Wednesday, April 29, 2009

FRIENDShip: TV Pals In Comparison

In this day and age of Facebooking, Twittering and Linking-In, friendship has become the cornerstone and central aspect of every relationship in today's society. Friends are no longer only defined as those with whom we grew up, or as non-familial intimate associates. Amicable aspects of human relating have expanded into, among other arenas, the work place (between co-workers, and employer/employee relations), and in the home.

In the increasingly complicated category of the central kindred unit, however, the traditional family has extended past the husband/wife, parents/children/siblings category with parent-like types (mom's boyfriend, dad's girlfriend), ex-spouses, step-siblings, adopted children, gay and lesbian companions, and people forced to co-habitat for no other reason but economics.

No other television show so clearly and humorously addresses the enlarged family significance of the new friendship, than the super Friends, which had it's original run on NBC (1994-2004), and which remains a hit in syndication. The program's executive producers, David Crane and Marta Kaufman, once confirmed that Friends storylines would always be parceled out in six equal portions. They held true to that ideal, and kept us entertained with witty dialogue, a frenetic, yet controlled pace and, quite simply, brilliant performances by their cast.

As we have come to know, the series originally revolved around a close-knit sextet of twentysomething New York singles who overdose on conversation and coffee at the Central Perk gathering hole. There's Monica Geller (portrayed by Courtney Cox), a neat-freak assistant chef; Ross Geller (David Schwimmer), her on-the-rebound older brother; Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow), her spaced out blonde college chum; Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston), Monica's rich-girl roomie; and their across-the-hall neighbors, Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc); a himbo actor; and Chandler Bing (Mathew Perry), an acerbic office worker.
The characters evolved over the years and, in the process, showcased just how challenging (and humorous) it can be to sustain relationships. In the beginning, all were unattached, romantically, though Schwimmer's Ross retained a massive crush on Aniston's semi-oblivious Rachel from their days in elementary school. Rachel (who left her groom at the altar), and Ross eventually hook-up, then separate, get married, divorced, have a child, and then ultimately marry (and only true fans can understand the dynamics of those developments).

Monica and Chandler eventually fall in love and wed, while Joey and Phoebe remain romantically unattached to each other, while dating a ton of significant others. The gang's relationships with parents, co-workers, each other and themselves continued to present various challenges, as this intensely cheery group of people carried on a mutual, moderate admiration (which is ultimately more tangible).

A closer look at the characters and the actors who portrayed them may hold additional friendly insight.

Courtney Cox, who played Monica Geller, began her show business career as an audience member who was pulled on stage to dance in Bruce Springsteen's mainstream breakthrough video/single, Dancing in the Dark. She auditioned for the gig as a fluke, after accompanying an actress friend of hers who sought the very part Cox won. Reportly, Friends co-stars David Schwimmer, Matthew Perry and Lisa Kudrow were once concerned that Cox, the biggest name of the group when the show premiered (she was last scene regularly as girlfriend to Michael J. Fox on TV's Family Ties), might have had a star persona or attitude. "I thought she'd be a little aloof and celebrity-ish," Kudrow once confessed oh-so-honestly in an interview. "And she wasn't at all. She's so great." As to Courtney's perspective on Monica Geller, her TV persona, she said: "She's the most normal. She has her quirks. She's compulsive, but she's the voice of reason."

David Schwimmer: This down-to-earth actor has a similarly humble parallel to his TV self, Ross Geller. Schwimmer, who became known to the general television audience though semi-regular roles on The Wonder Years and NYPD Blue, once relayed how his character is "...the 90's Guy, struggling with old fashioned values in a contemporary world." Though some Friends cast members were initially effusive about Cox, none turned green with envy for Schwimmer as a stand-out star. His character's plight (Ross' wife left him for a woman, then discovered she was caring his child) and the actor's wistfully neurotic line readings have delivered many of Friends biggest laughs. "It's always nice to have a vulnerable character - girls love that stuff - and that's Ross," Cox once said. "He's got this quality I admire and hate at the same time," Matthew Perry once revealed. "I admire it because nobody else has that hurt-guy style, and I hate it because every single woman on the face of the planet wants him." Early on, Schwimmer said he didn't want the Friends focus to shift to his (or any other) character. "That would be the downfall of the show," he relayed. "All of us signed up to do an ensemble" (and, ultimately, made millions of dollars a year in a all-or-nothing stick-together deal with NBC and Warner Bros.)

Lisa Kudrow, otherwise known as Phoebe, introduced to TV audiences in shows like TV's classic, groundbreaking family drama, Life Goes On - on which she made her TV debut as a ditzy waitress. Kudrow also appeared on Bob, Bob Newhart's short-lived, sitcom of the early 1990s. Here, she played a similarly dippy Phoebe-like character who managed to attract sane viewers who identify with her wacky life perceptions. Once getting together with Friends, Kudrow pulled double duty in the show's first season, in which she also portrayed Phoebe's twin sister, Ursula (the air-headed waitress she occasionally played on NBC's Mad About You). With Friends, Ursula originally began dating Matt LeBlanc's Joey (and later, a teacher played by the Oscar-nominated Sean Penn), and the long-estranged twins reunite. Does Kudrow have a twin in real life? No. Is she dating anyone special? She's married to Michel Stern, a French adman. As to how Kudrow perceives her role as Friends' main Buffay sister, Phoebe, the actress once declared to a reporter: "She's not stupid. She just has a different point of reference for everything. She's a little Nell-ish."

Jennifer Aniston once described her Friends TV alter-ego, Rachel Green, as "...not bitchy," but "spoiled." "She knows no other life," Aniston professed. And there are similarities between the actress and the character, including the shared trait of self-deprecation and modesty, and how such characteristics often become magnetic in establishing friendship. As Aniston recalled in an early interview, "I'm completely shocked that I'm on a show that's actually going [a hit]. One of her credits included a summer 1994 sitcom for CBS, entitled, Muddling Through, which was a no-winner. When it was pointed out to her that Friends may have the best-looking class in sitcom history, Aniston responded with, "I don't think, Oh, I'm Miss Outstanding-Looking Person. The last thing we think about is our looks, even though people think we do because our wardrobe and hair are so great" (Aniston went on to create a sensation with her alter-ego's rave hairstyle, which was ultimately referred to as the Rachel).

Matt LeBlanc once labeled his girl-crazy Joey Tribbiani character as "...honest...a result of his cloudy perception of the world." Now, of course, LeBlanc and Joey had their own Friends-spin-off on NBC. But then, David Schwimmer and Matthew Perry, who had their own early (and unfounded) issues with their misperceived arrogance of Courtney Cox, also had some initial skepticism with which they perceived LeBlanc, a onetime Levi's 501 jeans model. As Schwimmer once recalled of meeting LeBlanc: "I thought, Oh, great, here's this guy I'm going to work with for maybe five years, and he's...Joe Cool stud. Well, he's turned me around completely." Added Perry of LeBlanc: "He's an unbelievably nice guy in the body of a tough, get-out-of-my-way guy."

Matthew Perry once defined his screen presence as Chandler Bing, as "...the guy everybody thinks will do really well with women, but he thinks too much and says the wrong thing." While Chandler somehow managed to win Monica as his bride, Perry remains single, though clearly one of the most eligible bachelors in Hollywood. A wicked talent with spitfire line-elocution (so perfectly displayed in a recent guest-shot on FOX-TV's Ally McBeal), he shares only a few traits with his most famous small screen other self: They both have a penchant for coffee with cream and two equals.

Clearly, being equal is what Friends was really all about (especially regarding the cast's million-dollar contracts). Though the series has been out of production for almost two years, viewers will continue to pal around with the show for years to come in syndicated reruns, feasting on the immutable essence and image of friendship, while enjoying a hearty, healthy and very happy dose of friendly humor.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"The Dick Van Dyke Show": Historic, Sophisticated & Very Funny

A happily-wedded husband and wife would watch The Dick Van Dyke Show during its initial run (on CBS from 1961 to 1966), and be gleefully vindicated. Upon viewing the comic adventures of Rob and Laura Petrie (as so pristinedly performed by Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore), the merry married would turn to one another, and vow, "Now there's a attractive, upper-middle class couple. He has a great job. She enjoys being a housewife and mother [to Larry Mathews' little Richie]. But, sometimes, they act kind of goofy. Just like us, honey. That means they're not perfect, which means we aren't either. And that's okay."

With a little help from first Nick at Nite in the early 1990s, and more recently, TV Land (which, in 2004, produced the reunion special, The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited), and other sagacious syndicators, that same real-life viewing duo (now, with more salt, than pepper, but equally as wise), continue to enjoy The Dick Van Dyke Show (alongside younger contemporary TV twosomes, foursomes and moresomes).

Today's bonded lovebirds still find it difficult to reject the handsome Mr. Petrie, a refined, respected, and well-established husband and father fashion staple with a good job (as a comedy writer for fictional TV variety hour starring Alan Brady, played to perfection by Carl Reiner). But he's also the guy who's the little kid at heart, unafraid to admit that he doesn't have a workroom that's seething with machismo, courageous enough to reveal that he's always wanted to be Perry Mason or an operative for the FBI. He's in touch with his feminine side, that is, his wife, his prettier better-half; the one to whom he's not embarrassed to divulge emotions, or admissions of physical inferiority (Laura once flipped a drunk in a bar in self-defense, when Rob, alas, just flipped).

Laura is cultivated, sophisticated and, like her twin-TV-counterpart Mary Richards (also played by Moore on the aptly-titled The Mary Tyler Moore Show), she "can turn the world on with her smile." With her elegant intelligence and sometimes (but not too often) subtle irreverence, her appeal with viewing husbands and wives alike, becomes multi-dimensional. In a good way. Right before our eyes. With her Capri pants and Jackie O hair, Laura established a model trend in the fashionable 1960s, in apparel and demeanor. She and Rob were the first self-effacing hipsters of the television age. They made it okay to laugh at oneself. They allowed humor to metamorphasize into an attractive trait, instead of an inopportune burden.

Friends and co-workers of the Petries were also milestone, by nature. Rob's under-writers for the Brady show, Buddy Sorrell (the late, great Morey Amsterdam) and Sally Rogers (Rose Marie, who's performed since birth and had appeared with Amsterdam in Vaudeville), were joke-meisters but, they too, had other sides. Buddy was the first real character of the Jewish faith to have ever been presented on a mainstream television situation comedy. Sally was just as groundbreaking as the first female character on a TV show, and actually considered "one of the guys."

When she did behave in a way that was then considered more acceptable for a woman, Sally still waxed more dimensional. She just didn't cry. She dealt with her tears. Ms. Rogers explored her lack of knack to find the love of her life but, still, she survived. She had her own apartment, was a member of a male-dominated work force, and was independent. She, not Buddy, was the true threat to the hen-pecked Mel Cooley (played with great sportsmanship by also-gone Richard Deacon, who later appeared on the CBS sitcom, The Mothers-in-Law).

At home, Rob and Laura lived next door to dentist Jerry Helper, played by Jerry Paris, who also directed many of the show's episodes (and who died way too young, though not before helming numerous segs of The Odd Couple, Happy Days, and so many more great sitcoms, including the famous episode of Here's Lucy featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton). Alongside Jerry there was his meddlesome, though caring, wife Millie (Ann Morgan Gilbert, who later became a semi-regular on The Nanny). At work, around his in-home dental chair, Jerry was a sincere and trusting professional. Once across the fence with Rob, however, he would let loose and get silly. Along with his fellow Van Dyke characters, Dr. Helper adapted to his situation. He wasn't always a dentist or ever a neighbor. He wasn't always serious or ever laughing. He was a little everything, the good with the bad, all the time, just like real people.

The Dick Van Dyke Show was ahead of its time, in execution and display of three-dimensional characters. Mislead 21st Century viewers may think they're screening a contemporary sitcom that is being filmed in black and white, and accuse it of being artsi. But no way. It isn't artsi. It's art. As with any cultural masterpiece, albeit TV classic, The Dick Van Dyke Show's appeal rests with its stoic period representation, social influence, and timeless appreciation of non-insulting, marriage-encouraging, friendship-bonding and work-ethic-inducing scripts.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"Life Goes On" Forever - And In Style

In the history of classic television, there are many shows that address the issue of diversity and prejudice (e.g. All in the Family, Bewitched, The Golden Girls). None, however, so directly tackle the topic more than Life Goes On. The unique flavor of this series (which debuted on ABC in 1989, and remains popular in syndicated reruns and on DVD) went straight to the heart of the American public.

Life episodes about the disabled, disease seminars, and anti-gay-bashing have done more to inform the viewing audience than current events. Issues are genuine. High-school locker scenes are authentic. Family dinner sessions remain true to, well, life.

When Life's parents Drew and Libby Thacher (played so wonderfull by Bill Smitrovich and Patti Lupone) believe their son, Corky (the awesome Chris Burke), is out of line, they reprimand him. If this was any other television program, such behavior would be par for the course.

But that's not the way Life goes. Corky has Down's Syndrome (as does Burke in real life), and is a high-school student with a challenging life. Corky's younger sister, Becca (played by the ever-capable Kellie Martin, who went on to star in the Hallymark Channel's hit, Mystery Woman then falls in love with Jesse (the Emmy-winning Chad Lowe), who is HIV-Positive, and later develops AIDS.

Down's and AIDS: traits certainly unusual for weekly characters on television, a medium infamously circumspect of figures that viewers find jarring.

Still, Life was legitimate from the onset. Corky's particular adjustments are presented as filaments in the functional family component. He was unveiled to viewers without affectation or manufactured uplift. The series never set out to beat the viewer over the head with the idea that Corky was saccharine. The portrayal of the character was realistic, based upon his legitimate condition and feelings, not ideally, on what he should have said or how he should have behaved. It would have been irresponsible to make him either too distressed or too unaffected.

In 1991, as Magic Johnson revealed in real life that he was HIV-positive, Chad Lowe's Jesse contacted the virus. Life imitated life?

No. Just a parallel incident.

Yet after Life creator/executive producer Michael Braverman interviewed small focus groups and discovered that many teens thought AIDS could be contacted through casual interaction, he set out to dispel that ignorance, as well the scorn aimed at those like Jesse and Corky.

Diversity and the respect for other peoples' truths was explored on other Life avenues.

In an episode from the third season, Corky's father, Drew, who owns and operates a successful restaurant, finds his hopes and dreams up in smoke. His enterprise is destroyed by fire shortly after the birth of his new child. Wife Libby wonders how she can help in the crisis. Jerry Berkson (Ray Buktenica), her usually greedy advertising boss, pays to rebuild the Thacher house.

At once grateful and surprised, Libby asks Jerry, who is Jewish, to be godfather to her son at a Catholic baptismal. Jerry declines. Libby reminds him of a note that he thought he anonymously delivered with the money to reconstruct the restaurant. It reads: "Generosity of spirit is the measure of a man."

Jerry to the ceremony, vicissitude and munificence are held in mutual regard, and a television show, once pegged a failure by some, files itself as a classic.

Once misunderstood, those with Down's and AIDS are now perceived more clearly because of Life. "It's nothing short of a miracle," Braverman once said about the show's influence. Burke has become a spokesman for the National Down Syndrome Congress and Ronald McDonald Charities. He has received numerous awards from various organizations, and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor In A Drama. He's still a favorite feature on the talk show circuit, and in several anti-drug commercials, and in travels the college circuit with a rock band.
A few TV seasons back, he joined the cast of the CBS hit, Touched By An Angel, playing, what else: a heavenly messenger.

In this 21st Century, Burke and Life's diverse eye on the family remains wide-open. Setting the standard for quality television programming, Life Goes On has found its place as one of the most popular American family shows in history (right beside The Waltons).

Life continues to inspire viewers, and reaches beyond the realm of average entertainment with superior production values and credible, yet compelling, universal stories, each delivered with a sincere dedication in presenting good television.

Life goes on to say more than, "I'm okay, you're okay." It affirms: "I'm great and so are you. And though we may be unique unto each, together aren't we grand."

To order a copy of Herbie J Pilato's book, Life Story - The Book of Life Goes On: TV's First And Best Family Show of Challenge, please click on this link:

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The "Twilight" Years Of A Genius Named "Rod Serling"

The development and execution of “The Twilight Zone” and its induction into the annals of TV history is a story of an obsessive need for acceptance on many levels.

Submitted for your approval: Exhibit A: Rod Serling, “Zone’s” creator, executive producer, central writing force, and charismatic host. The show's popularity preyed upon his endless reservoir of ideas, originally inspired by his obsession with the past and his preoccupation with aging, mixed in with a measure of courage and faith, and the survival techniques he learned in the army.

With monumental tenacity, Serling went on to seek and gain reign over his creation on what was nearly a daily basis, all the while delivering top-notch scripts at a frenetic pace. With a strong desire to succeed, and an intense need for creative control, this small-in-stature (he stood 5'5"), though foreboding and critically-acclaimed non-stop talent, employed a no-holds-barred approach to getting his product on the air - as he saw fit - and settled for nothing less. He protected his turf, circumvented the typically charted waters of TV production, and opposed the demands placed forth by network executives, with a back-door approach to realizing the fruition of his "other-worldly" dreams.

Serling believed in his vision, and rarely bowed to editorial invasion, fiercely guarding the end-results of his “Zone.”

In event, “The Twilight Zone” presented weekly excursions into an unknown, yet familiar territory, which showcased morality plays and controversial topics, presented under the guise of science fiction. Characters with dimension were introduced to the audience with arresting aplomb, many of whom were granted a second chance against the odds - much like Serling himself. Though almost cancelled twice before its original network demise, “The Twilight Zone” stayed afloat due to Serling's tactful maneuvers around Hollywood minds that were uncertain of anything - and everything - related to “Zone” - except Serling's undying passion. In the end, however, Serling himself died young, at 50-years-old, never reaching the twilight of his years, though not before he explored, unobtrusively, the senior mentality, and other untapped areas of legitimate topics of conversation, with several, very-real trips into “The Twilight Zone.”

Serling was born Rodman Edward Serling in Syracuse, New York, on December 25, 1924, to father Samuel Lawrence Serling, a wholesale meat dealer, and Esther Cooper Serling. Shortly thereafter, his family moved to Binghamton, a small city in Upstate, New York. As a youth, Rod, along with older brother Robert (a novelist, best known for The President's Plane Is Missing), became enamored with the science fiction and fantasy articles published in magazines such as “Astounding Stories” and “Weird Tales.” He enjoyed all sports, and his approach to life became somewhat more realistic, when he later joined the U.S. Army 11th Airborne Division paratroopers.

Rod started boxing, winning 17 out of 18 bouts - during the last of which he earned what came to be his trademark broken nose. He was discharged from the Army in 1946, and enrolled at Antioch College of Yellow Springs, Ohio, because he was interested in "working with kids." He majored in Physical Education, but switched to Language and Literature, during which he wrote, directed and performed in radio productions for the Antioch Broadcasting System, which were transmitted over radio WJEM, Springfield.

While still in college, he experienced two life-altering events. In 1948, he married Carolyn Louise Kramer. And in 1949, he sold his first teleplay, “Grady for the People,” for a mere $100.00, to NBC's “Stars Over Hollywood.”

Upon graduation from Antioch College, he moved to Cincinnati to become a staff writer for WLW radio, pursued his career as a freelance writer, and collected more than 40 consecutive rejection slips as reward for his efforts. Those early signs of disapproval did not hinder his persistence in seeking additional approval of his work.

From 1951 to 1955, Serling penned over 70 teleplays, one of which was his 72nd script, entitled, “Patterns,” which aired on January 12, 1955, on the “Kraft Television Theatre.”

“Patterns” was about a power struggle between a ruthless president of a major organization, an aging vice-president who's pressured into resigning, and a new young executive brought into replace the vice-president. (Does this foreshadow to the frequent producer replacements that take place on “Zone”?)

Serling followed the success of “Patterns” with scripts for one of some of TV's most respected anthology series, including “The Time Element” for “Desilu Playhouse” and “Where Is Everybody?” for “Playhouse 90.”

First, “Element” debuted on “Desilu.” Serling originally penned it as a time-travel story for “The Storm,” back in 1951. He then expanded the story to sixty-minutes and submitted it to CBS in 1957. CBS purchased it, only to shelve it until Bert Granet, producer of the “Desilu Playhouse,” buys it for use on his show. Granet essentially begged the sponsor to allow “Element’s” filming. It finally aired on November 24, 1958, and became the most popular production aired this year.

Thanks to that and the positive reviews by the critics, CBS finally surmised Serling's genius.
Next up, “Where Is Everybody?” aired on “Playhouse 90” during the 1958-59 season. It ultimately showcased a somewhat unique, almost mystical story that unabashedly arrived at a logical conclusion. Along with “The Time Element,”

“Everybody” was an unrealistic, yet believable teleplay that served as a backdoor pilot for “The Twilight Zone,” for which Serling soon exited “Playhouse 90” to establish.

Serling dreamt up the central premise for what becomes “The Twilight Zone” while, one day, pacing through an empty studio lot at MGM. He sensed evidences of a community, but with no people. He sensed a form of isolation and despair; a frightful feeling of what it would be like to wake up one day in a city with no residents.

“Where Is Everybody?” embraced such traits of an unknown origin and quality. It was seemingly a tale of the last man on Earth (played by Earl Holliman). Wherever he ventured, there was evidence of someone having left, but never being there. We learned these incidents transpired merely in his mind. It was all part of an experiment conducted for research into space travel. Scientists sought to discover if man was able to withstand the isolation involved with an expedition to the moon. Holliman's character could not. He lost his grip, and the scientists had their answer: Man must earn to conquer his own fears before he attempts to overcome the foreign elements connected with leaving home.

With “Everybody?” Serling’s twists were so slightly the well-oiled, safety-net structure maintained so rigidly by network and studio executives, creating what ultimately became one of the few episodes of “Zone” to actually climax with a "rational" final act.

Though it eventually became part of “The Twilight Zone,” “Where Is Everybody” was, for the moment, only a highly-rated episode of “Playhouse 90”.

By September 1959, CBS and General Foods, one of the network's major sponsors, ordered “Zone” as a series. Serling won approval once more, but again, after much rejection, and walking through another dimension, if you will: the back door. "I'm not writing anything controversial in the new series," he said at the time. "Now that we're petulant aging men, it no longer behooves us to bite the hand that feeds us." But he was being facetious.

By December 1959, episodes such as “Walking Distance” (with Gig Young playing a man who travels back in time to his boyhood and hometown) continued to examine Serling's bi-lateral obsession with youth and old age. “Zone” was clearly the most controversial program he ever created. He may have fooled a few executives, but the audience and the critics were on to his game - and they seemingly wanted to keep on playing. But for CBS and its sponsors, the stakes were too high.

In between the first and second season, CBS was taken over by Jim Aubrey, who became more interested in what makes money, and not so much quality. He began to cancel most of CBS' respected dramatic shows and replaced them with silly comedies. Meanwhile, too, he continuously messed with “Zone’s” budget which, by now, was approximately $65,000 an episode.

By September 1960, the second season arrived, though with seven fewer episodes. Without these seven shows, Jim Aubrey saved close to $500,000 in production costs. Another of his cost-cutting ploys was utilizing videotape, instead of film. Videotape was cheaper.

Aubrey convinced Serling to tape six segments, instead of film them. Yet the disadvantages of video outweighed the advantages. The video episodes had to be shot on a sound stage. Except for stock footage, there were no scenes shot on location.

Since so much of “Zone’s” essence had to do with "going somewhere," again, into "another dimension," not having locales was a glitch in the way of plot development and aesthetic appeal.
Another video handicap was the limited use of camera sets and angles, due to editing. The use of video was then abandoned after six-episodes, and Serling would later call the experience "disastrous."

By this time, CBS had strong reservations about granting Serling too much creative control. In event, however, it was too late. Serling had carried his “Playhouse 90” sensibility into the “Zone,” and told stories with social commentary, masked behind the premise of science fiction.

Many of “Zone’s” episodes were morality plays and parables in disguise. His choice for characters began to become clear. There were only two kinds: Likeable characters that were granted a second chance, and unlikable characters who received their comeuppance.

Serling rallied only the finest scripts and scribes. He becomes unstoppable. Besides himself, early “Zone” segments rely on feature film names, including Richard Matheson (“The Incredible Shrinking Man”), Charles Beaumont (“The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao”), and the like.

According to Serling, each episode was to be "complete in itself." The series was not, he said, "an assembly line operation. Each show was a carefully conceived and wrought piece of drama, cast with competent people, directed by creative, quality-conscious guys and shot with an eye toward mood and reality."

Yet the show was challenged in the ratings. Sponsors became nervous. CBS began to bend to pressure. But not Serling. He remained true to form, kept his ground, and refused to let the show die. Word of mouth spread. Critics poured their praise. The ratings improved. Subsequent episodes aired with stories such as an angel-like man of “Death,” a once-hot Hollywood star who literally abided in the dream-world of her films, and a child who could make dreams come true.

Meanwhile, Serling's reveries came into fruition. Each episode of “Zone” explored the human condition, the ups and downs, the sorrows and joys of everyday life. He also enjoyed playing host, his celebrity, and being recognized. It fed his insecurities. He once remarked, "Apparently, on the screen, I look tall, ageless and damn close to omniscient, delivering jeopardy-laden warning through gritted teeth. But when people see me on the street, they say, ‘By God, this kid is 5'5”. He's got a broken nose and looks about as foreboding as a bank teller on a lunch break."

By the third season, Serling was writing faster than ever before. Some of the scripts he wrote for “Playhouse 90” used to take him from six months to a year to complete. Each “Twilight Zone” teleplay now took him from thirty-five to forty hours. "It's the kind of schedule that if I drop a pencil, and then bend over to pick it up," he revealed, "I'm two weeks behind." A “Zone” episode from the first season, “A Stop at Willoughby,” seemed to represent Serling's frantic pace. It featured an over-worked big-city ad exec who finds peace in a tranquil, mystical small town.

Meanwhile, in this third year, Serling continued to obsess about getting older, and episodes like “No Time Like The Past” and “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville” were the proof in the pudding. “Past” was about a man who leapt in time in an effort to change things for the better, but he made mistakes at every turn. He turns to the present in an effort to help change the future.

“Cliffordville” is about a millionaire who was given the opportunity to travel back in time to the early years of his life in an attempt to win back his great fortune, just for the fun of it. Ddid these segments, in perspective, represent Serling's lot in life at the time? Did he sit back and wonder,

"When am I to begin enjoying the riches that ‘The Twilight Zone’ afforded me? Could this have been his initial period of acceptance into reality, after so many years of struggling to find success and win his way, creatively, with his writing? Was he ready to give in?

Maybe so.

One thing is for sure, Buck Houghton, who was essentially his partner in production of the program, would soon no longer be there to carry half the load. As producer, Houghton's contributions became almost as imperative to “Zone” as Serling's. Houghton had been a producer for MGM for six years before signing on to produce “Zone.” He was the man that performed many of the behind-the-scenes duties that were required for a show to come together. He was the perfect partner for Serling, and for “Zone” first three years their bond is strong.

Houghton, however, exited “The Twilight Zone” in the third year, mainly because of a technicality, and not because of some huge feud or anything of the sort. After the third season, “Zone” is having trouble finding a sponsor for the next year. As a result, it's off the CBS fall schedule. Houghton was offered a job with “Four Star Productions” that he found difficult to reject.

CBS then decided to bring “Zone” back in January of 1963, by which time Houghton was already on “The Richard Boone Show,” and has no intention of leaving.

Meanwhile, Serling was growing tired, in part because Houghton had jumped ship, and Serling was now carrying the load on his own. "I've never felt quite so drained of ideas as I am at this moment," he said. "Stories used to bubble out of me so fast I couldn't set them down on paper quick enough, but in these last few years I've written so much I'm woozy. If only I could take off about six months and replenish the wealth." "I want out," he later added, "I get more and more tired of the whole business. I'll never do another TV series as long as I live."

By the Fall of 1962, Serling was offered a chance to teach at Antioch College. He accepted it, and “The Twilight Zone” was placed on hiatus. CBS scheduled “Fair Exchange” in “Zone’s” time-slot. “Fair” was an odd, hour-long situation comedy that lasted only half the season.

By January 1963, Serling continued to teach after CBS picked up “Zone” as a mid-season replacement, when new producer Herbert Hirschman was hired to replace Houghton.

By this time, “Zone” as a weekly half-hour had run its course. Its episodes were extended to a full sixty-minutes, while its title had been shaved. It's no longer known as “The Twilight Zone,” but just “Twilight Zone” with no “The” in front of the title.

The hour-format alteration jarred Serling. "Ours is the perfect half-hour show," he complained. "If we went to an hour, we’d have to flesh-out stories, soap-opera style. Viewers could watch fifteen minutes without knowing whether they were in a ‘Twilight Zone’ or ‘Desilu Playhouse.’”

No matter. Against his better judgment, Serling struck a deal with CBS for 13 one-hour “Zone” episodes, and the show began to fade.

Serling was indeed ready to surrender his creative control. He later switched his perspective, and offered a seemingly half-hearted attempt at positive thinking. "In the half-hour form we depended heavily on the old O. Henry twist," he told TV Guide. "So the only question is: Can we retain the ‘Twilight’ flavor in an hour? We may come up with something totally different." And instead of integrating himself into the tease and tags, as he had in previous seasons, all of Serling's narrations for the fourth season were performed against a gray background. His teaching at Antioch College prevented him from visiting the sets regularly.

When he flew in for other business, Hirschman films several narrations at once.
Hirschman, however, also decided to leave during the fourth year, and accepted another offer - to produce “Espionage,” a live spy drama that's filmed in London. The opportunity of going live and work in Europe, which he had never done before, had appealed to him.

Ironically, he's replaced for the rest of the year by Bert Granet, the producer of “The Time Element.” CBS's plan to expand “Zone” into a full-hour to increase ratings collapses. The show's writing suffered. The episodes were not as memorable, so the network returned the show to its original regular half-hour format.

The fateful date of November 22, 1963 arrived, and President Kennedy was assassinated. The “Zone” episode set to air, entitled, “Night Call,” was postponed until February 7, 1964.

Granet left the series during the fifth season, when he was offered $250,000 to take over “The Great Adventure,” another show for CBS that was massively over-budget. Serling was unable to make a counter-offer, Granet goes on the “Great Adventure,” and William Froug (who would later produce “Bewitched”) steps in to replace him.

“The Twiligh Zone” then ended its production in January 1964, and was canceled. CBS president Jim Aubrey claimed he was tired of the show. He said he was tired of it after the end of the second season.

By now, Serling knew “Zone” was not what it used to be - and it hadn't been for some time. So he agreed to close up shop.

Serling continued writing with screenplays such as “Planet of the Apes,” which was released theatrically in 1968, and TV's “Night Gallery” (which tripped along for three seasons on NBC, from 1969 to 1971). He returned to Antioch College, as a Professor, and rallied against the Vietnam War.

He died at age 50 on June 28, 1975 from complications from bypass surgery. Apparently, all the men in Serling's family died young. The statistics scared him. So he wrote about it in “The Twilight Zone.”

Serling's older brother Robert once commented, regarding Rod: "I didn't realize until “Walking Distance” [the TZ episode from the first season] that nostalgia for his old hometown had played such a tremendous part in his life, how much he loved Binghamton, how much he wanted to go back to it, which in itself was kind of contradictory because he loved the glamour of Hollywood. He was almost like two people. It's as if he couldn't...he got his fill of the glamour every once in a while and had to go home to a simpler life."

Rod Serling himself once concluded: "Everybody has a hometown. Binghamton's mine. In the strangely brittle, terribly sensitive makeup of a human being, there is a need for a place to hang a hat, or a kind of geographical womb to crawl back into, or maybe just a place that's familiar because that's where you grew up."

Clearly, it was in his hometown of Binghamton that Rod Serling had for years subconsciously began to plant the seeds of his genius for what ultimately became “The Twilight Zone.”

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Tribute To Charlton Heston

In view of the Holiday, and in particular, Saturday night's airing of The Ten Commandments (which just so happens to be my favorite movie of all time), I invite you to read my tribute to Charlton Heston (see link below), which I wrote and posted last year upon his passing into spirit.

Blessings and Light to all during this Holiday - and always.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Bewitched/Star Trek Companion Cusp

Years and years ago, when I was a child and through my early tweens, I went for frequent grocery shopping trips with my Mom and Dad to Wegmans Supermarket in Gates Chili, New York.

Wegmans was and remains an iconic staple in Rochester, Western, New York and now, in some other parts of the country. And these early weekly Wegmans jaunts with my parents always proved noteworthy and fun. We lived in the inner city and, at the time, from my then-perspective, Gates Chili was like visiting Beverly Hills.

Be that as it may, on one particular Wegmans trip, circa 1971, as my Mom and Dad ventured into the produce department, I journeyed over to the magazine and books section. "I'll meet up with you later," I relayed to them.

In only seconds, I found myself catching up on all the Hollywood news, and the newest available cars, as advertised in magazines like Motor Trend, and Car & Driver.

But then, suddenly, I saw it:

The World of Star Trek by David Gerrold.

I couldn't believe it. It was a whole book about one of my favorite TV shows of all time - with pictures and everything. And not just images of scenes from the show itself, but "behind-the-scenes" illustrations, and "updated" photos of the Trek stars.

I HAD to have the book, which was priced at 90 cents.

So, I quickly checked my pockets.

But I was short a dime.

I raced through the store in search of my Mom and Dad.

Couldn't find 'em.

I was desperate to purchase the book. And I couldn't wait the additional hour it would take to have my parents complete their basic shopping needs, and check out the book with them.

I wanted The World of Star Trek NOW.

So even though I only had 80 cents, I stepped in line at one of the cash registers, hoping that if I continued my search, somehow, another dime would show up in my slacks.

But alas, once I arrived at the cashier, it was a hopeless thing. I would not be able to purchase TWOST until my parents finished their grocery gait.

At least, I thought I would have to wait until then.

For ahead of me in line, there was a kindly old woman in a wheel chair who noticed my intense search for that extra dime. When she saw how I devoted I was to buying that book, she reached into her purse and said, "Here ya' go, Honey. Here's the extra money you need. Now, you go buy your book."

I was so elated, and so touched, appreciating so much what might have seemed to others as so little.

I thanked the elderly saint, purchased my book and ran to a bench at the front of the store.

For the next hour I read that book, and was completely fascinated.

What's more, as I was engulfing every page, I was thinking about another favorite TV show other than Star Trek.

I was concentrating on Bewitched.

As I sat there, in trance, reading David Gerrold's literary media mosaic, I said to myself, "One day, I'm going to write about Bewitched how this man has written about Star Trek."

And twenty years later, I went on to do exactly that...because of my parents, Wegmans, David Gerrold and a kindly, generous old woman who could spare a dime.