Although most famously known for The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling was a writer ahead of his times. His social and political consciousness brought him to face a great deal of censorship throughout his career as a screen-writer during a time in American history where television and film were reserved strictly for escapist entertainment. The following is an excerpt from a 1959 interview with Serling, conducted by television correspondent Mike Wallace.
September 29, 1959
Wallace: This is Mike Wallace with another television interview in our gallery of colorful people. In television drama few names have the prestige of that of our guest. Rod Serling is the only writer to have won three Emmy awards, for Requiem for a Heavyweight, Patterns, and The Comedian. We'll talk to him about censorship in television, his fight to say what he believes, and we'll learn what he means by the price tag that hangs on success.
Wallace: You've come a long way…your name is featured in the classic battle, that is television writer, the battle of the writer to be his own man. What happens when a writer like yourself writes something that he really believes in, for television?
Serling: Well, depending, of course, on the dramatic treatment you're using, if you have the temerity to try to dramatize a theme that involves any particular social controversy currently existent, then you're in deep trouble.
Wallace: For instance?
Serling: Uh, a racial theme, for example. My case in point, I think, a show I did for the Steel Hour, some years ago - three years ago, called Noon on Doomsday, which was a story which purported to tell what was the aftermath, the alleged kidnapping in Mississippi of the Till boy, the young Chicago negro. And I wrote the script using black and white, initially, then it was changed to suggest an unnamed foreigner. Then the locale was moved from the South to New England, and I'm convinced they'd have gone up to Alaska or the North Pole if, and using Eskimos as a possible minority, except I suppose the costume problem was a sufficient severity not to attempt it, but it became a lukewarm, eviscerated, emasculated kind of show.
Wallace: You went along with it, though.
Serling: All the way. I protested. I went down fighting, as most television writers do, thinking, in a strange, oblique, philosophical way that, better say something than nothing. In this particular show, though, by the time they had finished taking Coca-Cola bottles off the set because the sponsor claimed that this had Southern connotations, suggesting to what depth they went to make this a clean, antiseptically, rigidly acceptable show. Why, it bore no relationship at all to what we had purported to say initially.
Wallace: Patty Chayefsky has talked about the insidious influence of what he called pre-censorship. How does that work?
Serling: Pre-censorship is a practice, I think, of most television writers. I can't speak for all of them. This is the prior knowledge of the writer of those areas which are difficult to try to get through and so a writer will shy away from writing those things which he knows he's going to have trouble with at a sponsorial or an agency level. We practice it all the time. We just do not write those themes which we know are going to get into trouble.
Wallace: Who's the culprit? Is it the network? The sponsor? It sure is not the FCC.
Serling: No, it's certainly not the FCC, ideally speaking, of course. It's a combination of culprits in this case, Mike. It's partly network. It's principally agency and sponsor. In many ways I think it's the audience themselves.
Wallace: You told Kay Gardella of the New York Daily News this: you said “Professionally, I don't think Twilight Zone will hurt me, but I must admit I don't think it will help me either. I'm stepping out of the line of fire." You've had it as far as trying to beat your brains out.
Serling: I never said that. I'm convinced it'll help me. I have great pride in the show. In eleven or twelve years of writing, Mike, I can lay claim to at least this: I have never written beneath myself. I have never written anything that I didn't want my name attached to. I have probed deeper into some scripts and I've been more successful in some than others. But all of them that have been on, you know, I'll take my lick. They're mine and that's the way I wanted them. Somebody asked me the other day if this means that I'm going to be a meek conformist, and my answer is no. I'm just acting the role of a tired non-conformist. And I don't wanna fight any more.
Wallace: What do you mean you don't wanna fight any more?
Serling: I don't wanna have to battle sponsors and agencies. I don't wanna have to push for something that I want and have to settle for second best. I don't wanna have to compromise all the time, which in essence is what the television writer does if he wants to put on controversial themes.
Wallace: Well then why do you stay in television?
Serling: I stay in television because I think it's very possible to perform a function of providing adult, meaningful, exciting, challenging drama without dealing in controversy necessarily. This, of course, Mike, is not the best of all possible worlds. I am not suggesting that this is at the absolute millennium. I think it's criminal that we're not permitted to make dramatic note of social evils as they exist, of controversial themes as they are inherent in our society. I think it's ridiculous that drama, which by its very nature should make a comment on those things that affect our daily lives, is in the position, at least in terms of television drama, of not being able to take this stand. But these are the facts of life. This is the way it exists, and they can't look to me or Chayefsky or Rose or Gore Vidal or J.P. Miller or any of these guys as the precipitators of the big change. It's not for us to do it.
Wallace: Herb Brodkin, who was a TV producer who was associated with some of your earlier plays, has said this about you: he said "Rod is either going to stay commercial or become a discerning artist, but not both."
Serling: I remember the quote. He gave it to Gilbert Millstein when Millstein was doing a profile on me in the New York Times. I didn't understand it at the time... I presume Herb means that inherently you cannot be commercial and artistic. You cannot be commercial and quality. You cannot be commercial concurrent with have a preoccupation with the level of storytelling that you want to achieve. And this I have to reject. I think you can be, I don't think calling something commercial tags it with a kind of an odious suggestion that it stinks, that it's something raunchy to be ashamed of. I don't think if you say commercial means to be publicly acceptable, what's wrong with that? The essence of my argument, Mike, is that as long as you are not ashamed of anything you write if you're a writer, as long as you're not ashamed of anything you perform if you're an actor, and I'm not ashamed of doing a television series. I could have done probably thirty or forty film series over the past five years. I presume at least I've turned down that many with great guarantees of cash, with great guarantees of financial security, but I've turned them down because I didn't like them. I did not think they were quality, and God knows they were commercial. But I think innate in what Herb says is the suggestion made by many people that you can't have public acceptance and still be artistic. And, as I said, I have to reject that.
Wallace: One of your most recent plays was one called The Velvet Alley, right?
Wallace: It was about the corrupting influences of Hollywood and big money.
Wallace: Where'd that come from? Your own experiences?
Serling: Many, part of it was very autobiographical, part of it was a composite of observation of other people involved.
Wallace: Well, what do you mean by the corrupting influence of Hollywood and big money? What is that all saying?
Serling: Well, I didn't mean to suggest that corruption had a geographical tag, that it was necessarily the corruption of Hollywood. What I tried to suggest dramatically was that when you get into the big money, particularly in the kind of detonating, exciting, explosive, overnight way that our industry permits, there are certain blandishments that a guy can succumb to and many do.
Wallace: Such as?
Serling: A preoccupation with status, with the symbols of status, with the heated swimming pool that's ten feet longer than the neighbors, with the big car, with the concern about billing, all these things. In a sense rather minute things, really, in context, but that become disproportionately large in a guy's mind.
Wallace: And because those become so large, what becomes small?
Serling: I think probably the really valuable things, and I know this sounds corny and sorta Buckwheat-ish to say things like having a family, being concerned with raising children, being concerned with where they go to school, being concerned with a good marital relationship. All these things I think are of the essence. Unfortunately, and the problem as I tried to dramatize in The Velvet Alley, was that the guy who makes the success is immediately assailed by everybody, and you suddenly find yourself having to compromise along the line, giving so many hours to work and a disproportionate number of fewer hours to family, and this in inherent in our business.
1st November 2007