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The Master

March 16, 2013


If you’ve read any of my previous posts, it’s obvious how influential TV has been to my creative consciousness. During one high school English class (that took place during what I believe was the Paleolithic era), I took part in a lively discussion about what stimulated the mind more—books or TV. While I understood the argument about books firing the imagination, I defended TV, saying that after watching a Tarzan movie or The Adventures of Robin Hood, I went outside and climbed trees and spent hours pretending to be the Lord of the Jungle or the daring, sharp-shooting bowman from Sherwood Forest. Growing up, Books and TV were both creative grist for my mill of fanciful invention, and no writer offered more creative grist than Rod Serling…

“There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man…” Thus began the opening narration to first season episodes of The Twilight Zone. What can I say about Rod Serling that hasn’t already been said a million times? He was a giant in his field, almost single-handedly, through his writing efforts, legitimized the fledgling medium of television in the 1950s. With his creation of The Twilight Zone, he permanently altered the lexicon of American culture. The words “Twilight Zone” are an instantly recognizable multi-generational reference to the strange, the extra ordinary and the bizarre.

When I was a little boy, I had a more than usual fear of monsters and most anything out of the ordinary. Our old black and white TV set had a dial that, when a button was pressed, rotated clockwise through the channels until the desired station was reached. This allowed one to momentarily view channels as they cycled by one-by-one to get to the selected station. Of course, most of the channels offered up only various versions of hissing snow and static as only ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and a couple of UHF channels were available back then. I still remember watching the split-second snap shots of each channel going by, and if a monster of some sort filled the screen, I felt my heart jump in my chest and unreasoning fear grip my body. If the dial stopped, heaven forbid, and actually landed smack dab on a scene with a monster in it, I was not even capable of reaching for the dial to click it to a safe channel—instead I would bolt out of the room in terror. It was years before I could watch anything of a spooky, monstery or otherworldly nature.

The Twilight Zone was my right of passage from illogical child to reasoning adolescent. I knew I had grown up a bit when I could survive the monsterish twist endings of episodes like The Howling Man (where a guy foolishly releases the original “he-who-shall-not-be-named” from his prison cell), “The Eye of the Beholder” (where Donna Douglas’ bandages are removed to reveal, what must have been at the time, the twist ending of all twist endings) and the classic “Nightmare at 20,000 feet” (where William Shatner sees “someTHING on the wing” of the plane).

The Twilight Zone taught me that ideas and concepts could be even scarier than ugly-faced monsters. “Time Enough at Last” featured Burgess Meredith as a ultra-curmudgeon who, at the end of the episode, is cursed to not only live the rest of his life utterly alone, but also forever unable to do the very thing he so desperately wished for (shudder). “It’s a Good Life” is another classic tale that starred Bill Mummy as a little, mutant kid who can imagine anything into existence. He terrorizes his small town, circle of friends, neighbors and even mom and dad (this story is different than most, because it has no ending and no resolution, instead we are left with the knowledge that these poor people will continue to be at the mercy of a pint-sized tyrant who, if they are not very, very careful, will wind up some kind of grisly object to be instantly transported to “the corn field,” where all of the little boy’s other victims have been hidden away). And “The Odyssey of Flight 33” ends with a passenger plane lost (and I mean really lost), with possibly only one last chance to find a way home. Let me tell you, between this episode and “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” I had no interest in flying for years.

Rod Serling wrote an impressive 94 of the 156 episodes that make up the entire TV series. He won Emmys, Golden Globes, and Hugo awards. Serling’s next TV series that followed in the creepy footsteps of The Twilight Zone was Night Gallery. In this series, however, he was merely a host and a contributor of scripts. He had no creative control of the program and it showed. There were some really brilliant high points, however, one of them being Stephen Spielberg’s first directorial effort in one of the episodes that made up the pilot. “Eyes featured Joan Crawford as a rich, elderly, and heartless woman in need of an eye transplant. In proper Twilight Zone-ian fashion, she gets what she deserves. (Ironic that this marked the end of Crawford’s career—which stretched respectably all the way back to the silent era—and the very beginning of Spielberg’s.)

I remember fondly that Mr. Serling was the narrative voice to The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. These were TV specials that featured the great French Sea Explorer and inventor of the Aqua-Lung, Jacques Cousteau and his intrepid team of divers who voyaged all over the world on board a beautiful ship called Calypso. I always felt that Rod Serling’s famous low voice and intonations made the old Frenchman’s adventures that much more compelling. I swear that he made even the mundane compelling. How compelling, you might ask? I’ll tell you. It was like: “Jacques Cousteau arises from bed, ready for a busy day. First, though, he must descend into the depths of the galley. There, he tackles a hearty breakfast—a breakfast of buttered toast, two strips of crispy bacon and eggs over easy. Eggs that, when broken, disgorge a torrent of golden yolk, that flows over the entire plate, moistening every bit of food in its wake.” And I’m like: Dang, man! I’m on the edge of my seat, and he hasn’t even gotten into the water yet.

I remember seeing him and his wife on a game show in the early 1970s. It was so cool to see him smile and joke with the moderator, like a normal dude. I even remember an anecdote that his wife told about her going up stairs in their home and finding Rod standing on his head, upside down in the room. I thought then, and still do now, that it would have been cool to live with Rod Serling. Not only could you have talked to him about writing, his favorite Twilight Zone episodes (and no fair picking his own) and whether or not you should wear stripes with plaid, but also you would never have known what he was going to do next.

I’ve seen the black and white footage of Rod Serling talking to college students about writing. He treated them as equals and I could tell that he enjoyed talking about his craft. During one sequence, he said that he wrote with a “sense of urgency.” It was like he knew he had a limited amount of time on this earth, and that he had to hurry up and get what he wanted to say down on paper. He was only fifty years old when he died. Yet another hash mark on the side of the scoreboard that says “life ain’t fair.”

From → Blogs

  1. Hi Ernie! Welcome to the blogging world — I hope you enjoy it as much as I do! I have always been a fan of your illustration style, can’t wait to read more of your posts!

  2. Excellent commentary, Ernie. You are and have always been a charmingly loquacious and an elucidator! Rod, the dear man, was a heavy smoker, and I don’t think we all knew then what we know now about smoking. He ended his own life quickly with every cigarette we saw. But his charm and talent did come clearly through the TV. All people our ages who have tuned into him will have last memories and nightmares about what lies in the Twilight Zone!

    • Thank you, Stephanie. Rod Serling smoked multiple packs a day (five or more, they say), and I bet there was a cigarette in his hand when he posed for the photo upon which my drawing is based. As I’ve known people who have smoked well into their “advanced” years, it would have been nice to have him around a little longer. But, as we all know, cancer is an unfair crap shoot where the odds are stacked HEAVILY in the house’s favor.

  3. Susan Weiss permalink

    Ernie, Love your blog. Twilight Zone is still my favorite; I love when they have marathons. I wish you and your wife the best with your latest adventure.XXOO

  4. Thank you, Susan. I enjoy those marathons too and usually make my DVR put in some overtime.

  5. Bev permalink

    “Time Enough at Last” was the episode that made an impact on me. The horror!!! I was just telling Gary about it last week.

    • Thanks Bev. Remember Twilight Zone the Movie? The opening sequence featured Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd on a car trip, comparing notes on old TV shows they watched as kids. When they got to The Twilight Zone, Albert Brooks said that “Time Enough At Last” freaked him out so much, he went out and “bought another pair of glasses…”

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