Linda Jay Brandt (copyright
Reprinted by permission of the author. ROD SERLING: On the Way to Fame originally appeared in:
Rod Serling was surely one of the most idealistic, outspoken, and iconoclastic writers of television's Golden Age. His highly developed social conscience, his strong opinions against bigotry and prejudice, his antipathy toward network censorship, were eloquently expressed in the more than 200 teleplays he wrote and in the many interviews he gave to national newspapers and magazines.
What was Rod Serling like before he made "the big time"? Before the tremendous hit shows "Patterns," which was broadcast on the Kraft Television Theatre in 1955, and "Requiem for a Heavyweight," aired on Playhouse 90 in 1956? Before the staccato delivery of his unmistakable voice became imitated far and wide?
My parents and I met Rod and his wife Carol in 1950, when they had just graduated from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Rod had been hired by WLW Radio-TV - The Nation's Station, as it was called - in Cincinnati to join a small group of writers in the Continuity Department. Others on the staff included my late father, Verne Jay, and Earl Hamner, who eventually wrote the popular television series "The Waltons."
I remember vividly that what most impressed me about Rod was his now-legendary intensity. Always smoking cigarettes, he would be writing dialogue furiously on a yellow legal pad, even when we all went to dinner at a local restaurant. Rod had a ferocious desire to break into network television. In fact, he did sell half a dozen radio and television scripts to various New York and Hollywood shows during his first year as a WLW staff writer - thanks to the efforts of a reputable New York talent agent, Blanche Gaines, who represented both Rod and my father.
Dad was more experienced at writing TV scripts than Rod in 1950, and Rod picked up many pointers about the craft of writing for what we then called "the magic" (television) from Dad. Rod and Dad co-authored a murder mystery, "A Walk in the Night," that was aired on the Philip Morris Playhouse in 1954; it was the only time Rod had a co-author in the credits.
Rod respected my Dad's ability as a writer enough to send him rough drafts of both "Patterns" and "Requiem for a Heavyweight" to critique. Of Dad's comments, Rod said: "I re-read your letter several times. It was, quite frankly, one of the few sensible, analytical things I got after 'Patterns' and warranted study."
It was fascinating to follow Rod's reactions to dealing with the dilemmas of becoming famous. He wrote to my father, "Once close to the top, you attract every critical dart that's thrown. I'm not constitutionally equipped for a lot of criticism delivered often and in profusion, but I'm trying to learn how."
At another point, Rod wrote in a letter: "The longer I stay in this business, the more I realize how rife with disappointments and frustrations it is." In 1958, Rod ran into a storm of censorship about his play, "A Town Has Turned to Dust," which ran on Playhouse 90. The topic was racial prejudice, and Rod commented to my Dad in a letter: "Town got wonderful notices in New York and rather mixed around the country, but one thing it did create was talk! It was rough in spots, some of the problems had to be flanked rather than hit at head on, and some of the issues had to be cloaked, but I think it made its point."
The censoring led Rod to comment to a newspaper reporter, however, "By the time the censors had gotten to it, my script had turned to dust. . . We're developing a new citizenry, one that will be very selective about cereals and automobiles, but won't be able to think."
Rod Serling influenced me greatly. Because of him, I attended Antioch College for a while. He wrote me many letters while I was in college, sending me the names of thought-provoking books to read, and encouraging me to hone my writing skills. I received a poignant letter from Rod thanking me for my concern, a few weeks before he died.
It was an honor to have known Rod Serling, particularly at the beginning of his unparalleled career.
Linda Jay Brandt is an independent writer/editor who has worked on projects ranging from multimedia CD-ROMs to magazine articles to books. Her e-mail address is LindaJay@aol.com.
Copyright 2000 by Linda Jay Brandt