Serling on Camera: Filming “the Star of the Show”
“Because there was no regular, recurring cast, he was, in essence, the star of the show.” — Billy Mumy on Rod Serling
Billy has a point. Anthologies differ from other TV series in one important way: Every episode offers us an entirely new story, with a new cast. The only continuity is the quality of the series itself.
The Twilight Zone had that in spades, obviously. But it had something else: Rod Serling, on screen. Hinting at what we’d see in the episode ahead, then returning at the end (at least vocally) to offer some wry comment about what we had witnessed.
I don’t know about you, but his presence is one of my favorite things about the series. “I think it was a major factor in the success of the show,” William Self, the producer of “Where is Everybody?” once said of Serling’s narrations.
Let’s face it — the fifth dimension is a scary, strange, disorienting place. It’s fun to explore (from a spectator’s seat, anyway), but a lifeline helps. We need something to tether us to shore as we travel about in this odd realm. That’s what Serling provided.
My favorite intros are the ones where he’s actually in the scene with the actors. Most of his on-screen introductions were filmed at another time. We watch the opening scene, then there’s a whip-pan over to Serling. We can see he’s on the set, but he wasn’t there when the scene was being filmed.
Not in “The Invaders”. We see him right outside Agnes Moorehead’s window, talking to us while she continues to work in her kitchen. In “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”, we see him standing next to a tree as the patrolmen search the wintry woods. In “The Grave”, as the actors walk from the spot where Pinto Sykes was gunned down, Serling emerges from a gate in the fence they’re passing.
I also like the way we see him appear at the start of “The Howling Man” and “Nervous Man in a Four-Dollar Room”. He’s not on set, but sort of super-imposed over the scene. Mr. Ellington has collapsed, the camera is tilted, and … there’s Rod. In “Nervous Man,” he speaks from what seems to be the ceiling; Jackie Rhodes is shifting on the bed beneath him as Serling tells us what to expect.
Unfortunately, we got the in-scene openings only in Seasons 2 and 3. Serling did no on-screen intros until the last episode of Season 1, “A World of His Own” (he even interacted with the other characters that time). Then in Season 4 (the hour-long episodes), while he was busy teaching at Antioch College, his intros were filmed in front of a plain backdrop. No whip-pan, no scenery. For the fifth and last season, the whip-pan was back — exclusively this time.
Somehow, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that TZ was at its best when Serling could be found in the scene with the actors. Generally speaking, the more involved he was, the better the series tended to be.
In an interview for “Dimensions Behind the Twilight Zone”, director Lamont Johnson recalls Serling’s “intense” personality and talks about what a “bundle of nerves” he could be when it was time to film his intros:
When he was confronted with having to do the lead-ins, the famous Serling lead-ins, which everybody loves, it drove him crazy. He would break out in a deadly sweat and he dreaded that, he really hated it.
So I played some tricks on him. I did a couple of the lead-ins for some of my shows, and I knew how nervous he was, so I would say, ‘Just run it, Rod, and just talk to me, they’re still setting up.’ So he would do it more improvisatorially, sort of freely, and I usually would like it. I would say, ‘That’s it! We just bought it.’ And he’d say, ‘Okay, when do we have to do it?’ I said, ‘We just did it.’ And he was so relieved that he said, ‘Oh, I want you to do all of these. That’s terrific!’
And so I did quite a few of them from shows that weren’t mine. But that just showed you how a little deflecting from the normal procedure saved his nerves.
Lamont’s right — we really do love them. Nice work indeed from the true “star of the show”.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!