This week marks the 50th anniversary of Rod Serling’s "The Twilight Zone." Serling used the sci-fi genre as a tool to tell larger stories of morality, says Larry Kassan, founder of the Rod Serling Video Festival. He has also influenced Hollywood writers and producers, including J.J. Abrams, creator of the television shows "Lost" and "Fringe." Abrams says that as a boy he would sometimes pretend to be sick to stay home from school and watch "The Twilight Zone."
[THEME MUSIC/THE TWILIGHT ZONE/UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Fifty years ago this past Friday, a TV program debuted that became a milestone and template for many that followed. Here, courtesy of YouTube, is its creator pitching to prospective sponsors.
ROD SERLING: How do you do? You gentlemen, of course, know how to push a product. That essentially is your job. My presence here is for much the same purpose, simply to push a product, to acquaint you with an entertainment product which we hope and which we rather expect will make your product-pushing that much easier. What you’re about to see, gentlemen, is a series called The Twilight Zone. We think it’s a rather special kind of series. Essentially, people watch television to get entertained, and the keynote of this series, the thing we're concerned with, the thing we're aiming for, the thing we're working toward is entertainment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We think Rod Serling doth protest too much. He wanted to entertain us, sure. Good science fiction plays out all sorts of possible futures, puts people in impossible situations and flips realities like a deck of cars. But great science fiction does more than that. It doesn't just blow your mind, it opens it. And that’s what Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone did exactly 50 years ago Friday. There was usually a message to the Zone’s madness. Larry Kassan is the founder of the Rod Serling Video Festival and director of special projects at the Rod Serling School of Fine Arts in Serling’s native Binghamton, New York.
LARRY KASSAN: To this day, he holds the record for more Emmy Awards for creative dramatic writing for television than anyone in history. His big breakthrough was Patterns, a wonderful story about corporate greed.
MALE ACTOR: Now, it may be a rotten thing to lick a man’s boots, but it’s a lot worse to be the man whose boots have to be licked.
MALE ACTOR: I’m not a nice human being. What else?
MALE ACTOR: You’re not a human being, period. You’re a freak! You’re an organizational model with no compassion for human weakness.
LARRY KASSAN: He followed that almost the next year with what I think is one of the best television teleplays ever written, Requiem for a Heavyweight, an indictment of the fighting industry.
KEENAN WYNN AS MAISH: What are you talkin’ about, win the match? It’s a setup. One night you win, the next night the other guy wins.
STANLEY ADAMS AS PERELLI: It depends on who plays the heavy.
JACK PALANCE AS McCLINTOCK: Yeah, but I, I never took a dive for anybody.
LARRY KASSAN: The CBS chair, William S. Paley, when that aired, called the control room and said, tonight television was put forward 10 years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He tried a few times to get his teleplay about the murder of Emmett Till produced. Till was the black 14-year-old who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after he allegedly whistled at a white woman.
LARRY KASSAN: Yes, he was terribly affected by the murder of Emmett Till. He did two scripts. They were totally butchered. They had to move it from the South to New England, and then eventually it became a whole different story in a small Mexican border town in, in the West.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was it this incident that drove him into The Twilight Zone?
LARRY KASSAN: Well yes, I believe he was so frustrated with corporate interference. And one of his famous quotes is that he could have Martians say what he couldn't have Republicans or Democrats say.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, give me some examples of what Martians or their equivalents could say that he couldn't say.
LARRY KASSAN: Well, for example, in a classic, The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, he talks about mob violence. The Martians were invading, but they didn't have to lift a finger because the inhabitants of these communities fought themselves.
JACK WESTON AS CHARLIE FARNSWORTH: You know why I shot him. How was I supposed to know he wasn't a monster or something? I was only trying to protect my home. I didn't know it was somebody we knew.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What were the sorts of tricks and techniques Serling reached for to provoke emotion from the viewer?
LARRY KASSAN: Well, there were a lot of images of surrealism – mirrors, broken glass. He always talked about parallel universes. There were always these twists and turns. And one of the more famous ones was Time Enough At Last. There was an explosion, and a henpecked husband had a chance to read all the books he ever wanted, and then at the end his glasses are broken.
[CLIP/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]:
BURGESS MEREDITH AS HENRY BEMIS: [CRYING] It’s not fair. [CRIES] It’s not fair.
ROD SERLING: The small man in the glasses who wanted nothing but time. Henry Bemis, now just a part of a smashed landscape, just a piece of the rubble, just a fragment of what man has deeded to himself, in The Twilight Zone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think his legacy is?
LARRY KASSAN: You know, of all his accolades, his Hugo Awards, the Emmy Awards, his daughter found out recently that our fifth-graders in, in our local city here in Binghamton are learning to be better people by his words.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How?
LARRY KASSAN: We have a curriculum, based on his scripts of The Twilight Zone, where fifth-graders will watch the episodes and read from the scripts and really work with their teachers on these deep social and moral issues.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow. Hey Larry, can you do an imitation?
LARRY KASSAN: Oh, dear, [LAUGHS] Of Rod Serling, huh?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah.
LARRY KASSAN: Okay, I'll try one. You ready?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right.
[TWILIGHT ZONE THEME MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
LARRY KASSAN IMITATING ROD SERLING: You unlock this door with the key to imagination.
ROD SERLING: Beyond it is another dimension, a dimension of sound –
[CRASHING NOISE] - a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You've just crossed over into – The Twilight Zone.
[TWILIGHT ZONE THEME MUSIC TAG]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Larry Kassan is the founder of the Rod Serling Video Festival and the director of special projects at the Rod Serling School of the Arts in Binghamton, New York. They're celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Twilight Zone all this weekend. Another of Serling’s legacies: how he paved the way for some of the famous names of the future. He gave Robert Redford and Charles Bronson their first jobs and influenced countless others. He died on June 28th, 1975, the day after J. J. Abrams’ ninth birthday. As a grown-up, Abrams has had a blazing career as a Hollywood writer, producer and director, most notably of the TV series Lost and Fringe, both with explicit science fiction elements. He also directed the latest Star Trek film, and he says he stands humbly before Serling’s artistry and vision. We caught him on his cell phone. Welcome to the show.
J.J. ABRAMS: Hi.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Talk to me about your relationship with Rod Serling. When did you first encounter him, and how would you summarize his impact on you?
J.J. ABRAMS: I was a kid and growing up in Los Angeles The Twilight Zone was on twice a day on Channel 5, so it was an hour of the greatest TV ever. I literally would stay home from school and pretend I was sick sometimes to watch.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was there a favorite episode, one that sticks in your mind?
J.J. ABRAMS: The one that is my absolute favorite is called Walking Distance: A man in his late 30s, and he’s in a suit, and he’s a miserable guy, a sort of miserable businessman. He’s just unhappy. And his car breaks down.
[CLIP/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]:
ROD SERLING: Martin Sloan, age 36, occupation, vice-president, ad agency, in charge of media. This is not just a Sunday drive for Martin Sloan. Somewhere up the road he’s looking for sanity, and somewhere up the road he'll find something else.
J.J. ABRAMS: And he realizes that his car has broken down very close to where he grew up. He, while his car is being repaired, walks back to this town. He realizes he didn't just walk back to where he grew up, but he walked back to when he grew up, and he’s desperate to talk to himself as a boy. And, in fact, he goes to his home. Of course, he’s older than his parents. And they freak out and they don't believe he’s really who he says he is, and he’s talked to them, and he ends up dropping his wallet as he leaves. And later he finds himself as a young boy carving his name into the carousel in town, and he goes after himself. And the kid falls down, hurts his leg, and the adult falls down, hurts his leg. And there’s this great moment when the man is sitting on this bench, and his father comes back to return the wallet, and he says, I believe you are who you say you are. The license expires in decades from now. And I don't know how it’s true, but you've gotten here. And the father basically says to him, you have to leave. And the man says, I just want to tell myself [LAUGHS], I want to tell him that it all goes away, the childhood, the carousel, and happiness, youth, it goes away, and I just want to tell myself. And the man says –
FRANK OVERTON AS ROBERT SLOAN: You have to leave here.
GIG YOUNG AS MARTIN SLOAN: I see that now, but I don't understand.
FRANK OVERTON AS ROBERT SLOAN: We only get one chance. Maybe there’s only one summer to every customer. That little boy, the one I know, the one who belongs here, this is his summer, just as it was yours once. Don't make him share it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As you look back on your body of work, which do you think seems to follow most closely the pattern, the template set by Rod Serling? I think it might be Fringe.
J.J. ABRAMS: The Twilight Zone is something that is so good, the work that Serling did set the standard, and so I could never and would never presume to try and sort of play in, in that playground. But I do think that Fringe, it exists in a world that certainly appreciates The Twilight Zone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, when you think about what was most original about him or where he made his greatest contribution, do you think it was his moral vision or simply his scriptwriting technique, ‘cause not every episode had a moral.
J.J. ABRAMS: I think that it’s a combination of his awareness of the underdog, his appreciation of those in pain, his empathy for those left behind. He was often the voice of those who didn't really have anyone else speaking for them, and he was able to combine that kind of humanity with an amazing ability to twist a story and be a magician, really, and, and have you look in this hand when, you know, the coin is really over here. And he was just the master of the left and right side of the brain, if you will, you know, the manipulation of structure and story, but the absolute emotion and depth of character. And for me, that’s the thing that I always aspire to and don't ever think I will achieve at the level he did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It strikes me that in The Twilight Zone the material world was a very elastic place, and the only reality was inside one’s own head.
J.J. ABRAMS: He would allow every aspect of every story to be a potential variable. Nothing was off limits. And so, when you watch an episode of The Twilight Zone it really makes you wonder, in every mundane detail, is that what I think it is? He wouldn't just surprise you, he would really challenge the way you think and make you reconsider who is us and who is them and what is beautiful and what is ugly, and what our place is in the universe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: J.J., thank you very much.
J.J. ABRAMS: Oh, it’s an honor. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Writer, producer, director J.J. Abrams.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Michael Bernstein and P.J. Vogt, with more help from James Hawver and Dan Mauzy, and edited – by Brooke. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Zach Marsh.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.