serling

8/14/2013 Anne Serling writes about legendary father and finally finds peace

Anne Serling, again, was listening to someone gush over her father.

“I hear it all the time—the impact my father had on people,” she said. “But no one would be more surprised than he.”

Maybe because Rod Serling, whom Anne Serling so lovingly depicts in her new book As I Knew Him: My Dad Rod Serling, humbly considered his writing “momentarily adequate” at best, she noted, and not able “to stand the test of time.”

But Anne pointed out that her father, among other landmark achievements, wrote 92 of his historic Twilight Zone series’ 156 episodes.

“His writing dealt with the human condition, and social and moral issues that are still relevant today,” she said. “I think that’s why they’ve endured.”

Although she was just a child in the Twilight Zone’s heyday (in her book she recalls her dad bringing home Willy, the frightful ventriloquist dummy form the famous “The Dummy” starring Cliff Robertson, to amuse her), like everyone else, she has her favorites.

“I was watching ‘Walking Distance’ some time ago,” she said, speaking of the celebrated episode where an advertising executive returns to his hometown to find it hasn’t changed—at all—since he was a boy.

“That’s one of the episodes that’s still relevant today: It gives you that punch, and maybe deals with a theme that our our age is in tune with: of going back in time and back to your hometown.
Same with ‘A Stop At Willoughby’ [likewise about a stressed-out New York media buyer who via the Twilight Zone, finds refuge in small-town New York, 1888].”

She also cited “In Praise Of Pip,” in which Jack Klugman famously played a bookie who learns of his soldier son’s serious wounds in Vietnam, and is filled with remorse for not having spent more time with him as a child. Not at all that her dad didn’t spend time with her; rather, a bit of “Pip”’s dialog was taken from an affectionate father-daughter routine.

But Serling surmises that the fact that The Twilight Zone was in black-and-white helped.

“I heard a quote last night, something about how black-and-white leaves an impression on you that color takes away,” she said. “I’m paraphrasing, but black-and-white gives you back that raw emotion.”

Much of that emotion, of course, came from Rod Serling. His Twilight Zone intros and recaps, delivered in his signature gritted-teeth intensity, were full of foreboding, though he still somehow came off as comforting, too.

“Any trepidation my friends had in meeting him that was connected to The Twilight Zone immediately dissolved within just a few minutes,” Serling related, echoing her warm descriptions of him in As I Knew Him. “He was so down-to-earth and welcoming and fun—and brilliantly funny. My friends adored him.”

Still, Serling, who was 20 when her father died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1974 at age 50, had heard him described as quite the opposite.

“I felt it was time to set the record straight,” she said. “He wasn’t a dark, tortured soul.”

But he was deeply concerned with the world around him, and often used The Twilight Zone to express his hatred of prejudice, injustice and war. Besides revisiting those classic episodes, Serling researched his letters and speeches in fleshing out the public and private man that she as a child knew most closely as a loving father—not as a man who suffered for his work.

“That was one of the toughest things,” she said. “For instance, I didn’t know how my dad had to battle the censors—I wasn’t cognizant then. And one of the most difficult things for him was writing letters to and receiving them from his parents during the war: My own son was 18 when I was writing the chapters that includes them, and I was reading his letters from training camp and it drove home how young these guys are that we send to war, and the letters broke my heart. My dad enlisted in the Army the day after he graduated high school, and his scars never healed. He was going to major in physical education, but was so traumatized he pursued writing to get it all off his chest.”

Anne Serling seems to have come to her own career as a writer out of personal pain.

“My dad always said to me, ‘If only you knew your grandfather’—and I never dreamed I’d say the same thing to my children,” she said. “But I guess you do arrive at some peace [even though] every day I miss my dad. I started another book eight years after he died, but I wasn’t even beginning to work through my grief–even after almost a decade. I had to set it aside and finally write this one, which I started six or seven years ago.”

Unable to “be that open with my grief” in an early draft, she “opened up more because it was so essential” after being encouraged by her editor.

“It ended up not as difficult as I thought it would be,” she said, adding, “a lot of people really connected with me and their own grief—which was humbling and gratifying.”

As for her father’s continuing impact, what with regular Twilight Zone Marathons over 50 years after the shows first aired, she reiterated: “His writing dealt with the human condition, and that doesn’t change. There are elementary school classrooms that study The Twilight Zone to learn about prejudice and scapegoating, and it’s really fascinating how kids get these messages from the show. I believe that would have been my dad’s greatest accolade.”

She cited the classic “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” episode from 1960, about a small town’s aliens-induced paranoia: “The teacher showed it and asked the class who the real monster was, and the entire class stood up! Who would have thought that after all these decades kids would really get this.”

The Twilight Zone, Anne Serling concluded, was “an extraordinary program with a gifted teacher.”

That teacher, of course, was her father, Rod Serling.

8/9/2013 Anne Serling’s loving book tribute to her dad Rod Serling

Writing As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling (Citadel Press) was clearly a cathartic experience for Anne Serling, who was 20 when her father died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1974 at age 50.

Yet her beautifully written book somehow becomes cathartic, too, for the reader. True, Rod Serling was her father, this kindly but intense gentleman of stern yet comforting voice and ever-present cigarette. As he described himself, he looked tall, dark, and close to omniscient on screen, issuing “jeopardy-laden warnings through gritted teeth.” But in person he was five-feet-five, had a broken nose, and looked altogether “about as foreboding as a bank teller on a lunch break.”

Such self-deprecation extended to Serling’s self-criticism. Of an early attempt at writing a western, he said, “I gave better dialogue to the horses than the actors.” But with The Twilight Zone, short as he may have been in height, Rod Serling, with “that wide, captivating smile and those dark eyes that I know so well,” in his daughter’s warm description, became a towering cultural figure, indeed, even a father figure as he guided the new baby boom generation through the twilight terrors he conceived.

Most of us, of course, know him mainly through The Twilight Zone. But Anne Serling, who required years of therapy to deal with his loss, shows just what a special man he was beyond it, both as innovative talent and devout humanitarian. And while she was forced to withstand the pain of his absence, his life, as she relates, was likewise full of doubt, but above all else, the internal stress brought on by empathy, conscience and commitment.

And censorship. Serling recounts her father’s various struggles with network higher-ups, like when he couldn’t show a scene with New York’s Chrysler building due to Ford sponsorship. Worse, he had to change a story inspired by the infamous 1955 murder in Mississippi of the young African-American Emmett Till to a northern setting—and an elderly Jew character.

His script for the TV movie Carol For Another Christmas—based on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol—brought forth huge protests that he was furthering the Communist conspiracy, and promoting the United Nations as a means of establishing a single world government superseding that of the U.S. As he would tell an audience in the Library of Congress auditorium, “From experience, I can tell you that drama, at least in television, must walk tiptoe and in agony lest it offend some cereal buyer from a given state below the Mason-Dixon.”

Inevitably, Rod Serling became TV’s Angry Young Man—and with reason: Because of sponsors’ fears of upsetting southern customers, they chopped up his script, he wrote, “like a roomful of butchers at work on a steer.” Eventually he found that “a Martian can say things that a Republican or a Democrat can’t,” that is, via The Twilight Zone.

For The Twilight Zone gave him license to intone, at the end of the classic “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” episode from 1960, how “prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own—for the children and the children yet unborn.”

His own nightmares (his daughter would hear him awaken screaming in the night) from his service in World War II also surfaced throughout the series, in episodes like “A Quality Of Mercy,” which takes place in the Philippines, where he served, and “The Purple Testament,” in which a lieutenant, again in the Philippines, sees a strange light showing on the faces of soldiers who are about to die.

Not surprisingly, death itself—along with justice and hope–are central themes in Anne Serling’s account.

A student at Antioch College who later taught writing there, Rod Serling absorbed its first president Horace Mann’s words, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity,” inserting them into the script of The Twilight Zone’s “The Changing of the Guard” episode about an old professor wrongly convinced that his life has no meaning left.

In a letter to The Los Angeles Times in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, he wrote: “We must look beyond riots in the streets to the essential righteousness of what he asked of us. To do less would make his dying as senseless as our own living would be inconsequential.”

Prophetically pointed as well as extraordinarily eloquent, he said, in a 1970 commencement address at the University of Southern California, that if we don’t respond to the screams of those suffering from poverty, hunger, racial tension and pollution, “we may well wind up sitting amidst our own rubble, looking for the truck that hit us—or the bomb that pulverized us. Get the license number of whatever it was that destroyed the dream. And I think we will find that the vehicle was registered in our own name.”

Like his daughter, Rod Serling was forever haunted by the death of his father, at 52, from a heart attack, before he could return home from the war. The letters to and from his father—and to and from his daughter—are deeply moving; there’s also a tender introductory letter from him to a Korean foster child (“We are tremendously interested in your welfare, and to that end we’ll do all we can on your behalf”)—one of two he supported (the other being Filipino).

These letters and speeches fully flesh out this most remarkable man, still so much a part of our lives “35 years after my father’s death, four decades after The Twilight Zone went off the air,” writes Anne Serling, adding, “its parables are still relevant today”—even though he felt, according to her quote, “I’ve pretty much spewed out everything I had to say, none of which has been particularly monumental, nothing that will stand the test of time.”

Tell that today to the legions of fans, old and new, who tune in to those holiday Twilight Zone marathons that Syfy sure enough butchers as if it were a steer. Those legions of fans who discover, in his daughter’s loving reminiscences, this slight giant who is everything anyone could want in a father, a storyteller who in only 25 years of professional writing, wrote the definitive book on decency, courage, integrity, brilliance and pioneering creativity.

10/17/2011 Classic ‘Twilight Zone’ action figures get William Shatner’s approval

Keeping time with the release of William Shatner’s latest album Seeking Major Tom and book Shatner Rules: Your Guide To Understanding The Shatnerverse And The World At Large, pop culture toy/collectibles supplier Entertainment Earth introduced an exclusive, “officially approved by William Shatner” addition to its Bif Bang Pow! Line of Twilight Zone merchandise at last weekend’s New York Comic Con show at the Javits Center.

The novel Bob Wilson/Don Carter Deluxe Action Figure is a fully articulated eight-inch figure of Shatner (featuring a Shatner-sanctioned all-new head sculpt), along with clothing and accessories to recreate Shatner’s image from two legendary Twilight Zone episodes: “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet” (which originally aired in October, 1963) and “Nick Of Time” (November, 1960).

In “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet,” Shatner famously played former mental patient Bob Wilson, who is terrified by his vision of a hairy gremlin on the wing of the airplane he and his wife are passengers on. In “Nick Of Time” he was Don Carter, a man obsessed with a “Mystic Seer” fortune telling machine on the table of a café he and his wife visit when their car breaks down.

“It’s very well done,” says Shatner of the figure. “The reality is that these three young guys who run Entertainment Earth came up with it, and I thought it was cute and fun and went with them.”
The future Star Trek hero, who says he’s signed a couple of the figures, is flabbergasted by the continuing fascination with The Twilight Zone–and his two big episodes in particular.

“The fact that a half-hour show has remained in the public consciousness–and that these two episodes are among the most popular–why me? I don’t know!” says Shatner. “I stand with my mouth agape!”
He recalls the shows’ production.

“My goodness! It’s a half-hour show,” he notes. “You fly in and do it in three or four days and fly out. I think I was living on the East Coast then and had worked with those [Twilight Zone] guys in live television, and they liked me and I liked them and just did them. I figured they’d be broadcast once or twice and ‘goodbye!'”

Acknowledging that “Nightmare At 20,000” remains so memorably terrifying, Shatner still wonders why “a furry little monster on a wing doesn’t bring gales of laughter and derision!” When he himself gets on a plane, he’s more concerned that “the thing flies today and doesn’t crash into a swamp, than this furry little guy!”

Incidentally, Entertainment Earth was at Toy Fair earlier this year, when it introduced a companion piece bobble head set of Bob Wilson and Gremlin that were designed to be used as bookends. The company also brought out a full-sized, functioning replica of the Mystic Seer counter-top amusement piece, complete with napkin holder, menu holder, and working coin mechanism that dispenses “fortunes”–just like in the show.

A miniature replica of the Mystic Seer is packaged as an accessory in the Wilson/Carter figure, along with Carter’s watch, Wilson’s handgun and newspaper, and both characters’ clothing. A small Mystic Seer is also available separately in black-and-white and color non-functioning versions.

2/24/2011 New “Twilight Zone” figures unveiled at Toy Fair

Fans of The Twilight Zone will be thrilled to learn that cult audience-targeted action figure, toys and collectibles supplier Bif Bang Pow! (BBP) has plenty of new Twilight Zone figures and merchandise on the way.

The North Hollywood-based company, which has been licensing Twilight Zone bobble heads the last couple years has a new Willie And Jerry bobble head, from the famous 1962 ventriloquism episode “The Dummy” starring Cliff Robertson, and a new companion piece bobble head set of Bob Wilson and Gremlin, from the equally unforgettable 1963 “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet!” installment starring William Shatner, that are designed to be used as bookends.

Forthcoming on the Twilight Zone action figure side are two-figure sets featuring Doctor Bernardi (“Eye of the Beholder,” 1960) and Henry Bemis (“Time Enough at Last,” 1959) and the Venusian (“Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?,” 1961) and Invader (“The Invaders,” 1961).

More than 20 Twilight Zone figures and bobble heads are now available from BBP, which has expanded the line with license plate frames, lunch boxes, journals, magnets and coasters.
“We have a big master license, excepting apparel,” says BBP co-owner/executive VP Jason Labowitz, who displayed all the Twilight Zone merchandise, along with other popular licensed product from properties including The Big Lebowski and Dexter, at last week’s Toy Fair.

Most of the Twilight Zone collectibles are easily affordable. But two forthcoming pieces are understandably high-priced.

From the 1960 episode “Nick Of Time” (also starring Shatner) comes a full-sized, functioning replica of the “Mystic Seer” fortune-telling counter-top amusement piece, complete with napkin holder, menu holder, and working coin mechanism that dispenses “fortunes”–just like in the show. Available in July, the 13 1/2 x 7 1/2 x 6-in. unit is priced at $250 and unlike most Twilight Zone figures, is in full color–red box with a grey “seer” devil head.

“It’s a working replica that people might set out on display,” explains Labowitz. “The series was in black-and-white, and there are no color-reference shots available, so none of the merchandise has ever been seen before in color. And black-and-white is what fans remember: We’ve attempted some figures in color in limited edition runs to gauge the response, but people like black-and-white versions more than color.”

The Mystic Seer, which is already available in small $13 black-and-white and $15 color non-functioning versions, was a hit at Toy Fair, says Labowitz, who also showed an 18-inch black-and-white Talky Tina doll replica, from the 1963 Twilight Zone episode “Living Doll” (starring Telly Savalas). Also available in July, the $140 piece features vinyl head and limbs, soft fabric body and clothing, rooted hair, eyelids that open and close and a talking mechanism. The doll also comes in a replica box, and like its $18 Talky Tina talking bobble head counterpart, it speaks five phrases.

Labowitz notes, though, that the doll is black-and-white. He explains: “I wasn’t going to make a color doll that might end up in a child’s room, and have it say, ‘My name is Talky Tina, and I’m going to kill you!'”

Labowitz helps his Twilight Zone “superfan” BBP partner design the product after a “selection process” in which characters are culled from their favorite episodes. But not every character translates well to a figure, Labowitz says.

“One that doesn’t is a manikin, because that’s just a doll–and nothing special,” he says. “So we look for unique faces: aliens like the three-eyed Venusian or robots, or someone with a unique outfit.”

The Mystic Seer and Invader figures are the most popular, says Labowitz.

“Everybody has their favorite episodes,” he notes. “We don’t expect anyone to get the whole collection, just one that really resonates.”

My admittedly simplistic take on the ‘Dexter’ finale

Everything I read over the last few weeks as Dexter neared its end—tweets, blogs, professional TV reviewers on news sites—was pretty much negative about the entire final season, if not the last two or three or four.

But not me.

I’ve been hooked on the entire run, fully suspending disbelief since first stumbling on it well into the first season, when I channel-surfed into the one with a scene of Debra and her boyfriend–who soon proved to be the Icetruck Killer and Dexter’s brother—together with Dex and Rita, and was so blown away by Jennifer Carpenter’s acting that I finally paid attention to Howard Kaylan—who tried to sell me on the show a couple months earlier at at a Turtles show.

I’d been fine with these last few seasons, and all of this one (loved Charlotte Rampling and the return of Yvonne Strahovski)—once I caught up after missing the month of August due to the Time Warner Cable/CBS blackout. I’ll admit to feeling kinda stupid reading the kind of in-depth, scholarly analysis that I never understood back in high school and ever after, and I forgot a lot of stuff that happened in the eight years of Dexter, but I never felt a wrong move—within the context of the show’s fanciful if not ridiculous concept.

Until the last episode, that is. With the last two seasons focusing on his emotional growth, Dexter somehow found true love—with another killer, true, but one who likewise managed to defeat her own demons. This, perhaps, was the problem for the show’s creators and detractors: How to reconcile a serial killer, albeit an ethical one, with living happily ever after?

Except, why not? The whole thing with Dexter, thanks to the wonderful characters of Dex and Deb—and especially the incredible acting by Carpenter and Michael C. Hall—was that you cared about both of them, very much so, and in Dexter’s case, you were allowed to because of The Code: As far as I remember, he never deliberately killed anyone who didn’t have it coming—even if he conveniently got saved by others who finished off the two big threats to his secret, Doakes and LaGuerta, thereby continuing to allow us ethically to stay loyal to him.

This isn’t to discount the dilemmas posed by those two killings—and Dexter’s framing of Doakes and readiness to do in LaGuerta. And turning Deb into a killer was problematic, to say the least, but not out of the context of her fucked-up character, particularly in its relation to her fucked-up brother.

That said, Dexter’s ending did a disservice to that relationship under the guise of honoring it, especially as Deb had absolved him of all responsibility and blame, essentially releasing him to in fact go off with Hannah and live happily ever after. She was right in doing so, and he was wrong in not accepting it—let alone not accepting himself as the good person she rightly believed her protective big brother to be, not to mention the finally complete, healthy and adjusted person that the whole arc of the last two seasons had built up to and climaxed with in Dexter’s penultimate dispatching of Harry and embracing of Hannah and fatherhood.

What appears to have happened is that the producers, writers, and maybe even the cast second-guessed itself somewhere along the line, maybe fearful of potential criticism that letting Dexter off the hook in the end would be morally wrong and too fairy tale. As an aside, I’ll admit that the first time I met John Lithgow, long before Dexter, I practically dropped to my knees in confessing how much I loved him in Harry And The Hendersons, to which he looked down at me and with a Trinity Killer smile replied, “Oh, you’re just an old softy.”

Yes, Trinity, I’m an old softy. But I bet I’m not alone in feeling cheated of the happy ending that Dexter deserved, and by his own irresponsibly selfish self-sacrifice at the cost of his son’s growing up without a father, at the very least.

If none of Dexter could be believed, the quick turnaround, in one episode, to Dexter’s emotional death after finding life and love after a lifetime of suffering, could not be believed even more.

Except I always believed Dexter. Just as years earlier, I believed in another TV hero, Thomas Magnum. Sadly, Dexter now follows Magnum, P.I. with an ending that goes against the nature of the main character: In Magnum’s case, he rejoined the Navy, after spending his own eight years as a free-spirited, anti-authoritarian, non-conforming man of action, whose actions, like Dexter’s, were taken in the spirit of helping those in trouble.