Serling's 'Twilight Zone' casts long shadow among TV classics
Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone" was one of the most popular television shows of its time. It broke from the norm, far different from such TV fare of the 1950s and '60s as "Father Knows Best," which painted an idealized picture of American family life. It struck a chord with adults and teenagers alike.
Author and film historian Doug Brode -- who spoke Wednesday at the Westport Public Library, promoting his book, "Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone: The 50th Anniversary Tribute," which he co-authored with Serling's wife Carol -- was one of those teenagers mesmerized by "The Twilight Zone."
What made him a fan?
"The genius of storytelling that seemed to be speaking directly to me and made me know I wanted to be a writer," Brode said. He was 16 when the show made its debut in October 1959.
While many TV shows were being "dumbed down" at the time, "The Twilight Zone" often used the trappings of science fiction to tackle controversial issues, such as nuclear war, prejudice, McCarthy-ism and the Apocalypse.
For his part, Serling, who lived in Westport during the 1950s, preferred describing his approach to "The Twilight Zone" episodes as "imaginative fantasy" rather than science fiction.
"If you wanted to say something about fixing society, you'd be labeled a communist," Brode said of the Cold War-era mindset. "But if you set it on Mars, you could make any statement you want. How could anybody (the network and show sponsors) complain? You could, in a hidden way, in a subliminal way, make the statements you wanted."
Other television shows during that era faced censorship. The married stars on "I Love Lucy" couldn't be shown in the same bed. Even worse, the word "pregnant" was disallowed when Lucille Ball was expecting to give birth to Little Ricky.
"The networks weren't as bad as the sponsors," Brode said.
But Serling found ways to creatively send strong messages on "The Twilight Zone," while avoiding censorship. Before he had that platform, he was frustrated by censors. Once, he planned a story inspired by Emmett Till, an African-American boy lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after allegedly whistling at a white woman. It was called "Noon on Doomsday." A college-age black man was the victim in the original script. By the time the ABC censors got finished with it, the location was New England, the victim was Jewish, not black, and any mention of lynching was removed from the script.
"The Twilight Zone" freed Serling to explore themes and current events he had been unable to previously tackle. To touch on a current event, however, he might plan an episode on a similar theme but set the time 100 years earlier.
"The moment you remove it from today's topicality, you can be as topical as you want," Brode said of Serling's ploy.
Brode treated the mostly older crowd at the library Wednesday to a screening of the first-ever episode of "The Twilight Zone," titled "Where is Everybody?" In that program, a man finds himself alone in a strange town, but feels like he's being watched. There are no other humans around, but on occasion, the man encounters food cooking on a diner's stove, a lit cigar in an ashtray, a film running at the local movie theater and so on. It is later revealed that he is a training astronaut named Mike Ferris, confined within an isolation room in an aircraft hangar, 5 feet square, for 484 hours and 36 minutes (over 20 days). The exercise is designed to test if he is able to stay sane while cooped up in a small spacecraft for the duration of a trip to the Moon. The town was a complete hallucination, an escape valve for his sensory-deprived mind. The "walk" button he pressed at a street crossing was actually a panic button. Though many things can be simulated, Brode said "you can't simulate man's hunger for companionship."
The show's name, the music (often by Bernard Herrmann, who also wrote the score for Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho"), Serling's narration, the black-and-white filming even when it could have been shot in color, all these ingredients, said Brode, made the show a classic.
"I honestly believe if any of those ingredients had been missing, it could not mean to us what it means today," said Brode, who added that other TV programs of the era came close to greatness but have since been forgotten.
Serling initially did not plan to narrate the program.
"Up until three weeks before, Rod was not going to narrate the show," Brode said. Orson Welles was the first choice, but he wanted too much money. William Conrad was also considered, but he could not be lined up in time. With the top choices out of the picture, someone suggested to Serling that he narrate the show since he used to do radio announcements while in the U.S. Army. He agreed to take on the job and that distinctive, clipped delivery would make him a TV icon.
"He had that wonderful look as well as the voice," Brode said.
Asked which actors from "The Twilight Zone" Serling like the best, Brode told Wednesday's crowd the top two were Mickey Rooney and Burgess Meredith. Serling thought Rooney "should be doing Shakespeare."
An attendee for Brode's talk said he was in second grade when he was introduced to "The Twilight Zone." The man said he was glad he shared a room with his brother because some episodes scared him. Another man, Arlen Schumer, a Westport-based comic book artist, was 5 years old when he first saw the "The Twilight Zone." In fact, the first visual memory of his life is the eyeball in the opening credits of the show in 1963.
Brode was asked what age group Serling considered the show appropriate for. While he didn't directly answer the question, he did say Serling thought teenagers would have nothing to do with it, "because he was writing mostly about adults." However, teenagers loved the show.
"It became their show," Brode said of the show's fans. "It had such substance to it." When teens watched other shows, often about families, who had perfect homes and perfect lives, they often wondered what was wrong with their families. On "The Twilight Zone," characters had drinking problems and other ordeals, things teenagers saw in their real-life world.
"It was a show that, by pretending to be fantasy, was real like no other show was," Brode said.