What made the words of those opening and closing narrations come alive was Serling’s unmistakable staccato baritone, and he delivered them on camera from the second season onward. He was already famous, but that move rocketed him to superstardom. For a time, he was the most recognizable writer in America, endlessly imitated on talk shows, in break rooms, and on playgrounds.
If memorable writing had been all The Twilight Zone had going for it, it still would have been a very good show. Its other assets made it a great one. Every episode was shot like a short film; its look was miles beyond the cramped aesthetic of most weekly TV of the time. The anthology format — with changing casts and, to a lesser extent, crews — made the show a virtual Hollywood workshop. The actors who appeared — some for the first time in front of the camera — include Jack Klugman, Burgess Meredith, Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford, William Shatner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Elizabeth Montgomery, Martin Landau, Martin Balsam, Telly Savalas, Mickey Rooney, Lee Marvin, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Dana Andrews, Carol Burnett, Cliff Robertson, Buster Keaton, Peter Falk, Jeanette Nolan, Cloris Leachman, Art Carney, Agnes Moorehead, and dozens of others whose names may be less familiar today but whose faces remain instantly recognizable. Directors who got their start on the show and later made it big in feature films include Sidney Pollack and Richard Donner.
The Twilight Zone was a hit, but never a smash. It was solidly profitable, yet it had to fight to be renewed every year it was on the air. Letter-writing campaigns from devoted fans helped. But CBS management soured on the show, calculating that hit or no hit, they could make more money from a series with broader appeal that was cheaper to produce. The show was cancelled in 1964 after five seasons. It was not so much the end of an era; rather, The Twilight Zone had outlived its era. The television landscape was already changing when the show debuted, and by the time it ended the airwaves were unrecognizable. All the great, prestige anthology shows from the live-TV era — including the greatest of them all, Playhouse 90 –were gone. Alfred Hitchcock Presents hung on for one more season, as did the Twilight Zone copycat The Outer Limits. The rest of the fare consisted, in Serling’s derisive phrase, of “situation comedies, westerns, and cop shows.”
So it would remain, for the most part, throughout the following decades. Serling himself never enjoyed another success like The Twilight Zone. He tried his hand at many projects — too many — in several genres. A few made it to the airwaves or the big screen or the stage, but almost none were popular or critical hits. (One great exception was Planet of the Apes, for which Serling adapted the screenplay.) A lifelong four-pack-a-day smoker, he died of a heart attack at age 50 in 1975.
If only he had lived to see the rebirth of writer-driven television on cable. For the past dozen years or so, we have been witnessing a second golden age of television. The wasteland is vaster than ever, but its very vastness allows for niches of quality to thrive. Writers such as Tom Fontana (Oz), David Chase (The Sopranos), David Simon (The Wire), and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) have created dramas that precisely reflect their visions, largely free from upstairs or outside interference. Theirs is a freedom that Rod Serling fought for his whole career, but enjoyed only briefly . . . in The Twilight Zone.
– Michael Anton, a former speechwriter to Pres. George W. Bush, is the author of The Suit (under the name Nicholas Antongiavanni). He is working on a book called The Blue Riband (about ocean liners).