Author Nicholas Parisi chronicles ‘Twilight Zone’ creator Rod Serling’s amazing life
Rod Serling, who died in 1975 at 50, was arguably the most influential writer in television history, and write he did: Hundreds of radio plays and teleplays, then of course “The Twilight Zone” (CBS, 1959-64). This vast trove of work is the subject of “Rod Serling: His Life, Work and Imagination,” by author Nicholas Parisi and published in October. Parisi, 48, became a Serling aficionado in the early ’80s, and now — as a board member of the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation — is one of his greatest champions. I spoke recently with Parisi. An edited version of our chat:
Q: Your book eschews the personal life but exhaustively covers the professional.
A: It’s incredible — over 250 scripts produced for television or film, not counting the radio. There were also a couple dozen completed scripts for feature films that weren’t produced, and on top of that dozens and dozens of unfinished scripts, ideas and outlines. It’s unbelievable that any one person could have created this much in such a short period of time.
Q: What was his work style?
A: From 1955 on, he dictated because he felt he could speak his thoughts faster than he could type them.
Q: You do explore pivotal events that shaped his life — most obviously his horrific combat experience in the Philippines during World War II. Was his work a way of coping with his PTSD?
A: I don’t think there’s any question that he did . He suffered from the most common symptoms for the rest of his life — flashbacks, insomnia — and he admitted that writing was a form of therapy, like so many combat veterans he saw the worst of it and so when it came to other wars, he believed war should be the last resort, and he was sensitive to the plight of the soldier.”
Q: Did Serling ultimately come down on the side of pessimism or optimism?
A: He was absolutely an optimist and he believed for most of his life that we could be better, and he pointed out, I think, that the lesser side of our nature is a way to point us to the better side of our nature … . as he got older he became like that George Carlin line, inside every cynic is a disappointed idealist, and at the end of his life, he was a disappointed optimist.
Q: Serling seems more relevant than ever to this moment in American life — his themes of how violence begets violence, how hatred begets hate. How would he feel right now?
A: I think he would be in a very dark place right now, in terms of depression.
Q: He was long stuck with the sobriquet “angry young man.” Was he?
A: You have to approach that in terms of his battles with sponsors because he was intent on addressing social issues in television and on making television more than it was. He really wanted to make television better and turn it into an actual art form, and he succeeded, but when they stood in his way, yes, he came across as an angry young man.”
Q: As you write, “The Twilight Zone” was effectively a sidestep around advertisers because he could mask social themes as science fiction. Did he avoid advertising interference and network meddling?
A: He was able to accomplish what he set out to do, but he always loved science fiction and fantasy and had always wanted to do a show . But once he became the most prestigious writer in television he said, maybe I’ll do that series I’ve always wanted to do and I can get away with a lot of things that I couldn’t in straight drama by placing them in a science-fiction context. I don’t think the network was completely oblivious to what he was doing, but that did blunt it.”
Q: If there’s one Serling program that encapsulates his philosophy, vision and pure talent, which would that be?
A: “Walking Distance” . It encapsulates his nostalgia for Binghamton, to go back to his childhood to relive a more innocent time and recapture that. That just drips with Rod Serling. beyond that, his favorite was “Requiem for a Heavyweight.” He put more of himself into that than anything else, and if you want to see his sentiments about the human condition — about dignity and pride — that’s the thing to watch.
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