A talented mentor: Rod Serling

Rod Serling

A friend, Suzanne Clauser, had told me Rod Serling would be at a writer’s conference in Dayton, Ohio in December 1973 and I had relatives in the area, so I flew up with a pilot for a new TV series. 

Sue said Rod would like it: “Don’t be intimated…” 

Right.  I walked over to Rod’s table with a little visceral reluctance and found him to be friendly, outgoing, and eager to hear about new concepts.

He took my 25-page treatment or summary and said he’d read it after lunch, while his wife Carol gave me a cryptic look.

Later, he said Sue had mentioned it to him, telling me, “Hey, you’re a talented writer, kid. I had something similar in the works, but you go ahead and finish this one.” 

“Keep me posted and tell Sue how the script is developing,” he mentioned as kind of an afterthought.

Rod Serling and Sue had been very close friends in college and co-wrote a few narratives. Not surprisingly, Carol and Sue had been best friends since high school, and later, at Antioch College.

Everything Rod wrote or conceived went through a massive maze of critical scrutiny, and Rod scored a huge win with his first TV episode,  “Patterns”, which later became a feature film, slicing and dissecting the corrupting and brutal damage of corporate America.

His message was that it ate good people alive.

And, then, there was “Requiem For A Heavyweight,” which won several Academy Award nominations and explored the misty, shadowy world of top-level prize fighting and its rigged fights and betting systems.

With deep psychology and the power of the human mind came his classic TV series,  “The Twilight Zone,”  which confronted characters with the unthinkable, the unbeatable, and an existential day in the life of the average man or woman who must covertly defeat their fiercest demons and survive to live just another day. 

One memorable episode found a man on the 92nd floor of a high-rise in New York City. He owed the mafia $100,000 and they sent a collector to either get the money or kill him.

Well, David Goldberg, a meek accountant, was given an option: walk around the entire building on the outside window frames and edges and balconies and survive, and dutifully, the debt would be forgiven. 

David crept around the building and leaped into his apartment to find his captor drunk, and passed out. He grabbed a briefcase full of cash, hailed a taxi, and hit the airport for a flight to Canada. 

Yes, even the meek, the inherently weak, battered and confused can find a dark way to survive under the most bizarre circumstances.

My modest story which Rod and Sue helped me with, ironically, was titled “Beauty and the Beast” and was the story of a secret, sub rosa society of desperate people living under the streets of New York City and guided by a mysterious leader, who was not exactly, well, human: a curious and mystical creature named Vincent.

I mentioned to Sue that I needed a literary agent, and she mused quietly, “I’ll make a few phone calls and you can use my agent for now. “

A couple of days later the Los Angeles agency, ICM, called and told me I was now one of their clients and they were eager to rep “Beauty and the Beast” which was picked up by CBS television. 

Rod made a few calls also. I was 25,  just out of grad school, and got the break of a lifetime.

Via another agent,  Florence Fielder of Los Angeles, I was lucky to be asked to contribute ideas for the story of a new film,  “Out Of Africa.” 

In the years that followed,  Sue and Carol helped me with concepts that became “Cheers”, Murphy Brown”,  and “Diagnosis Murder.”

Unfortunately, Rod passed away in 1975 but his massive legacy lives on, even today.

I’ve developed some good ideas, but they would have never made it to the big screen or television without the kindness loyalty, and generosity of major talents like Rod Serling and Sue Clauser, head of film development at NBC.

Thanks so much for the help and thanks for the memories! 

Note: I have no association with actor William Petersen from the TV series “CSI.” 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *