Rod Serling biography by Joel Engel

One of the things I was able to do in the Adirondacks a couple months ago was to read the bulk of the book Rod Serling: The Dreams and Nightmares of Life in the Twilight Zone – a biography by Joel Engel. I wanted to finish it because I had borrowed the book from my father-in-law and I wanted to return it; that was my internal message, not his external one.

In the Methodology and Sources section of the book, author Joel Engel expressed surprise that in 1985, a full decade after the death of the celebrated television writer Rod Serling, there had not yet been a Serling biography. So Engel made inquiries and ended up writing a book about a man whose fans adored him, but who, despite his considerable success, was riddled with self-doubt. As Engel notes in the Prologue re Serling in 1967: “Submitted for your examination: a man who’s dying inside. Not so many years ago, he rode the crest of a golden wave he thought would never end…But that was before giving birth to the Creation…Each day, he hears fewer whispers of his greatness, and those still heard cannot be believed from inside the private hell to which the Creation has doomed him.”

The Creation, of course, was the seminal series The Twilight Zone, whose writing and hosting made him both a success as a writer but also a celebrity; yet he doubted his writing abilities, and scorned his own celebrity.

Chapter 1 was about Rod Serling’s dad Sam, who was too poor to go to college and become the engineer his skill set would suggest he could have become. He ended up enrolling in secretarial school, and took his bride Esther to Panama, where she almost died of yellow fever. When the Serlings returned to Auburn, NY, they discovered Esther was pregnant. The pregnancy was difficult, and the doctors assured the family that Robert, born in 1918, would be their only child. Sam then felt that he was doomed to work for his father-in-law’s grocery business, in Cortland, then Syracuse.

But the doctors were wrong. Rodman Edward Serling was born on Christmas Day, 1924. Sam moved south to Binghamton to buy his own grocery store and when it proved successful, the family moved to Bennett Avenue on the city’s middle class West Side. He was attracted to the place that became a relatively worker-friendly town for the vast immigrant population. More importantly, Binghamton became, for Rod “a kind of geographic womb to crawl back into – and that’s your hometown,” a feeling not shared by Bob, BTW.

“Rod attracted people to him by sheer force of personality. He received constant praise, even adoration, and soon found it difficult to live without them.” At some level, this would continue to be the case for most of his life.

Chapter 2 involved Rod Serling as a paratrooper in World War II, a function he had to plead for because of his diminutive stature. Engel tells about the campaign in the Philippines in 1945, and how the absurdity of war – one friend was killed by the food supply dropped from the air to save them – that colored Rod’s eventual writing career.

Subsequent chapters addressed his evolution as a writer from radio station intern to some encouraging radio drama submissions to some success with this new medium called television. Despite some great volume of work, when the focus of TV production moved from live stagelike NYC shows to the filmed Hollywood product, it was a bit like starting over.

Nevertheless, despite his eventual success with The Twilight Zone, Rod’s “need to please,” and his disdain for, yet attraction to, fame and success made him not quite satisfied.

Due in large part to his four-pack-a-day cigarette habit – he even smoked during a classroom appearance at his alma mater, Binghamton Central High School in 1970, I can testify personally – Rod Serling died on June 28, 1975.

The Engel book is quite interesting, especially the first two chapters. But it is all well researched. If the latter chapters are somehow less enjoyable, maybe it’s because the subject of the book was unable to be content with his life, believe his success, be happy with his first writing critic, his wife Carol. Like his father, he wanted more than he achieved and like Sam, he died young pursuing it.

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2 thoughts on “Rod Serling biography by Joel Engel

  1. Thanks, Roger. If the last chapters are less enjoyable to read, and I don’t necessarily disagree, it’s for the reasons you suggest. I was frankly dreading getting to the page where I knew I’d have to say he was dead. When the manuscript was finished, I gave it to his brother Bob, an author, and though it hadn’t been a deal made between us when he invited me to spend two days and nights with him in Arizona, I said I would happily change anything in the ms that he thought was wrong or wrongly interpreted. He changed the spelling of Cortland, New York; that was all. So it’s bothered me all these years when critics who’ve never met me or asked me a single question assert that they thought I had it in for Serling. Nothing could be further from the truth. I worshipped then and do to this day the man’s work.

    In any event, what I wanted to tell you was that this book was a Jeopardy answer in early 1991. My mother, in Florida, was watching for apparently the first time in her life and immediately called me in California, so I’d be sure to watch 3 hours later. Under Books and Authors for $400: “Joel Engel’s book about him was subtitled ‘The Dreams and Nightmares of Life in the Twilight Zone.'” Interestingly, the title I originally wanted was “Last Stop, the Twilight Zone,” but CBS told me that they may or may not object legally. I didn’t want to chance it.

    Thanks for reading the book. A few years after publication, when Gene Roddenberry died, Hyperion books asked me if I’d write his biography, too, given my experience with Serling. I called Harlan Ellison, whom I’d met once, and he said, “Yeah, there’s a good story to tell.” And I, knowing nothing about Star Trek or Roddenberry, accepted the (pretty good) offer. Little did I know that Ellison’s comment was meant ironically and that Roddenberry was neither as talented nor as ethical as Serling. By the time I found out that not even his closest friends had great things to say about him, I was in too deep. And Hyperion wouldn’t let me out of the contract. So I wrote what I found…and was excoriated in the ST universe for, ironically, pointing out the truth that Trekkers are supposed to uphold. Not since have I written a biography.

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