Anne Serling is a published poet and short story writer, soon to be a novelist. She has been an elementary school teacher, and has lived on both the East and West coasts (although she prefers Connecticut and Ithaca New York over Pacific Palisades CA.)
She adapted two of her father's teleplays for publication in The Twilight Zone, The Original Stories. Her new book is the memoir AS I KNEW HIM (read review here), sharing her experiences growing up with a dad who also happened to be one of the most fascinating and imaginative TV writers of all time: Rod Serling.
JONATHAN LOWE) You were deeply affected by your father's death, and reveal the many ways that your relationship remained a part of your personal life long after. Visiting his grave in New York for the first time, eight years later, was that a turning point for you? And how long after that did you conceive writing this book?
ANNE SERLING) Yes, it took me years to visit my father’s grave. I didn’t want that to be my last “glimpse” of my father. I was afraid and knew that seeing it would also bring the finality—-proof that my dad was irrefutably gone. And of course it was. And it was very difficult. But I also realized after going that I didn’t need to be there to “find” my father. And I also found comfort in a message someone had left on his grave: “He left friends.” I learned later that was something he had told the college students he taught. It was what he wanted on his grave. Simply those words, “He left Friends.”
JL) While listening to you talk about a happy and busy family life, I imagined that your alternate title for the book might have been "He Left Friends."
AS) I like that alternate title. The original title was: “ANOTHER DIMENSION: Growing Up With The Man Behind The Twilight Zone." That was a bit of a mouthful and my publisher wanted something more personal.
JL) As his daughter, you were also his dearest friend, and so what things about him did you know that other more casual friends might be surprised to learn?
AS) People who didn’t know my dad might be surprised to know that he had a brilliant sense of humor. He was the funniest person I have ever known. He was a practical joker. He would do anything for a laugh. He was also a wonderful story teller, and told great jokes, but would often lose himself in his own hilarity, slapping his knee before ever reaching the punch line!
JL) Rod sometimes found himself at cross purposes with the Hollywood machine, and sought to bring a humanistic, universal sensibility to his scripts, didn't he?
AS) My father struggled mightily to write meaningful scripts, and as I think has been said—“railing against the sponsors.” He launched into “The Twilight Zone” realizing, as he is quoted as saying, “An alien can say what a Republican and a Democrat can’t.” While doing “Night Gallery” he was extremely frustrated because unlike with Twilight Zone, he did not have creative control and would say, “I have no interest in a series which is purely and uniquely suspenseful but totally uncommentative on anything.”
JL) What did you know of his own father and the other influences on Rod's personal world view?
AS) I did not know my grandfather—-he died when my dad was in the Philippines, but I know that my dad adored him and clearly he was also a very bright man who taught my father about individuality and shared many of the same passions and outrage about prejudice, etc.--issues that my dad would later battle against. My grandfather told my dad, “I am not a good Jew, but I think I’m a good person. If you want to be very religious, that’s up to you. My own philosophy is, I take people for what they are, not where they go to pray.” It is ironic that my father’s first glimpse of prejudice came from his own people. He was blackballed from a Jewish fraternity for dating non-Jewish girls.
JL) Of all the series your father was involved in, which episodes are your personal favorites? And do they differ from his?
AS) “Walking Distance" is likely my dad’s most autobiographical, although the “Night Gallery” episode “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” is also quite personal and autobiographical. I loved “A Stop At Willoughby”, “Night Of The Meek”, “Death’s Head Revisited.” When my dad was alive, I didn’t watch the show very much so I am not certain, beyond the ones I mentioned, which were his favorites. It was after he died that I first watched “In Praise Of Pip.” It was that episode that brought my dad back to me in an unexpected way. He used the routine in the script that he and I did, “Who’s your best buddy Pip?” “You are Pops.” Although Jack Klugman, was “Pops” in the episode, that was my dad’s nickname for me.
JL) I'm trying to imagine what Planet of the Apes would have been like had he scripted the entire film, and not just the unforgettable ending. Any thoughts on that?
AS) I don’t know. Maybe someday I’ll try and unearth the script he proposed-—which was apparently too expensive for the studio to make.
JL) It was amusing to hear that Rod often liked the children of guests at your house more than the guests themselves. Ray Bradbury once told me something similar, and so never wanted to "grow up" himself because children, being guileless and honest, (as opposed to adults with established opinions), have imagination enough to try and "see around corners," so to speak. Was this Rod's view too, do you think?
AS) This actually goes back to the other question you asked-—what would people who didn’t know my dad be surprised by? My dad was childlike in many ways-—which was one of the qualities that was so endearing about him. And I felt this about him even as a teenager! My dad loved kids, and they him. Likely, as you said--the ceaseless imagination; the innocence.
JL) Rod met your mother Carol in college, and they worked on radio dramas together there. Then they were married, and later Jodi and you came along. What family moment all together do you remember most fondly?
AS) A family memory would be watching the Twilight Zone episode “Night of The Meek”. My dad had an office in the back yard and every Christmas we, and friends, would sprawl across his office floor and watch that great episode.
JL) You say that your father never really imagined that his fame would endure. Were you recalling this when, in 2009, the USPS issued a stamp in his honor? It's not a "forever" stamp (those have only flags on them), but it's the next best thing, for sure!
AS) Right--my dad would have been stunned by that and by the longevity of “The Twilight Zone.” He once said, “Although my writing is momentarily adequate’ he did not feel it would “stand the test of time.”
JL) What was your recording experience like on the audiobook version? I'm imagining you as an audiobook fan, since your dad was heavily into audio, early on.
AS) Actually, I have never listened to a book on tape. I loved this experience and was thrilled when they asked me if I wanted to do it since, as they said, “It’s such a personal story.” Sitting in a little room by myself under those head phones hearing only my voice and occasionally the director’s-—I thought of the many times my dad did recordings just like that and as I read aloud the book I felt so connected to him. By the time I reached the end, I was quite emotional.
JL) Your father's legacy will endure, I believe, because he revealed the universal human condition and felt responsibility to improve and progress humanity. What are your goals, and what's next for you?
AS) I think you’re exactly right-—his legacy has endured because he dealt with human and moral issues. My goals? How does one answer that without sounding Pollyannaish? I want the same world he imagined and hoped for. I want to participate in preserving that legacy, such as involvement in a program called THE FIFTH DIMENSION. All of the fifth graders in Binghamton NY watch TZ episodes and learn about mob mentality, hatred, prejudice, scapegoating etc. Like my dad, I like stories of conflict and perseverance, and am currently writing a novel called “AFTERSHOCKS.”