LOS ANGELES — According to his widow, Rod Serling, who penned the seminal sci-fi/fantasy anthology series “The Twilight Zone” and the heartbreaking “Playhouse 90” drama “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” felt that writing was the only thing he could do.
“He couldn’t be a carpenter,” said Carol Serling. “He couldn’t be a plumber. He didn’t want to be a lawyer, so this is what was left.”
Luckily, Serling was a proli-fic craftsman. He was just 50 when he died in 1975 of complications from a coronary bypass, but his brilliant work remains an integral part of popular culture. “Twilight Zone” and “Night Gallery” reruns still thrill on networks such as Syfy and Me-TV.
The UCLA Film & Television Archive is honoring this Emmy and Peabody award-winning writer with a retrospective, “Rod Serling: Other Dimensions” at the Billy Wilder Theater. The festival, through Sept. 19, offers a look at the diversity and depth of Serling’s work and includes the 1964 political thriller “Seven Days in May,” the 1966 Frank Sinatra caper film “Assault on a Queen” and such TV fare as the 1970 Emmy-winning drama “A Storm in Summer” with Peter Ustinov and the never-aired 1972 pilot based on that drama, “We Two.” There’s also a 1971 episode of the anthology series “Night Gallery.” (On that series and “Twilight Zone,” Serling was the intense host.)
“The constant in Serling’s work is his timeless humanism,” said Mark Quigley, head of research at the archive who co-curated the festival.
“Thematically, he would always champion the meek over the mighty,” said Quigley. “He wasn’t afraid to hold up a mir- ror to human frailties and really show the grave and ugly consequences of the wrong road taken, whether ... prejudice or nuclear proliferation.
“His work wasn’t necessarily subtle. He would take viewers by the lapels to make his points, but that is what makes his dramas so compelling. ... They are moralistic, but also have this edge and urgency.”
And his influence is still felt. Writer-director-producer J.J. Abrams of “Felicity,” “Alias,” “Lost” and the new “Star Trek” was “passionate beyond all sanity over the ‘Twilight Zone’ ” as a kid to the point he even did a black-and-white episode of “Felicity,” “Help for the Lovelorn,” that was a homage to the 1961 episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit.” Abrams offered a tip of the hat to his favorite “Zone” episode, “Walking Distance” in his film, “Super 8.”
“The reason we are still talking about Rod Serling is that he knew how to write the kind of pieces that were anything but disposable,” said Abrams.
Despite his enormous success, Serling ran into problems with censors, networks and sponsors because he wanted to tackle tough subjects.
“He escaped into ‘The Twilight Zone’” said Carol Serling. “He was able to deal with issues that he wanted in the parameters of science fiction. He was not bothered really much by the sponsors. They didn’t understand what he was saying anyway.”