Rod Serling's daughter goes beyond the 'Twilight Zone' (2024)

Chris Kocher, Binghamton (N.Y.) Press & Sun-Bulletin| USATODAY

Rod Serling's daughter goes beyond the 'Twilight Zone' (1)

Rod Serling's daughter goes beyond the 'Twilight Zone' (2)

Show Caption

  • Serling kept grueling work schedule%2C daughter notes
  • He always made time for family outings
  • Serling%2C 50%2C died of a heart attack in 1975

Those of us who knew Rod Serling only through 50 years of Twilight Zone reruns have a definite picture of the man in our minds.

As an episode ends and the last twist of the tale is revealed, the camera pans over to where the show's creator has waited just off-screen. His hair is jet-black, his eyes piercing. A cigarette is often wedged between his fingers, the smoke curling around him as he delivers the story's epilogue with deep-voiced staccato precision. He seems omniscient as he makes his closing argument about human nature to the millions of viewers across the nation, offering one final thought before the credits roll.

That somewhat ominous image made Serling an American icon, and the many skirmishes with network executives and sponsors who tried to censor his work led to his reputation as "the Angry Young Man of Television."

But in her new memoir, As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling, daughter Anne Serling offers a behind-the-scenes view from her childhood with stories of his humor and his devotion to his family. She tells of her famous father addressing loving notes to her as "Miss Grumple" and signing them "Roddy Rabbit," recalls him acting out impromptu scenes from Gone With the Wind (playing all the roles himself and using whatever props were on hand) and notes his fondness for pranks.

"He was literally the funniest person I ever met, and he would do anything for a practical joke," she said during a recent interview at her Cayuga Heights, N.Y., home.

"When people saw this black-and-white image walking across the MGM soundstage with a cigarette and the tight lips and that serious expression, you wouldn't have known that he was very self-deprecating and extremely hilarious."

Few knew Serling

In some ways, As I Knew Him, released April 30 by Kensington Books, is Anne Serling's answer to previous biographies that painted a troubled soul "so remotely unfamiliar to me and distant from the dad that I knew." Her book begins with his final days at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, N.Y., where he had been taken after a heart attack at the family's cottage on Cayuga Lake. He was 50 years old, Anne barely 20.

After revisiting a few memories of summers on the lake, the story rewinds to Rodman Edward Serling's birth in Syracuse, N.Y., on Christmas Day 1924 and his family's move two years later to Binghamton, where his father opened a grocery. The Parlor City — which escaped the brunt of the Depression thanks to Endicott Johnson and IBM Corp. — provided an idyllic childhood filled with carefree summer nights and carousel rides, and he would later incorporate his yearning for those days into the autobiographical Twilight Zone classic Walking Distance.

The real world intruded when the United States entered World War II after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, which spurred Serling and a few of his Binghamton High School classmates to join the military right after graduation. As a Jew, Serling hoped to fight Nazis in Europe, but instead became a paratrooper in the Pacific theater.

In the battle for Leyte — some of the fiercest fighting of the war — many of Serling's comrades were killed, and bomb shrapnel hit his wrist and knee. The injuries earned him a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, but would plague him for the rest of his life.

The psychological scars would never fade either: "What I vividly recall is my dad having nightmares, and in the morning I would ask him what happened, and he would say he dreamed the Japanese were coming at him. So it was always present, and clearly — as he said — he got it off his chest in his writing."

Indeed, many of his best scripts for The Twilight Zone and other anthology shows would explore the trauma of war: A Quality of Mercy imagines a bloodthirsty American soldier learning a lesson by trading places with his Japanese counterpart, and The Purple Testament imagines a G.I. who can see which of his platoon members will be the next to die.

Serling faced another blow just as the war ended: the death of his father, Sam, of a heart attack at 52. The Army did not grant Serling emergency leave, and he could not return to Binghamton for the funeral. "It is a loss of such magnitude," his daughter writes, "that he will never truly recover."

As I Knew Him then sketches out Serling's life after the war, as a student at Antioch College in Ohio (where he met and married his wife, Carol) and later as a struggling writer for radio. It was in the emerging television industry, though — specifically, anthology shows that constantly require new scripts — where Serling found his success. He launched into the upper stratosphere of TV writers with the 1955 broadcast of Patterns, a story centered on cutthroat corporate politics that rings true even today. He earned critical acclaim and an Emmy Award, and Kraft Television Theatre restaged the live production three weeks after its initial airing — the first "rerun" of the television era.

In 1956, the Playhouse 90 production of Requiem for a Heavyweight, starring Jack Palance as washed-up boxer "Mountain" McClintock, cemented his popularity and earned his second Emmy.

By her count, Anne Serling has documented that her father wrote 252 scripts between 1950 and 1975 — a breakneck pace that's nearly one script per month. After he achieved a measure of success, he accomplished this feat partly by acting out the scripts into a Dictaphone and letting a secretary transcribe them. Even so, the pace was grueling.

Balancing work and family

In a 1959 interview with journalist Mike Wallace, aired as The Twilight Zone began production, Serling said he was working 12 hours a day for seven days a week just to keep up with the enormous task of having complete creative control of a TV series. Before the show ended in 1964, he wrote 92 of 156 episodes.

Still, Anne always felt that she and her older sister, Jodi, had their father's full attention whenever they wanted it, and that he shielded the girls from the many stresses of his Hollywood job.

"I was aware that he got up very early in the morning, but he was always there at the dinner table and he was there when I came home from school," she said. "We could sometimes play basketball — quite a lot, actually. I never had the sense that my father wasn't available."

Anne Serling's childhood memories are alive and engaging, whether they are joyous — watching The Flintstones with her dad, investigating his office looking for sweets and caring for the family's various pets — or more somber, such as the day President John F. Kennedy was shot or how her family coped with her great-grandmother's death. Particularly vivid are times spent on Cayuga Lake, when Serling could slow down a bit and find more time for family activities. He also taught courses at Ithaca College, imparting his experience in the television business to the next generation.

"It was so different from the pace of Los Angeles. My mother had gone there every year of her life, and then my parents had their honeymoon there," Anne Serling said. "It was a place to unwind and relax — there wasn't that constant frenzy. Even though he was still writing at the lake, it wasn't the same pace and he could relax."

In the late 1960s, her father moved beyond The Twilight Zone, creating a short-lived Western series called The Loner as well as hosting and writing for the 1970-73 series Night Gallery; the latter became a disheartening experience because of clashes with producers over the show's direction and tone.

Despite warning signs — some more obvious in hindsight — Rod Serling continued on the writing treadmill and suffered his first heart attack in May 1975. After a second one two weeks later, doctors decided to perform open-heart surgery, then still a new procedure. From his hospital bed, he told Anne he was confident — but to his doctor, he darkly joked, "I think my survival chances may have been better in the war."

His words were sadly prophetic: Rod Serling died in the hospital days later.

Grief and reflection

Her father's sudden death sent Anne into depression. For many years, she suffered from what she calls "complicated grief," becoming agoraphobic and numb, shunning emotional ties. As I Knew Him describes her slow emergence from the darkness, aided by therapy and the love of her husband, Doug — and in the fall of 1983, she finally revisited his grave in the cemetery near the Cayuga Lake cottage, where she found someone added a simple yet profound message: "He left friends."

"Maybe I find some comfort in this message left behind," she writes. "Perhaps there is some element of peace, at last, not only in the realization that I have finally done this, but also in the quiet and the recognition that I don't need to be here to find my father."

She began to look for her dad in the work he left behind, watching The Twilight Zone and finding echoes of times they had spent together.

Looking back on his career, Rod Serling famously said that "good writing, like wine, has to age well, and my stuff has been momentarily adequate." He even sold off the rights to his greatest work, The Twilight Zone, because he never thought it would recoup the money his production company had spent to make it.

His daughter thinks that he'd be stunned to know that his stories live on, through TV marathons on holidays, a 1980s Twilight Zone film, several attempts at re-launching the series, and even a theme park thrill ride. The best Twilight Zone moments have become cultural touchstones, from Burgess Meredith's broken glasses and "it's a cookbook!" to Talky Tina and the lonely hitchhiker. The show that was never a ratings success has become the standard against which other science fiction shows are measured.

Conscious legacy

His greatest legacy, perhaps, is the social conscience he instilled in his work — and because human nature does not change, those ideas are rediscovered by each generation.

"I hear from people in their 20s and early 30s who, because of my dad, became writers. That would have also deeply touched him."

What would Serling think of life in 2013? After all, we're living in a future stranger than any Twilight Zone episode could have predicted 50 years ago. His daughter believes he'd be intrigued and appalled by what television offers today — so much more than the mere three networks of 1975 — and he would see the opportunities that those other outlets and the Internet offer to get his stories out to viewers without interference from meddling sponsors.

And who knows — with a little technological boost, Rod Serling might have produced even more tales to entertain us and make us think about our role in the world.

"I often wonder today, with a computer, how much more prolific he would have been," she said, "Once he mastered the computer, which would have been a little bit of a challenge, because he wasn't mechanically inclined — but once he mastered it, I think he would have loved it."

Rod Serling's daughter goes beyond the 'Twilight Zone' (2024)
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