Before the sappy “Twilight” movies there was another “Twilight” that shone far brighter and lasted far longer. It was, of course, Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone,” which makes its 20th yearly orbit on the Syfy Channel’s marathon on Dec. 31.
“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man …” Serling would begin the anthology, his mouth taut, his voice staccato and mesmerizing.
Each episode was a small morality play played out in modern times. They were stories that could be taken on several levels – from the simple roundelay of a tale to a shattering subtext with deeper meaning – all in the context of science fiction.
“The Twilight Zone,” which beamed up long before “Star Trek,” “The Outer Limits” or “The X-Files,” became one of the most popular series ever on TV and marked Serling as one of the first creators to bring timeless writing to the television medium.
Serling, who died 39 years ago of complications following heart surgery, earned Emmys for “The Twilight Zone,” as well as dramatic TV plays like “Patterns,” “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” “The Comedians” – which were part of TV’s live, Golden Age.
A veteran of World War II’s Pacific campaign, Serling was a wiry, tough guy who’d once been a Golden Gloves boxer.
But he was a very shy man, said the late Ernest “Buck” Houghton, who produced the first 100 episodes of “The Twilight Zone.”
“He was a very complex man, a very nice man, a very cooperative man who had a social conscience that he tried to put into his stories, and who was even-tempered in a high-temper business,” said Houghton. “He never believed that he was nearly as talented as he was.”
Actor Earl Holliman, who appeared in the very first “Twilight Zone” episode, “Where is Everybody?” said, “He had a great sense of humor. I remember if he disagreed with you he’d smile, and his eyes would twinkle and he’d say, ‘Let me put it this way – you’re wrong.’ ”
Houghton categorized Serling as a perfectionist. “He was never satisfied with what he did. He always wanted it to be better. He was a guy who was driven, I think.”
Serling began writing for radio shortly after the war. He moved into television scripting for many of the top shows of the day including “Studio One,” “The U.S. Steel Hour” and “Playhouse 90.”
Holliman recalled that one time he made a brash suggestion to Serling about what his character ought to do in the script. “He took out his pencil and started jotting the words down and basically used those words.
“It was just amazing. I never got over that. I mean, usually somebody would say, ‘Go screw yourself’ or ‘Stick to your own field. You’re an actor, what do you know about that?’ He was terrific, I thought, with the lack of ego.”