Those tail-finned Buicks passing outside his window indicate that the time is late in the "Golden Age of Television," an era in which the volatile Rod Serling is a famous writer of live network theater. But the short, dark, preternaturally intense figure you are watching - a four-pack-a-day smoker said to write television scripts in four hours and destined to be the author of more than 200 - is not the confident, oracular presence who will become familiar to millions, his hands clasped professorially before him.
For this man is angrier, nervier, more vulnerable to tragedy. A man whose ambition to be a serious writer, whose passion for morality in drama will clash with his own lust for fame and celebrity and the imperatives of an industry he helped to launch. A regrettable consequence of divided principles, but an inevitable one. Lesson to be learned - in "The Twilight . . ."
That is, in Serling: The Rise and Twilight of Television's Last Angry Man by Gordon F. Sander (E.P. Dutton). Possibly the highest compliment one can pay Sander, a cultural journalist and scholar who has now produced the first major biography of one of TV's immortals - a superb one - is that he manages to avoid Serling imitations himself. It's not easy.
Instead, this Marymount Manhattan College teacher, who conducted more than 220 interviews in piecing together Serling's fast and frenetic career, re- creates a Serling unfamiliar to many contemporary viewers who know the one- time "golden boy" of TV writing only for his provocative scripts, spooky lead-ins and sober narration on Twilight Zone reruns:
* The 5-foot-4 1/2 native and proud Jewish son of Binghamton, N.Y., who never quite accepted either his Judaism or his height. (He converted to Unitarianism and wore elevator shoes for his Twilight Zone appearances - the camera cut him off mid-thigh because he wouldn't permit himself to be filmed full-frame.)
* The ardent paratrooper and twice-wounded veteran of World War II battles in the Philippines who repeatedly drew on his war experiences in script after script.
* The star of late '50s TV writing who became a savage opponent of McCarthyism, sponsor censorship of TV content and his own CBS network, leading the industry magazine Television Age to call him TV's leading critic in 1961.
* The distraught veteran of Hollywood success, winner of six Emmys, consumed by a sense of being a has-been in the decade after The Twilight Zone's cancellation, accepting every offer from game shows to corporate flacking, finally hawking Crest and Echo floor wax before dying during open- heart surgery at 50.
The first biography of a singular figure always demands more sheer reporting than, say, the 10th biography of Hemingway. Sander proves up to the task. His wheelbarrows of detail keep Serling absorbing even in the early chapters on his life in Upstate New York. In fact, Sander casually shows that The Twilight Zone was "far more autobiographical in nature than many people realize," demonstrating how famous episodes such as "Walking Distance," about a man going back in time to his youth, drew on Binghamton scenes.
The young Rod Serling to whom Sander first introduces us is a hyper, quick- witted Upstate New York teen, brimming with verbal talent and performer's ego. He's blessed with a "killer grin" and "intensely alive" dark eyes and influenced by his father's crisp diction and mother's fervent Democratic politics. Many of his friends think he'll become an actor, and Sander calls it one of the ironies of Serling's life that he became better-known for his Twilight Zone appearances than for his writing.
Serling was heavily influenced by radio at that time, especially his idol Norman Corwin (known as "Mr. Radio" in the late 1930s), and his first ambitions lay in writing for that medium. Indeed, Sander points out that ''Serling's mordant Twilight Zone lead-ins, his love for the common man, the parablelike quality of much of his later writing, the sophisticated sound effects, the occasionally purple prose, the cautiously optimistic world view - all these aspects of Serling's work have their antecedents in the works of Corwin."
But World War II prompted the 18-year-old Serling to enlist in the Army in the hope of becoming a paratrooper, triggering a long-standing attraction to daredevil activities. (In his early work years after the war, Serling earned extra money by testing parachutes.) According to just about every Serling friend that Sander talked to, the would-be writer's service in New Guinea and the Philippines - during which many in his outfit were killed and Serling watched one of his best friends decapitated by a food crate dropped from a cargo plane - formed his character as did no other experience in his lifetime.
Sander also takes us back to the next early stage of Serling's life: his eight postwar years in Ohio, first as a student at Antioch College, where he met his wife, Carol (a distant relation of the politically powerful Tafts), and then as a staff writer at Cincinnati's important WLW station, where he began to freelance scripts to New York. It's typical of Sander's sharp eye that he catches the dictum on the statue of founder Horace Mannon on the Antioch campus: "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity." As Sander notes, that statue and maxim appeared in a Twilight Zone episode about a self-critical teacher at a private school.
Once Sander accompanies Serling into the more familiar glory days of his New York and Hollywood careers, the inside information becomes even better. Serling broke into New York TV by writing broadcast plays that Sander describes as "Ibsenesque" in their social bite. Patterns, his 1955 indictment of corporate mentality, made Serling famous. The Rack, that same year, examined treason, torture and a prisoner of war's psychology. Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956), studied a washed-up fighter. All three demonstrated a skill at probing moral ambiguities that made advertisers nervous.
By the end of the decade, Serling enjoyed national fame as one of Hollywood's hottest writers, a well-tanned media star who lived in a nine-room L.A. house and drew huge fees for his work. But he was also respected for not fearing controversy. In 1954, he fired off an angry letter to the Cincinnati Enquirer, castigating it for supporting Sen. Joseph McCarthy. After Patterns won acclaim in 1955, the Wall Street Journal labeled him a Marxist.
But Serling kept up his criticisms of corporate interference in TV. He joined forces with Edward R. Murrow, fellow CBS rebel, in denouncing what he considered the runaway greed of the networks, backing Murrow's blistering observation that "I can find nothing in the Bill of Rights or the Communications Act which says that they must increase their net profits each year, lest the Republic collapse."
Serling's anger turned to contempt in 1958 after Playhouse 90 permitted the toning down of "A Town Has Turned to Dust," an attempt to face racial prejudice head-on.
"A final note to any aspiring television writers," he wrote in a magazine article. "Do westerns and make your horses gray, and if you have any burning desire to write of anything that has two sides to it, do a magazine piece on
By 1960, Serling was testifying before the Federal Communications
Commission against sponsor interference with program content, regaling it with such tales of sponsor pettiness as the time the Ronson Lighter Co. asked him to change "Got a match?" to "Got a light?" in Requiem.
Sander's strong, straightforward portrait of Serling as an industry goad who confronted his corporate bosses early (albeit in battles that TV's creative forces ultimately lost) forms the most unexpected and powerful part of the book. Critic Andrew Sarris once observed that "television was the biggest sociological game in town, and Serling wasn't giving it up without a fight." But it is Sander who has finally brought together the story of Serling's fierce early integrity, his later inclination to compromise and his ultimate tendency to abase himself.
Serling's five glory years of producing The Twilight Zone, from 1959 to 1964, insulated him somewhat from the decline in serious TV drama. Increasingly presenting himself as a good network soldier, he managed to get his liberal social messages through largely unscathed on The Twilight Zone, often in his brief closing narrations.
But the changes in the medium that Serling wanted to love took place anyway. As Sander notes, in 1960 "there had been 13 dramatic anthology shows on the air." By the fall of 1965, there were none.
Once Jim Aubrey became boss of CBS, Sander explains, Serling's days were numbered. In the opinion of Buzz Kulik, onetime Zone director, Aubrey ''changed the entire complexion of television, much for the worse. He was the one who killed live television because it was not financially remunerative compared with situation comedies." Opposed to Serling's auteur approach to TV, Aubrey eventually canceled Twilight Zone as well. In January 1964, only weeks after his 39th birthday, Serling learned that it would not be renewed for a sixth season.
"Unfortunately," Sander writes, "Rod Serling never did really figure out what he wanted to do with his life after the demise of The Twilight Zone." He accepted almost every offer of work and damaged his earlier "statesman of TV" image by agreeing to do embarrassing commercials.
Although a few good days remained - a brief term as president of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and a short comeback in the early '70s with Night Gallery - Sander's account of the last 11 years of Serling's life teems with humiliations: the onetime golden boy's failures as a film and TV writer, charges of plagiarism against him by several science- fiction writers, a widespread belief in the industry that he would sell his Twilight Zone persona to any bidder. On all these matters, Sander remains sympathetic but blunt.
The heart of Serling, in any case, is its kinescope of a rare TV writer who actually tried, for any time at all, to explore that place "between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge." Very few TV writers, before or after Rod Serling, merit a biography. The lives and works raise too few issues, offer too little distinction. On the evidence of this fine book, Rod Serling merits more than one.