You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead – your next stop …
It is not the Twilight Zone, but rather the incredible and brilliant mind of Rod Serling, the legendary writer and on-screen host of The Twilight Zone. On this, what would have been his 97th birthday, we remember the man that forever impacted the genre of science fiction and changed the world of television with his work. Rather than mourn his early passing or grieve the fact that he is no longer with us, instead today we remember his life, his work, and examine the staggering wealth of riches his legacy has provided to filmmakers, writers, and fans the world over.
Hold onto your hats—and your glasses, lest they fall and shatter when there’s Time Enough At Last—and let’s raise a glass to the man of the hour. Gone, but never, ever forgotten.
From a very young age, the native of Syracuse, New York, had a gift for all things performative. Born on December 25, 1924, he would put on plays as a child whether or not he had other people to help him. He would often ask questions without waiting for the answers, act out dialogue from films or pulp magazines – once, on a car trip with his family, they all agreed to be silent to see if he would notice. Sure enough, Serling talked for the entire car ride with no help from anyone.
This served him well later on in school – a bit of a class clown, many grade school teachers saw him as a lost cause while one encouraged him to take on public speaking, where he excelled as a member of the high school debate team later on, and spoke at his graduation. Around that time, World War II was underway, and Serling was only barely convinced to finish high school before enlisting.
Serving as a paratrooper during the war, Serling’s experiences in combat went on to color his writing later. He had high hopes of fighting Hitler, but was stationed in California where he primarily fought the Japanese. He also fought in the Phillipines, where he saw a great deal of death both in and out of combat. Thanks to this, several of Serling’s scripts were set in the Phillipines, with the unpredictability of Death being a theme in much of his writing, including various episodes of The Twilight Zone.
Wounded in combat several times, the horrors of war followed Serling for the rest of his life. Suffering from flashbacks and nightmares, as well as injuries that remained a chronic issue going forward, Serling’s early interests in entertainment and radio plays influenced him to start writing. He once even said that the war left him embittered and at loose ends when his tour ended, and that writing helped him get it off his chest.
After the war, Serling took advantage of both the GI Bill and his disability payments to enter Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. There, he became active in college radio while studying physical education. He wrote, directed, and acted in many radio plays during his time there, and also met his future wife, Carol Kramer. This proved to be invaluable experience for his later career, as the radio program was part of work-study, and also served as the first time Serling worked as, essentially, a show runner: for the 1948-49 school year, with the single exception of an adaptation, all full scale radio production output was Serling’s original work.
Serling’s early years in radio were filled with a great deal of freelance work, and many failed attempts to sell his material. While some had success, with significant changes, many were rejected for a lack of professional quality, among other things. One man who rejected Serling, Martin Horrell of the radio show Grand Central Station, suggested he take one script about boxing to television as fight scenes were made for a more visual medium.
The advice payed huge dividends for Serling, who continued writing freelance, but began to market his material to both television and radio. If one medium rejected him, he simply pitched his script somewhere within the other sphere of entertainment. This allowed for the moment that set his career on the trajectory that took him into the creation of the show for which he is so fondly remembered: the sale of his script, Patterns, to Kraft Television Theater. The story about an older businessman being pushed out of his job by a younger, fresher executive became so popular that not only was it later developed into a feature length film, but also established the first time in which a television production was repeated due to its success. This created, and perpetuated, the concept of the rerun.
While Patterns gave Serling a lot more opportunities going forward, he still struggled with corporate censorship in some of the scripts he tried to have made – such as Noon on Doomsday, about the lynching of a Jewish pawnbroker in the South that was based on the events surrounding the death of Emmet Till. TV executives and censors had it changed to be about the death of an uknown foreigner in New England, and later when Serling tried to again revisit the events around the Till murder in A Town Has Turned To Dust, he was forced to set it a century in the past and strip out the interracial dynamics of the story.
Serling realized that if he was going to avoid the censorship of ethnic identities and political statements, he would have to become the power he was playing to: he would have to create his own show. Cannibalizing a lot of work from a local Cincinnatti show he had done earlier in his career called The Storm, Serling took advantage of another of his popular scripts called The Time Element to get the greenlight for the show that became The Twilight Zone.
Running for five seasons, and surviving two cancellation attempts before succumbing to a third, Serling served as creator, writer, and on-screen narrator – a role which has made him a pop culture icon that is often imitated. The series earned him and those who worked under him critical acclaim, with the anthology show making heavy use of a lot of Serling’s real life experiences. Themes of unpredictable death, boxing, military service, and political points of view Serling espoused appear throughout the series, including his views on gender roles. The series features many resilient, intelligent female characters alongside the likes of stereotypical shrewish wives.
After the end of The Twilight Zone in 1964, Serling had grown weary of the series and sold the rights to CBS. This allowed for later revivals of the show both in the 80s, with limited success, and later in 2002 with still underwhelming response. The revival in 2019 with Jordan Peele at the helm, and fittingly also in the role of on-screen narrator, became the most successful of the three attempts.
While Serling went on to work on the series Night Gallery later in 1969, it is The Twilight Zone for which he is most remembered. Filled with stories featuring thought provoking political viewpoints, progressive ideas on equality and human rights, and featuring compelling characters and relationships throughout, the series was a landmark for its genre. Not only was it quality science fiction and fantasy with some well thought out concepts, but it was driven by the thing that Serling held the most faith in during the course of his tragically short life: humanity — who we are, who we’ve been, and all we hope to be.
Rod Serling died on June 28, 1975 at the age of fifty due to complications during heart surgery. He is not, however, nor will he ever be truly gone. His stories, his beliefs, and his passion remain immortalized in the stories he shared with the world. Today, on his birthday, we celebrate those and we celebrate his memory.
As we raise this toast to Rod Serling, I’d like to leave you with a quote from one of his most impactful episodes of The Twilight Zone: Death’s Head Revisited. In this, Serling breaks from his usual narration to make a point about the human condition, and the importance of memory. The quote speaks to some grim ideas, but Serling’s belief in its importance, and the need to make it memorable, are a testament to his gift.
As a doctor stands at the ruins of Dachau, having examined a former Nazi driven mad by the ghosts of those he slaughtered, he wonders why the place remains standing. To this, Serling says:
There is an answer to the doctor’s question. All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buckenwalds, the Auschwitzes – all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worse of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers. Something to dwell on and to remember, not only in The Twilight Zone but wherever men walk God’s Earth.
Happy birthday, Mr. Serling – and thank you.
Liz Carlie (she/her/he/him) is a regular book, TV, and film reviewer for SCIFI.radio and has previously been a guest on ‘The Event Horizon’. In addition to being an active member of the traditional fandom community, she’s also an active participant in online fan culture, pro wrestling journalism, and spreading the gospel of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She resides in Southern California with her aspiring superhero dog, Junior, enjoying life one hyperfixation at a time.