An airliner vanishes from the sky. Intruders stray across unenforced borders. Technophobes succumb to gadgets while automatons steal their jobs. Identities are erased. Aliens lurk.
After the framework for each installment in The Twilight Zone has been teased, the camera whip-pans to Rod Serling, the embodiment of American anxiety. He presides from a safe distance — tucked into a witness stand, a corner booth, a Culver City soundstage — and talks through his teeth, wrists clasped at the waist. Reinforced in this device, perhaps the most effective method of introduction ever designed for television, is the secret formula of The Twilight Zone — the act that isolates. As spellbound travelers wander through empty towns and doppelgängers chase each other down deserted streets, only the viewer and the narrator share their findings. Were cameras and kinescopes unable to track these subjects as their lives spiraled out of control, there would always be Serling’s monologues to encapsulate the unexplainable. A pitch, a premise, a nightmare.
Accepting his second Emmy1 for Best Teleplay Writing, in 1957, Serling said, “A writer rarely gets an opportunity to get in front of the camera, so I’m gonna take this opportunity.” Two years later, the Twilight Zone pilot would air on CBS, the first of 156 episodes, 92 of which were written or adapted by Serling. As head writer and narrator, appearing on-camera from the second season until the fifth and final in 1964, Serling would perhaps reconsider his remark at the Emmy podium. While his deadpan monologues appear to be the model of composure, he once quipped, “Only my laundress really knows how frightened I am.”
While Serling holds his iconic on-camera stance, two scars hide in plain sight. One is from the shrapnel that tore through his wrist during a bomb blast at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines in 1944. The other is a twice-broken nose, received not from combat, but during his training as a paratrooper in Georgia and Louisiana, where he boxed as a flyweight with his fellow “paraguys,” as he affectionately called them. Known for his berserker style, Serling tried his hand at the Golden Gloves, though he promptly retired from boxing when his nose was bashed for the second time, during his 17th and final fight.
In his work, Serling would return often to the hardships of the war-weary, but he reserved some of his most powerful observations for broken-down boxers, particularly those who failed to achieve stardom. Serling’s fighters would never be heavyweight champions, the men who come the closest, as Norman Mailer once wrote, to being “the big toe of God.”2
With boxing as my through line, I immersed myself in Serling’s work, beginning with his radio dramas of the 1940s through the avalanche of teleplays, screenplays, and novellas he completed before his death in 1975. I searched his archives and pored over letters of rebuke he mailed to bigots and censors who menaced the media landscape. I listened to Dictabelt recordings of screenplays he acted out for his secretary to transcribe.3 And I spoke with a range of voices influenced by Serling’s legacy. David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, suggested that The Twilight Zone prepared his generation for hallucinogenic drugs.4 Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, praised Serling for his embrace of irrationalism in a world that couldn’t be explained by the scientific and technological revolutions of the late 1950s. Rick Baker, who terrified a generation with his makeup artistry for “Thriller” and An American Werewolf in London, recalled being inspired to dress as an ape at drive-in screenings of Planet of the Apes — another celebrated script written by Serling — and emerge from his trunk to scare unsuspecting moviegoers.5 Anne Serling, author of As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling, recalled watching her first episode of The Twilight Zone at the family cottage in upstate New York and being “absolutely horrified” by what kind of material her otherwise fun-loving father was writing in his backyard office back in Los Angeles.
Throughout this search, I was reminded of the ingenuity of television’s most provocative voices at the midcentury mark. As noted by the late John Frankenheimer, who directed several Serling scripts for big and small screens, there were no old days when he and other television pioneers like Serling got their start. “We were the old days,” he said. Circumnavigating censors at that time was commonplace. In an interview with Mike Wallace in 1959, Serling recounted his frustrations in trying to bring an unvarnished account of the murder of Emmett Till to air on The United States Steel Hour in 1956. After the location was shifted from Mississippi to New England and even Coca-Cola bottles were removed from the set to satisfy sponsors’ fears of a Southern connotation, Serling knew he needed to escape even further, to other planets if necessary, to smuggle his socially conscious messages onto American airwaves. Less than three years later, The Twilight Zone was born.
Likewise, when Serling used sports as a portal to connect with viewers, he often did so with a light touch, presenting an escape from the everyday. There was “Casey at the Bat” with robots, or his segment for an unmade Twilight Zone film, in which baseball’s most bruising slugger turns out to be a figment of the imagination of a lonely hot dog vendor at Shea Stadium.6 But when Serling focused on boxing, he achieved a level of verisimilitude that is particularly striking. He addressed issues of race and class head-on. He drew from his own memories during the most combative and challenging chapter of his life. Dodging censors and skittish sponsors, he landed punches in prime time. It was this side of Serling that I hoped to connect with — the fighter’s instincts that helped change the face of a new medium.
Courtesy of Anne Serling
While a young writer subsisting on a diet that “consisted chiefly of black coffee and fingernails,” Serling caught his first break with the story of a boxer. While enrolled at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1949, he claimed second prize in a scriptwriting contest hosted by the national radio series Dr. Christian for “To Live a Dream,” his account of a fighter dying from leukemia.7 Upon returning to Ohio from the ceremony in New York, Serling was determined to sell more scripts, though he first weathered a storm of rejection letters. In August 1949, his story “Winner Take Nothing” was declined by the CBS radio series Grand Central Station, with producer Martin Horrell noting that female listeners “have told us in no uncertain terms that prize fight stories aren’t what they like most.” As noted in Martin Grams Jr.’s piece “The Radio Career of Rod Serling,” Horrell also included a somewhat prophetic tip:
I have a feeling that the script would be far better for sight than for sound only, because in any radio presentation, the fights are not seen. Perhaps this is a baby you should try on some of the producers of television shows.
By 1955, once Serling had established himself in television, he sold an adaptation of Ring Lardner’s short story “The Champion” to the Climax! series. The hour-long drama centered on Midge Kelly, a fighter so ruthless that he even sweeps his “crippled” younger brother off his crutches to snatch a coin from his fist. Midge eventually grows into a boastful prizefighter whose mouth alone is guilty of “oral manslaughter.”
As strong as Serling’s ear for dialogue was, it’s his fixation on faces that lingers. “There’s no replacement for the shock of seeing a terrifying face,” Matthew Weiner says, noting the eeriness of episodes, like “Spur of the Moment,” that feature rapid aging. No television head writer has ever had quite the preoccupation with the transformation of the human face as Serling.8 On The Twilight Zone, masks reshape skulls. The hideous hide behind bandages. The duped discover circuitry beneath their skin. In “The Four of Us Are Dying,” a con man with the ability to change his face “into anything he wants” coasts through various scams disguised as a jazz musician or a gangster. It’s only when he assumes the face of a boxer that he meets his demise.
The most powerful episode to focus on faces was also the most personal for Serling. In “The Purple Testament,” an American soldier stationed in the Philippines9 has the ability to predict who will die next by sensing a mysterious glow across their face. One of the victims name-checked in the episode was a friend Serling lost during the war, the Brooklyn-born corporal Melvin Levy. During a drop of unchuted crates of K-rations and supplies in the foothills of the Mahonag Mountains, an event Serling recounted in a letter to his children,10 he and others took cover under nearby palm trees. “It’s raining chow, boys,” an overjoyed Corporal Levy cried. Moments later, the soldiers discovered Levy’s decapitated head a few feet from where a crate had landed. Serling knew that, even during downtime, death could rain down at any moment. It’s never more clean than in the conclusion of “The Purple Testament.” After the clairvoyant lieutenant catches a glimpse of his own glowing face in a mirror, he perishes not on the battlefield, but on a routine drive back to base, wheeled to his death by Warren Oates.
The face that haunts me most is not one trapped in the Zone but stumbling out of the ring. In director Ralph Nelson’s 1962 film adaptation of Serling’s original teleplay Requiem for a Heavyweight, a stylish opening sequence features an unseen fighter, photographed from his point of view, as he’s pummeled and knocked to the canvas by Cassius Clay, playing himself. The sequence ends when the defeated, bleary-eyed fighter is escorted to the bowels of the arena, where he confronts his own battered face in a hallway mirror. Just like the opening to a Twilight Zone episode, the heart skips with a whip-pan to a broken nose.
The defeated fighter is Mountain Rivera, portrayed by former boxer and Oscar winner Anthony Quinn. In the introduction to his novelization of Requiem, Serling dedicates his work “with affection and respect” to “the punchies, the cauliflowered wrecks, the mumbling ghosts of Eighth Avenue’s bars, the dancing masters of another time who now walk on rubber legs.” Quinn embodies these tragic qualities masterfully. It’s a moving performance, one reinforced by the crisp photography of Arthur J. Ornitz and the exquisite makeup of Dick Smith, who passed away this year at 92. A onetime premed student at Yale, Smith is remembered for the horrific transformation of Linda Blair in The Exorcist and for Brando’s hangdog glower in The Godfather. In Requiem, Smith used a dental plumber to achieve what his protégé Rick Baker described as Quinn’s “jowly look,” as well as innovative appliances on Quinn’s frontal bones and his nose, which “has a red crack down the middle of it,” as indicated by Serling in his screenplay.
Smith also chased Clay around the ring with a spray bottle, struggling to keep pace and land the right amount of sweat. Though Clay speaks only a couple of lines, it’s a memorable appearance. When I spoke to Gerald Early, editor of The Muhammad Ali Reader, about his first viewing of Requiem in the theater, he joked that he was disappointed that Clay’s cameo was so brief. “I thought he was gonna be a character,” he said. “For a kid, it was kind of a downer movie.”
Along with Clay, both the teleplay and film feature professional fighters in bit roles — Jack Dempsey and Maxie Rosenbloom among them — though anyone expecting action had wandered into the wrong theater. Requiem focuses on the corruption and long-term damage that the sport inflicts on its practitioners, and examines the struggle of ex-fighters to secure dignified work outside the ring. An admirer of Joe Louis, Serling based Mountain’s story, in part, on reports that the former heavyweight champion and national hero had taken to wrestling to earn a living. Mountain confronts the same fate when his employment options dwindle, culminating in a finale that’s almost unbearable to witness.
Early in the film, when Mountain applies for a job as an usher in a movie theater, he’s dismissed on sight; no uniform will fit such a hulking frame. As Mountain and his trainer, Army (Mickey Rooney), storm out of the theater, Serling sneaks a wink to his colleagues back in the trenches. “I like TV better anyway,” Army sneers. Admirers of Requiem can relate. There’s something mesmerizing about the leanness and pulse of the original teleplay, also directed by Nelson, which aired on October 11, 1956, on CBS’s Playhouse 90 series. Viewing the program at the home of friends in Connecticut, far from the pandemonium of the studio in Los Angeles, Serling paced the floors, burning through two packs of cigarettes during the broadcast.
His nerves subsided when Requiem received near-universal praise. The first-ever 90-minute live dramatic broadcast was a critical smash,11 earning four Emmys, including one for its star, Jack Palance, who portrays the Tennessee-born Mountain McClintock. (In the film, Mountain Rivera hails from New Mexico.) From the opening scene in a dank locker room, the desperation pours from Palance’s face. His body buckles under 14 years of abuse, but it’s the insecurity of finding his way in the outside world that leaves the deepest scars. When he visits the New York State Employment Office, he’s paired with the social worker Grace (Kim Hunter), with whom he develops his only meaningful relationship outside the arenas of Manhattan and Pittsburgh. Forced to confront his limitations with her initial line of questioning about past employment and educational background, Mountain snaps and towers over her desk. “This is no punk,” he cries, thumb-jabbing each word into his chest. “This is the guy who was almost the heavyweight champion of the world!”
Palance was able to channel the raw emotions of a fighter in part because of his own experience as a professional boxer, fighting under the name Jack Brazzo. “He was very proud of his days as a prizefighter,” says his daughter Holly Palance. “My grandfather was a coal miner. He would do local fights, and I’m sure that’s what got my father into that. These were hardscrabble, unorganized fights. If you come from a one-horse town and you don’t have a way out of Palookaville, your one ticket out is sports. That was true then and it’s true now.”
Like Serling, Palance suffered a broken nose as a boxer, a fact that studio press agents allegedly papered over by claiming his rugged facial features resulted from reconstructive surgery after a crash during Air Force training in Arizona. “I happen to have his nose, the real nose,” Holly laughs. “It doesn’t look like his. But I never boxed, so there you go. To my knowledge, he broke his nose in the ring.”
Elaine Palance, Jack’s widow, also spoke of her husband’s respect for the sport, adding that he shadowboxed into his early eighties. “When Jack was growing up, they lived in Pennsylvania,” Elaine says. “When he was 14, he would walk to Freeland, which was seven miles from his hometown. He would box, and usually win. He’d get his $5 and then walk home seven miles. Imagine going to a boxing match and you walk home?”
The boxer drifting home on foot recurs throughout Serling’s work; in each version of Requiem, Mountain wanders from the arena after a defeat — no car waiting, no helping hand. Likewise, in Jack London’s short story “A Piece of Steak,” the pugilist Tom King remembers bygone days when “some heavy backer would have paid for the cab and ridden with him” before a fight.
London’s story was one of several titles, along with Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy and Budd Schulberg’s The Harder They Fall, that Matthew Weiner rattled off when discussing Serling. “There was a mythology that went along with being a writer, and I think Serling was acutely aware of it,” Weiner says. “He’s from a small town. He grew up as somewhat of an outsider, despite being an insider, which is part of being a white minority. And he might have been drawn to boxing because of the writer mystique that went along with it. This tradition goes along with the most influential writer of that generation, Ernest Hemingway, as well as Jack London. When I read ‘A Piece of Steak,’ I knew it was part of the writer mythology of Serling’s era. There’s the human factor, which is both beautiful and also our downfall. And Serling is always finding the defining weakness that the audience can identify with.”
David Chase, who was a teenager when The Twilight Zone aired, captured his early connection to the show in his 2012 film Not Fade Away, which revolves around the New Jersey garage band the Twylight Zones (also the film’s original title, which CBS declined permission to use). “It wasn’t a comforting show,” Chase says. “It upset your usual mode of thinking. It was the only show at the time that was literate, the only show that had any relation to literature or poetry.”12
Along with its literary aspirations, The Twilight Zone was also one of the few shows — if not the only one — willing to address race and civil rights. In 1959, Serling wrote “The Big, Tall Wish,” an episode that aired on April 8, 1960. The story of an over-the-hill boxer who has “left too many pieces of his youth in too many stadiums for too many years before too many screaming people” is seemingly familiar terrain. The key distinction is that the protagonist, Bolie Jackson (Ivan Dixon),13 and the young boy in his tenement building who admires him, Henry (Steven Perry), are black.
“I was very moved by that episode,” Gerald Early recalls. “I could identify with the kid. Ivan Dixon was a father figure of a sort. As a black kid, you didn’t get a chance to see very much television where an older black man was relating to a black kid, so it really stuck in my mind.”
An all-black principal cast, even on a single episode in an anthology series, was a breakthrough for 1960. “Television, like its big sister, the motion picture, has been guilty of the sin of omission,” Serling said at the time, as quoted in The Twilight Zone Companion. “Hungry for talent, desperate for the so-called ‘new face,’ constantly searching for a transfusion of new blood, it has overlooked a source of wondrous talent that resides under its nose. This is the Negro actor.” After the episode aired, The Twilight Zone received the NAACP’s Unity Award for Outstanding Contributions to Better Race Relations in 1961.
When I visited the Rod Serling Archives at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research in Madison, Wisconsin, I found thick files of correspondence between Serling and the ACLU, dating back to 1959. A file marked “Angry Letters” consisted largely of backlash from Serling’s rebuttals to Morrie Ryskind of the Los Angeles Times, a conservative columnist who had “no issue at all,” Serling noted in May 1965, ignoring the cries of 13 million black Americans for equal rights. (A telegram of support from Groucho Marx in 1964 reads “Dear Rod, Thanks For Cutting Up Riskind [sic].”) An audio recording of Serling’s speech to a Wisconsin literary committee opened with jabs against segregationist governor George Wallace, remarks that might put him, Serling joked, “at the receiving end of Bull Connor’s bulldogs.”14
“He was blackballed from a Jewish fraternity in high school for dating a non-Jewish girl,”Anne Serling says. “It’s interesting that his first dose of prejudice would have been from his own people.” Serling’s friend Mark Olshaker, now on the editorial board of Rod Serling Books, adds, “Rod was a moralist, but he was certainly a sentimentalist. You find this over and over again in his writing. It was important to him to show the dignity of ordinary people and people down on their luck rather than those in a position of power.”
Few of Serling’s characters were as powerless as Bolie Jackson, who struggles even to accept the well wishes of a child. When Henry insists that he’ll win his comeback fight, Bolie instead studies his record of defeat in the mirror. “Fighters don’t need a scrapbook, Henry. Want to know about what he’s done? Where he’s fought? Read it on his face. He’s got the whole story cut into his flesh.”
This passage echoes a key exchange in Requiem. After a medic discovers significant sclerotic damage in Mountain’s eye, he insists that Mountain must retire. One more punch, he cautions, and he’d need “a tin cup and some pencils.”
“You got any more big, fat suggestions?” Mountain’s conniving manager, Maish (Jackie Gleason), asks.15
“Tell him to buy a scrapbook,” the medic says as he vanishes down the hallway.
Serling revisited the threat of blindness in his novella “Eyes,” written in 1966 and included in the collection The Season to Be Weary. When the Fifth Avenue heiress Claudia Menlo enlists her staff to find an unsuspecting subject whose eyes can be extracted and installed in her own sockets, thus granting her the gift of sight, if even for a few hours, an initial target is Indian Charlie Hatcher, an ex-middleweight who has endured “a hundred and eight grueling destructive nights carved out of his sixteen miserable years off an Arizona reservation.” Anthony Petrozella, a former confidant, treats Charlie as little more than an organ farm during a disturbing courting process on behalf of Menlo. “A hundred and sixty pounds of scrambled eggs — once hard steel, now soft lead — and so punished beyond any kind of logic, the loss of a couple of eyes would seem part of a natural progression to him” is Petrozella’s private justification. Before Charlie can succumb to his persuasion, he hangs himself in a motel room. His final thought is that the pain of a man’s neck breaking in a fragment of an instant can’t compare to the years of punishment he’d faced in the ring.
The Indian Charlie story line was omitted from the adaptation of “Eyes” in the 1969 pilot of Night Gallery, Serling’s network follow-up to The Twilight Zone. The segment marked the television directorial debut of Steven Spielberg, then 22. In Joseph McBride’s Steven Spielberg: A Biography, Spielberg says of Serling, “He was a great, energetic, slaphappy guy who gave me a fantastic pep talk about how he predicted that the entire movie industry was about to change because of young people like myself getting the breaks.”
Perhaps the youngest writer Serling regularly counseled was Olshaker, whom he met 10 years before his death, when Olshaker was 14. Throughout the decades that Olshaker has chronicled Serling’s work, he’s been mindful of his mentor’s connection to boxing. “To Rod, the idea of a sport that was single-combat was very important,” he says. “You see this particularly in the Twilight Zone episode ‘Steel.’ Even though that episode was written by Richard Matheson [based on his own 1956 short story], it was just the kind of thing Rod would react well to.”
A standout of the final season, “Steel” envisions a near future in which boxing is outlawed and prizefighters have been replaced by androids. Like the fictional boxers in Serling’s repertoire, Matheson’s android is a fighter on his last leg, albeit a mechanical one, whose every drop is being wrung by rapacious handlers. One more punch and Battling Maxo, as the outdated model is known, will receive another crack in his eye lens.
While actors often slipped into robot costumes and bodysuits on the show, Maxo is played by a male actor (Tip McClure) with only slight modifications — black eyes, jerky body movements — to make him appear mechanized. Hooded and robed for the first half of the episode, his uncanny appearance once unveiled is genuinely startling.
Throughout the episode, Maxo’s repairman struggles to keep the jumble of spare parts standing. After Maxo is deemed unfit for the ring, Maxo’s manager, a onetime prizefighter known as Steel (Lee Marvin), risks his life by posing as an android to claim the much-needed purse. With just a hint of emo eyeliner, Steel manages to fool all in attendance, even the hecklers who chant “Scrap iron!” He suffers mightily for his deception. As he crawls into the locker room, bruised and defeated, he stares up in agony at Maxo, who’s been left idling in the corner.
Of all the arresting faces and expressions on The Twilight Zone — all the dread and empathy that Serling and his crew were able to summon in a five-year run that remains ahead of its time 55 years later — it might be the look shared between Steel and Maxo that best encapsulates Serling’s mission. A distant observer is frozen in mid-punch, unable to speak, unable to comprehend what makes men fight. There’s a suggestion of gratitude, of empathy, of bafflement that a human had crossed over and experienced the routine abuse that machines must endure. Maxo needs not speak a word. Everything is in his eyes. Eyes saved from blindness. Eyes made by a prop department in Los Angeles. Just two Ping-Pong balls painted black with pinpoint eyeholes. All that was needed to make audiences peer into a different dimension.
James Hughes is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has written for Slate, The Atlantic, and the National Hockey League.