Question: I know you usually write about entire shows, but I have a question related to a specific TV Guide story and can't find it on the Web. If I remember correctly, didn't Rod Serling do an interview during his Night Gallery days where he was really hard on himself? I remember it making me sad when I read it. Jennifer C., Ashland, Ore.
Televisionary: I can certainly understand the sadness, Jennifer, since that story, which ran in June 1972, presented a picture of a gifted man who was unable or unwilling to acknowledge his many accomplishments. "Professionally I still have to find myself," he said at a time when he'd already won multiple Emmys for his classic Twilight Zone and such legendary scripts as Requiem for a Heavyweight, Patterns and The Comedian. "There are certain guilts. Almost 20 years ago there was inordinate publicity and I was a kind of pop-off. Well, the Angry Young Man is now 47 and what has he accomplished? Not a helluva lot."
When TV Guide reporter Dwight Whitney sat in with Serling, he took note of all that contradicted that last sentiment: a home in Pacific Palisades (a ritzy L.A. neighborhood, for those of you not in on the real-estate game out here); a country estate in upstate New York; a 36-foot boat for cruising the Great Lakes; classic cars. And of course, there were plaques and awards lining the walls of the room of Serling's poolside office. But none of that seemed to make him feel any better. "Sometimes I come in here just to look," he continued. "I haven't had reviews like that in years. Now I know why people keep scrapbooks just to prove to themselves it really happened."
Well, the review part was true, unfortunately. Take TV Guide critic Cleveland Amory, who wrote of Night Gallery: "[It's] the kind of thing that Hitchcock did so well, and still does in reruns. And it really is infuriating, 50 years after Hitchcock, to have something not anywhere near as good. When the playlets are not overwritten, they're overacted. And when they're not overacted, they're overdirected. And when they're not overdirected, they're overproduced."
However, Serling wasn't being quite fair in blaming himself for that kind of thing. By the time Night Gallery a supernatural anthology in the Zone mold but with a straight-up horror flavor debuted in December 1970, the TV business had changed dramatically. Early on his career, a good part of Serling's best years were spent doing stage-type fare on live TV or writing stories of that ilk, but the medium was well on its way to being dumbed down two decades later, a point which he himself acknowledged in the interview. "To write meaningful, probing things for TV nowadays is an exercise in futility," he said.
Serling had hit some rough patches that led to this kind of thinking. He'd been involved in the short-lived series The Loner and The New People. He'd written three Broadway plays, two of which were optioned but none of which were produced. One of his TV-movies, The Doomsday Flight, inspired a real-life hijacking. He'd also taken money to do ads for Ford, Anacin, Goodyear, Sunkist, Samsonite and Tame Creme Rinse. ("You name it, I've done it," he said.) He'd also tried psychoanalysis, but quit after seven weeks. ("I wanted it to be like going to an MD for lancing a boil," he said. "I never got any progress reports.") And he was troubled by relations with his two kids, who sounded like typically difficult teens. ("It's a running gun battle to reestablish communications. Still there is I hope a deep-down awareness that they are loved.")
Overall, he said, he was doing OK, and maybe that was the best he could hope for. "I function well," he said. "I've my moments of depression. But I guess you'd say I'm a pretty contented guy."
Aside from the self-flagellation over where he ended up, careerwise, one can only hope so since, sadly, the three-pack-a-day smoker died on the operating table three years later at the age of 50. And TV Guide's editors were a lot kinder to him than he was to himself. "As a writer, producer, narrator and self-taught dramatist, he gave his work to the TV audience in an abundant stream for a quarter of a century," they wrote, calling him one of television's pioneers. "He was a charming man involved, concerned, restless and he made a great contribution to television. We are all in his debt."