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“Last Night” of a Legend: Mickey Rooney and Rod Serling

“I want to be big!” thunders Michael Grady in Rod Serling’s “The Last Night of a Jockey.”

An ironic line, as it turns out. Grady, a horse jockey who’s been blackballed for a variety of racing infractions, is a small man who, by the episode’s end, gets his wish in the most literal way. Hello, Twilight Zone.

mickeyrooney

And goodbye, Mickey Rooney, the man who brought Grady to raw, sputtering life in a high-octane performance that few other actors would even attempt. He’d become big long before there was a Twilight Zone. Only five feet, two inches tall, Rooney stood considerably higher in the pantheon of golden-era film stars.

A legend? Let’s put it this way: News of Rooney’s death at 93 on April 6, 2014, prompted more than one shocked fan on Twitter to note that it somehow felt too soon. Read the rest of this entry

Serling’s Winning Gamble

It’s easy to look at The Twilight Zone today and think of it as a can’t-miss proposition. How could it fail?

Yet Rod Serling was taking a real gamble when the show debuted in the fall of 1959. Anthology shows had a shaky track record. Science fiction and fantasy weren’t given much respect in those days. More importantly, he was walking away from a lucrative job as a successful TV writer.

Serling's Winning Gamble2

So why did he do it? Here’s what he told Mike Wallace just before Twilight Zone premiered:

I’m not nearly as concerned with the money to be made on this show as I am with the quality of it, and I can prove that. I have a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer which guarantees me something in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million dollars over a period of three years. This is a contract I’m trying to break and get out of, so I can devote time to a series which is very iffy, which is a very problematical thing. It’s only guaranteed 26 weeks and if it only goes 26 weeks and stops, I’ll have lost a great deal of money. But I would rather take the chance and do something I like, something I’m familiar with, something that has a built-in challenge to it.

Serling had already won three Emmy awards before The Twilight Zone went on the air. He would win three more in the years ahead, two of them for Twilight Zone. The routine excellence of the series quickly turned it into a classic with legions of fans.

It pays sometimes to “take the chance.” Not exactly a Zone moral — but a good lesson nonetheless.

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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

Serling on Awards

Rod Serling won numerous major writing awards throughout his career, including six Emmy awards. Yet he was surprisingly unimpressed with such trophies.

RS Emmy 4

Here’s what he told editor Linda Brevelle in what turned out to be his last interview (March 1975). She asked how he could top himself after being feted on so many occasions, and he replied:

Well, first of all, I’ve never really topped myself, because awards in themselves really don’t reflect major accomplishment. It’s kind of a strange, backslapping ritual that we go through in this town where you get awards for almost everything. For surviving the day you’re going to get awards. So I can’t suggest that those things represent any pinnacle of achievement.

If indeed they did, I suppose I’d be worried about how do I top myself. But if indeed I’m a household name, it’s a fortuitous event, really singularly undeserved, and caused by a whole lot of extraneous, fortuitous things that have occurred. Read the rest of this entry