Senior Life

Peeking into the past: My time with TV's ‘angry young man’

by Len Lear
Posted 6/13/24

I was rummaging through my basement files last week when I stumbled across the notes of one of my all-time favorite interviews.

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Senior Life

Peeking into the past: My time with TV's ‘angry young man’


I was rummaging through my basement files last week, as I often do when they begin to resemble a Brazilian rainforest, when I stumbled across the notes of one of my all-time favorite interviews (for the Distant Drummer, an alternative weekly center city newspaper from 1967 to 1979). 

It was with a man I regard as one of the most imaginative writers for stage and screen this country has produced, the creator of TV's “Twilight Zone” (1959-1964) and “Night Gallery” (1969-1973).

Born Rodman Edward Serling in Rochester, New York, on Christmas Day, 100 years ago, Rod Serling admitted that his combat experience in World War II had a devastating effect on his mental health. He later became known as “television's angry young man” because his scripts confronted the major issues of the day — McCarthyism, press censorship, racism and police brutality — at a time when few others would touch them. A firm opponent of the Vietnam War, he was a troubled veteran who smoked up to three packs of cigarettes a day to cope with crippling stress and memories.

“I've tried many times to stop smoking,” he told me in December 1974, in the Plaza Hotel in New York, “but it's like a monster who is choking you and won't let go. During the war, they gave us all free cigarettes and almost everyone smoked. We did not think of it as an addictive drug. When you see your buddies being killed and mutilated almost every day, cigarettes are the last thing you think about.”

When I interviewed Serling, the pioneering writer looked as fit and trim as a long-distance runner. Only about 5-foot-5, he had a washboard for a stomach, a head lush with glistening black hair and clearly defined muscles rippling through a silk shirt. He looked at least 10 years younger than his 49 years. 

Six months later, on June 28, 1975, Serling died at age 50 of a heart attack brought on by smoking, according to news reports at the time.

“As a Jew, I signed up for the Army to fight the Nazis,” Serling said. “I fantasized about being a tail gunner in a B-17 bomber, but they told me my eyesight wasn't good enough, so I chose the next best thing, being a paratrooper. At first, they said I was too short, but I talked my way into it. But they sent me to the Philippines instead of Europe. You cannot possibly appreciate all the suffering and death you see unless you are there. And all that misery still haunts me, and it gave me the ideas for the scripts that I wrote later for TV and movies.” 

Most people my age probably remember Rod Serling most for his authoritative, staccato voice that was long a staple of nightclub impressionists. Or they may remember the O'Henry-like surprise endings to his “Twilight Zone” stories. 

But I remember Serling most for adding an element that has always been a rare commodity in mass entertainment — a moral, and sometimes even unpopular — point of view.

The format might have been pop science fiction, but the themes were the labyrinths and tunnels of the human mind and soul. For example, while most World War II dramas were about brave men winning medals in combat, “Twilight Zone” gave us “Death's Head Revisited,” the story of a Nazi commandant returning to Dachau Concentration Camp, where he is confronted by the ghosts of the Jews he slaughtered. Serling wrote most of the 151 “Twilight Zone” scripts.

Serling fought endless battles with conservative TV network executives. For example, U.S. Steel Hour realized that Serling's “Noon on Doomsday” would deal with the Emmett Till murder case, in which the police and politicians of Drew, Mississippi, protected the Ku Klux Klan killers of a 16-year-old visitor from Chicago for allegedly whistling at a white woman in 1955.

As a result, Serling said, CBS executives tore apart Serling's script until the Mississippi town became a New England village; the Black/white angle became an American killing a foreigner, and a mention of Coca-Cola was deleted, apparently because the executives thought it might upset residents of Atlanta, where Coke was bottled.

“You have no idea what it is like to deal with these TV executives,” Serling said. “They are afraid of possibly offending anybody about anything. It would not surprise me if they tried to censor a script about mass murder for fear of offending mass murderers. They would do any kind of verbal gymnastics to keep the cosmetics and beer advertisers happy.”

In 1955 Serling won his first Emmy (he won six overall) for “Patterns” for Kraft Television Theater — a story about the emotional destruction wrought by some inhumane corporate practices. Serling also won an Emmy in 1956 for “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” also made into a magnificent 1962 movie starring Anthony Quinn.  

“Twilight Zone” episodes can now be seen on Paramount Plus, Paramount+Amazon Channel and Paramount+Roku Premium Channel. Len Lear can be reached at