Published November 30, 2007
In 1839, Toronto printer William Lyon Mackenzie docked his office boy 66 cents for being absent Christmas and New Year's Day, reports the Toronto Historical Board.
Hmmmâ€¦ â€œa case of â€œbaaa Hum Bugâ€!
Consider if you will Rodman Serling (1925-75), a writer in a hurry. He was born on December 25.Â Jewish - but not overly religious about it. He was a teller of parables, a believer in traditional virtues, and a wordsmith with a purple streak. Diminutive, but a giant in the Golden Age of television, Mr. Serling achieved lasting fame unexpectedly in... "The Twilight Zone":
- The television series is more autobiographical than many viewers realize, writes biographer Gordon Sander. Episodes were sometimes based on his nightmares and stories he had been reading (a sore point with a few other writers). Also, the extroverted Mr. Serling grew up in "hidebound, anti-Semitic"
Binghamton, New York. This was the pastoral, small, "Twilight Zone" town to which he returned, literally and imaginatively, for the rest of his life, and he wasn't blind to its failings.
- In the Second World War, Mr. Serling brazened his way past the height requirements and became a paratrooper. His unit fought the Japanese day and night in the jungles of the Philippines. He rarely talked about the war afterward and, although patriotic, became an early anti-nuclear activist and opponent of the U.S. presence in Vietnam.
- After the war, Mr. Serling enrolled at Antioch, a liberal college in
Ohio where women "openly smoked cigarettes and wore pants." He met his wife and continued the writing he had begun in the war as therapy. Much of it was junk, but he was learning to write adequately for the infant medium of television. (To support his family, he also tested parachutes occasionally for the U.S. army, at $25 a jump.) Early on, Carol Serling corrected his spelling and eventually came to rule this "man-child" who admitted he could never write women's roles convincingly.
- Mr. Serling was prolific, perhaps the most productive writer in TV history. He wrote three award-winning teleplays Patterns, The Comedians, and Requiem for a Heavyweight - which are considered U.S. television classics. Hungry for approval, he also accepted every assignment he was offered and wrote too much. However, this meant he had a rejected time-travel fantasy script available that was the seed for "The Twilight Zone."
- Journalists referred to Mr. Serling as an angry young man. Censorship rankled him. For instance, despising prejudice, he tried twice to dramatize the lynching in the mid-fifties of a 14 -year-old black youngster in Mississippi. For the first production, the sponsor demanded that the story be set in New England, that the word "lynch" be dropped, that bottles of Coca-Cola be removed, and that the characters speak grammatically and make comments such as, "This is a strange little town." The second time, the sponsor was an insurance company and the sheriff in Mr. Serling's story couldn't kill himself because suicide often led to problems in the claims department.
- "To public and press alike," writes author Marc Zicree, "Serling was viewed as video's equivalent of Arthur .Miller or Tennessee Williams." In 1959, hearing he was going to write and produce a science-fiction series, TV newsman Mike Wallace asked Mr. Serling, "(So) you've given up writing anything important for television, right?"
- During 1959-64, Mr. Serling used "The Twilight Zone" (the name comes from a term that airline pilots use when they descend so close to the runway that the horizon disappears and they feel abruptly imbalanced) to write offbeat fables, sometimes with downbeat endings and social criticisms that would otherwise have been commercially unacceptable. Although never a big hit in that period, the show grew more popular in reruns and is one of a handful of series that are continually in circulation.
- In five years, Mr. Serling wrote 90 of the 156 episodes. His last years were spent teaching, shilling products on television, and quixotically attempting to write teleplays such as a nonviolent Western series.
- A nervous, compulsive man, Mr. Serling smoked so much that his doctor advised him to cut back to one pack a day. In the summer of 1975 he had three heart attacks - the last, which killed him, occurred during open-heart surgery.
Picture if you will, a brilliant writer ahead of his time; a man who would alter television forever; a genius who would be responsible for some of the best-known stories of all time; yet born on Christmas Day, 1924 and never once used that as a claim for fame.
(Sources: Globe files, The Twilight Zone Companion, Rod Serling: The Dreams and Nightmares of Life in The Twilight Zone, Serling; The Rise and Twilight of Televisions Last Angry Man.