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My Father the Man in the Twilight Zone

The daughter of The Twilight Zone creator opens up about her pops.

My name is Anne Serling. I’m the youngest daughter of Rod Serling, the writer best known as the host and creator of The Twilight Zone. As a child, I didn’t really relate to his professional work. I knew that he was a writer, but not specifically what he wrote.  There didn’t seem anything unique about what he did. He was just my dad

The first episode of Twilight Zone I ever saw was the 1963 episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” The story is about a man, recovering from a mental breakdown, who sees a gremlin lurking outside the window from his airplane seat. No one believes him that the gremlin is there but the grimacing face haunts him. I remember watching it with my dad, and being rather stunned that this was what he did all day. It terrified me and it was of no consolation that it was Richard Matheson, who actually wrote it. It was still my father who appeared on the screen.

rod serling and daughter

Because of his somber tone on television, a lot of people thought of my dad as a dark and serious man. But he was actually the polar opposite; warm, genuine, and brilliantly funny. There was also an endearing and magical childlike quality to him. One reason I wrote my memoir, As I Knew Him, My Dad, Rod Serling, was to dispel that notion that he was this intense, angry, depressed man—someone not remotely familiar to me. True, he was angry. Prejudice enraged him. Corporations exerting influence over the television networks angered him. Censorship outraged him. For instance, he wanted to tell the story of Emmitt Till. The first version for The United States Steel Hour, titled Noon on Doomsday,” had to be completely stripped down. “Even though the case became a historic example of the despicable consequences of racism,” my dad said, “American television could not handle it in anything other than masked parable form.”  He tried three different times. The script was eventually titled “A Town Has Turned to Dust.” By the time it aired my father said “The script had turned to dust.” In fact, he launched The Twilight Zone primarily because, “An alien could say what a Democrat or a Republican couldn’t.”

My father died three weeks after I turned 20. He was only fifty. I was overcome with grief. I eventually started watching The Twilight Zone–more to see my dad than the actual episodes.

rod serling and family

Some of them had a poignant effect on me. Particularly the autobiographical ones like, “Walking Distance.” The character, Martin Sloane, is transported through time to his childhood home where he sees his parents again and himself as a boy. Martin is the same age as my father. Every summer when we came east, my dad did, in fact, return to Binghamton, New York,  where he grew up, and he would drive by his old house, Recreation Park, and other childhood haunts. In the closing narration of  “Walking Distance,” my father describes Sloane as “successful in most things but not in the one effort that all men try at some time in their lives—trying to go home again.” Nevertheless, my dad ends the episode on a positive note. Martin’s father tells his son,“ You’ve been looking behind you, Martin. Try looking ahead.”

But the episode that had the greatest impact on me at the time was: “In Praise of Pip.”  What was so personal, and so moving about this particular story was some of the dialogue which was clearly drawn from my own repartee with my dad. In the episode, Jack Klugman says to his son, “Who’s your best buddy, Pip?” “You are, Pop.” Those were the words of my dad’s and my routine. It meant too much to hear them again. I know that I’m extremely fortunate to be able to turn on the television and to see my father. That’s pretty unique and wonderful, like, forgive me for this, something out of another dimension.

— As told to Joshua David Stein

Anne Serling is an author and a board member of the Rod Serling Foundation. She lives in New York.