Updated: November 18, 2021
IN MEMORY OF WRITER ROD STERLING
On May 3, 1975, Serling had a minor heart attack and was hospitalized. He spent two weeks at Tompkins County Community Hospital before being released. A second heart attack two weeks later forced doctors to agree that open-heart surgery, though considered risky at the time, was in order. The ten-hour-long procedure was carried out on June 26, but Serling had a third heart attack on the operating table and died two days later at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York. He was 50 years old. His funeral took place on July 2.
A memorial was held in Cornell University's Sage Chapel on July 7, 1975. Speakers at the Memorial included his daughter Anne and the Reverend John F. Hayward.
Serling began his career when television was a new medium. The first public viewing of an all-electric television was presented by inventor Philo Farnsworth at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia on August 25, 1934, when Serling was nine years old. Commercial television officially started on July 1, 1941. At the time, there were fewer than seven thousand TV sets in the United States, and very few of those were in private homes. Only five months later the U.S. entered World War II, and the television business was put on hold until the war's end, as many of the sets were confiscated by the government and repurposed to train air-raid wardens. After World War II ended, money began flowing toward the new medium of television, coinciding with the beginning of Serling's writing career. Early programming consisted of newsreels, sporting events and what would be called public-access television today. It was not until 1948 that filmed dramas were first shown, beginning with a show called Public Prosecutor. Serling began having serious dramas produced in 1950 and is given credit as one of the first to write scripts specifically for television. As such, he is said to have helped legitimize television drama.
Serling worried that television was on the verge of suffering the same decline as radio. He encouraged sponsors to see television as a platform for the kind of dramatic entertainment which could address important social matters through subtle meanings, instead of being "an animated billboard."
The format of writing for television was changing rapidly in the early years, but eventually it settled into a pattern of commercial breaks on each quarter-hour. Writers were forced to work these breaks into their scripts. Serling's response to this convention was, "How can you put out a meaningful drama when every fifteen minutes proceedings are interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits with toilet paper? No dramatic art form should be dictated and controlled by men whose training and instincts are cut of an entirely different cloth. The fact remains that these gentlemen sell consumer goods, not an art form." Throughout his career Serling helped to mold the future of television.
As early as 1955, Jack Gould, of the New York Times, commented on the close ties that were then being created between television and movies. Serling was among the first to use both forms, turning his early television successes, "Patterns" and "The Rack", into full-length movies. Up to that time, many established writers were unwilling to write for television because the programs were viewed only once and then stored in a vault, never to be seen again.
After the first showing of "Patterns", the studio received such positive feedback that it produced a repeat performance, the first time a television program had been replayed at the request of the audience. Although successful shows had sometimes been recreated after two years or more, this was the first time a show was recreated exactly — with the same cast and crew — as it had been originally broadcast. The second live performance, only a month later, was equally successful, and inspired New York Times critic Jack Gould to write an essay on the use of replays on television. He stated that "Patterns" was a prime example of a drama that should be seen more than once, whereas a single broadcast was the norm for television shows of the day. Sponsors believed that creating new shows every week would assure them the largest possible audience, so they purchased a new script for each night. Gould suggested that as new networks were opened and the viewers were given more choices, the percentage of viewers would spread among the offerings. "Patterns" was proof that a second showing could gain more viewers because those who missed the first showing could see the second, thus increasing the audience for sponsors.
In December 1966, the made-for-television movie The Doomsday Flight aired. The fictional plot concerned an airplane with a bomb aboard. If the plane landed without the ransom money being paid, the aircraft would explode. The bomb was set with an altitude trigger that would detonate it if the plane dropped below four thousand feet. The show was one of the highest rated of the television season, but both Serling and his brother Robert, a technical advisor on the project (a specialist in aviation), regretted making the film. After the film was aired, a rash of copycats phoned in ransom demands to most of the largest airlines. Serling was truly devastated by what his script had encouraged. He told reporters who flocked to interview him, "I wish to Christ that I had written a stagecoach drama starring John Wayne instead."
After being knocked out in a 1961 boxing match Archie Moore said, "Man, I was in the Twilight Zone!"
Also in 1961, the FCC chairman, Newton N. Minow, gave a speech in which he called television programing a "vast wasteland", citing The Twilight Zone as one of only a few exceptions.
The fictional attorney Perry Mason is a friend of Serling's ("The Case of the Promoters Pillbox").
The Jack Benny Program had Rod Serling guest star as "Mr Twi...the Mayor of this Zone" (Benny finds himself in a parallel universe where nobody recognizes him).
You're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind... a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination—your next stop, the Twilight Zone!
—Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone, introduction
Serling is indelibly woven into modern popular culture because of the popularity of The Twilight Zone. Even youth of today can hum the theme song, and the title itself is a synonym for all things unexplainable. Serling's widow, Carol, maintains that the cult status that now surrounds both her husband and his shows continues to be a surprise, "as I'm sure it would have been to him." "It won't go away. It keeps bobbing up. ...Each year, I think, well, that's it—and then something else turns up."
The Twilight Zone has been rerun, re-created and re-imagined since going off the air in 1964. It has been released in comic book form, as a magazine, a film, and two additional television series from 1985 to 1989 and again from 2002 to 2003. In 1988, J. Michael Straczynski scripted Serling's outline "Our Selena Is Dying" for the 1980s Twilight Zone revival.
Some of Serling's works are now available in graphic novels. Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone is a series of adaptations by Mark Kneece and Rich Ellis based on original scripts written by Serling. Several episodes were adapted into novel form for pulp fiction books by Serling himself.
The Twilight Zone is not the only Serling work to reappear. In 1994, Rod Serling's Lost Classics released two never-before-seen works that Carol Serling found in her garage. The first was an outline called "The Theatre" that Richard Matheson expanded. The second was a complete script written by Serling, "Where the Dead Are".
More than 30 years after his death, Serling was digitally resurrected for an episode of the TV series Medium that aired on November 21, 2005. Filmed partially in 3-D, it opened with Serling's introducing the episode and instructing viewers when to put on their 3-D glasses. This was accomplished using footage from The Twilight Zone episode "The Midnight Sun" and digitally manipulating Serling's mouth to match new dialogue spoken by voice actor Mark Silverman. The plot involved paintings coming to life, a nod to both The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery.
On August 11, 2009, the United States Postal Service released its Early TV Memories commemorative stamp collection honoring notable television programs. One of the twenty stamps honored The Twilight Zone and featured a portrait of Serling.
Serling and his work on The Twilight Zone went on to inspire the Disney theme park attraction The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. The ride takes place in the once elegant Hollywood Tower Hotel that was struck by lightning, causing the mysterious disappearance of five guests. Riders enter an abandoned elevator shaft as they become part of a "lost episode" of The Twilight Zone. The attraction takes guests up thirteen stories and drops them multiple times. Again, Silverman provides the dubbing for Serling's dialogue for both incarnations of the attraction, at Disney's Hollywood Studios and Disney California Adventure.
The Canadian rock band Rush dedicated its third studio album, Caress of Steel, to Serling. Its fourth album, 2112, includes a song titled "The Twilight Zone", in which the two verses are each based on an episode of the series.
Annually since 1995, Binghamton High School, Serling's alma mater, primarily in partnership with WSKG-TV, hosts the Rod Serling Video Festival for students in kindergarten through grade 12. The festival encourages young people to engage in filmmaking.
Serling's work, particularly the Twilight Zone episode "Walking Distance", underpins the romantic comedy The Rewrite (2014), which is largely set in Binghamton.