|Gauntlet Press collection|
of Rod Serling scripts
There is little question that the television anthology, a series presentation of individual, self-contained stories, saw its greatest success and widest popularity during the first two decades of the medium. Although anthology programming is experiencing something of a renaissance, albeit in a transmogrified manner, a previously utilized element of the television anthology, the series host, is now considered antiquated and is vacant from modern anthology offerings. There was a time, however, when the anthology host not only presented the series to the viewer but distinctly influenced the style and form of the content. The host was often the draw of the series and was marketed as such by networks, sponsors, and agents.
If you were a viewer who enjoyed short-form genre entertainment, namely mystery, fantasy, horror, and science fiction, the years 1955-1965 were the ideal years to be situated in front of your television. This decade saw the productions of such genre anthology series as Alfred Hitchcock Presents (and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour), Suspicion, Science Fiction Theatre, Alcoa Presents (One Step Beyond), The Twilight Zone, 'Way Out, The Outer Limits, and Thriller, each with its own idiosyncratic style and content. October, 1957 also marked the release of the Screen Gems Shock Theater package of classic horror films to television and in the process created a need for dozens of local programming hosts across the country.
There were precedents for the genre television anthology host, namely among the transitional shows making the leap from radio to television (Lights Out, Suspense) and other early efforts such as Tales of Tomorrow and Climax! Yet, few of the early series could match the quality of subsequent offerings and, though most featured a host, none contained a distinctly marketed host who inspired the production of consumer marketed material. Of the genre anthology series of the period, three distinctly marketed hosts emerged and greatly defined the branding of a television personality. One was an award-winning television writer (Rod Serling), one a highly regarded film director (Alfred Hitchcock), and one an actor celebrated for his roles in horror films (Boris Karloff). These three television hosts inspired shelves upon shelves of books, comic books, magazines, record LPs, toys, home video releases, and dozens of other consumer materials.
Unlike Hitchcock and Karloff, whose appearances on television were preceded by several years of branding and marketing, Serling’s appearance as host on a television series was something completely new to the celebrated writer. It was the culmination of a journey that began with the optimism of a new medium and ended as a flight from and fight against censorship. For Serling, the transformation from an award-winning but largely invisible television writer to one of the most recognizable television personalities of the era was one of lucrative reward and typecasting hardship.
|Earl Holliman in Rod Serling's|
"Where is Everybody?"
The premier of The Twilight Zone on the CBS network on October 2, 1959, with the episode "Where is Everybody?," marked the long and often difficult journey of a decorated television writer in realizing his goal of producing a dramatic series free from the creative restraints imposed by networks executives and corporate sponsors. Though he was chose to cloak his confrontational style of drama in the recognizable tropes of science fiction and fantasy, Rod Serling, the creator of The Twilight Zone, quickly realized the burden of undertaking a job now labeled showrunner: the long hours with the production team, the continued fight against censorship, the promotion of corporate products, the exhausting commitment to produce quality material, and the unique challenges of assuming hosting duties as an on-camera personality.
Serling's transition from creative talent behind the scenes to on-air personality was not something the Emmy Award-winning writer directly invited upon himself, and it would be several years before Serling fully embraced the celebrity status hosting The Twilight Zone afforded him. He considered himself, first and foremost, a writer, and he vigorously protected the individual creative vision of the series, a quality which attracted many of the best creative people in the industry to The Twilight Zone.
|Serling previewing the third season|
episode, "A Game of Pool"
There are indications that even in the late seasons of The Twilight Zone Serling remained uncomfortable as on-camera host. One widely circulated story relates that Serling's rehearsals were often filmed without the host's knowledge in order to put him at ease and capture the most genuine delivery of the material. Though Serling likely never considered himself a natural in front of the camera, it resulted in the enduring cultural image of a middle-aged man standing board-straight in a fitted suit, cigarette in hand, delivering poetic monologues in a clipped manner, bracketing clever tales of fantasy, science fiction, and horror.
Like the paintings of Chesley Bonestell or the writings of Willy Ley, the black-and-white image of Rod Serling as host of The Twilight Zone became a cultural touchstone for the Space Age, and the series itself possesses the dual quality of being as timeless as folklore and yet firmly set in its time. To sell his series to network executives, corporate sponsors, and the American public, Serling chose to craft a story about the emerging Space Race a full decade before the Apollo 11 lunar landing and in the process became the recognized brand of televised science fiction, to the ire of a number of science fiction writers, many of whom enviously dogged the writer with unfounded charges of plagiarism throughout the course of the series. Serling’s humanistic and frequently naïve approach to science fiction and fantasy is certainly one reason The Twilight Zone remains both accessible and popular among viewers of all ages. Serling as host is another reason.
Serling's assumption of hosting duties on The Twilight Zone was one of necessity. The show needed a voice to intone the opening narration which introduced the series each week. Serling screened the series pilot for network executives and potential sponsors with voice work recorded by Westbrook Van Voorhis, a prolific narrator whose booming delivery did not match the desired effect for The Twilight Zone. Though the series sold with the Van Voorhis voice work, it was decided a new voice would be needed before the series went to broadcast. After a proposed deal with Orson Welles fell through due to Welles's asking price, Serling, who previously narrated a successful on-camera pitch to potential sponsors, stepped in to do the work himself. Serling's voice and image have become such an inseparable aspect of The Twilight Zone that one can hardly imagine other options were explored.
|Serling vanishes from|
"A World of His Own"
From the second season onward, Serling appeared before the audience to personally introduce each episode and continued to provide outgoing voice-over narration to close each episode. Only rarely did Serling appear at the end of an episode outside of the continuing promotional material. He appeared at the end of the second season episode, “The Obsolete Man” and again at the end of writer Charles Beaumont’s third season episode, “The Fugitive.” The exposure Serling received due to appearances as host on the series ensured his ascendency to cultural icon followed soon thereafter.
Serling had not previously experienced a particularly prolific relationship with book publishing, though he did enjoy a certain level of notoriety unusual for a television writer. This notoriety was largely due to the fact that television featured plenty of talented up-and-coming actors but few established stars, thus pivoting the promotional attention toward talented writers like Serling, Reginald Rose, Gore Vidal, and Paddy Chayefsky. After winning Emmy Awards for writing “Patterns” for Kraft Theatre (1955) and “Requiem for a Heavyweight” for Playhouse 90 (1956), Serling was widely recognized as one of, if not the, finest television dramatist of his time. Consequently, Serling’s offerings on the dramatic anthology series of the time were often promoted on the strength of the award-winning writer’s involvement rather than for any other aspect. Serling was frequently interviewed or featured in trade journals and his reputation was such that by the time he came to create The Twilight Zone, the buzz among creatives in the industry was substantial. In 1957, Serling’s television play, “Requiem for a Heavyweight” was included in The Writers Guild of America volume, The Prize Plays of Television and Radio, 1956 (Random House), and later that year Serling released a hardcover volume from Simon & Schuster titled Patterns, which included his two Emmy Award-winning scripts and two additional scripts plus copious amounts of commentary on his journey as a writer. In 1958, Patterns was printed in paperback as a Bantam 50, a paperback series from Bantam books which sold for fifty cents. It marked the beginning of Serling's long association with the publishing company that would print the majority of Twilight Zone and Rod Serling related material.
In 1960, about the time production began on the second season of The Twilight Zone, Dell Comics approached Rod Serling with an offer to produce a Twilight Zone comic book. Dell was a publisher intent on licensing as many television properties as possible and would later add a short-lived Outer Limits comic to its stable. The Twilight Zone comic first appeared on sale in December, 1960 with a cover date of March-May, 1961 as part of Dell's Four Color series, a try-out series to gauge the potential of certain titles. The Twilight Zone was popular enough that it appeared in its own series in 1962 for two issues under the Dell banner before moving to the Gold Key imprint due to a split between Dell and Western Publishing. Gold Key would outdo Dell in television properties, adding the likes of Boris Karloff Thriller (later Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery) and Star Trek to their inventory. Each issue of The Twilight Zone comic featured Serling’s image on the cover and each story within included an introduction by an artist’s rendering of Serling. Serling’s production company, Cayuga Productions, was displayed on the cover of each issue and the comic would enjoy a run which outlived both its source material and its creator, seeing continued publication until 1979, with a final, alternate issue arriving in 1982, seven years after Serling’s death and nearly twenty years after the final broadcast episode of The Twilight Zone.
By this point, Rod Serling the on-camera personality had, in many ways, eclipsed Rod Serling the television writer. Though Serling would continue to make his living by his typewriter, he now found himself a marketable television personality who could generate income through his image and his voice. Even today, most literate television viewers would quickly associate Serling with The Twilight Zone but few could name his prior television triumphs, some of which were award-winning, critically lauded efforts. He had come to embody the series he created in a way perhaps unique in television. Rod Serling was The Twilight Zone, to a point that even to this day many writers and critics give Serling credit for every episode aired on the series, despite the obvious presence of several other notable creatives. As early as 1959, with his famous appearance on The Mike Wallace Interview, Serling was in-demand on talk shows. As The Twilight Zone afforded Serling more exposure in his capacity as host, he found himself talking with such notables as David Susskind, Mike Douglas, and Johnny Carson, as well as in comedic skits on The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, The Red Skelton Hour, The Jack Benny Program, and others, often in parodies of his own creations. Though much of this material is embarrassing in hindsight, it does display the level of celebrity which Serling was able to achieve at the time.
|Roald Dahl hosting 'Way Out|
Television executives were quick to recognize the potential of emulating Serling’s success on the series. When tasked with creating a mid-season replacement series for Jackie Gleason’s disastrous return to television in 1961, producer David Susskind quickly put together a fantasy anthology series that in many ways emulated the format set by The Twilight Zone. The CBS series, 'Way Out, would be a 30-minute anthology program of fantasy dramas shot on video in New York. Those that have viewed episodes of ‘Way Out know that the show distinguished itself during its short run (14 episodes) with truly bizarre tales of horror and fantasy. The element which most strongly relates to The Twilight Zone is the style of host. Susskind tasked his friend Roald Dahl, the popular British short story writer, to host the program and provide the script for the opening episode, an adaptation of Dahl's short story, "William and Mary." Dahl wore a tailored black suit and smoked a cigarette while humorously narrating the show’s opening and closing moments in a deadpan manner. If it was not a conscious imitation of Rod Serling it was a remarkably similar performance. Dahl would later host a show with a much longer life, Tales of the Unexpected, complete with a companion book of stories published by Penguin Books in 1979. Though ‘Way Out was likely too outré for the average American viewing audience of the time, it stands to reason that one cause of its early demise was its similarity to The Twilight Zone, a series which immediately followed it on Friday nights in 1961.
By 1963, Serling was exhausted, both physically and creatively. The burdens of producing material and acting as executive producer for The Twilight Zone proved to be damaging to the writer’s health and creativity. A near-cancellation after the second season of The Twilight Zone meant that Serling had to agree to endorse Chesterfield cigarettes in his promotional spots to secure sponsorship for the third season. That third season, though a strong season by any standards, also marked a significant downturn in Serling’s self-perception, as he struggled with doubt in his own ability to continue to produce quality material. Some of the critical favor which the series acquired over its previous two season also began to turn against its principal creator. If Rod Serling was there to accept the Emmy Awards and Hugo Awards being showered upon the series, he was also there to accept the brunt of responsibility when the series failed to illicit the same high level of critical acclaim.
After the third season, the series was truly canceled and only returned as a truncated, mid-season replacement series in a new hour-long format and with a new producer. This was the first truly transitional time for the series and many believe it never achieved the level of quality it had previously under producer Buck Houghton, who departed with the news of cancelation. Adding to Houghton’s departure was Serling leaving to teach writing and the early-onset Alzheimer’s experienced by writer Charles Beaumont, the second leading contributor of scripts to the series. Though Serling continued to write the majority of scripts and record introductions for the series, the level of his active involvement in the operations of production were largely diminished.
The success of The Twilight Zone books, however, demanded that additional volumes be produced. Serling had not the time nor the energy to compile additional Twilight Zone material for publication. There were dozens more Serling-penned episodes which had not seen prose adaptation but the act of writing an entire Twilight Zone book during this time seemed unfeasible. The solution was to bring in another writer, pulp fiction veteran Walter B. Gibson, who would adapt several Rod Serling scripts as well as produce original material, and to switch publishers, from Bantam Books to Grosset & Dunlap. The move between publishers was facilitated by the fact that young viewers made up a significant portion of the overall viewership for The Twilight Zone and there was a desire to produce literary material to capitalize on this demographic. The two volumes which were produced with Walter B. Gibson were directly marketed to younger viewers. This trend toward a younger readership was also recognized by Bantam Books, who released each of Serling’s three previous Twilight Zone books as Pathfinder editions, a paperback line of fiction and non-fiction designed to appeal to young adult readers.
Although the two Grosset & Dunlap books, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1963) and Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Revisited (1964) included Serling’s name in the titles, both eschewed images of Serling on the cover designs of the hardcover and paperback editions (Tempo Books), presumably due to the assumption that younger readers (viewers) found the material a stronger draw than the host. As for the Bantam Pathfinder editions of Serling’s Twilight Zone books, appealing new covers were created, only the first of which featured an image of Serling.
1963 saw Serling nominally edit the first of three fiction anthologies for Bantam Books, Rod Serling’s Triple W: Witches, Warlocks and Werewolves. Though Serling wrote the introductory material, the contents of the book were compiled by noted science fiction author Gordon R. Dickson, who did not receive credit for the work and who would reprise his role as ghost editor for the 1967 volume Rod Serling’s Devils and Demons. These two anthologies were clearly aimed at the reader of horror fiction, both in cover design and content, and prefigured Serling’s later involvement in the Night Gallery series. A third anthology for Bantam, Rod Serling’s Other Worlds (1978), was released three years after the writer’s death and it remains unknown whether he chose the contents of the book as no story editor is listed. This final book was aimed at the science fiction market and featured an introduction from Twilight Zone writer Richard Matheson and story notes by science fiction writer Jack C. Haldeman.
As The Twilight Zone came to a rather merciful end in 1964, having gone through three additional producers since Buck Houghton’s exit at the end of the third season, Serling found himself suddenly free of the daily operations of a television series. The shadow of the series, however, hung over him and would largely define every move of his professional career until his early death in 1975. Between the failure of his adult western program, The Loner, his teaching at Ithaca College in New York, and his brief stint as host of the syndicated game show Liar's Club, Serling continued his association with book publishing.
Serling found time to write three excellent novella length fantasy/horror stories which were published in hardcover as The Season to Be Wary in 1967 by Little, Brown, with less than appealing cover art. Bantam books brought out a paperback edition a year later with a much more appealing cover which featured a painted collage design representing the three stories contained within. Serling adapted two of the stories, “Eyes” and “The Escape Route,” as two-thirds of an NBC television anthology movie in 1969. This film, Night Gallery, contained a third story, an original Serling teleplay, “The Cemetery,” which together comprised some of the finest writing Serling had achieved in years. The television film contained an excellent cast, including Roddy McDowall, Ozzie Davis, Joan Crawford, and Sam Jaffe, as well as excellent direction from Boris Sagal, Steven Spielberg, and Barry Shear. It was truly a triumphant return to television fantasy for the esteemed writer. The telefilm was well received and rated highly, generating the idea of a new Rod Serling fantasy series, Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, which was soon ordered to production.
Serling had previously considered development of a new fantasy series at the end of The Twilight Zone, but every idea, including one in which Serling toured a gallery of wax figures which was later echoed by Night Gallery, seemed to be fixated on pulp horror and held little appeal to Serling. A few years later, Serling was more open to the idea of a horror series carrying his name in the title. It was another indication that Rod Serling, the on-camera personality, was higher currency to network executives than was the quality of the story material which could be provided by the award-winning writer.
Night Gallery began as part of the NBC Four in One program and enjoyed a short yet quality first season. For its only full season, the second season, much of Night Gallery approached the quality of writing, directing, and performances of The Twilight Zone. Unfortunately for Serling, the autonomy he experienced on The Twilight Zone was nowhere to be found on Night Gallery. Despite the fact that he performed well as host and primary writer of series, Serling was partnered with a producer, Jack Laird, whose inability to take the fantasy genre seriously resulted in some disastrous comedic material, and whose misguided impulse to control production led to Serling being cut out of any creative input.
Night Gallery did result in two final books from Rod Serling which serve as an excellent swan song to a memorable publishing career. Bantam Books again partnered with Serling in an attempt to recreate the success of the first three Twilight Zone books from the early 1960’s, this time adapting his scripts from Night Gallery. Though the resultant books were not as successful as the Twilight Zone books, the two Night Gallery volumes, published in 1971 and 1972, contain adaptations of two Emmy Award-nominated efforts and display Rod Serling in top form. The cover illustrations on these volumes are extremely appealing as well. Like the paperback edition of The Season to Be Wary, the Night Gallery volumes use a painted collage design with images from the stories surrounding a central image of Rod Serling.
Despite the fact that late in his professional career Rod Serling seemed unable to turn down any offer to utilize his marketable image and voice, including selling beer and narrating documentaries on such outre subjects as UFOs and cryptozoology, his legacy remains firmly connected to The Twilight Zone, a series he had not the foresight to believe would endure as a culturally significant work of art. Serling's final bow as host was for the syndicated radio series The Zero Hour, which featured stories of mystery and suspense and which boasted an impressive pedigree of writers and performers. Serling had, in a way, come full circle, having begun in radio all those many years ago at the beginning of his professional career.
In the time since Rod Serling's death in 1975, the marketing and memorial efforts on behalf of both Serling and his principal creations have been robust and continuous. The first book-length biography of Serling appeared in 1989 with Joel Engel’s Rod Serling: The Dreams and Nightmares of Life in the Twilight Zone, from Contemporary Books. Since then, there have been several additional Serling biographies, including a moving memoir, As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling, from Serling’s daughter Anne, an excellent offering on Serling from the prestigious American Masters series from PBS Documentary Films, and a line of books, Rod Serling Books, which have brought back into print all of Serling’s books published during the writer’s lifetime. Perhaps most important among the preservations efforts on behalf of Rod Serling was the formation of the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation, whose Foundation Board and membership roster includes virtually every important family member, writer, scholar, or critic association with the examination of Serling’s works.
Serling’s seemingly immortal creation, The Twilight Zone, has seen even more activity since the death of its creator. Among the endless stream of Twilight Zone material are two television revival series, two additional comic book series and a line of graphic novels, tribute fiction anthologies compiled by Serling’s widow, Carol, book anthologies compiling source material for The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, reprints of Serling’s Twilight Zone stories, boundless literary appreciations and critical guides (spearheaded by Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion), photo books, script books, interview books, audio books, The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas, and Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine, which ran from 1981-1989 and set the standard for a genre periodical of its time. There have been toys, New Year’s marathons, Twilight Zone: Rod Serling’s Lost Classics, and exceptional home video offerings in every format. And during all this time The Twilight Zone has enjoyed an uninterrupted run in syndication. It adds up to one of the most impressive cultural legacies from a man who never truly believed in the lasting value of his work and who only wanted to be known as having written something worthwhile.
Grateful acknowledgement is made to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (isfdb.org), The Grand Comics Database (comics.org), Amazon.com, Atlas Obscura, and Goodreads for providing information and images used in this post.
Special thanks to Christopher Conlon.
Special thanks to Christopher Conlon.
Note: A listing for a large selection of Twilight Zone related material can be found in the Vortex Library
Shows as Host:
-The Twilight Zone (CBS, 1959-1964)
-Liar's Club (syndicated game show, one season, 1969-1970)
-Liar's Club (syndicated game show, one season, 1969-1970)
-Night Gallery (NBC, pilot: 1969; series: 1970-1973)
-The Zero Hour (radio; 1973-1974)
-Stories from the Twilight Zone (Bantam, 1960)
-More Stories from the Twilight Zone (Bantam, 1961)
-New Stories from the Twilight Zone (Bantam, 1962)
-From the Twilight Zone (Doubleday/BCE, 1962)
-Rod Serling’s Triple W: Witches, Warlocks and Werewolves (Bantam, 1963)
-Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (with Walter B. Gibson; Grosset & Dunlap, 1963)
-Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Revisited (with Walter B. Gibson; Grosset & Dunlap, 1964)
-Rod Serling’s Devils and Demons (Bantam, 1967)
-The Season to Be Wary (Little, Brown, 1967)
-Night Gallery (Bantam, 1971)
-Night Gallery 2 (Bantam, 1972)
-Rod Serling’s Other Worlds (Bantam, 1978)
-The Twilight Zone (Dell/Gold Key, 1960-1982)