Jewish ‘Twilight Zone’ Writer’s Work Still Inspires
by Robert Gluck / JNS.org
In the world of ideas and imagination, Rod Serling lives on.
Known for his work on the television show “The Twilight Zone,” Serling was born to a Jewish family in Syracuse, NY. Although it has been 37 years since his death, his work still has a notable impact.
Serling was the inspiration behind Lawrence Kassan’s annual “Rod Serling Video Festival.” Premiering in 1995 in Binghamton, NY (where Serling grew up) as a countywide festival for students to promote video arts technology and creativity, the festival’s success allowed it to open to students throughout the state of New York. Now a much-anticipated annual event, the festival receives entries from as far west as Buffalo to the eastern shores of Long Island.
To Zach Mulligan, a two-time winner of the festival’s Best in Show award, Serling’s legacy is multi-faceted.
“Rod Serling was first and foremost a writer, and I think it’s important to remember him primarily for his writing,” Mulligan told JNS.org. “He wrote amazing screenplays and told fascinating stories through each one. As a writer, Rod focused on the storytelling aspect of movie/television show creation, which is something that a majority of today’s movies and TV shows lack.”
Mulligan studies television at Ithaca College, an institution where Serling lectured and where the Serling archives are stored.
“The Rod Serling Video Festival opened up my interest in Ithaca due to the college’s showcasing of Serling throughout the festival,” Mulligan said. “I’m glad I came to Ithaca since it’s humbling to walk on the same ground that Serling walked on. His commitments to his stories are something that I strive for and intend to replicate.”
Kassan, the festival’s founder and director, told JNS.org that Serling “is special around here.”
Peter Wolfe, author of In the Zone: The Twilight World of Rod Serling, told JNS.org that he wrote about Serling and the show because he and his son, during his son’s sophomore year at college, would watch the show intently at 10:30 p.m. on a local station to end their days.
“‘The Twilight Zone’ explores the possibilities inherent in the ordinary,” Wolfe said. “An episode moves us by being poignant and intimate, rambunctious or thought provoking. Regardless of whether it takes place on an asteroid, in a city pool room, or in the backwoods, it conveys both a folklorist’s eye for detail and the born raconteur’s sense of pace.”
Featured on National Public Radio, Kassan is director of special projects for the Binghamton School District as well as an in-demand Serling expert. He will give a presentation on Serling at Temple Concord in Binghamton on Dec. 15 as part of a Hanukkah celebration.
“Serling’s father ran a kosher meat market,” Kassan said. “While in Binghamton Rod was a member of the Jewish Community Center. All this impacted his writing as did his stint in the army where he experienced some horrific situations during the war.”
Enlisting in the U.S. Army the morning after his high school graduation, Serling saw death daily in the Philippines, at the hands of his enemies and his allies, and through freak accidents such as that which killed Jewish private Melvin Levy.
Levy was delivering a comic monologue for Serling’s platoon as it rested under a palm tree when a food crate dropped from above, decapitating him. Serling led the funeral services for Levy and placed a Star of David over his grave. Later, Serling set several of his scripts in the Philippines, and used the unpredictability of death as a theme in much of his writing.
“He wanted to fight in the European theatre and was upset he didn’t get to fight Hitler,” Kassan said. “I’m sure that had something to do with his Jewish faith. His wife Carol told me he would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat dreaming he was back in the Philippines.”
Active in politics both on and off the screen, Serling helped form television industry standards. He was known as the “angry young man” of Hollywood, clashing with television executives and sponsors over a wide range of issues including censorship, racism, and war.
Serling’s success began long before “The Twilight Zone” as a radio writer in the late 1940s and with anthology dramas during the golden age of television. He discovered television as a medium through which he could effectively convey his criticism of war, prejudice, and corporate business. His Emmy-winning scripts for “Patterns” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight” established him as one of television’s most promising young writers.
Overall, Serling’s strong visual images and believable characters helped make television a powerful force in the 1950s. In 1957, he was awarded a third Emmy for “The Comedian.”
Looking ahead, the Rod Serling Video Festival screening, made possible by the Rod Serling School of the Arts, will air on WSKG Public Television on May 17, 2013, from 8-9 p.m. The premiere broadcast will be projected on the big screen at the Helen Foley Theatre at Binghamton High School.
Additionally, every two years, Ithaca College holds an interdisciplinary academic conference dedicated to Serling’s work.
So what is this television-industry pioneer’s legacy?
“To many people, Serling is simply the creator and voice of ‘The Twilight Zone,’ but to me he stands as one of the greatest television writers of all time, and a man with a very vivid and clear imagination,” Mulligan said. “When we enter Serling’s twilight zone, we suspend all of our beliefs and assume that anything can and will happen. This was part of the mysticism of the TV show. Anything could happen to the characters, and often times it gave us a better understanding of life or pronounced a moral to follow.”