Serling's widow protected 'lost' episodes

May 19, 1994|By John Coffren | John Coffren,Contributing Writer

It's been nearly 35 years since her husband first ushered TV viewers into the Twilight Zone, and tonight Carol Serling will help open the door again to that imaginary dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity.

Two screenplays written by the late Rod Serling, but never aired, will be shown tonight in "Twilight Zone: Rod Serling's Lost Classics," a made-for-television movie produced under the watchful eye of Mrs. Serling.

The movie, which airs at 8 p.m. on Channel 11, is Mrs. Serling's latest effort to keep her husband's brainchild alive. Since his death in 1975, she has published Twilight Zone magazine and a series of "Twilight Zone" books.

Mrs. Serling discovered the two screenplays on which tonight's movie is based several years ago in the garage of her Los Angeles home. Later, she sold them to CBS, the original show's network, and secured a position as a creative consultant on the new movie.

"She made sure that the integrity of Rod's work was maintained," said director Robert Markowitz. "The challenge was to be 100 percent true to the material, exactly as Serling wrote it."

The first tale, "The Theatre," could have come right off the airwaves of the original series, according to Mrs. Serling. Amy Irving and Gary Cole star as a movie-going couple. One night, Ms. Irving goes to the theater alone and sees her own life unreeling on the screen.

The second, "Where the Dead Are," is described by Mrs. Serling as a dark fable starring Academy Award-winner Jack Palance, Patrick Bergin and Jenna Stern. Mr. Bergin plays a surgeon who travels to a fishing village north of Boston in search of a medical mystery and finds scientist Palance, niece Stern and an island inhabited by the walking dead.

The first script, a 10-page treatment by Serling, needed to be fleshed out. Richard Matheson, one of the writers from the original show, was hired. The second story was complete and required only minor changes, all approved by Mrs. Serling.

The new movie marks the first time Mrs. Serling's work will be recognized in an official capacity, although she regularly read her husband's scripts on the original show, which ran from 1959 to 1965, and he considered her his "severest critic," she said.

Rod Serling had entertained the idea of doing a "Twilight Zone" movie and planned to use "Where the Dead Are" as one of the vignettes, Mrs. Serling said. But "Twilight Zone: The Movie" would not be made until 1983, eight years after his death, and without Mrs. Serling's involvement.

Steven Spielberg, John Landis, Joe Dante and George Miller each directed a short film for the movie.

Unfortunately, the revisionist fantasy suffered from the awful reality of a stunt accident that claimed the lives of television veteran Vic Morrow and two child actors, Renee Shinn Chen and Myca Dinh Le.

Despite the accident, filming resumed three months later, and two weeks after its release, "Twilight Zone: The Movie" ranked as the fourth top-grossing film of the week ending July 6, 1983.

The movie sparked enough interest in CBS to launch a new series, with the same title as the original. It ran from September 1985 to July 1987, again without involvement by Mrs. Serling.

She said part of the problem with the new series was "Rod wasn't around to write the stories. Some of the new 'Twilight Zone' stories were pretty good, but they weren't Serling. . . .

They didn't have the social consciousness of the original."

Under a cloak of fantasy, Serling was able to deal with weighty social issues and the darker side of human nature. Consider, for example, an episode titled "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street," in which a sedate street is transformed into a riot zone by one imaginative teen-ager, hidden prejudices and a mob-rule mentality.

A meteor passes overhead, causing a power outage on Maple Street U.S.A. After a teen-ager suggests the real reason behind the blackout is an alien invasion -- and that some aliens may be disguised as next-door neighbors -- the name-calling, finger-wagging and bloodletting begin.

In one of Serling's classic footnotes, he remarks on the prejudice and suspicion that contributed to the downfall of Maple Street: "And the pity of it is that these things cannot be contained to the Twilight Zone."

During her quest to preserve her husband's legacy, Mrs. Serling has found that the "Twilight Zone" format is highly adaptable.

She started Twilight Zone magazine in 1981, which showcased Serlingesque tales, such as Stephen King's "The Jaunt," Robert McCammon's "Nightcrawlers," Joyce Carol Oates' "The Rose Wall" and Harlan Ellison's "Grail." It lasted nine years.

Currently, Mrs. Serling edits a "Twilight Zone" series of short stories published by DAW Books. "Journeys to The Twilight Zone" premiered in January 1993, with a sequel due in stores this fall and a third in the works. The book has been a mid-range seller, according to DAW editor Peter Stampfel.

Serling also adapted a dozen or so of his screenplays for two earlier "Twilight Zone" short-story collections and did a similar book based on "Night Gallery." Serling had been the host of "Night Gallery" after "Twilight Zone" was canceled. He started several novels but never finished them, Mrs. Serling added. He also wrote motion picture screenplays, including an adaptation of Pierre Boulle's novel "Planet of the Apes."

Mrs. Serling is working with other unproduced material written by her husband and hoping to get it broadcast.

"I hope to have at least one or more of this type of thing," she said. "There's enough material to put together at least two more [movies]."

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