Marc Scott Zicree: Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone Companion

“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. That’s the signpost up ahead – your next stop, the Twilight Zone!”

If you have spent much time at all watching classic television from the late 1950s into the 1960s then you have no doubt seen The Twilight Zone. This program was a formative one in my childhood and teen years in the 1970s, and it remains a source of fascination for me, as well for countless numbers of people.

For Christmas in 2006 one of the gifts I received was Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion, 2nd ed. (Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1989). After reading through the book and enjoying it immensely I contacted Marc through his website. Marc agreed to participate in an interview, but due to his very busy schedule as a writer and producer we were like two ships passing in the night. Just recently we were finally able to connect for a phone interview with the transcript below:

TheoFantastique: Marc, thank you for making time in a very busy schedule to participate in this interview. As we begin, for those who may not be familiar with your work can you sketch some of your background that you bring to the subject matter?

Marc Scott Zicree: Sure. Basically, I grew up in Los Angeles and spent all of my childhood reading science fiction books, comics books, watching television, and drawing, and although I went to UCLA as an art major taking graphic arts and having gallery shows of my art, by the time I was 19 I knew I wanted to be a writer. So I went to the Clarion Writers Workshop at Michigan State University, which is the top science fiction writing workshop in the country. It’s twenty-five students, and each week a different science fiction writer, a famous science fiction writer, lives in the dormitory with you and you workshop and write like crazy. It involves six writers over a six week course. I sold my first short story via Clarion to Damon Knight who was editing a science fiction anthology at that time. I went back to UCLA and got my degree in painting, sculpture, and graphic arts, but once I got out of college I knew I wanted to be a writer, producer, and to work in television.

At that time there really was no where you could go to learn that, so I thought let’s do some research, why not study up on one of the greatest shows of all time, and see how they made that show in order for me to learn how to do that. And the three shows that really made me want to be a writer and producer as a kid were the original Star Trek, the original Outer Limits, and the original Twilight Zone. So I thought of reading up on Twilight Zone and saw that there was written about it, we’re talking 1977. So this was two years after Rod Serling had died. I thought I would have to write the book that I wanted to read to learn what I needed to learn. The challenge was that I had sold one short story and had never even taken a journalism class, and I’d heard that Rod Serling’s widow, Carol, had already turned down major journalists who had wanted to write about Rod Serling and Twilight Zone. I think if I would have taken a poll of 100 people as to what my chances were about getting this book written they would have said I had no chance. It was up to me to make it happen. What I did was, I met one of the writers of The Twilight Zone, a fellow named George Clayton Johnson, at a science fiction convention when I was 16 and I kept in touch with him. So I interviewed George, and then I asked him who he knew, and he connected me with a couple of people and I interviewed them, and then they connected me up with people. Over a three month period I interviewed thirty people who had worked on The Twilight Zone, and it was only then when I really knew a lot about the subject and felt very confident that I could write this book that I went to Carol Serling. I remember going to her house that was exactly as Rod had left it with all of his Emmys were there, and Peabody Awards, and the three Hugos he won, and even his dog was there, an elderly Irish Setter. I remember standing in that very large living room telling Carol Serling what I had in mind, and I just felt absolutely convinced I could pull it off. And then Carol must have talked to someone I had interviewed and asked what they thought of me, and they must have given me a good report, because the next thing I knew Carol Serling said I had access to everything. And I spent the next several years, literally, crawling through Serling’s attic, going through his notebooks, pulling folders out of his files, and opening up boxes and carrying home his 16mm prints of The Twilight Zone episodes from the screening room, and just immersing myself in that subject. The book came out five years later, and it was rejected by twenty-vie publishers, two years of solid rejections, and that was where having my wife, Elaine, was vital who said, “Just keep going.” I did, and subsequently the book came out and was a huge bestseller, it was nominated for the American Book Award, it has sold over half a million copies, it’s been in print for over twenty-five years.

So there begins the tale. I started writing when I was 22 years old, and by the time I was 23 I was writing for television, and I’ve been doing so ever since. In fact, I just got nominated for the Nebula Award for the Star Trek episode I wrote and directed. This happened just last week.

TheoFantastique: Great. Congratulations on the award, and thanks for hanging in there on the book, it’s just wonderful. You mentioned the various television influences, and obviously Rod Serling. Your book begins with a discussion of his life and talks about his writing. Can you highlight some of the significant aspects of his life, in particular his work with Playhouse 90, perhaps his growing frustrations and how he left some of that to experiment with something new that would eventually become The Twilight Zone?

Marc Scott Zicree: Rod was born in Upstate New York, and he was a very outgoing child, very gregarious, very smart, very funny. He was tremendously popular, and then as soon as he graduated high school World War II had just started and so he volunteered and became a paratrooper, and jumped out of airplanes into jungles with Japanese soldiers who were trying to kill him. As a result, he suffered a severe shrapnel wound in his leg. When he came out of the war he had this tremendous need to write, to get things off his chest. He really needed something to process the horrors that he had endured. He started writing, and his initial submissions were to radio shows, and finally he sold something to a show called Grand Central Station. Then he was off and running. Television was just starting up in the late 1940s, and so he transitioned from radio to television. At that time they were really positioning television as this new medium that would be similar to the Broadway stage but that the entire country could watch and millions of
people simultaneously. It was live television at the time. So you got wonderful, brilliant writers producing works that were deeply personal and deeply realistic. And Rod was one of those writers. So from 1954-56 there were a lot of anthology shows on at that time such as Craft Playhouse, and Rod was writing about things society, and race, and politics, and when he tried to write something that was topical that was potentially controversial that came out of his heart and gut he was censored heavily to the degree that he couldn’t use the worlds “Democrat” or Republican,” he couldn’t talk about lynching, he couldn’t talk about major events of the day. So although he quickly became one of the top writers in television, writing things like “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” and although he was hugely successful and well paid, he was not satisfied as an artist because he was constantly feeling shackled as a writer. At one point he had written a political piece for Playhouse 90 and wasn’t able to comment on anything political so he said to the press, “If I’d have put it in the future and populated the planet with robots I think I would have been able to put in more of what I had to say.” This gave him the idea that if he took what he wanted to say and put it in a science fiction or fantasy context the censors wouldn’t notice that he wrote about his own world, but would have been able to get the word out. Which is exactly what happened. He created The Twilight Zone, and it took several years to actually sell it. He worked on a number of pilots before they actually shot the one that sold the show, and then he was off and running, and he had total creative control. There were 156 episodes and Serling wrote 92 of them himself.

TheoFantastique: It’s amazing as you watch the program that he addressed a number of social issues of the time that still resonate today. Why were issues of racism, the social outcast, oppression, and other social issues so important for him to explore?

Marc Scott Zicree: There are two different kinds of writers: there are writers who write to escape from their lives, to hid from what’s around them, and then there are writers who want to comment on their lives, and comment on the world their living in. I’m sort of the latter kind and so was Rod. When you have a medium in which millions of people are watching your work, and it lasts for decades, possibly for hundreds of years, it’s such an enormously powerful medium, television, that you want to say something fresh, you want to say something relevant, you want to say something truthful, and Rod was one of the great torchbearers of that cause, the cause of truth, and a spokesperson for his age. And in the tradition of Twain and Dickens, he wanted to be someone who could speak to what was wrong with society and as a result possibly change it. At the same time Rod was very aware that he had to be an entertainer and had to be entertaining in his work, and I think The Twilight Zone is very entertaining. I think one of the ironies of the fact that that the way Rod had turn The Twilight Zone to avoid censorship was that it forced him to write more universally. So, for instance, if he had been writings shows directly about things like the Cuban Missile Crisis, it would seem very musty that reflected the 1950s or 1960s, but because he was writing about the fear of the destruction of the world, fear of alien nation, fear of being singled out and alone against terrible, dreadful forces, something like “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” where William Shatner sees a gremlin on the wing and has to fight the others to prove that he’s sane, anyone who has ever spoken for a cause or gone against the majority opinion has this sense of being an outsider and has this sense of being that lone voice in the wilderness, and so I think Rod is almost unwittingly speaking for the ages because he was speaking more universally as a result of the censorship.

TheoFantastique: My teenage children recently discovered Twilight Zone for themselves and are now digging into my copies on DVD to watch the program, and obviously its appeal over the decades is due to fantastic story writing. I know that Rod Serling wrote the bulk of the stories for the series, but what other writers left their mark on this television experiment?

Marc Scott Zicree: There was a small core of writers on The Twilight Zone. Rod, of course, was writing the bulk of the episodes, but there was also Richard Matheson who wrote, again, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” he wrote a lot of terrific episodes. There was George Clayton Johnson who wrote “Kick the Can” and “Nothing in the Dark,” there was Charles Beaumont who wrote “”Long Live Walter Jameson,” and “The Howling Man.” There was also a writer named Earl Hamner who tended to write stories for the most part that were about rural characters, farmers and backwoods people. He actually went on to create The Waltons after he wrote eight episodes for The Twilight Zone. And then there were a few writers who just wrote one episode, but they were great episodes. For example, E. Jack Neuman wrote “The Trouble with Templeton,” and Reginald Rose wrote “The Incredible World of Horace Ford.” I think more than anything, although The Twilight Zone, although it had great acting, great directing, great music, great cinematography, more than anything The Twilight Zone was a writer’s show. It was run by a writer, and it was a show that showcased and spotlighted great writing. And I don’t thin without the great writing you would have had the great talent in other departments or the longevity the show has enjoyed.

TheoFantastique: This next question will be a tough one given the number of episodes, and so many good ones, if you had to narrow it down to two or three, what are some of your favorite episodes and why do they stand out for you?

Marc Scott Zicree: My favorite episode is “Walking Distance” which was one of Rod’s favorites too. In it Gig Young places a very tired, worldly executive who journeys back to his hometown and finds himself in his own past in his childhood and is determined to stay there. It’s just a great episode, it’s gorgeously written, gorgeously acted, perfect in every department. “Time Enough at Last” with Burgess Meredith as the last man on earth as a little bookworm, of course, is unforgettable. “Miniature” starring Robert Duvall, which is one of the hour-long episodes, is a terrific script by Charles Beaumont that is wonderfully acted by Robert Duvall. Another one I really like is “In Praise of Pip” with Billy Mumy and Jack Klugman, a great Serling script. There are just so many brilliant episodes. But then also there are episodes that sort of have a reach beyond the episode itself, such as “Mirror Image” which introduces the whole notion of the parallel world where your duplicate might try to take over your place in this world. It’s so creepy and I think it spawned a lot of other ideas in film and television.

TheoFantastique: What kind of continuing influence do you think The Twilight Zone has had on film and television?

Marc Scott Zicree: This had an enormous influence. I think there’s a whole subgenre of movies that you could basically say are Twilight Zone movies in feature length form. Certainly Field of Dreams, E.T., you could say Close Encounters of the Third Kind is very much a Twilight Zone kind of movie. Every year I think you can look to certain films that are very strongly influenced by Twilight Zone. Poltergeist is another one. In terms of television, Eureka is reminiscent of Twilight Zone. And something like Pushing Daisies where someone has this miraculous ability. Matheson talked about his concept for The Twilight Zone which was you write as realistically as possible and you drop in one fancy notion, just one, and you see how it plays out. So what if you were an old woman who was afraid of death and Mr. Death came calling in the form of someone who looks like a handsome police officer. So you have this one [fantasy] notion, but the rest of it is reality based. I think Pushing Daisies is that. Lost is strongly influenced by Twilight Zone. So the ripple effect for Twilight Zone has been major. Gene Roddenberry gave the eulogy at Rod Serling’s funeral and I think Star Trek would not exist if not for Twilight Zone. Twilight Zone basically said you can do adult science fiction on television, you don’t have to dumb it down, it’s not just for teenie fair like Space Patrol or Space Cadet. These are shows that I love but they are clearly not the kind of program The Twilight Zone was. The Twilight Zone still packs a punch.

TheoFantastique: You mentioned at the beginning a number of the projects that you’ve been involved in. What might folks look for in their local bookstore or on television that you’ve been involved in?

Marc Scott Zicree: The most fun they can have in terms of my work is if they log onto they can watch the entire episode of Star Trek I’ve just co-written, directed, and executive produced that stars George Takei that was just nominated for the Nebula. If anybody is going to the World Science Fiction Convention and wants to nominate it for a Hugo they’ve got the next two weeks to do so. I’ve also written the Magic Time trilogy of novels, The Twilight Zone Companion is still in print. They are also just about to release a Twilight Zone unabridged audio that will include my interview with Burgess Meredith. This will be great fun I think. And then I’m creating a new television show called Frontier that won’t be out for a little while but is a big, ambitious space-going show. So there’s plenty of stuff on the horizon.

TheoFantastique: Well, Marc, it sounds like the research you did on Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone worked out very well for you in learning the writer’s craft and entertaining people. Thank you so much for taking the time. I appreciate it. I’m glad we were finally able to touch bases.

Marc Scott Zicree: You’re very welcome. I’m happy to do it. And keep enjoying The Twilight Zone.

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