Rod Serling was recognized for his work in live TV dramas before he dabbled in producing and screenwriting. But did you know how he came up with his anthology TV series The Twilight Zone?
Networks and advertisers significantly censored Serling’s teleplay based on Emmett Till’s murder. Serling rethought his approach to censorship, exploring societal concerns through science fiction and fantasy, creating The Twilight Zone.
Who was Rod Serling?
Rod Serling was born Rodman Edward Serling on December 25, 1924, to a Jewish family in Syracuse, New York. After graduating from Binghamton High School, Serling served in the U.S. Army during World War II to fight the Nazis in Europe. Contrary to his objective, he ended up becoming a paratrooper in the Pacific theater. During the war, Serling hurt his knee and wrist at the Battle of Leyte in the Philippines. He came home with and got awarded the most coveted Purple Heart.
In 1948, Serling moved to New York City and began his career as a freelance radio writer. In 1955, he ventured out into television screenplay writing with the TV business drama Patterns. Patterns gave Serling his first Emmy Award.
Serling’s second Emmy award occurred a year later, with the 1956 production of Requiem for a Heavyweight, starring Jack Palance. in 1959, Serling switched from realism to the sci-fi fantasy genre legendary series The Twilight Zone. Serling was the writer and narrator of this series. The Twilight Zone aired until 1964 and awarded Serling his third Emmy.
Serling spent his later career hosting Rod Serling’s Night Gallery and teaching screenwriting at Ithaca College. Throughout his career, Serling wrote an estimated 252 scripts and earned a total of six Emmys.
On June 28, 1975, Serling died at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York. (Source: Biography)
The Twilight Zone
Emmett Till, a Chicago-born African-American boy, was kidnapped, assaulted, and murdered in Mississippi in August 1955. This happened at the height of the racial division of the country. Jet Magazine published photos of the open-casket funeral, showing the boy’s mutilated body. As this was happening, another story unfolded in court. That November, an all-white jury acquitted the two killers.
The miscarriage of justice fueled the Civil Rights Movement. A 30-year-old rising star in the golden age of dramatic television Rod Serling watched the news. He was convinced of the new medium’s social justice potential.
Inspired by the success of his most recent teleplay, Serling felt obliged to write a teleplay on the prejudice that led to Till’s death. Advertisers and networks fearing backlash from white Southern audiences led Serling to rethink his strategy. His reaction was “The Twilight Zone,” an iconic anthology series that covered subjects like racism, bigotry, nuclear concerns, and war, among others. (Source: Smithsonian)
Cultural Impact of The Twilight Zone
The Twilight Zone does not only reappear in its own right; it also lives on through the cultural imprint it left. It is alive and well in every Treehouse Of Horror episode of The Simpsons, every twist in an M. Night Shyamalan film, and every observant science fiction novel with a moral conscience.
Serling’s stories were aimed at a literate, mature audience, and he used the genre to address complicated moral issues. He paved the way for brilliant science fiction television to follow. Serling’s work convinced television audiences and broadcasters to take science fiction seriously.
The impact of those early Twilight Zone turns was unmistakable for future filmmakers and writers watching at home. Without Rod Serling’s series, M. Night Shyamalan’s works wouldn’t be known for their earth-shattering surprise endings. Serling’s work undoubtedly impacted several contemporary writers and directors of this day. (Source: Den of Geek)