Biography brings to light the darker zones of Rod Serling's life in television

December 13, 1992|By Laurie Busby | Laurie Busby,Orange County Register

SERLING: THE RISE

AND TWILIGHT OF TELEVISION'S LAST ANGRY MAN. Gordon F. Sander. Dutton.

284 pages. $22. Guzzling coffee and smoking cigarette after cigarette, Rod Serling was a man who rarely could sit still.

His boundless energy and drive created some of the best television of the medium's "brief but fiery" golden age, yet there is much more to Serling than what is found in "The Twilight Zone."

In his fascinating if flawed "Serling: The Rise and Twilight of Television's Last Angry Man," Gordon F. Sander re-creates the hectic pace and creative turmoil of early television, allowing us to feel the intensity of the fire that ignited Serling.

Yet, as Mr. Sander notes, it is that same intense flame that ultimately caused him to burn out.

Serling's earliest influence was radio, and he worked in that medium for some time. But when the action moved to television, he moved with it. According to Mr. Sander, Serling saw himself as a "video Aesop -- using the television set as a prism through which to view America's tormented soul."

Serling wrote several powerful teleplays, including the justly famous "Requiem for a Heavyweight,"and won six Emmys in eight years. Two of these were for his work on "The Twilight Zone" -- a series that some critics saw as a sellout.

To the surprise of many, "The Twilight Zone" was what gave him the artistic freedom he sought, and ultimately brought him immortality.

As television evolved, it started to push away the dramatist who helped create it. To keep the same income, Serling -- long an outspoken and harsh critic of television's commercialism and the influence of advertisers on programming -- be

gan endorsing products. He had become what he had loathed in so many other TV personalities.

"The Twilight Zone" series was canceled in 1964. He continued to work on other projects, such as the 1970-'72 series "Night Gallery," but he no longer had the creative control he required.

Eclipsed by other writers and weary from a decade of overwork and overexposure, he moved into a kind of creative twilight zone. And that was a tragedy for Serling, and a loss for TV fans everywhere.

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