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TV Book Review: Anne Serling’s ‘As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling’
August 30, 2013  | By David Bianculli  | 3 comments
 

Imagine, if you will, watching the collected Twilight Zone episodes, many for the first time, looking for clues – in the stories as well as introductions – about your own father…

That’s what Anne Serling did, as part of her candid and engrossing effort to come to terms with the life, death and legacy of her famous father, Rod Serling. (She found not only insights, but father-daughter in-jokes.) Her resultant book – part personal memoir, part paternal biography – is Citadel Press’ As I Knew Him: My Father, Rod Serling.

Rod Serling, the teleplay author of Patterns, Requiem for a Heavyweight, and an astonishing 92 episodes of the 156 stories on his CBS series The Twilight Zone, died in 1975 at age 50, when daughter Anne was a college student of 20. It’s hard to imagine, in retrospect, that he died so young – and even harder to imagine how young he was – a mere 30 – when NBC’s Kraft Television Theatre live telecast of Patterns turned him into a hot-ticket TV writer literally overnight. All those classic, indelible, fantastic Zone episodes of Serling’s all were written and broadcast before he was 40.

And yet, even about his most major writing achievements, Rod Serling was ambivalent. “We had some real turkeys, some fair ones, and some shows I’m really proud to be a part of. I can walk away from this series unbowed,” daughter Anne quotes her father as saying at age 39, walking away from The Twilight Zone. Yet shortly before he died, Serling was much less generous, and accurate, about his own contributions, as producer as well as writer, to TV and cinema history.

“I’ve pretty much spewed out everything I had to say, none of which has been particularly monumental,” he said, “nothing that will stand the test of time… Good writing, like wine, has to age well, and my stuff is momentarily adequate.”

That assessment, in my estimation, is the second-biggest mistake of Rod Serling’s entire life. The first? As his daughter suggests, selling rights to The Twilight Zone to CBS after the series is cancelled because he saw no increased financial value in hanging onto ownership of it.

Some of these biographical observations are familiar, or at least recognizable, from other sources. As I Knew Him, however, gets behind the scenes, and to the heart of Rod Serling the man, as no previous biography has. This particular author, after all, had the benefit not only of being present in the same household for the last decades of his life, but of access to all his private papers and corresponence.

 Because of that, we are privileged to Serling’s unvarnished, outspoken opinions about then-current events, public figures, TV and even other TV shows.

On the 1968 murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.: In death, we offer the acknowledgment of the man and his dream that we denied him in life. In his grave, we praise him for his decency – but when he walked amongst us, we responded with no decency of our own.”

On the 1968 ascension of Richard Nixon as the Republican candidate for President: “Please forgive this brief – too brief letter. Nixon got nominated last night and that’s depressed me all by itself.”

On his largely unrealized dream of writing stage plays: “…For the guy who has written under the watchful eyes and ham-fisted stewardship of network executives, ad agencies and television censors, writing and watching the production of his own play in a theater is a little like getting a pardon from a chain gang, along with a train ticket to a happier place.”

On why he hated the CBS sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, set in a Nazi POW camp: “…What it does to history is distort, and what it does to a recollection of horror that is an ugly matter of record is absolutely inexcusable. Satire is one thing, because it bleeds, and it comments as it evokes laughter. But a rank diminishment of what was once an era of appalling human suffering, I don’t believe is proper material for comedy.”

Were Serling’s daughter merely to collect his stories and opinions in this fashion, As I Knew Him would be a welcome addition to the thinking person’s TV bookshelf. But there’s another, even more personal point to Anne Serling’s book, which is to recount, and come to terms with, her depression after her father’s untimely death.

In the first half of the book, stories of his professional successes are shuffled with her very personal, sometimes incidental memories. The latter are tiny tales, of putting her small hand in her father’s bigger one, of private nicknames they shared, of family vacations to Disneyland and summers spent enjoying the outdoors and each other. They could be any child’s fond recollections of any parent, which adds to their universality and tenderness.

But once Anne’s father dies, she bares her emotions rather than uncovering her father’s. Even after taking an unfortunately timely college course on “Death and Dying,” she’s hit hard, and admits it with a frankness and punchiness that definitely seems inherited.

“I am becoming agoraphobic,” she writes of the time after her father collapsed from a heart attack and died in the hospital a month later, “but I don’t think this is even a word back then or if so, rarely used.

“I don’t know what is happening to me. I am prescribed Valium. Here’s what it does: Takes the edge off. Here’s what it doesn’t do: Bring my father back.”

In a way, As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling does precisely that, in loving and skillful fashion. A 1972 letter to her, from him, is quoted in the book, one that says something about her, and about her father, and appears to apply equally to them both:

“You’re getting pretty damned grownup… and very lovely,” he wrote to her three years before his death. “Here’s how I peg you, Anne C. Serling: you care for human beings. And I suppose in the final analysis, that’s how you ultimately judge the nature of a person.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
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3 Comments
 
 
Neil
I think it's unfair to say that artists like Serling were cheated by selling their rights to their network after the fact. You can only know that by knowing how much or little they received for those rights, and how much the purchaser eventually made on the transaction. And it's easy to forget that (almost) 50 years ago, consumer-grade audiotape was just getting started. There were no VHS cassettes, DVD's, an Internet or Netflix. No cable TV (except for small Community Antenna TV systems to deliver over-the-air signals to distant or terrain-blocked communities) or satellite systems, no 500-channel universe, no HBO or Showtime. Unless someone at CBS was incredibly prescient, it could've turned out to be sunk money acquiring the rights to middle-of-the-pack programs like Twilight Zone. ("Middle-of-the-pack" ratings-wise, not artistically.) Remember, color was coming in big-time back then, and TZ was filmed in B&W, and who would want to watch a rerun in B&W once they had a color TV.
Sep 4, 2013   |  Reply
 
 
Doug
I truly enjoyed every page of this book. The most heartbreaking recollection: Anne walking out of the hospital after her father's death into a summer afternoon that was continuing to play out like any other. The most oddly humorous: The mental image of Rod Serling standing on the side of the road, cigarette in hand, after persuading the ambulance crew transporting him to the hospital for heart surgery, to pull over for a quick smoke break. Actually, it sounds more like a blackout from NIGHT GALLERY than a TWILIGHT ZONE. Anne Serling's book is a loving, biographical tribute to her dad.
Sep 2, 2013   |  Reply
 
 
Eileen
This book sounds like fascinating reading. Happy to read that it's not a take-down of Rod Serling as seems to be the way of celebrity adult children.

I wonder what he would think of the acclaim, years later, of his genius? I, as so many others, look so forward to our yearly "Twilight Zone" marathons on New Years Day. His writing today is as brilliant and thought provoking as it was back then. I watched these shows as a kid, but they are no less wonderful seeing them as an adult - again & again.

It's a shame how true artists were conned out of what was really due them. It's why there are so many early recording stars (and they WERE stars) living in poverty.

Mr. Serling should only know the generations he has entertained and continues to entertain. So happy his daughter has done him justice.
Aug 31, 2013   |  Reply
 
 
 
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Good news, TVWW readers: David’s new book from Doubleday, The Platinum Age of Television: From I Love Lucy to The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific is available on Amazon for $20.

Doubleday says: “Darwin had his theory of evolution, and David Bianculli has his. Bianculli's theory has to do with the concept of quality television: what it is and, crucially, how it got that way."

"The Platinum Age of Television is an effusive guidebook that plots the path from the 1950s’ Golden Age to today’s era of quality TV. For instance, animation evolved from Rocky and His Friends to South Park; variety shows moved from The Ed Sullivan Show to Saturday Night Live; and family sitcoms grew from I Love Lucy to Modern Family. A high point is the author’s interviews with Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Norman Lear, Bob Newhart, Matt Groening, Larry David, Amy Schumer and many others...Bianculli has written a highly readable history." —The Washington Post