Authors: Marc Scott Zicree
Fortunately for Serling, his timing couldnt have been better. In 1951, television was much easier to break into than it is today. Today, there are virtually no anthology shows, but in 1951 they were all over the dial. If one show rejected his script, Rod could send it, with no changes whatsoever, to another. During his first year freelancing, he earned just under $5,000, selling scripts to such shows as Hallmark Hall of Fame, Lux Video Theater, Kraft Television Theater, Suspense, and Studio One. It was hard work, but it was a livingand Serling was his own man.
A lot of these early scripts were rough, underdeveloped, hurried; some, admittedly, were still pretty bad stuff. But to be fair, it should be said that if they were bad at least they were bad in the right direction. A quality which could be seen in these scripts, even as it can be seen in Serlings later scripts for The Twilight Zone, was that even the worst of them revealed a primary concern for people and their problems. Sometimes the situations were cliched, the characters two-dimensional, but always there was at least some search for an emotional truth, some attempt to make a statement on the human condition.
Needless to say, this is not what most television concerned itself with in the early fifties (or today, for that matter). For example, take this television guide from the Cincinnati Times-Star of November 12, 1953, reprinted verbatim. These program listings include time and channel, and were listed under the heading DRAMA:
6:30 Supermans secret identity is threatened by a gangsters dog.
7:00 Captain Video advises Rangers to blast at full space speed.
7:30 Tom Conway stars as Inspector Mark Saber.
8:00 Joan complicates Brads hobby of collecting tropical fish.
8:30 Colonel Flack outswindles a tout at the racetrack.
8:30 My Little Margie causes A Slight Misunderstanding worth $35,000.
9:00 Cincinnatian Rod Serlings A Long Time Till Dawn, story of tumultuous conflict in a young poet, is produced.
Given this kind of comparison, its easy to see why young Serling, only twenty-eight in 1953, quickly gained the notice of both the public and a number of television critics.
On Wednesday, January 12, 1955, Kraft Television Theater presented Serlings seventy-second television script. To Rod and Carol, at the time, the script seemed little different from the seventy-one before it and they expected it to receive no greater reaction. Says Carol of that evening, I remember that we had some business to do in upstate New Yorkwe were living in Connecticutand we got a babysitter for our daughter, Jodi, and said, We just moved into Connecticut. No one will call us, nothing will happen. And while we were in upstate New York, the show was on. The name of the show was Patterns.One minute after the show went off the air my phone started to ring, Serling said seven years later. Its been ringing ever since.
Patterns dramatized a struggle for power involving three men: Ramsey, the ruthless president of a major corporation (superbly played by Everett Sloane); Andy Sloane (Ed Begley), the aging vice-president Ramsey wants to pressure into resigning; and Fred Staples (Richard Kiley), the unwitting but basically decent young hotshot brought in to replace Andy. It was simple, direct, and tremendously powerful. The reaction to it was overwhelming.
Nothing in months has excited the television industry as much as the Kraft Television Theaters production of Patterns, an original play by Rod Serling, Jack Gould wrote in the New York Times. The enthusiasm is justified. In writing, acting, and direction, Patterns will stand as one of the high points in the TV mediums evolution… . For sheer power of narrative, forcefulness of characterization and brilliant climax, Mr. Serlings work is a creative triumph that can stand on its own. Goulds reaction was typical. From coast to coast, newspaper critics hailed Serling a brilliant new find.
On February 9, 1955, a little under a month after the original broadcast, Patterns was again performed live, by popular demand. This was unprecedented. On March 17, 1956, Patterns won for Serling the first of what would eventually be six Emmys. And on March 27, 1956, a little over a year after the initial airing, the movie version of Patterns was released. It was directed by Fielder Cook, who had directed the television show, and starred Everett Sloane, Eg Begley, and, in the Kiley role, Van Heflin.
Thanks to Patterns, Serling was now a hot property. In two weeks after its initial broadcast, he received twenty-three firm offers for television writing assignments, three motion picture offers, fourteen requests for interviews from major newspapers and magazines, two offers of lunch from Broadway producers, and two offers to discuss novels with publishers.
Accordingly, Serling took a lot of these people up on their offers: … I was the hungry kid left all alone in the candy store. Man, I just grabbedV That season alone, he had twenty of his plays telecast, earning him eighty thousand dollars. Most of these scripts were ones he had written in college and just afterward in Cincinnati for a local television program called The Storm.
I found I could sell everything I hadand I did, Serling said later. I realize now I was wrong; a lot of them should have stayed in the trunk … I had three bad shows on the air in [one] two week period. Not since the British raided Cologne had so many bombs landed in such a small space in such a short time.
The movie offers were taken up, too. The first script that Serling worked on was 20th Century-Foxs Between Heaven and Hell, which was eventually done by six other writers. Serling: I turned in a script that would conservatively have run for nine hours on the screen. I think it was about 500 pages long. I didnt know what the hell I was doing. They just said, Heres fifteen hundred a week, and so I just wrote and wrote. I lay claim to the fact that there were some wonderful moments in itbut in nine hours of film, my God, there has to be a couple of wonderful moments if a guy just blows his nose!
Serling wrote a handful of screenplays during this period which were never made, including an adaptation of John Christophers science fiction novel No Blade of Grass. Other than Patterns, only one Serling script was produced, a western called Saddle the Wind, of which he later said, I gave better dialogue to the horses than the actors.
This is not to say everything Serling wrote during this period was bad. His screenplay for Patterns, in which he expanded his original script from a running time of fifty-three minutes to eighty-four minutes, was skillful and intense. Then, too, there was The Rack, an hour-long drama on the United States Steel Hour, which was an honest and powerful investigation into the after-effects of mental torture on American POWs in Korea (later made into a film starring Paul Newman, with a script by Stewart Stern). But nothing he wrote during the year or so following Patterns seemed to have either the same dramatic punch or the power to remain long imbedded in the public mind. This point was driven home to Serling when, during a network interview, he was introduced as Rod Serling, the man who wrote Patterns and (a long pause) . . and … well … here he isRod Serling.
The pressure was on. I had something to prove, first to others and then to myself. I had to prove that Patterns wasnt all I had. There had been other things before and there would be other things to follow.
On October 4, 1956, CBS debuted a ninety-minute, weekly series called Playhouse 90. The aim of the show was ambitious: to recruit the best actors, writers and directors and to air shows of a quality never before seen on television. In this aim, they were largely successful. Stars on Playhouse 90 included Paul Muni, Charles Laughton, Melvyn Douglas, Cliff Robertson, Jason Robards, Ethel Barrymore, Shirley Booth, Boris Karloff, Franchot Tone, Geraldine Page and Sterling Hayden. Original presentations included The Miracle Worker, Judgment at Nuremberg, and The Days of Wine and Rosesall later made into films. Three out of every four shows were to be live, with the fourth on film. Budget was set at $100,000 per episode.
The first episode was Forbidden Area, with a script by Serling from a novel by Pat Frank. The cast consisted of Charlton Heston, Vincent Price, and Tab Hunter. If either Serling or the executives behind Playhouse 90expected to have their reputations made by this show, they were quickly disillusioned. The reviews were not glowing, nor should they have been, considering the plot of this Cold War thriller. Air Force nuclear bombers are mysteriously being blown up in flight. One-eyed Major Charlton Heston suspects sabotage. Ultimately, the enemy within is uncovered. Tab Hunter, a cook in the Strategic Air Command kitchen, has been smuggling bombs inside the coffee Thermoses the bomber pilots have been taking with them on their flights! It presented a war drama that ran the gamut of hokum, wrote a less-than-enthusiastic Jack Gould in the New York Times. Mr. Serlings script had everything in it but the proverbial kitchen sink. Clearly, this was not the play to top Patterns.
But as it turned out, the second Playhouse 90 was Requiem for a Heavyweight, the first original ninety-minute show ever written for television, aired October 11, 1956. An enormously touching story, it starred Jack Palance as Harlan Mountain McClintock, a fighter on the rapid and ugly decline, Keenan Wynn as his unscrupulous manager, Ed Wynn as his sympathetic trainer and Kim Hunter as a concerned social worker.
Serlings close friend, producer Dick Berg, was with Rod that evening. I spent the night with him at his house in Connecticut with our respective wives the night that Requiem ran, and I must say he was quite uncertain as to what the reception would be. Those were the live television days and you waited until the New York Times arrived the next morning before you could determine whether or not you had a good show. And while we felt rather warmly toward it, there was no persuading Rod that it worked until Jack Gould of the New York Times told him it worked.
And in fact, our morning New York Times arrived and the review was missing, because Gould simply wanted more time. And when the later edition came with the review, it was the first of thousands all over the countryand, of course, it was the accolade of the decade.
Requiem for a Heavyweight swept the 1956 Emmy Awards, winning for best single show of the year, best teleplay, best direction (Ralph Nelson), best single performance (Jack Palance), and best art direction (Albert Heschong). Serling was also awarded the Sylvania Award, the Television-Radio Writers Annual Award for Writing Achievement, and the George Foster Peabody Award (the first writing award ever given in the seventeen-year history of the Peabodys).
The years that followed were bright for Serling. In 1957, his adaptation of Ernest Lehmans short story, The Comedian, starring Mickey Rooney, won him his third Emmy. The Dark Side of the Earth, about the unsuccessful Hungarian revolt against Russia, won critical acclaim. So, too, did A Town Has Turned to Dust and The Rank and File in 1958 and The Velvet Alley, his partially autobiographical story of a TV writers rise to the top, in 1959. All of these were scripts for Playhouse 90 and each one brought him $10,000. In January of 1958, he signed a contract with MGM to write four screenplays for a total of $250,000. In February, he, Carol, and daughters Jodi and Anne, ages five and two respectively, moved into a sumptuous, two-story house in Pacific Palisades.
Artistically and financially, Serling was a very successful man. So why then, in 1957, did he begin looking for an alternative to Playhouse 90 and motion pictures, an alternative that would eventually become The Twilight Zone?
Perhaps a small part of the answer comes from this seemingly trivial fact: prior to the initial broadcast of a show hed written, it was decided that the Chrysler Building had to be painted out of New York skyline as seen through an office window on the set because the sponsor of the show was the Ford Motor Company.
Or this: on a program called Appointment with Adventure, the words American and lucky were stricken from his script and United States and fortunate put in their place because the sponsor was a tobacco company concerned that the words might remind viewers of rival brands of cigarettes.
Or this: prior to the broadcast of Requiem for a Heavyweight, the line Got a match? was struck because the sponsor was Ronson lighters.
Or, more importantly, this: in 1956, Serling wrote Noon on Doomsday for United States Steel Hour. The plot concerned a violent neurotic who kills an elderly Jew and then is acquitted by residents of the small town in which he lives.
Before the show was broadcast, a reporter asked him if the script was based on the Emmett Till case, in which a black, fourteen-year-old boy was kidnapped and murdered in Mississippi and the murderers were acquitted by an all-white local jury. Serling replied, If the shoe fits … Variety and others reported that Noon on Dooomsday was based on the Till case. Three thousand letters poured into the offices of U.S. Steel threatening a boycott. I asked the agency men at the time how the problem of boycott applied to the United States Steel company, Serling later wrote. Did this mean that from then on that all construction from Tennessee on down would be done with aluminum? Their answer was that the concern of the sponsor was not so much an economic boycott as the resultant strain in public relations.
U.S. Steel demanded changes in the script. The town was moved from an unspecified area to New England. The murdered Jew was changed to an unnamed foreigner. Bottles of Coca-Cola were removed from the set and the word lynch stricken from the script (both having been determined too Southern in their connotation). Characters were made to say This is a strange little town or This is a perverse town, so that no one would identify with it. Finally, they wanted to change the vicious, neurotic killer into just a good decent, American boy momentarily gone wrong. Serling: It was a Pier 6 brawl to stop this alteration of character. When it was finally aired in April of 1956, Noon on Doomsday was so watered down as to be meaningless.
Two years later, Serling made another stab at an Emmett Till kind of story with A Town Has Turned to Dust for Playhouse 90. He fared no better.
By the time A Town Has Turned to Dust went before the cameras, my script had turned to dust, said Serling. Emmett Till became, as Time noted, a romantic Mexican who loved the storekeepers wife, but only with his eyes. My sheriff couldnt commit suicide because one of our sponsors was an insurance firm and they claimed that suicide often leads to complications in settling policy claims. The lynch victim was called Clem-son, but we couldnt use this cause South Carolina had an all-white college by that name. The setting was moved to the Southwest in the 1870s … The phrase Twenty men in hoods became Twenty men in homemade masks. They chopped it up like a roomful of butchers at work on a steer.