Rod Sterling helped shape television history

How art shapes our lives

Sal MaccaroneNovember 21, 2012 

On Aug. 25, 1934 Philo Farnsworth (1906-1971) held the first public viewing of his all electric television in Philadelphia, Penn. While he was not the only inventor working on this far-out concept, he was the first and only one to offer a complete system for both sending and receiving live images. It would be another seven years until the official start of commercial television would enter the American conscious on July 1, 1941.

Six months after TV's introduction, at the start of WWII, there were still only about 5,000 television sets in this country, and most of those were confiscated for the allied effort. When the war ended on Sept. 2, 1945, the television industry would finally have a chance to grow.

In the early days of television, programming was limited to sporting events, public announcements and pre-recorded newsreels. TV's dramatic side began to unfold in 1948 with the airing of the first filmed for television series which was called, "Public Prosecutor," which was done in 16mm.

After that show debuted a new breed of writer began to emerge -- The television playwright. Programs like "Playhouse 90,"(CBS 1956-1960), would broadcast their dramatic plays live to millions of people. This format left absolutely no room for error and consequently was short-lived. For that very brief period in television history these writers, and actors, were at their very best while dealing with issues of morality and significant social relevance.

Known as television's angry young man, Rodman Edward Serling (1924-1975) would help to shape television history. Already writing for radio programs since 1946, his transition to television was a natural. Always challenging executives and sponsors alike, he pushed himself and everyone else hard toward production with meaningful content. Three of his Playhouse 90 stories each won him an Emmy for best teleplay writer -- He would go on to win three more.

Serling's story about a washed up boxer titled, "Requiem for a Heavyweight," is said to have legitimized television. He also changed the way that writers and sponsors would interact, once being quoted as asking a sponsor, "How can I produce good drama when every 15 minutes I am interrupted by a dozen dancing rabbits selling toilet paper?" That leaves one to wonder what he would say now that TV commercials seem occur every three minutes.

One day while walking through an empty back lot at Paramount Studios, Rod began thinking about what it would be like to be the only person on earth. This thought eventually evolved into a pilot for a anthology series that he called, "The Twilight Zone," which was first broadcast on Oct. 2, 1959. With this program he was able to deal with a wide scope of social issues including: politics, racial relations and war. By presenting his thoughts as a kind of "Wisdom Fiction," the Twilight Zone stories were able to escape controversy because of the paranormal format.

Many wonderful actors and actresses owe their careers to Rod Serling's honest and dramatic style of writing.

Robert Redford had parts on Playhouse 90 and then the Twilight Zone long before any of his academy award performances in the movies. Elizabeth Montgomery also stared in an early episode of Twilight Zone before catapulting to her own TV series, "Bewitched." William Shatner, Robert Duvall, Jack Klugman, Burt Reynolds and Peter Falk all got their starts on episodes of the Twilight Zone.

Long lasting effects brought on by the work of Rod Serling still continue to unfold. The accelerated drop thrill ride, "Twilight Zone Tower of Terror," is a recent Disney theme park attraction based on the original television series.

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