Happy Birthday

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Associated Press

Happy Birthday, Rod Serling, Creator of “The Twilight Zone”

December 25, 2009
by Christopher Coats
A legendary and prolific creator of thought-provoking and edgy television, Rod Serling spent 25 years creating programs on his own terms.

Rod Serling's Early Days

Born in Syracuse, N.Y., on Dec. 25, 1924, Serling first left home to serve in the Pacific as a paratrooper during WWII. His time at war and his interest in boxing as a young man would both help steer what some described as a traditional “angry young man” toward a life of writing.

After attending Ohio’s Antioch College, Serling spent his early professional life as a television station staff writer, but found himself suffocated and frustrated by the commercial side of the business.

A fearless scribe and champion of free speech, television writer and producer Rod Serling made the decision early in his professional life that his work would be completed on his own terms, helping him become one of the most unique and recognized voices in television.

Known today more for his work as the writer, creator and host of “The Twilight Zone,” Serling helped redefine television dramas with scripts addressing often taboo topics in creative, engrossing and sometimes terrifying ways.

Modest about his standing until his final days, Serling refused to allow himself to be included as an “influential” television writer in his final published interview in 1975, shortly before his death at the age of 50.

“I’m a known screenwriter,” he insisted, despite a lifetime of accolades, awards and commercial success.

In reality, Serling proved much more than that—involved in a lifetime “battle of a writer to be his own man,” as captured by Mike Wallace during an interview in 1959, just before “The Twilight Zone” debuted.

Serling's Notable Accomplishments

Sitting at dinner one night with his wife Carol, Serling made the fateful decision to risk his economic well-being for a chance to become a full time television playwright.

The years that followed were difficult and full of disappointing concessions and refusals, but Serling stuck to his guns, eventually turning his life in the boxing ring into the script for “Requiem for a Heavyweight.”

Turned into a television play staring Anthony Quinn in 1956, “Requiem” was Serling’s first real success, though he still felt stifled by the demands of censors and especially advertisers.

One of the more legendary cases of Serling’s struggles with advertisers and the network came in 1956 when he penned a script based on the kidnapping and lynching of Emmitt Till after Till had whistled at a white woman in Mississippi the year before.

Whittled down to avoid controversy until little of the original context still existed, the initial version was stored away for decades, emerging only in 2008.

Intent on making sure his stories made their way to the screen without sacrificing their central message, no matter how controversial they might have been, Serling decided to simply create his own show, practically guaranteeing the last word when it came to content.

Arriving on CBS in 1959, Serling’s singular creation invited viewers to a new dimension of sight and sound, of shadow and substance, of things and ideas: “The Twilight Zone.”

Using science fiction to address his anger and confusion with real world events, Serling created moral and cautionary tales in half-hour installments, confronting Cold War paranoia, racism and the horrors of war in a way that struck a middle ground between informing and entertaining.

Over the six years that followed, Serling’s “Twilight Zone” kept audiences guessing and jumping with legendary episodes such as “The Eye of the Beholder” and “A Stop at Willoughby.”

Further, the show made Serling a known commodity to audiences as he acted as host and narrator for each episode. Penning and producing many of the episodes himself, Serling achieved a level of creative freedom unseen in the world of commercial television until then.

The Rest of the Story

After the “Zone” came to an end in 1964, Serling continued writing prolifically, but was never able to achieve the same level of creative freedom and control he had reached.

Night Gallery” in the early 1970s marked Serling’s return to serial science fiction, but after three years of finding himself increasingly on the periphery of the creative process, the series came to an end.

Venturing into teaching at Ithaca College and into films, such as co-writing “Planet of the Apes,” Serling continued to write, still interweaving social messages into his stories, working toward transforming increasingly complicated existing works into scripts.

In 1975, he was doing just that, attempting to bring Morris West’s “The Salamander” to the screen when he began experiencing chest pain. Rushed to the hospital, Serling died of heart failure later that day, June 28—he was only 50 years old.

Celebrated for his prolific career, Serling’s legacy has lived on through countless rebroadcasts of his series in both their original and modernized forms, as well as a 1983 theatrical compilation of episodes.

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