Rodman Edward Serling (1924 – 1975) was born in Syracuse, New York, and his family soon after moved to Binghamton where he grew up. As a boy he acted out dialogue from magazines and movies. In school he was always the class clown, and it was probably no wonder that his teachers thought he was a lost cause.
Serling did have a cause of his own when World War II began. Being Jewish, he joined the Army and hoped to go to Europe to fight against Hitler. Instead, after paratrooper training (during which he competed as a flyweight boxer) he was sent to the Pacific. He fought on the Philippine island of Leyte, as a member of the 11th Airborne Division before being transferred to the 511th Demolition Squad, nicknamed “The Death Squad” for its high casualty rate. Many around him were killed, and he was wounded, including a serious wound to a kneecap that bothered him the rest of his life. A paratrooper landing near Manila did not go well, and after the landing, the soldiers had to fight through the city against 17,000 Japanese troops who had been told to fight to the death. More than 400 men in Serling’s regiment were killed. Serling was awarded the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, and the Philippine Liberation Medal. His wartime experiences gave a dark cast to his thoughts, and caused him nightmares and flashbacks for the remainder of his life.
After the war Serling attended Antioch College in Ohio and worked at the campus radio station. He met his future wife, Carol, there and converted from Judaism to Unitarianism so she would marry him. While in college he tested experimental parachutes for the military. In one instance, he earned $1,000 for testing a jet ejection seat that had killed the previous three testers.
By 1950 Serling was earning $75 per week writing for a Cincinnati radio station. His breakthrough came in 1952 when he wrote the story Patterns for Kraft Television Theatre. It was a story of a corporate power struggle that was so well received that it was also made into a movie. In 1956 he wrote Requiem for a Heavyweight for the Playhouse 90 TV show.
In 1959 Serling’s signature series, Twilight Zone, premiered on CBS. He hosted the series, and many of the episodes were written by him and featured military life, boxing, and aviation. He wrote a total of 92 episodes in the series. In 1969 he developed the series Night Gallery for NBC. He also wrote the screenplay for the movie Seven Days in May.
Serling was politically liberal and supported Eugene McCarthy when he ran for president. He died at age 50 after a series of heart attacks. As an early writer of television dramas, he had chafed at the format. “How can you put out a meaningful drama when every fifteen minutes proceedings are interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits with toilet paper?”
In 1961 the FCC Chairman Newton Minow called television a “vast wasteland,” with the Twilight Zone being one of the few exceptions.
TOMORROW: William Conrad