It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly 40 years since Rod Serling passed away. The intense TV writer/producer/director/star with the smoky voice and those haunting eyes that greeted viewers each week to his creation, The Twilight Zone, passed in June 1975. Though I was just a youth myself when the original show aired from 1959-1964, I vividly recall many episodes that continued to play in syndication for years to come. Like so many others, my perception of Mr. Serling was that he was dark, serious, intimidating, and very mysterious.
But then, I never knew him, until I read a book by someone who did—his daughter, Anne.Her brilliant memoir of her father, “As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling,” pays a great and deserved tribute to one of Hollywood’s most amazing talents. Serling was a man who fought for his craft, for human rights, for freedom of speech, and who never was fully appreciated. Anne was only 20 at the time of her father’s death (at age 50), but decades later, she finally took to putting down on paper what was written in her heart—a true portrait of her father.
“I’d actually started writing another book, because like my dad, I find writing very cathartic,” she said, speaking to ON and BEYOND from her home in NewYork. “I couldn’t finish it, because I was stuck in the grief process. So I worked on this book for seven years. I wanted to set the record straight about who my dad was.”
Anne said that because her father was so connected to The Twilight Zone, “people thought he was a scary and dark person. That couldn’t be further from the truth. He was very warm, very friendly, and lots of people adored him. My dad could make you feel comfortable within minutes.”
Her book tells about Rod Serling’s life from the beginning, his U.S. Army service in the Philippines, meeting his future wife (and Anne’s mother) Carol at Antioch College, the birth of their two daughters, their move to Pacific Palisades in California, and his years as creator and gatekeeper for The Twilight Zone. He wrote or co-wrote 148 of the show’s 156 episodes, an enormous task over just a six-year period. As Anne wrote his story, she came to discover through notes and letters he’d written the tremendous battles he fought and challenges he faced. Through it all, Rod Serling never lost sight of who he was, what he believed, or what he strived to achieve both on camera, and off.
“I found letters he’d written to his parents while at basic training,” she said. “I may have read them years before, but as I began this book, they had a lot more meaning. Learning what these young men went through before being sent off to war—even then, my father was writing constantly. His plan when he got out of the Army was to major in Phy. Ed. But the war left him so traumatized that he changed his major to ‘Language.’”
Anne recalls visiting the MGM sound stage where The Twilight Zone was filmed. She says the first episode she remembers watching on TV with her dad starred a then-unknown actor named William Shatner in the classic Zone episode where he sees a little green man on the wing of an airliner, and eventually breaks down. Shatner was just one of dozens of actors and actresses who got their first breaks by starring for Rod Serling on The Twilight Zone.
“My father launched The Twilight Zone in part because he was tired of censors and bluelines,” she recalled. “The sponsors were always nervous, but I think Dad realized that an alien could say things that a Democrat or Republican could not. Writing the memoir showed me how hard my dad tried to write meaningful scripts that would not be torn apart to the point that his writing was unrecognizable and the meaning completely lost.”
It wasn’t lost on critics. Serling won two Emmys, a Golden Globe and three Hugo Awards for the program. And the family tradition of winning continued this year when Anne won the Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award for Best Memoir for “As I Knew Him.”
“People have been so kind to me about the book, and about my father,” she said. “Many have said the book touched them and helped them. My mother was very pleased and happy with it, and we’ve been all over the country to speak to groups about my father’s work and achievements. I’ve felt very blessed with the reception and reviews I’ve received.”
But to get there meant having to relive those final days with her dad, when he was in a New York hospital fighting for his life after suffering a heart attack, and then another after surgery. Anne recalls that afternoon when her father’s medical team of two doctors and a nurse meet with the family in the waiting room, one doctor finally saying, “We are so sorry. He’s gone.”
“Gone? Gone where?” she writes. “That’s the thing about euphemisms. They never really speak the truth. They leave all sorts of questions and dangling expectations. ‘Gone’ would imply he’ll return, or he’s just momentarily slipped away. Gone would not necessarily mean’ never coming back’.”
“As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling” is moving and beautifully written. Anne said writing it and recalling all the moments with her father helped her as a mother.
“My father had a quick and furious temper. He could storm out of a room, furious, only to return moments later asking, ‘Have you seen my twin brother anywhere?’” she said. “I loved him so very dearly.”
I’ve had the pleasure of Anne’s friendship for some time, and when she was notified about the Nashville award, she said, “I only wish Dad could be here to see it and be part of it.” As I along with so many others have told her, he has been…continuing to inspire Anne and her family who’ve shared Rod Serling. As they knew him.