BIRTH OF THE TWILIGHT ZONE
Excerpt from – “As I Knew Him; My Dad, Rod Serling”
“The Twilight Zone is about people, about human beings involved in extraordinary circumstances, in strange problems of their own or of fate’s making.” —Rod Serling
It takes a lot of perseverance to get The Twilight Zone off the ground. The first pilot my dad submits, “The Time Element,” is an expansion of a half-hour script he had written and sold shortly after graduating from Antioch. Although CBS buys the script, it is shelved for two years until it is picked up by Bill Granet, producer of Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse. Desilu, the production company owned by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, wielded significant power in the world of 1950s television owing to the phenomenal success of I Love Lucy. Despite strong opposition from the ad agency representing Westinghouse and network executives, Desi Arnaz backs Granet and they convince CBS to air the show as part of their 1958-1959 season.
In his book The Twilight Zone Companion, Marc Zicree will later write, “‘The Time Element’ received more mail than any other episode of Desilu Playhouse that year, and the newspaper reviews were universally good.”
New York Times reviewer Jack Gould wrote:
“Serling once again came up with an absorbing and unusual drama . . . “The Time Element” is a story about a man visiting a psychiatrist. The patient complains of recurrent dreams in which he imagines he is living in Hawaii just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. In a series of flashbacks the man is shown living with his knowledge of what has happened in the seventeen years since. He bets on sure winners in sports events, for example. But more particularly he seeks to warn a newly-married couple, newspaper editors and anyone else who will listen that they will be attacked by the Japanese. But everyone is either too interested in a good time or too determinedly patriotic to give heed; the man only gets punched on the jaw. In a highly tricky ending the psychiatrist is left looking at a blank couch and to steady his own nerves he goes to a bar to get a drink. There he learns his patient was killed at Pearl Harbor.”
Marc Zicree states, “The reviews were enough to convince CBS that it had made a mistake in shelving Serling’s script. It was decided that a pilot of The Twilight Zone would be made.”
Buoyed by a second chance (but with some trepidation) my father begins writing “Where Is Everybody?” the story of a man who finds himself inexplicably alone in a strange, completely vacant town. It turns out he is an astronaut preparing for the loneliness of deep space flight and the entire experience has been a hallucination. The story is bought, and after the episode has been produced, he travels to New York City and with CBS presents it to potential sponsors. William Self, a CBS executive, recalls, “It was the fastest sale that I have ever been involved with. In fact, the pilot sold just six hours after the screening.”
It was The Twilight Zone that made my dad famous, transforming him from a well-respected television writer into a celebrity and a public personality. But that was almost accidental. As Self explained to Marc Zicree in The Twilight Zone Companion, “It was from the outset decided that there would be a narrator, someone who would set the stage or wrap it up. The first person we used was Westbrook Van Voorhis, who had done The March of Time and had that kind of big voice. But when we listened to it we decided it was a little too pompous-sounding.”
Everyone at the network, the sponsors, their ad agency, and the talent agency representing my dad, want Orson Welles, who, they think, would add just the right note of drama, flair, and prestige to the show. But Welles’s quoted fee is higher than the sponsors want to pay. They all scramble to come up with other names.
“Finally,” Self continues, “Rod himself made the suggestion that maybe he should do it. It was received with skepticism. None of us knew Rod except as a writer. But he did a terrific job.”
For the first season, viewers hear “the Voice” near the beginning and at the end of each episode. It is not until the second season that he appears on camera. Within months, he is the most recognizable writer in the short history of television.
My dad started and owned the production company (Cayuga Productions) that produced all of the TZs and was completely committed to this show. He would get up very early and dictate scripts for hours. And then, around noon, he would drive over to the MGM studios, where the shows were recorded. Marc Zicree quotes Edward Denault, the assistant director: “Rod was instrumental in the development of the scripts and in the rewrites, was in on the post-production, always looked at the dailies. If we got in a jam and something had to be rewritten in an effort to get the show finished on time, or if we were short of minutes, he was always ready and could knock off a scene very quickly. He was very, very much involved.”
Marc Zicree writes, “For all his involvement Serling also knew his own limitations and although he was credited as executive producer, he had no pretensions of being a producer.” Buck Houghton, the producer, said my dad, despite his involvement “knew his limitations.” He went on to say:
“You see Rod had a very short span of attention. He was a very intense guy and he worked very hard and drove himself very hard and he was very short of patience. He was not impatient; patience was not something he had. A ten minute story conference with him was the limit, then he’d go out and get an ice cream soda or shoe shine. So, as far as sitting through a dubbing session or going through the casting lists or sitting and cueing the music . . . that sort of thing: no thanks. And that’s not to derogate the title of executive producer; he did have the final say.”
When The Twilight Zone premieres on October 2, 1959, I am four years old and still oblivious to what my father is doing when he is not playing with us, showing us how to blow on a blade of grass and make it whistle, or chasing us around the yard.