You'll find out all about Rodman Edward Serling in this pithy, revealing interview with the gifted creator of TV's The Twilight Zone . Let us preface our visit with Mr. Serling by pointing out that his three paperback collections of “Stories from the Twilight Zone” are all runaway best sellers (with the first of the series now in its eighth printing). Rod lives the Good Life, in a lush house overlooking the ocean in Pacific Palisades, dictating his work in a spacious poolside studio containing his “golden girls” (the Emmys he has won for such television milestones as Patterns and Requiem for a Heavyweight ), bound copies of his many scripts and an attractive secretary who keeps busy transcribing his award-winning words. Outspoken as always, Rod says what he believes – which has made him one of the industry's most controversial personalities. Here, without further ado, is uncensored Serling.
Gamma: As one of the “pioneers” of TV, you seem to have survived its many changes, while most of the old guard (Chayefsky, Mosel , Foote) have more or less deserted the fort. Can you explain this?
Rod Serling: I'm still in television – though I'm doing other things now too, such as screenplays – because I was lucky enough to sell a series to CBS, The Twilight Zone , in which I could continue to function creatively. The live dramatic shows that developed and supported the Chayefkys and Mosels just don't exist anymore, and so they got out of TV, headed for Broadway or took up screenwriting. I was fed up myself when Zone sold, and if it hadn't I probably wouldn't be in the game today. In fact, I've only written two or three other teleplays since Zone got rolling.
G: How many of the Twilight Zone scripts have you written?
RS: Well, we went on the air in the autumn of '59, and now our fourth season is underway… Counting the new hour-long scripts I did for it the total is over half a hundred. Under my contract I had to write 80% of the first two season's shows. Now the pressure is off, which is a helluva big help. The grind was more than I'd bargained for. As exec producer as well as writer I had to sweat out all kinds of stuff – ratings, set costs, casting, locations, budgets… Time was a luxury. If I dropped a pencil and stooped to pick it up I was five minutes behind schedule.
G: When Twilight Zone was dropped by the sponsors after its first season, didn't a lot of fans write in to complain of this?
RS: Not exactly. We knew we had a strong show, so we sent out appeals to the viewers, asking them to write us if they wanted Zone to continue. We got over 2500 cards and letters in response, all of them urging us to stay on TV. This sold the sponsors, and we were able to continue.
G: What awards has Zone garnered?
RS: Quite a few. In January of 1960, it won a double award – as Best New Program (edging out the Untouchables by a single vote) and as Best Filmed Series. We also won the Screen producers Award as best Produced Series of the year. Then there are the Emmys I got for writing Zone . And we've also won the “Hugo” awards, of course, from the science fiction conventions. And the Golden Globe Award this year. All very gratifying.
G: Wasn't Zone originally planned as an hour series?
RS: Actually, yes. I did a pilot at the hour length, Time Element , about a man who re-lives Pear Harbor , and this appeared on the Desilu Playhouse in November of 1958. Then we decided to go for the half-hour format. This season we shifted over to the hour length. For next season, looks like we'll return to the half-hour format. It suits the show at that length.
G: Up to Zone , you had written no fantasy or science fiction. Why did you plan a show of this type for your first series?
RS: For two reasons. Because I loved this area of imaginative storytelling – and because there had never been a TV series like it. The strength of Twilight Zone is that through parables, through placing a social problem or controversial theme against fantasy background you can make a point which, if more blatantly stated in a realistic frame, wouldn't be acceptable. Because of this from time to time, we've been able to make some pertinent social comments on conformity, on prejudice, on political ideologies, without sponsor interference. It offered a whole new outlet, a new approach. I know I've been knocked by some veteran science fiction writers who've spent the better part of their lives in this creative area – I've been called an opportunist who's taken this story from what these guys have sweated out for years and used my reasonably affluent name to just step all over them to get my show on the air. Well, all I can say to these people is, I'm sorry they feel this way. Zone was an honest effort on my part. I tried not to step on any toes, but with a show such as this, you're almost bound to.
G: Come to think of it, you did write a science fiction script for MGM, didn't you?
RS: It was never produced – but I got full screenplay credit on No Blade of Grass. This was a beautiful science fiction yarn, and I'm sorry it never got off the ground. Maybe it will be made some day.
G: How much of Twilight Zone do you own?
RS: 50% - plus the fact that I own the negatives of the show. Eventually, we hope to send it all over the world.
G: As the host of Zone you've been called “a thin Hitchcock.” How do you like stepping in front of the TV cameras?
RS: There was no running character we could use as host, so they picked me. I had done some promotional films for them and decided on giving me a try. Actually, I photograph better than I look. Now people see me on the street and they say “Gee, we thought you were six foot one,” and I know they're thinking “God, this kid is only five feet five and he's got a broken nose!” But I think I've improved a lot since the first season, and the ham in me is pleased with this.
G: What about your highly-publicized troubles with censorship? Has the situation improved since the day you battled the sponsors over Noon on Doomsday and A Town Has Turned to Dust ?
RS: In the overall field of TV there's been no real improvement. If anything, it's worse. Sponsor interference is a stultifying, often destructive and inexcusable by-product of our mass-media system. Ideally, a sponsor should have no more interference rights than an advertiser in a magazine. At one time the networks could have demanded and received creative prerogatives. They could have demanded some kind of cleavage between the commercial and the artistic aspects of a program. But they gave this prerogative away.
G: Do you miss the tooth-and-nail sponsor battles characteristic of your Playhouse 90 days?
RS: I never liked it. For years the newspapers portrayed me as the two-fisted kid who fought for every show I got on the air, a petulant little bastard who battled with everybody. In contrast to some guys who never spoke out maybe I was controversial. I went on record – but many other writers did too who didn't happen to get the publicity. Chayefsky, for example, was as tough and honest a guy in his reaction to pressures as anyone I know. Same with Reggie Rose. We all spoke out to keep certain ideas and themes intact – and as often as we lot we sometimes won. But, if you stay in the game long enough you begin to pre-censor yourself.
G: How would you rate your present Twilight Zone efforts with your work for shows such as Playhouse 90 ?
RS: This is like comparing a short story to a novel. I've written Zones in a day – I averaged one a week for a while – and I used to spend months polishing a 90 . The scripts are often written and produced much too fast. We aim for quality but we don't always achieve it.
G: You don't seem fully satisfied with your present output. Have you thought of doing a Broadway play?
RS: Many times. I've tried to write for Broadway, but my attempts have not pleased me. I tried like the devil to turn Requiem for a Heavyweight into a legitimate play, did six rewrites, then gave it up when David Susskind agreed to produce it as a film. I did the screenplay, which seemed to turn out pretty well. I'd say my principal goal is to write a good novel, which is the toughest of all to bring off. I sweated blood on those bantam short story collections, so I know how far away I am from the craftsmanship required of a novel.
G: We've heard you don't use a typewriter. Why?
RS: In the beginning, back in the early 50's, I used to bang out the stuff myself, in a kind of one-handed, punching style which was tough on the keys. Then I began to use a dictaphone to save time, and found I liked it. Now with my dialogue, I get a character to “sound it out.” I really play the ham, too. With the big, emotional scenes I shout and roar and play all the parts. It helps me to “live it up” as much as possible.
G: Let's examine your early years. How did you get into professional writing?
RS: I grew up in Binghamton , New York , and edited the school newspaper. My father was a wholesale butcher, and a good one, but he didn't want me and my brother Bob stuck behind a meat counter. Wanted us to go to college. War came along, and I joined the Army paratroopers in '43, took up boxing in the service, and won 17 of 18 bouts, then broke my nose in two places and quit. Spent three years in the Pacific, then went to Antioch College in Ohio under the G.I. Bill. I really didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, but I felt a need to write, a kind of compulsion to get some of my thoughts down, so I began doing radio scripts, working part-time as an announcer at WINR. In 1950, when I was a senior, a script of mine took second place in a Dr. Christian contest, and my wife Carol and I got a free trip to New York out of it. By then I was hooked.
G: Did you start selling right away?
RS: Well, I sold a TV script for $100 shortly thereafter, then got 40 rejections in a row! Television was in its primitive stage then and radio was dying. In order to eat, I became a staff writer in Cincinnati . The grind was murderous – everything from soap commercials to public-service announcements to half-hour documentaries. I learned discipline, absorbed time sense and a technique, but I was desperate to break away. They had me doing “folksy” bits – for which you only needed two elements: a hayseed M.C. who strummed a guitar and said “Shucks, friends,” and a girl yodeler whose falsetto could break a beer mug at twenty paces. I also had the chore of composing prayer messages for an ex-tent revivalist, a fat-faced slob I cordially detested on sight. So, when I sold three radio scripts in the winter of '51, I walked out for good. I earned around $5,000 in my first year of free-lancing.
G: Wasn't Patterns, in January of 1955, your first real success?
RS: That's right. I'd written 71 scripts other scripts up to that time, but it took Patterns to put me over, and it was an instant hit. One minute after that show went off the air my phone started to ring; it's been ringing ever since! Because of Patterns , within two weeks I got 23 bids to write teleplays, several screenplay offers, 14 requests for interviews, two luncheon invitations from Broadway producers and bids from a book publisher. I suddenly found that I could sell practically everything I had in the trunk, and I had 20 of my scripts telecast that season, earning $80,000. I still blush when I think of some of the bombs I unloaded that year, but I was the hungry kid left all alone in the candy store. Man, I just grabbed! My first screen job was at Fox on a war flick called Between heaven and Hell. I turned in a script that would have run for nine hours on the screen. As I recall, it was over 500 pages. I didn't know what the hell I was doing. They just said "“ere'' fifteen hundred bucks a week -–write!" So I wrote. They eventually took the thing away from me and handed it over to six other writers, but I lay claim to the fact that my version had some wonderful moments in it. In nine hours of script, by God, there has to be a couple of wonderful moments!
G: You got your first Emmy out of Patterns. How many do you have by now?
RS: Got one for Requiem , one for The Comedian and a couple for Twilight Zone . I've been damn lucky.
G: How did success affect you when you jumped from $5,000 a year to $80,000?
RS: You can't throw overnight success down your gut and expect ready digestion. Life took on a glittering, unreal quality. I wandered through a crazy, whipped-cream world where everything was suddenly mink and mobile dollar signs. In '59, for Playhouse 90 , I did a fictionalized version of the problems you encounter which I called The Velvet Alley . The externals of the play were definitely autobiographical – the pressures, the assault on values, the blandishments that run in competition to a man's creativity. I left strips of flesh all over the studio with that one. Success can be rugged. The major fear is, once you've got it, will you lose it? You become accustomed to a gardener and a big house and a pool and a Lincoln in the driveway. As a creative artist, if acquisition becomes more important than the work you put out, then you're in deep trouble. That's what happened to the protagonist in my teleplay.
G: Can you continue to expand in TV?
RS: I doubt it. Part of it has to do with the age we live in. There's a general tendency toward escapism, because even reality is awfully tough to swallow. We're living on the doorstep of the hydrogen bomb, and we don't know, between Monday and Friday, just what the hell is going to happen to us. In drama this means the public can't accept strong meat; they want to forget their troubles with cowpokes and private eyes. So a serious writer, who has something to say beyond “Howdy, pard,” has to turn to other fields. Television tries to please everybody. To achieve what the sponsor thinks of as “the mass level,” you end up with blank verse written on a marshmallow! And after a while, when you're told things like troops can't ford a river if Chevy is the sponsor, you just don't give a damn.
G: How do you accept the TV grind?
RS: We still manage to get away once a year for two months up on Lake Cayuga in New York . We've got a cabin up there built by my wife's great, great, grandfather. We take the kids, Nan and Jody, and head for the lake each summer. I do a lot of boating and water skiing and fishing up there. Helps keep me in shape. Fact is, I'd go nuts without those two months.
G: Of all your 200 or more produced teleplays, can you pick a favorite?
RS: I'd have to give the nod to Requiem. It brought me the most satisfaction, and I think it is my best job of writing. Its basic premise is that every man can and must search for his own personal dignity. My ex-prize fighter did just that, and I think there was particular poignance in having a discarded, battered hulk of a man move out into the world that had cheered him and was now alien to him.
G: Coming back to the present state of TV, don't you think that pay television might be the answer to better programming?
RS: I wish I could see it that way, but I don't. The guys behind it will want to milk as many quarters or half-dollars as possible out of people, so meaty, controversial themes, appealing to a more limited audience won't be welcome. TV is diseased, and a dab of Mercurochrome isn't the answer when it's obvious that the total organism needs major surgery.
G: Then you don't link your future with TV?
RS: I don't know what's in my future. But I'd like to do more screenplays, work for the legitimate stage, maybe even try my hand at direction – just once, to see how it feels from that end – and then tackle the novel. I just hope to God I can take the time off to do that novel. I'm a security-hungry guy, and I work best under pressure. And you can't do a good novel under pressure. So I can't plan too far ahead. As Jonathan Winters says, “It's tough enough getting through Saturday.”
The above interview appeared in the first edition of Gamma magazine, a short-lived science-fiction and fantasy publication in 1963.