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Zone : Legends

Serling the Storyteller and Master Dreamer

October 03, 1999|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When he died of heart failure on a summer Saturday in 1975, Rod Serling was 50--five years shy of the age at which he had planned to retire and begin a life of uninterrupted rest and play. Still, as the most successful storyteller in the then-infant history of television drama, the twist at the end seemed tragically appropriate.

He was a hard-working, heavy-smoking man with a sometimes vitriolic pen and a voice of pure velvet. He turned out scripts with breathtaking speed, selling his dramas as fast as he could write them--or, toward the end, dictate them from a chaise longue next to his Pacific Palisades swimming pool.

Born Rodman Edward Serling on Dec. 25, 1924, the future creator of "The Twilight Zone" was the youngest of two sons of Esther Cooper and Samuel Lawrence Serling, a wholesale meat dealer.

From his early childhood in upstate New York, Serling was a gregarious, outgoing boy who loved being center stage. That he was also a risk-taker was confirmed when, at the age of 17, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Airborne Division paratroopers, where--despite his diminutive stature--he also took up boxing.

He went to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, on the G.I. Bill and took over the campus radio station. In searching for his own style, he adapted Hemingway's in both poetry and broadcast prose. "Everything I wrote," Serling once recalled, "began, 'It was hot.' "

He married Antioch coed Carol Louise Kramer in the summer of 1948 and less than one year later got his first big break when he won $500 and a trip to New York City for his radio script "To Live a Dream."

But it took another two years for Serling's own dreams to come to life. When they did, his success was instantaneous--both professionally and financially.

In the early 1950s, Serling, along with Paddy Chayefsky, was redefining the art of writing drama. According to Serling scholar Marc Scott Zicree, he was viewed as "video's equivalent of Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams."

And so it was an enormous surprise when Serling abandoned writing for the distinguished series "Playhouse 90" to create a weekly TV series of fantasy and sci-fi. The apparent step-down caused TV newsman Mike Wallace to remark to Serling, "So, for the time being and the foreseeable future, you've given up on writing anything important for television, right?"

But tired of his increasing battles with show sponsors and network censors, Serling was ready for something new. When "The Twilight Zone" debuted on Oct. 2, 1959, with "Where Is Everybody?"--a story about an Air Force pilot played by Earl Holliman who finds himself in a town without people--the show's future on CBS was sealed.

And so was Serling's reputation as a master television host. Delivered in his smooth baritone, Serling's opening and closing narrations could be as spine-chilling as his plots.

When Serling died June 28, 1975, leaving his wife and their two daughters, his friend Los Angeles Times columnist Cecil Smith recalled Serling's famous preamble directing viewers to the coordinates of the twilight zone.

"At the middle ground between light and shadow, between man's grasp and his reach, between science and superstition, between the pit of fears and the sunlight of knowledge . . . "

"That's where he thought it was," wrote Smith a few days after Serling's funeral. "I suppose now he knows."

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