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.”