With Father’s Day this Sunday, I’m reminded of an American icon who was also a terrific father. The late Rod Serling, creator and principle writer of the 1959 groundbreaking fantasy-science fiction television series, “The Twilight Zone,” had legions of fans including, naturally, his two young daughters. It also included hordes of wannabe writers of which I’m assuming Steven Spielberg was one. In the 8th grade, I definitely was.
I watched each episode with the same anticipation that five decades later audiences had for “Breaking Bad.” (“Twilight Zone” is on DVD and syndicated in over 30 countries around the world.)
Serling was also “TZ’s” narrator. I was mesmerized by the eerie music and his opening, “You are about to enter another dimension. A dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land of imagination. Next stop, the Twilight Zone!”
Serling seemed intense and almost scary. But thanks to his youngest daughter, Anne’s and her touching and candid memoir, “As I Knew Him,” we discover Serling as almost anything but “TV’s angry young man,” as he was labeled.
Yes, Serling often fought with censors, sponsors and networks to defend the integrity of his works. But through anecdotes, letters, and photographs we discover a extrovert of great humor, playfulness, and love. His tragically early death, at 50 from a heart attack, sent Anne into a depression so deep she suffered panic attacks and agoraphobia.
Anne was barely 20 when her father, a three-pack a day smoker, passed away. Curiously, Serling was 21 when his father died of a heart attack, while he was in the Philippines fighting in WW2. Having enlisted out of high school, he served in a unit that suffered a 50% mortality rate and experienced death so intimately, nightmares would follow him for the rest of his life.
At 5’4″ and 118 pounds, Serling had to convince a commanding officer to let him into the paratroopers. Serling received a Purple Heart and a Medal of Valor for bravery and suffered wounds, especially to his knee, which last forever, along with shrapnel that remained in his body.
The war played a huge part in shaping Serling. Twenty years later he returned to the Philippines where he had experienced such unimaginable carnage. A young Filipino boy greeted him, “What are you looking for American Joe?” Serling responded, “My youth.”
After rehab in the hospital for his wounds, Serling went to college on the GI bill at Antioch in Ohio. (Where he would later teach.) On campus he met his future and only wife, Carolyn (Carol) Louise Kramer.
The two soon wed, he 23, she 19 and married housing consisted of a trailer. Indicative of Serling’s playful nature he once positioned himself on the roof of their trailer, leaning through the skylight to surprise his young wife. Only he got stuck in the opening and had to be extricated by friends.
Serling’s life experiences invariably found their way into his fiction. A boxer in the service, he wrote extensively about prize fighting. “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” starred Jack Palance on stage and Anthony Quinn in the movie. (Serling also penned screenplays for “7 Days in May” and “Planet of the Apes.”)
But in the beginning it was rough. At one point Serling had 40 straight rejections. As he put it, “It tested the soul and confidence of a young writer.” It all changed with “Patterns,” the story of a young executive struggling in a toxic corporate world. Serling would write many more television plays before “Twilight Zone” made him famous. (He won Emmy, Golden Globe and Peabody Awards.)
Anne’s memoir is so vivid you will likely be swept away. Among my favorite passages detail the idyllic summers on Cayuga Lake in upstate New York at the cottage built by Anne’s mother’s grandfather and great-grandfather.
Also quite likely your heart will ache for Anne when her father dies but you will celebrate the courage of her difficult recovery. With the backdrop of the Golden Age of television, the story chronicles a bygone era, an exceptionally loving father and a daughter’s grief.
While writing the book proved cathartic, this Sunday, I’m sure Anne will be thinking extra thoughts of her dad. But hearing from readers that her story has helped others in dealing with their grief has been uplifting for her.
“As I Knew Him” is enchanting and haunting. So much so it might have existed in a wonderful place of imagination known as the “Twilight Zone.” Fortunately for us, it’s available wherever books are sold.