The Write Stuff

“This is a series for the storyteller, because it’s our thinking that an audience will always sit still, and listen [to], and watch a well-told story.”

That quote by Rod Serling is from a short film made in 1959 to interest potential sponsors in buying ad time on a brand-new series called The Twilight Zone. It’s a telling remark — one that, I believe, offers a key insight into why the show succeeded, even beyond Serling’s expectations. It helps us understand why the show still appeals more than 50 years later.

In short, Serling had the formula correct from the start: tell a good story.

The Write Stuff3

Think of an episode like a wheel. There is acting, directing, music, special effects. All of those elements are important, but they’re like the spokes of the wheel. They won’t work unless they’re attached firmly to something strong and well-structured: a hub.

Well, the story is like the hub. And where do stories come from? From storytellers. And in Serling’s America, storytellers (i.e., writers) were turning to a medium that was still fairly new then: television. He knew the series would rise and fall on the quality of the stories it told.

Most of these stories, fortunately, would come from his typewriter. But even a writer as creative and prolific as Serling couldn’t write every episode. So he turned to the best writers he could find — talented storytellers whose work fit within the Zone mold: Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont and George Clayton Johnson, to name the most notable.

Robert Redford ad George Clayton Johnson on the set of "Nothing in the Dark"

Robert Redford and George Clayton Johnson on the set of “Nothing in the Dark”

It’s a mark of Serling’s decency that he was never one to hog the spotlight. Despite his justifiable fame, he freely shared credit with others. When he accepted his second Emmy award for The Twilight Zone in 1961, he thanked his fellow “writing gremlins”, mentioned Matheson, Beamont and Johnson by name, and added, holding up the Emmy: “Come on over, fellas, and we’ll carve it up like a turkey.”

This generous attitude, coupled with an understanding of how central the storyteller is, also prevailed in private. George Clayton Johnson discovered this when he and his wife, Lola, visited the set where they were filming “A Penny For Your Thoughts”, in which Dick York plays a mild-mannered bank clerk who suddenly acquires the ability to read minds. Years later, Johnson recalled:

Now I will tell you my favorite Twilight Zone and Rod Serling story.

I was on the set that day because I was invited. I took Lola with me, and we watched the filming. I introduced myself to James Sheldon, he was the director, and we talked a while and then Rod Serling comes on the set. He’s leading a choir of onlookers like a tour guide for visiting dignitaries, and everyone on the set was electrified. No one dared to make a move while he was there.

Then he sees me and Lola standing there, and he introduces me to the people, “And this is George Clayton Johnson, the writer of this absolutely dandy film we are making right now.” And I am hearing my name and the praise. Then Serling introduces the director … but he introduced me first. I felt like a king.

The Write Stuff1

Johnson wasn’t the only TZ “gremlin” to note how the work of the storyteller was honored and appreciated on The Twilight Zone. In another blog post, I noted how pleasantly surprised Charles Beaumont was to find his “Perchance to Dream” going before the cameras virtually untouched. The producers of other TV series might treat the writer like a mere commodity, but not Rod Serling.

The result? A series that set the standard for imaginative fiction. The secret: a well-told story. And, as we’ve seen, a healthy respect for the storytellers who write them.

Photos courtesy of Wendy BrydgeFor a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on TwitterFacebook or Pinterest. You can also get email notifications of future posts by entering your address under “Follow S&S Via Email” on the upper left-hand side of this post. Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

About Paul

Fanning about the work of Rod Serling all over social media. If you enjoy pics, quotes, facts and blog posts about The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Serling's other projects, you've come to the right place.

Posted on 09/24/2012, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. He truly was one of a kind. Look at the imitators—the revamped TZ show, the movies, just couldn’t capture the magic of the original. That says a LOT…but it’s also a sad state of affairs, because we have to keep living in the past with really GOOD stuff, and no one in the present can create NEW things to wow the socks off us like this! Mixed bag, you know?

    Thanks for yet another cool post, Paul!

    • I know what you mean, Frank. It’s not as if they can make any new old shows! Alas. What I wouldn’t give for a sixth season of TZ, let me tell you. At any rate, you’re welcome — thanks for the nice comment, as always!

  2. Wonderful post! I just had to make this one of my Gal Friday Picks. Serling was a class act, no doubt about it. Beautiful job, Boss. This is so enjoyable to read over and over again!

    • I’m very glad you did, GF! Your weekly picks are helping me do some much-needed house-cleaning around here. I really appreciate it. And what a nice compliment! It’s very gratifying to hear that these posts hold up so well. Thanks!

  3. Nice article. Fully agreed. It’s still one of my go to shows and holds up brilliantly. Even when the the effects and sometimes the sets can look a bit cheap, the stories, acting, direction and photography are tops. I woukd rather watch a well written show with dated effects than a modern lazy, crapy show with the best technical specs. Happy New Year

  1. Pingback: Defining The Zone | Shadow & Substance

  2. Pingback: Matheson: In the Zone | Shadow & Substance

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