Anne Serling on Rod Serling
The Twilight Zone and menacing the public's conscience.
By David Konow.
When we think of Rod Serling, our image of him is usually from The Twilight Zone. A shot in black and white, wearing a dark suit, smoking a Viceroy. We don’t think of him enjoying The Flintstones with his daughter, or reading stories to his children, and acting them out with a cat puppet on his hand, but Anne Serling clearly knew a much different Rod Serling than the public did.
With her memoir, As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling, Anne has come full circle. Like her father, she’s used writing to come to deal with her demons, and come to terms with her loss. She’s also crafted a portrait of one of our most beloved writers as she knew, and loved, him. In As I Knew Him, Serling is graciously sharing her memories with the world, and she also graciously took the time to share them with Creative Screenwriting.
When did you first start putting As I Knew Him together?
Probably about six years after my father died. I tried to write a book called In His Absence, but I was so much in the throes of grief that I couldn’t write it. I sat down and started work on this book again, in part to work out and navigate my grief. Things have also been said about my father being this dark, tortured soul, a description of somebody that wasn’t remotely familiar to me. I decided it was time to set the record straight about who he was as a dad, and as a person.
There were aspects of my dad that I didn’t really know growing up. I always knew that he was very traumatized by the war. My father had a box of all these letters ; I knew where they were. I had glimpsed at them before, and when I started writing the book, I sat down with them, read through them, and then talked to some of his friends. I was lucky enough to find one of his war buddies—most of them are gone—and it gave me a glimpse of my dad as a young kid. The day after he graduated from high school, he enlisted in the war.
Certainly my memories of my dad have always been there, but these glimpses of my dad when he was in the war, and when he was in college, it certainly enhanced my view of him. My father was going to major in Physical Education when he got out of the war because he liked working with kids, but then he was so traumatized, he switched to language and literature. He said he needed to get it out of his gut, he needed to get it off his chest, he needed to write.
How old you were when you first saw The Twilight Zone?
I was probably about seven or eight. I knew my dad was a writer, but I didn’t know exactly what he was writing until a mean boy on the playground asked if I was something out of The Twilight Zone. When I asked what that meant, my father explained that he wrote for a series that was too old for me. It was some time later that we watched an episode together, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which he didn’t write, but that was of no consolation, because this was not the father I knew walking across the stage, introducing the episode…. It was strange, although we did watch “Night of the Meek” every Christmas as a family.
Do you feel your desire to write ran in the family?
I guess I always felt it was in me. I wrote a lot of poetry when I was younger, and I’d show it to my father. If he liked them, he would tell me and make a big fuss, if he didn’t like them, he’d say they were “interesting”! Writing has always been a passion of mine, and like my dad, I find it cathartic.
Did you have any trepidation of following in your father’s footsteps?
Yeah sure. You’re always running the risk of being compared, and that can be a double-edged sword. Yet the feedback I’ve gotten from this book, people have been very warm and wonderful about it, and I’ve been so humbled and grateful to hear, “Your dad would be so proud of you.” That just means the world to me. I think my father also said that writers aren’t made, they’re born, so I think you have to have this within you, because it is a tough profession.
Did your father have a set routine when he wrote?
He was very disciplined. I remember him getting up very early in the morning, he would go to his office, which was initially downstairs in our house, but then he built one in the backyard. He would work out there diligently, then drive over to The Twilight Zone set at MGM.
The Twilight Zone had so many great moral lessons. Did you ever talk about them with your father when you were growing up?
I would have loved to talk to him about that today. I was very aware of the issues my father was passionate about, like prejudice. It was very clear where my father stood on many political issues.
It was also said that the sci-fi/fantasy genre was the Trojan Horse that snuck in the messages your dad wanted to convey.
My father did an interview with Mike Wallace right before The Twilight Zone came out, and he was apprehensive about revealing too much about the show. He knew he was using it as a vehicle to get these messages out, and slip it under the radar. They never knew what hit them! Another one of my father’s quotes was the writer’s job was to menace the public’s conscience.
Your father has been considered the original show runner, and The Twilight Zone had a great group of writers like Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, George Clayton Johnson and more. How do you think your father would feel about television having such great writing today?
I think my father would have been impressed that television has come around, and that people can write what they want. The Newsroom is a show he really would have liked, same with Mad Men. I also think he’d be pretty horrified by some of the crap that’s out there, like Honey Boo Boo. He would have been horrified!
It’s been said that The Twilight Zone was really geared towards the writer.
Obviously that’s why, in part, the show was so successful. There were such terrific writers on that show, and it was a pretty seamless team.
What are some other projects you feel your father should also be remembered for?
Requiem For a Heavyweight. People are still putting stage plays on of it. It has not disappeared. There’s a Night Gallery he did too, “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar,” that I think is timeless. I think The Twilight Zone episode “Walking Distance” is just as relevant today as it was when it was written.
What are your personal favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone?
“Walking Distance,” “Last Stop Willoughby…” “In Praise of Pip” was one I watched after my dad died, and I noticed he used some of the dialog from a routine he and I did in real life. “Who’s your best buddy?” “Who’s your best friend?” That had a profound effect on me. “Deaths-Head Revisited” was a hell of a strong episode, one that I think is still relevant today. Also “Night of the Meek.”
How do you feel your father would feel about The Twilight Zone still being around after all this time?
I think he would be so surprised. He didn’t think his writing would stand the test of time. He thought it was “momentarily adequate.” In Binghamton, they do a program called The Fifth Dimension, where students study The Twilight Zone, and learn about prejudice, scapegoating and hatred. The kids really get this, and I think my father would have considered this his greatest accolade. So many people have told me what impact my father had on them in one way or another, and it’s so gratifying to hear. My father would have been touched.
Your father will always be best remembered for The Twilight Zone. How do you think he would feel about it being his greatest legacy?
I think he would probably want to be remembered for more than The Twilight Zone, because he wrote a lot more than The Twilight Zone, but I think the fact that he’s been remembered all this time would have blown him away.
Recently it was also announced that JJ Abrams may resurrect your father’s last screenplay, The Stops Along the Way.
That hasn’t been finalized yet, but when my father was writing it, he told me, “I’m writing something I think you’re really going to like.”
So if another Serling script can get made after all this time?
It would be fabulous. All these years later, it’s exciting.
What do you hope the readers will get out of the book?
A lot of the feedback I’ve gotten from readers is they have come to know a man they didn’t know. He was so brilliantly funny for one thing. He was a warm person, a delightful, funny, fun dad. I wanted to portray him as the man and the father he was.
Are you personally surprised that The Twilight Zone has lasted all this time?
I am, but again, because my dad dealt with these social and moral issues that are unfortunately still relevant today, they don’t go away. That’s why, I think, the show has lasted so long.
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