LOS ANGELES — Before his death in 1975 at age 50, Rod Serling was one of the top Emmy Award-winning writers during the golden age of live TV drama of the 1950s, penning such acclaimed dramas as “Patterns,” “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and “The Comedian.” In the 1960s he became a TV superstar as the host of his seminal CBS anthology series “The Twilight Zone.”
In his prolific career, Serling also wrote such films as 1964’s “Seven Days in May” and 1968’s “Planet of the Apes.” He was also the host and frequent writer on the NBC anthology series “Night Gallery” in the early 1970s. Serling returned in 1970 to the type of dramatic special he had success with in the 1950s with the Emmy-winning “Hallmark Hall of Fame” drama “A Storm in Summer.”
Serling was also a devoted husband and father, and his younger daughter Anne Serling, 57, has followed in her father’s footsteps. After teaching for several years she turned to writing poetry and has now written a poignant memoir, “As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling.”
It’s a warm, poetic love letter to her father, who in real life was a clown who enjoyed making his daughter laugh and played basketball with her. It took Serling a long time to write about her father.
“I started a book about my dad about 10 years after he died called ‘In His Absence,’” Serling said. “I couldn’t complete it. I was not ready to sort of navigate that whole minefield of grief. But it was something I really wanted to do. It was cathartic for me.”
Serling recently talked about her father and her memoir by phone from her home in Cayuga Heights, N.Y.
Q. I had no idea that your father was such a funny guy who would do impressions, jokes and even wear lamp shades to get a laugh.
A. He was so brilliantly funny. My mother used to say “stop laughing, you are only encouraging him.”
He was a great practical joker. When my parents first got married they lived in a trailer on campus. I guess there was a hole in the top of the trailer, which was like a window vent. My mother had to go out for something and he decided to crawl up in the hole and hang upside down like a bat waiting for her. I guess she was out a little longer than he expected so he was up there for quite a while.
Q. He was quite popular with your friends.
A. My friends adored him. At first they were apprehensive because they connected him to “The Twilight Zone,” but within five minutes in my dad’s presence, they felt comfortable.
Q. So why didn’t he write comedies?
A. I don’t think comedy writing was his strong suit. The “Twilight Zone” episode that comes to mind, “Cavender Is Coming” with Carol Burnett, was supposed to be a comedy and I think failed. Comedy writing wasn’t his thing.
Q. Your father had such a strong moral code writing about injustices and racial prejudice. Despite problems with the censors, he stuck to his guns.
A. When he couldn’t get the messages out that’s when he launched “The Twilight Zone.” He was quoted as saying an alien could say what a Democrat or Republican couldn’t.
Q. Not only did your father have physical issues because of the wounds he suffered in World War II, he also had nightmares of his experience in combat.
A. He absolutely did. I vividly remember him having nightmares and when I would ask him what happened he said, “I dreamed the Japanese were coming at me.” Back then post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t even a term.
He always planned to go into teaching kids physical education, but because he had been so traumatized by the war, he switched to language and literature. He was quoted saying he needed to get it off of his gut and out of his system.
Q. What are your favorite works of your dad’s?
A. I love “Requiem for a Heavyweight” of course, and “A Storm in Summer” was one of the most beautiful shows I had ever seen. In terms of “The Twilight Zone,” I love “Walking Distance” and “A Stop at Willoughby.” We used to watch “The Night of the Meek” every Christmas as a family. “In Praise of Pip” is one I discovered after my dad died.
Q. You write so openly and lovingly about your father’s death and your immense grief. Even nearly four decades later, that must have been so difficult for you.
A. I had just turned 20 two weeks before he died. I couldn’t come to terms with it. Writing about the grief was very difficult. It was an earlier draft when my editor said to me, your grief is so central to this book you have to be more open. I understood. Once she said that, I let go.
I did an early reading at the Paley Center (in New York) before the book was done. A woman came up to me afterward and told me that her dad had a terminal illness. After hearing me read she knew she would be OK. I can’t even describe to you what I felt when she said that to me, that my words had helped her in some way. All I could do was hug her.