. He grew up in Binghamton, New York. His parents encouraged him to become a performer and even built him a stage in the basement. By the age of six or seven, he began acting out dialogue from pulp magazines or movies to entertain his family and the neighborhood children.
Rod was the “class clown” by the time he went to school. Most teachers weren’t interested in working with him, but his seventh-grade English teacher, Helen Foley, suggested he joined the debate team. He thrived and was the speaker at his high school graduation.
He began to write for the school newspaper and became an activist. He was also a tennis and table tennis player, but the football team thought he was too short to join.
Rod the Military Man
Rod got accepted into college as a senior but enlisted in the army to fight in WWII the morning after he graduated. He began in 1943 serving in the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment on the 11th Airborn Division. He became a Technician 4th Grade.
Rod was a boxer during his paratrooper training. He was a flyweight with a berzerker style who got his nose broken twice. He reached the second round of finals before being knocked out after his 17th match. He tried to win the Golden Gloves, but they eluded his grasp.
He received orders to go to California on April 25, 1944. He’d been hoping to fight Hitler but accepted them and then went to New Guinea and the Philippines in May. His division first saw combat there on November of 1944 as light infantry.
He moved to the 511th’s demolition platoon, nicknamed The Death Squad because of its high casualty rate. He often disobeyed orders but managed to survive.
His final assignment was in Japan. He came home in 1946 with a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and Philippine Liberation Medal, among other awards.
Life After the War
Seeing combat shaped the rest of Rod’s life and inspired much of his writing. He set many of his scripts in the Philippines where he’d seen so much death and destruction and barely escaped it himself more than once.
He worked at a rehab hospital while recovering from his wounds and then used his GI benefits to study physical education at Antioch College in Yellow Springs Ohio. He’d already been accepted there after high school.
He eventually fell in love with the theater and wrote shows and acted in for the campus radio station. He changed his major to Literature and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1950.
He also met his wife Carolyn Kramer at college. She disliked his reputation as a “lady’s man” but eventually changed her mind. They got married on July 31, 1948, and had two daughters, Jodi and Anne.
Rod’s Early Career
Rod continued to work for his college’s radio station for some time. He won a trip to New York and $500 for his script “To Live a Dream.” He and Carol attend the broadcast on May 18, 1949. One of the other winners, Earl Hamner Jr., later wrote scripts for The Twilight Zone.
Working for the campus radio station wasn’t enough to support his family. He’d sell freelance scripts to other stations, but many of them were rejected. Grand Central Station radio eventually approved his first nationally broadcast piece, Hopp Off the Express and Grab a Local, on September 10, 1949.
Rod managed to become a professional writer after that, earning $75 a week writing for WLW radio in Cincinnati. He also sold a radio show called Adventure Express in February 1951. Others included Leave it to Kathy, Our America, and Builders of Destiny.
Radio writing put money on the table, but Rod later regretted doing it. He felt like the stations were “eating up” his ideas. He said e would have found another way to support his family if he could live his life over again.
He also realized that radio was dying by the 50s, and his wife said he got into television at “exactly the right time.” He began writing for WKRC-TV, creating ads and scripts for a show called The Storm. He continued his education and tried to write but got 40 rejections in his early years.
He hired an agent named Blanche Gaines and began rewriting radio scripts for television. He took his family to Connecticut in 1953 and wrote for anthology shows. He moved to 1954, and that was when his career entered another dimension.
Entering the Twilight Zone
Rod’s early work was popular but often censored, and that began his dream of creating something of his own. The Twilight Zone premiered on October 2, 1959. He wanted complete control and hired his own scriptwriters, Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont.
Rod used his own experiences for most of the scripts, creating boxers, soldiers, pilots, and other characters he could relate to. The episodes were like science-fiction fables that always had a moral message.
The Twilight Zone lasted for 156 episodes, 92 of which Rod wrote himself. Three seasons had 30-minute-long episodes and the final two had hour-long episodes.
Rod himself was tired of the show by 1964 and decided to cancel it. He sold the rights to CBS. His wife thought this was an effort to keep his own production company, Cayuga Productions, from going bankrupt producing the often over-budget episodes.
The Twilight Zone movie came out in 1983. It featured a small cameo from his wife. There was an attempt at a revival show in 1985 and 2019, but none of them were as successful as the original.
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Life After Leaving the Twilight Zone
Rod began to smoke three or four packs of cigarettes a day. He felt the stress of reaching his original success, and he never truly did.
A Carol for Another Christmas was a made-for-TV retelling of A Christmas Carol. Like most of Rod’s projects, it had a message, encouraging cooperation between nations. It only aired once on December 28, 1964, and again on TCM in 2012 and 2013.
Rod made other attempts at creating a successful series. NBC aired a pilot for Night Gallery in 1969. It was a collection of macabre tales that occurred in a museum. He disliked the scripts and the humorous sketches in it but declined an offer to retain creative control. It aired until 1973.
The Loner premiered in 1965 and only lasted for a year. He had to make smaller appearances to pay the bills, such as hosting the game show Liar’s Club and TV commercials.
When Rod wasn’t acting, he taught film seminars in colleges around the US. He was also a strong antiwar and racial equality activist, and it was clear in his work.
He returned to his first love, radio, near the end of his career. The Zero Hour, also known as Hollywood Radio Theater, lasted for two seasons. He hosted in it but didn’t write any of its scripts. His final radio performance was in Fantasy Park, an imaginary 48-hour rock concert that aired in 1974 and 1975.
Rod Serling died at the age of 50 on June 28, 1975.
He’d been hospitalized for a heart attack on May 3 and spent two weeks at Tompkins County Community Hospital. He was released but had another heart attack two weeks later. A 10-hour-long open-heart surgery on June 26 wasn’t enough to save him because he had another heart attack on June 26.
His Wife’s Words
Carolyn Kramer Serling died at the age of 90 on January 9, 2020. She was buried next to her husband.
She gave a thorough interview with Bob Rosenbaum about what life with Rod was really like.
The family did everything they could to maintain a normal home life for themselves and their daughters. Rod worked heavily in the winter, but they spent the summers in their second home in Caguya Lake. He always had his typewriter with him and was always thinking, but he managed to relax while on the boat.
She also says he had idyllic memories of his childhood, a theme that appears throughout the Twilight Zone. He’d return to his hometown of Binghamton often to relive them. He was a loving father and fond of children, another prevalent theme in the show
Carolyn remembers what a disciplined writer he was and how he began by using a two-fingered typewriter. He then started dictating the words out loud, which she said she enjoyed listing to because he’d play every part.
She can’t remember when Rod first began to develop what would become The Twilight Zone. What she does remember is how important it was for him to retain creative control over it.
Carolyn always knew the severity of his injuries from the war. His knee gave out constantly and she could hear it snap and then a banging sound when he would fall down the stairs. She believes he could have collected disability pay all his life.
She also described the first time he had a heart attack. He was pushing a roto-tiller in the yard and later joked that he wished it was a more dramatic story.
Rod also notes that Rod was he was a strong activist all his life. He said that “the ultimate obscenity…was not feeling.” If he were alive, she says he’d be “on some soapbox somewhere.”
Throughout her life, Carolyn has found new ways to continue her husband’s legacy, such as publishing The Twilight Zone magazine. She believes the cult status of the show would amaze him.
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