The recent piece by George Cassidy Payne about Rod Serling reminded me that a long time ago, at a university not-too-far away (OK, so that’s Lucas, not Serling), I had the good fortune to meet him, twice. Well, more-or-less good fortune the first time. Not-so-good the second.
The first time was in the fall of 1971 at Syracuse University where I was a student in the Newhouse School of Public Communications, TV/Radio Department, when Serling came to the campus to lecture on the use of documentaries to advance social justice. Following the talk, he’d promised Newhouse’s Dean Schulte that he’d sit down with a few of us for a short bull session. Coincidently, we were working on a class assignment to write, direct, film and edit a movie (this was the pre-digital age so the filming was to be 16mm, black and white, and silent) that told a coherent story in no more than one minute. We discussed with Serling what we each had in mind for our project and he offered what I suppose were helpful suggestions, except that, as I recall, his response to me was more eye-rolling than constructive criticism.¹
The session was somewhat restrained by the fact that Serling was hyper high-strung that day, and was a chain smoker who puffed cigarette, after cigarette, after cigarette so that eventually we all stank of second-hand smoke (smoking eventually killed Serling who died at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, just 50 years of age), and because, as we later found out, he was under a strain because the scripts he was writing for Night Gallery, his replacement for the legendary Twilight Zone were being regularly rejected by the NBC censors.
Our second meeting got off to a bad start……and went downhill from there. One of my classmates, RJ, had a friend who was attending Ithaca College where Serling had been teaching for several years. The Serling family owned a cottage near Interlaken, on the west shore of Cayuga Lake, and on occasion he’d hosted groups of students, including at one point RJ’s high school buddy. As a result, we knew where the cottage was located. So one spring day in 1972, having learned that Serling was likely conducting a student seminar that afternoon, four of us decided to hop into RJ’s car (yes, it was an archetypal VW bus) and drive from SU to Interlaken to see if we could beg an invite based on our previous “acquaintance” with Rod. In retrospect, probably not the best of plans.
Parking at the end of what we determined was the correct driveway; we found that the mail box had a name on it other than “SERLING.” Perplexed, we aimlessly walked around the car for a half hour or so and even wandered part way down the driveway toward the cottage, trying to figure out what to do next, when up drove Serling to get his mail. As we walked toward him, he responded to our chorus of “Hello Mr. Serling! We’re from Syracuse University!,” with a string of cigarette smoke-laden profanity, the gist of which was that he doubted the legality of our paternity, that he was busy, and to get the hell off his property! Assuming we were NOT in the Twilight Zone, we got.______________________
- My semi-autobiographical mini-epic, Birth of a Notion, was a 58 second (alleged) fairy tale of a student in the TV/R Department begging his film instructor for an “A”, being repeatedly given a “C”, and finally resorting to a cash bribery to gain the desired grade…which he received. Sadly, my prof, who obviously failed to get the message, only gave me a “B”. Thus a career in Hollywood died before it was born.