In one of those summers of my youth, my buddies and I would always wrap up our nightly mischief so that we could get home in time to watch The Twilight Zone reruns at 11 pm. The next day, my buddy David Locastro and I would eagerly ask one another, “Did you see that one last night?” With our utmost fanboy authority, we’d begin to dissect the most recent episode.
Fast forward to late March when the 44th Annual Ithacon hosted Twilight Zone expert and Serling aficionado Nick Parisi. His recent book, Serling, His Life, Work and Imagination is a fascinating and engaging work. As Rod Serling was a professor at Ithaca College and Ithacon was exhibiting treasures from the Serling Archives this year, it made perfect sense to invite Parisi as a guest.
The show was great fun but, as all shows are, it was also a blur of activities. So, it was after Ithacon that I caught up with Nick to speak more about this book.
Ed Catto: So many of us grew up with The Twilight Zone and we all have our stories. For me, I have fond memories of watching it on WPIX out of New York City. What was your interaction and how did you become so much of fan that you’re now an author and expert?
Nick Parisi: Ed, I have similar memories of WPIX. I started watching TZ on WPIX when I was nine or ten years old and I still remember the nightly schedule: The Odd Couple at 11, The Honeymooners at 11:30, Star Trek at midnight, and The Twilight Zone at 1 am. I would do my best to stay awake and I would usually make it! The show mesmerized me pretty much immediately and I became a fanatic for it pretty quickly. Then Marc Zicree’s Twilight Zone Companion came out and it kicked my fanaticism into another gear. That was a truly revolutionary book.
EC: What are the three Twilight Zone episodes that you feel everyone else overlooks?
NP: There are several Twilight Zone episodes that I consider underrated. One that seems completely overlooked is “The Trouble With Templeton,” written by E. Jack Neumann. It’s a terrific variation on Serling’s theme of the aging man who clings to the past and worries that his best days are behind him. I think it’s the best episode not written by any of the “core four” of Serling, Beaumont, Matheson, and Johnson. Charles Beaumont’s “Shadow Play” is generally well regarded but I don’t think it ranks as highly as it should – it’s one of my favorites. And one that I wouldn’t call underrated, but maybe “over vilified” is “Mr. Bevis.” I don’t dislike the comedic episodes nearly as much as most, and while I would never argue that “Mr. Bevis” is a great episode, I just think that it doesn’t deserve the vitriol that it sometimes receives. There are a couple dozen episodes that are worse than “Mr. Bevis.”
EC: I’m fascinated by Serling’s western TV series The Loner. I know you write about it extensively in the book. Do you love that too and should we all rush out and watch it?
NP: One of my explicit goals in writing my book was to expose people to some of Serling’s lesser known work, and The Loner is near the top of that list. After having been less involved in the TZ’s fourth and fifth season than he had been previously, Serling jumped into The Loner with both feet. He seemed recharged, and his literary voice is so strong in it. Yes, people need to rush out and buy it (it was finally released on DVD a few years ago).
EC: You seem to be part of a very robust Twilight Zone culture – enthusiasts who podcast, attend conventions, etc. Can you tell me a little about Twilight Zone fandom?
NP: Twilight Zone fandom is a pretty incredible thing. The Twilight Zone FB group has over 30,000 members. There are several terrific TZ podcasts. This October there will be another “Serling Fest” in Binghamton, where fans can gather and meet writers who have written Serling-related books and celebrate their love for the show with people who speak the same language. The Twilight Zone is timeless.
EC: What can you tell me about Serling’s time in Central New York and the Finger Lakes?
NP: Serling’s love for Binghamton is well known. He had a cabin on Cayuga Lake that he and the family would visit every summer, and he was a very dedicated professor at Ithaca College for several years. He had great affection for the area and he gave so much of himself to it.
EC: We loved having you as a guest at ITHACON. How was that experience for you? (And please be honest~!)
NP: Ithacon was (honestly) the best experience I have yet had at a convention. I talked to several kids, no older than 11, who love the Twilight Zone. I spoke with college students who told me that they enrolled at Ithaca specifically because of Rod Serling’s connection to the school. It was so heartening to see the awareness and the respect that everyone involved exhibited for Serling and his work.
EC: After reading your book, Nick, I’m struck by the many struggles of Serling in the sixties. Do you think he was enjoyed that decade?
NP: The late 1960s was a very trying time for Rod Serling, as it was for so many Americans. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and of Robert Kennedy, piled atop his growing dismay over the war in Vietnam, made him question his faith in humanity. At what may have been his lowest point, he wrote, “I have a sneaking suspicion that these are the real dark ages – a time when men no longer care.” Creatively it was a frustrating time as well. The Loner, as much as I love it, was a ratings failure and was canceled after one season. Another series that he was involved with – The New People – was short lived also. He wrote several screenplays that were not produced. All that said, he ended the decade earning co-credit for writing one of the biggest blockbusters of all time – Planet of the Apes, and the pilot film for Rod Serling’s Night Gallery was one of the highest rated shows of the year.
EC: You write a lot about Serling’s work on Planet of Apes and Night Gallery. How do you feel about those two franchises?
NP: Serling’s contribution to Planet of the Apes has been subject to a lot of speculation over the years, and I hope my book clarifies the matter. He wrote several drafts of the screenplay and the film simply would not be what it is were it not for his contributions.
EC: And Night Gallery?
NP: Night Gallery was the most frustrating creative experience of Serling’s career. He simply did not get along with the series’ producer, Jack Laird, and Laird was not a fan of Serling’s writing style. The two of them butted heads pretty much from day one of the series. Despite the conflicts, Serling wrote some great stuff for the series – episodes like “The Messiah on Mott Street” and “Cool Air” rank among his best work, and “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” was one of his personal favorites.
EC: What do you think Serling would make of the adulation his fans have for him?
NP: Rod Serling once said, “Each of us leaves behind ruins or monuments.” One of the sad ironies of Rod Serling’s life is that he died believing that he had not left behind any monuments. He thought that he would be forgotten. He would be shocked that we are still discussing him and The Twilight Zone sixty years after it debuted.
EC: I have to ask this one- how do you like the new Twilight Zone series?
NP: I have watched only the first episode of the new series. Give me a few days to watch the rest and I’ll send you my review!
EC: Ha! Fair enough, Nick. Thanks so very much!
Rod Serling: His Life, Work and Imagination
By Nick Parisi
541 pages. University of Mississippi Press. $38.00