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by Marek Breiger
“I would like television to produce some itching pills rather than this endless outpouring of tranquilizers . . .”
—Edward R. Murrow
Rod Serling, born eighty-five years ago on December 25th, 1924, was not only the creator of The Twilight Zone, but an important and irreplaceable mid-century American writer. He employed the new technology of television to transmit ancient truths, and part of his truth emerged from a very powerful, non-religious identification as a member of the Jewish people.
Serling was one of many Jewish artists of the 1950s and early ’60s who used popular culture to transform America for the better. Like his colleagues Reginald Rose (“Twelve Angry Men”) and Paddy Chayevsky (“Marty”), Serling elevated popular culture while helping American youth contemplate the racism, isolation and tragedy that existed beneath the shiny surface of post-World War II American life. Through The Twilight Zone (which premiered fifty years ago and ran for five years, until 1964), he made dramatic statements against prejudice, militarism, greed, conformity, and xenophobia — statements that were discussed during classroom recesses and workplace coffeebreaks throughout the country.
He was an American-heartland writer from Binghamton, New York. As his biographer Gordon F. Sander makes clear (Rod Serling: The Rise and Twilight of Television’s Last Angry Man, 1994), Binghamton was not only Serling’s home for his first eighteen years, but also a place of lifelong inspiration for him. He loved his childhood there and experienced Binghamton as a place of family protection and small-town kindness. The city’s five thousand Jews were close-knit, with their own baseball team and community center and a great deal of community pride.
Although he grew up in an era when anti-Jewish feeling and the Ku Klux Klan were on the rise, Serling’s awareness of bigotry did not stop him from making friends with all kinds of people. He was popular in high school. He was short and light yet a fine athlete, as well as an excellent student-journalist and a natural performer. Still, in Binghamton, writes Sander, Jewish children had to “put up with a certain amount of harassment at school, like having to take examinations that were deliberately scheduled for the Jewish High Holy Days.” This was perceived by Serling’s father, Sam, as “annoying, perhaps even worrisome,” but “not enough to put off a doughty Jewish emigrant like Sam Serling . . .” The dual nature of the city’s reality would later become a major Twilight Zone theme, as Rod Serling’s teleplays repeatedly revealed the potential cruelty masked even by friendly faces.
In addition to his father’s influence, Serling was strongly affected by “Isidore Friedlander, the director of the Binghamton Jewish Community Center and teacher of its Sunday school, where Serling was enrolled from the age of 8 to 12.” Friedlander, who became the model for some of Serling’s Twilight Zone characters, was fluent in Hebrew and Yiddish and was “a poet, musician, translator and playwright,” according to Sander. It was “the kindly, philosophical Friedlander,” he continues, “who helped inculcate Serling with his fierce moralism even while the Serling family was in some ways straying from the actual Jewish faith . . .”
In the 1930s, the radio plays of his hero, Norman Corwin (born May 3rd, 1910 and still alive today), sensitized young Rod to the meaning of Nazism’s rise not only for the Jewish people but also for the whole world — and to the tricks of dramatic storytelling. Eventually, Serling would be among the first writers to introduce Holocaust-related themes to television. One Twilight Zone episode, “He’s Alive,” traces the career of a young American Nazi (played by Dennis Hopper), whose only adult friend is a gentle Jewish scholar. Hitler’s ghost is seen coaching the Hopper character and demanding the old Jewish man’s death. In another episode, “Deaths-Head Revisited,” a Nazi commandant returns to Dachau to relive his days of sadism. He is placed on trial by the ghosts of the Jewish people he has brutalized and murdered, and sentenced to a life of mental anguish and torture in which he feels, at every moment, the pain of his victims.
Serling, speaking to the audience off camera, concludes: “There is an answer to the doctor’s question. All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes — all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers. Something to dwell on and to remember, not only in the Twilight Zone but wherever men walk God’s Earth.”
His ongoing work for Playhouse 90 (a dramatic series of ninety-minute dramas that broadcast from 1956 to 1961) included an episode dealing with the Warsaw Ghetto. The Nazis were never treated comically by Serling as they would be in Hogan’s Heroes, a program he detested. In Serling’s hands, Nazis were portrayed not only as men driven by mean and petty passions, but as the real or potential murderers they were and are. During a period when George Lincoln Rockwell and his American Nazi Party were being dismissed as inconsequential by much of the American media, Serling understood the American Nazis and hate groups as a threat.
During World War II, Serling had been a paratrooper and experienced fierce combat in the Pacific, where he lost many of his friends and all sense of war as a romantic adventure. He understood the absolute necessity of the war, but was haunted by his combat experience (for which he was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart) for the rest of his life. “By the time Japan finally sued for peace,” writes Sander, “. . . only 30 percent of the original members of the regiment from Camp Toccia were still alive . . . Then, on the same day, came the telegram informing Serling of the death of his father, of a heart attack, at the age of 55.”
Serling was already contributing to television at the age of 25, but his mature breakthrough came in 1955 when his teleplay, “Patterns,” was aired on Kraft TV Theatre. “Patterns,” which the New York Times described at the time as as “one of the high points in the TV medium’s evolution,” was an original, realistic look at the pressure in the business world and the compromises even decent men have to make. It showed, along with the work of Rose and Chayevsky, that television, at its best, could compete with film and theater for excellence in social drama.
During the golden age of television that followed, Serling would wrote at least four other major teleplays: “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” “The Comedians,” “The Rack,” and “Velvet Alley.” He understood better than most writers television’s capacity for condensing maximum drama and emotion into a limited space and time. His Twilight Zone scripts, at their best, showed a real appreciation not only for the genre of science fiction but also for classic American short story writers such as O. Henry, Ring Lardner, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allen Poe, Ray Bradbury, William Saroyan, and several others. His blending of these influences from radio and literature would prove potent.
In the course of The Twilight Zone’s five-year run, Serling provided original scripts or adaptations for nearly one hundred episodes — an incredible output of generally uniform excellence. His stories were very timely for their day, and serve as reminder today of the mob hysteria, conformism, and Cold War paranoia of the mid-to-late 1950s and early ’60s. (The Twilight Zone is aired on the SciFi Channel for a 24-hour marathon each New Year’s Day and is widely circulated through Netflix and other film-rental outlets). Yet they also celebrated the redemptive power of generosity, individuality, humor, grace and love.
An original teleplay written after The Twilight Zone, “A Storm in Summer,” dealt with the friendship of an African-American boy and a Jewish butcher (played by Peter Ustinov). Serling also wrote a screenplay, “Noon on Doomsday,” about the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, but when it was broadcast on television in April, 1956 (a broadcast preceded by thousands of protests from white supremacist organizations), it was so heavily censored and watered down as to be meaningless, according to another Serling biographer, Amy E. Boyle Johnston. (The word “lynch,” for example, was excised from the script, and the action was relocated to New England.)
Two years later, a second Serling teleplay about Emmett Till, “A Town Has Turned to Dust,” was in turn eviscerated by the producers of CBS’ Playhouse 90. “By the time ‘A Town Has Turned to Dust’ went before the cameras,” Serling complained, “my script had turned to dust” — with Emmett Till rendered into a Mexican boy silently in love with a woman shopkeeper! (Serling’s “Noon on Doomsday” finally got a public reading in its original, whole form in March, 2008 at a conference on Serling’s life and legacy at Ithaca College, where he taught from 1967 until his death in 1975).
The Black characters that Serling created for the screen over the years were never caricatures and were always granted a full humanity. He seems never to have forgotten what Sander calls Binghamton’s “hidebound anti-Semitism,” and showed a very authentic identification with the oppression of African-Americans.
Television’s decision-makers were obviously afraid of controversy, however, and were suspicious of Serling’s pleas for social justice and his critique of society. Even his record six Emmy Awards as a television writer did not win him artistic freedom, and by 1964, he turned to Hollywood in hope of finding more of it. Within a decade, he wrote three powerful screenplays: Seven Days in May (1964), about an attempted coup against the American presidency; The Planet of the Apes (1968), with its implicit message about interspecies respect and xenophobia; and The Man (1972), about the first African American U.S. president. Serling returned briefly to television with Night Gallery, but he was granted no artistic control over the series. On June 28th, 1975, he died of his third heart attack at age 50.
Serling married a non-Jewish woman and raised his two daughters as Unitarians. Nevertheless, Sander tells us, on his deathbed Serling defined himself as a “tough Jew.” His core Jewish moralism and his fierce feeling for justice and compassion persist strongly in his scripts, embodied especially by characters in numerous other Twilight Zone episodes: by the middle-aged gambler (Jack Klugman) who intuits that his son Pip is dying in Vietnam and wants to die in his place; by the noncomformist office worker (Orson Bean) who would rather be broke and out of a job than rich and “successful”; by the young woman whose love for a test pilot astronaut transcends time and space; by the woman who embraces her individuality and outsider status by resisting being recast in a “model body” in her futuristic, conformist society.
These and other Twilight Zones scripts helped introduce young Americans to liberal perspectives on the outstanding moral issues of their time. Along with delivering chills of suspense and spooky surprise, Rod Serling delivered humanistic revelations that helped shape the conscience of a generation.
Gordon Sander’s biography is a fitting tribute to Serling, who spoke truth to the powers of his time with a fierce moralism that was his Jewish patrimony.
Marek Breiger has published over sixty essays, reviews, short stories and poems dealing with Jewish life. This essay is part of a work-in-progress about American Jewish writing titled From the Tenements to the Suburbs.
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.