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Monday, April 23, 2012

"Journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination"

Rod Serling was many things. He was a decorated paratrooper, amateur boxer, successful screenwriter, opponent of censorship, college professor, anti-war activist, and the archetypal “angry young man” of the 1950’s and 60’s. For those of us who are Baby Boomers, Serling opened our minds to the power of imagination and human interaction.
He was a man we thought we knew, but we didn’t really know him at all.
Rod Serling was born in 1924 and spent his childhood years in upstate New York. He was outgoing and imaginative but labeled a “class clown” in school. Rod developed an interest in writing while he was the editor of his school newspaper. He enlisted in the Army the day after high school graduation in 1943. Trained as a paratrooper and sent to the Pacific Theatre, he was reassigned to a demolition unit or “death squad” (because of its high fatality rate). He was wounded twice in combat in the Philippines and was awarded the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and Philippines Liberation Medal.
After the war, Serling attended Antioch College majoring in Literature while supporting himself by testing parachutes and ejection seats for the Air Force, a job that at any time could end his writing career. By 1950, he was earning a little money each week by writing professionally and selling a script here and there for radio. His first semi-steady work came when his idea was accepted for a weekly radio show. It was about a boy and girl travelling by train from town to town getting involved with locals. It was called “Adventure Express.” Serling became disgruntled with writing for radio serials however. He felt that they “ate up” is ideas and forced him to “write around the clock.” He couldn’t afford to give away his ideas for $50 a week.
Taking his old unproduced radio scripts and some new work, he decided to try television. Many of his stories seemed to fit the new medium better, and they were reviewed positively. In 1955, Rod Serling had his first taste of success with a story called “Patterns” about corporate struggles. It was broadcast nationwide by Kraft Television Theatre. It was considered a creative triumph. From then on, he was being offered jobs writing for television, radio, and even plays and novels. Soon after, Rod Serling wrote “Requiem for a Heavyweight” that solidified his success.
In 1958, he submitted a story to CBS which he intended to be the pilot for a new weekly series called the “Twilight Zone.” On October 2, 1959, the network broadcast the first episode of the show which was to run for five years. Because of past struggles with sponsor censorship and network reluctance to air programs that they thought controversial, Serling fought to retain creative control of the show. He believed that the science fiction foundation of the Twilight Zone was perfect as it probably would escape censorship and give him an opportunity to layer in social messages in a more understated manner. The show did in fact allow Rod Serling to incorporate his own liberal views about racial issues and anti-war movements.  
The Twilight Zone had a dedicated following, although it was not among the most watched programs overall. The quality of his writing, he personally wrote two thirds of all the episodes, which included complex plots and surprising story twists, became a legendary television series. Whether the characters were isolated in a dinner during a snowstorm, frightened passengers on an airliner in a lightning storm, or looking for aliens in their neighborhood on a summer night, each episode had it own subtle message about how human beings interacted, both for good or evil.
After The Twilight Zone’s run ended, Rod Serling continued writing for films. His work included everything from “Requiem for a Heavyweight” to “Seven Days in May” to “Planet of the Apes.” He even wrote one third of the scripts for another series called “Night Gallery” which ran for three seasons. In between other projects, Serling taught courses in writing and film at Antioch College and Ithaca College. He went on several speaking tours of college campuses across the country where he expressed his objection to the Vietnam War.
During May and June of 1975, Rod Serling, a lifelong chain smoker, suffered three consecutive heart attacks; the final one during open heart surgery. He died as a result. He was only 50 years old.
In his own words, Rod Serling would want you to remember: “You are travelling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination - next stop, the Twilight Zone!”

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