Rod Serling and His Evil Art

The late ’60s had been an artistic struggle for Rod Serling. After the third (and ultimately final) cancellation of his classic speculative TV series The Twilight Zone in 1964, he was set adrift in the then no man’s land of studio screenwriting. At 34, he remained the mind behind such medium masterworks as Patterns, Requiem for a Heavyweight, and The Rack. The Twilight Zone had also pushed the very limits of the still fledgling medium’s creativity.

Yet even though he was one of the more liberal and free thinking minds in all of entertainment, the social upheaval of the era seemed to stifle him. He found it difficult to mesh his intellectual idealism with the growing social revolution and call for change. While scripts for Seven Days in May, Planet of the Apes, and The Man touched on major hot button issues, all were adaptations of other people’s work. He seemed adrift without a significant source for his voice.

So with The Twilight Zone now owned outright by CBS, he weighed his options. Oddly, though shaded with his success, the other two networks had not pursued him for a follow-up. Contacts were perfunctory and phone calls went unanswered. Taking matters into this own hands, Serling came up with a simple idea. He would adapt three stories and set them, anthology style, in a haunted art exhibition, a place where the eerie and sometimes downright demonic paintings could be used as precursors and set-ups. Instead of focusing on one half-hour narrative per episode, this omnibus format would give viewers a weekly dose of gothic horror. He penned the pilot, named the potential series The Night Gallery, and shopped the script around.

Initially, nobody was interested. Serling got the same response from a leery executive boardroom: “Audiences like continuing characters and storylines.”; “Horror on TV doesn’t work”; “It will be too expensive.”; “It will be too high brow.” The last comment really angered Serling. For years, he had fought for the recognition of the author as one of the prime driving forces in any medium. He lived by the written word, using it as a means of identification and empowerment, and hated when anyone saw fit to undermine it. The rows with his peers would eventually lead to a kind of unspoken blacklisting. After winning several Emmys for his work, his criticism of the organization in several interviews — mostly for their limited acknowledgement of social issues — caused a backlash that left him unappreciated and unrewarded (after 1964, he would never again be nominated for the prestigious award)

“I’ll Never Leave You – Ever” by Tom Wright.

Image from Night

Still, his name value added something to the mix, and a recent stint as narrator for Jacques Cousteau’s popular undersea adventure specials kept him in the spotlight. He had also spent six months as the host of Ralph Edward’s Liar’s Club game show. Through his non-fiction writing and talk show circuit interviews, Serling had successfully marketed himself as product pitchman, critical thinker, and social commentator. He was an icon, the recognizable face of The Twilight Zone‘s endearing success. Yet he was still more of a celebrity than a vital part of his creative community. He needed Night Gallery to jumpstart his aesthetic reputation and the studios were at least willing to listen. NBC accepted the pitch of Night Gallery and Universal came on board. Serling was back on prime time television.

But there would be some major concessions before a single second of this new series would air. First, Serling had to act as host. He really didn’t mind. He got great satisfaction out of using his distinctive voice and brooding manner to drum up suspense. Second, he had to contribute regularly to the show as both host and writer. Again, that wouldn’t be an issue. One of the reasons he wanted Night Gallery was to exercise some of the imagination muscles that working on screenplays and magazine pieces didn’t provide. This new format would give him a chance to write material of any length. Finally, Serling could not oversee production. While this last mandate was indeed a blow (he enjoyed the role of overseer), it was something he could live with.

After all, he was back in the familiar, comfortable territory of television, again. The new show looked a whole lot like the old one. The fashions may have changed from dressed down Conservative era chic to faux hippy psychedelic silliness, and the new technology of color TV took the inherent drama out of The Twilight Zone‘s monochrome menace, but when you boiled the series down to its basics, The Night Gallery was really nothing more than a free form update of Serling’s celebrated past. The format shift allowed for stories to go beyond the previous 24-minute length (minus commercials), and it also opened up other narrative avenues. One of Night Gallery‘s ‘gimmicks’ was to offer darkly comic blackouts, jokey asides that let Serling and others practice a bit of macabre mirth. A typical 30-second vignette might feature a vampire going to a blood bank to make ‘a withdrawal’.

Initially, NBC had no real worries. They had faith in what Serling could do. Besides, Universal had collected quite a talent pool to bring Serling’s first script to life. Directors included The Omega Man‘s Boris Sagal, industry journeyman Barry Shear, and future popcorn king Stephen Spielberg. In fact, Night Gallery would represent the 23-year-old future icon’s first professional job behind the lens. Actors included a fading (but still fabulous) Joan Crawford, Roddy McDowall, Ozzie Davis, Barry Sullivan, Richard Kiley, Sam Jaffe, and as required, Serling himself as host. The final element, the artwork, was given over to Hollywood heavyweight Jaroslav “Jerry” Gebr. His commission would set the tone for Night Gallery‘s presumptive success.

In November 1969, the pilot premiered as a major made-for-TV movie. With Serling’s name in the credits, and face on the screen, audiences anticipated something special. And at least initially, Night Gallery didn’t disappoint. The first tale in the trilogy, “The Cemetery” saw Davis playing manservant to spoiled rich kid McDowall. While he spends his dead uncle’s money, eerie images begin appearing in a staircase canvas. Next up was “Eyes”, the story of a blind society dowager (Crawford) who wants to try a radical new surgery to regain her sight. Last but not least was the Holocaust-based tale of “Escape Route”. In this intriguing tale, a Nazi war criminal (Kiley) hiding out in South America discovers that he has a unique gift — he can literally “wish” himself into the paintings at a local museum.

“Rare Objects” by Tom Wright. Image (partial) from Night

Ratings were surprisingly good, especially for a horror-themed show. Clearly, Serling’s standing amongst TV audiences had changed little. Everyone involved waited for the standard series order…and then waited some more. NBC was still worried that Serling’s reputation for interference and troublemaking was still trailing him. It took over a year after the pilot aired before the network finally gave the go ahead. By then, water cooler conversations by viewers on the show’s twists and the usual style of the middle installment (Spielberg’s unique vision showed through even then) had calmed. There was no buzz, even after the pilot was rerun. NBC made sure to protect itself, in case of failure. Night Gallery would only get an order for six shows.

Just like the decision to sell his interest in The Twilight Zone backfired when CBS parlayed the program into rerun gold, Serling’s choice to not personally oversee Night Gallery would end up destroying his dream of a weekly series success. Independent and autonomous, he was not used to having his work rewritten. Yet Universal’s executive in charge, Jack Laird, hated Serling’s downbeat, moralistic material. As a populist, he appreciated the clear cut over the complicated. He didn’t mind the dread or the depression, but there had to be a happy ending — or at least a little light at the end of the tunnel — before the final credits rolled. As a result Serling’s contributions were edited, sometimes changed completely.

When the series finally debuted, it was part of an unheralded experiment by NBC called Four-in-One. Night Gallery would have to share a rotating slot with future Mystery Movie stalwart McCloud, along with two forgotten shows, San Francisco International Airport and The Psychiatrist. It was not the best way to build audience attention and loyalty. One week you’d get another Sterling installment of Night Gallery, the next you’d find yourself staring at Dennis Weaver as a transplanted country lawman in the big city. There were some highlights initially — Serling penned the standout episode entitled “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” — but Laird’s imprint was apparent, sometimes obvious. He made the original downbeat finale turn into a slightly surreal celebration of life.

Indeed, installments like “The Housekeeper” (a henpecked scientist wants a kindly old maid to replace his shrewish wife via a “personality transplant”), “Clean Kills and Other Trophies” (rich father demands son hunt ‘something’ before he earns his trust fund), and “The Last Laurel” (a track star finds a psychic way to overcome his accident-caused paralysis) seemed like bargain basement tales straight out of an EC Comics issue of The Haunt of Fear rather than the mind of one of America’s top writer. They were gimmicky and goofy. Other episodes — the medical kit from the future known as “The Little Black Bag”, the ‘be careful what you wish for’ elements of a desperate comics desire to be funny in “Make Me Laugh” — seemed half completed, great ideas that just went “pffft” once the denouement arrived.

None of this went unnoticed by NBC and Universal. While ratings were decent, it was determined that Serling was still exerting too much influence on the show. Getting the message loud and clear, his frequent contributions became even spottier and sloppier. As the second season series’ order expanded to 22 episodes, Night Gallery stayed directionless. Laird continued to tow the party line, but as nothing more than a hired gun, Serling’s interest continued to wane. The on-air aspect continued to intrigue him — he was enjoying the accompanying fame — but unlike The Twilight Zone, individual voices such as his own were being stifled for a more marginalized mainstream approach.

Much of this run was mediocre at best, with a few highlights — the future shock of “The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes”, the haunted journal known as “The Diary” — metered out amongst monsters, murders, and other misguided attempts at terror. There was a continued reliance on gallows’ humor (Hell as a place for squares, Dr. Jeykll’s famed experiments taking a tacky turn) and an adolescent level of wit. Laird loved what he saw; it perfectly matched his aesthetic and the studio mandate. But Serling knew the series was sunk. Instead of growing in originality and bravery, it was mired in a ‘creativity by committee’ ideal that doomed everything anyone contributed. By the time season three rolled around, he was beyond bitter.

Naturally, the studio decided to try something new, and the revamped Night Gallery saw the series format completely overhauled. Gone was the hour-long anthology approach. A new half hour, Twilight Zone-like arrangement, was agreed upon. Of course, the content didn’t improve, though the new running time did allow stories to have a more recognizable TV flow. The last blow came when a disgruntled Serling indirectly disowned the series. He disappeared for months at a time, preferring to go on highly paid speaking tours rather than deal with Night Gallery. He made commercials, personal appearances, and taught at Ithaca College, all the while grumbling about the show under his breath. When called back to Los Angeles, he would find excuses to avoid the trip. When present during production, he was short and dismissive. When the new series was finally cancelled in May of ’73, he realized it was the end. His time in the industry was limited.

In fact, Serling’s sense was prophetic, indeed. While he went on to do more voiceover work, as well as the occasional script, his persistent chain smoking finally caught up with him. He suffered two massive heart attacks in 1975, and while on the operating table, a third one ended his life. He was only 50. As with The Twilight Zone, NBC’s reruns of Night Gallery had given the short-lived show a new cult lease on life. Even better, a generation that might have been a tad too young to enjoy Serling in the ’60s now made him an idol of the ’70s. Oddly enough, it wasn’t the Emmy winning efforts of the past that put him in this position. It was the man himself, his enigmatic onscreen persona, his efforts on behalf of Night Gallery, and it’s unusually eerie art museum approach.

“The Sin Eater” by Tom Wright. Image from Night

Indeed, the one thing that continues to endure about the series is its creepy canvases. There are websites devoted to their haunted visions, and the artist involved finds their continued interest and appreciation quite unnerving (after the pilot, the paintings were created by Tom Wright). Indeed, of all the schoolyard sentiments the show provided, framed images of a tap-dancing skeleton, a bog dwelling demon, or a face-filled sun over a particularly disturbing graveyard, were the most rabidly discussed. It was the kind of fear fodder that truly inspired a pre- and teenage imagination. Ironically enough, Rod Serling had little input in their creation as well. Luckily, his legend survived The Night Gallery. A less talented man would have seen his myth crumble.

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