The other day I stumbled on an old “American Masters” documentary about Rod Serling, the TV writer and “Twilight Zone” creator. I’d read a biography of Serling many years ago, and watched his drama “Patterns” on a boxed set of great Golden Age TV programs, but it had been some time since I thought about the man.
Which is saying something, because in high school I was a huge “Twilight Zone” fan. I remember New Orleans’ PBS station ran reruns, and (though I’m mildly embarrassed to admit it) I spent a good deal of a prom night party exchanging plots with a good friend while others indulged in alcohol and making out. (My own date had abandoned me to get late-night beignets at the Cafe du Monde.)
In those days, it was the darkly twisted or more horrific “Twilight Zones” that caught my attention: “Time Enough at Last,” in which Burgess Meredith, the last man on Earth, finally has time to read all the books he wants — he thinks; “The Howling Man,” a terrifying tale about a prisoner in a castle; “It’s a Good Life,” the classic story about a 6-year-old with nasty powers; and “And When the Sky Was Opened,” about three astronauts who suspect they shouldn’t have come back from their mission.
But the documentary reopened my eyes to the other Serling — the humane one, the one who cared about the little guy, the unsung, the alleged failure, the salaryman. This is the Serling who earned lasting fame for “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” his “Playhouse 90” about a washed-up fighter; who served in World War II and had nightmares about his experiences for the rest of his life; and who wrote some of the most affecting “Twilight Zone” episodes — not about monsters and meanness, but about human flaws and human decency.
That side of Serling was revealed in episodes such as “A Passage for Trumpet,” in which Jack Klugman plays a struggling musician; “Nervous Man in a Four-Dollar Room,” with Joe Mantell as a thug pondering his life; and “One for the Angels,” starring Ed Wynn as a good-hearted huckster.
(Ironically, one of the episodes featured in the show — “Nothing in the Dark,” the episode in which Robert Redford plays Death — was actually written by George Clayton Johnson. In fact, Johnson wrote a number of the show’s best — and most humane — episodes.)
Serling didn’t always hit the mark. His compassion could dip into treacle, and he rarely met a stirring speech he didn’t build up into a big, and sometimes overwrought, climax. But at a time when “simple human decency” — to borrow a quote from his friend Paddy Chayefsky — seems to be in short supply, it’s refreshing to watch Serling fight the good fight. If you get a chance, check out this 1959 interview with Mike Wallace:
And, of course, he is the man who wrote “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” which sums up our times better than I’d like.
Serling definitely has my approval.