I was a weird kid.
I mean, all kids are weird because they’re just trying to figure things out. But I was weird with a capital W because while other kids wanted to be astronauts and football players and – in one case – a NHL superstar, I wanted to grow up to be someone who was dead by the time I was old enough to say “when I grow up I want to be …”
Growing up I wanted to be Rod Serling, and I’m glad that never happened.
Rod was the classic case of the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. He will forever be known as the creator of the Twilight Zone, which to this day remains my all-time favorite TV series. He was the face of the show. He wrote the majority of the episodes. The influence that show had can’t be measured, but you could argue that the fantastical movies and TV we have now are a direct line back to TZ (and that’s not including the latest reboot). Deeper Serling cuts would include his Playhouse 90 work; live-to-air plays like Requiem for a Heavyweight and Patterns. Of course there’s also Night Gallery and the original Planet of the Apes, but even Rod would admit his connections to both was tangential compared to the finished project (though the infamous Statue of Liberty ending of Apes was Serling’s idea).
My favorite episode of The Twilight Zone is called “Walking Distance”. It tells the story of Martin Sloan, a 36-year-old ad man tired of his life, who finds himself transported to the hometown of his boyhood. There he not only basks in the remembered pleasures of carousel rides and chocolate sodas with three scoops, but also encounters himself as a child (played notably by Ron Howard) and his long-dead parents, who understandably question his sanity. Martin thinks he can live out his life again in that safe, confined, cloistered world, but as this is The Twilight Zone, it’s not going to be that easy. I won’t spoil Walking Distance if you haven’t seen it, but the truth revealed to Martin and to us, is that the past can’t be revisited, that the dead are truly gone, and the only way through life is by going forward, into the uncertain future, and hope that the lessons of the past have given you enough strength to weather what lies ahead.
The fact Serling wrote Walking Distance at the height of his career speaks a great deal to how he felt about his fame and success. It was truly double-edged. It gave him everything he ever wanted, except happiness.
As a young writer in my 20s, Serling was my benchmark. I wanted to write great works and create lasting TV. I lived, breathed, and ate writing. I lived in a succession of shitty apartments, scratching out a living 9-5 then packing in an additional 3-4 hours of writing every day. And despite the considerable odds against everyone who takes up the pen and tries to make a living with it, I actually did it. I became a working writer.
But somewhere along the way I got lost. The words, while flowing fairly regularly, didn’t instill the same joy they used to. Looking back at the preceding decade of work I see a couple things I’m still proud of (both begin with the letter “M” by the way) and a whole lot more that, frankly, I am not. Not so coincidentally the “not-so-proud” are the things you watch rather than read. Those are things that were produced, that I was paid for, that I receive royalties for. I’m proud of the work I did on those things, I put my everything into them, and they were well-received for the most part. But looking at them I don’t see anything of myself in them. I was a hired gun, I did my job, I collected my pay, I moved on. That’s probably why I still don’t own any copies of my film and TV work. Not one DVD or Blu-Ray or digital copy.
My dream of being the next Rod Serling was becoming increasingly remote.
Now it’s pretty much gone.
And I’m okay with that.
Here’s a fact about Rod Serling you may not know; he died at age 50.
All those years of never-ending work, of struggle, of stress (not to mention a four-packs-a-day cigarette habit) burned Rod out by the mid-1960s. After TZ ended, he couldn’t find work beyond hired-gun jobs like Seven Days in May and Planet of the Apes.
Rod Serling’s Night Gallery may have bore his name and his face, but what it didn’t carry was his writing. He became a TV personality and an ad pitch-man simply to pay the bills. He kept smoking, right up to his first heart attack. Then his second. He had his third and final while in the middle of open heart surgery. Doctors tried to remove a vein from his leg for a bypass. The vein crumbled. They were the veins of an 80 year-old.
Rod was 40 when TZ ended. By 50 he was gone.
One really wonders how different the landscape would be if Rod had lived another twenty years. The Twilight Zone experienced a resurgence of popularity in the 1980s, as storytellers and filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg professed their love of the dusty old series. It’s quite possible we could have seen a Serling renaissance, produced by Spielberg or Lucas How many more stories would he have been able to tell?
I think that having the life you dreamt of having when your younger would be a depressing experience. Because what would it feel like to stand atop the summit of Everest and say “so this is it?” I often wonder of the life I might have had if I made different decisions. If I’d taken that series gig in LA when it was in the offering back in the early 2000s. Would I have been more successful?
Well, if by “success” you mean “money” then most definitely; I would have made bank. But would I have been happy? Doubtful. We go through our lives saying “if only” and “wouldn’t it be great if …” and cry disappointment that the Thing that would have Fixed Everything didn’t happen. But I think those things, those promises of “this could be you if …” just set you up for failure and disappointment because they never would be that salve you wanted them to be. You’d sit there, award in one hand, big bag of money in the other and say “so this is it?”
You certainly can mourn the life you thought you’d have. But you can’t let what never was haunt what is. I think that’s the reason there’s so many unhappy people out in the world; they’re emotionally punishing themselves for not having the life they dreamt of. They’re blaming themselves for not reaching that goal. I was one of them, for the longest time. I dreamt of being a film director. I ended up a stay-at-home dad, a writer of novels and comics some movies and TV. There remains a competition in me, and I do think that’s healthy; that drive to create. But I no longer let work be the center of my life. I certainly work and work hard, but I don’t let that define me. I let myself be defined by the people I love, and who love me in return.
This is not the life I envisioned but it’s still a good life. I love my wife, I love my son, and they love me. I wouldn’t give any of that up for “success”. We’re constantly changing, we’re constantly evolving; our bodies, our thoughts, our ideas. We’re not the same people we were ten years ago, or ten years prior to that. I’m certainly not the man I was when I began this career. And that’s a good thing too; I would hate to be That Guy. That Guy was not happy even when he was successful.
If there’s a mantra I’ve repeated to myself and expressed to others a great deal over the past few years it’s that “the things you think will make you happy will not if you aren’t already happy yourself“. It’s like wanting that one Christmas gift more than anything else, and when you unwrap it under the tree you rejoice; but a month, a year later? Not the same thing.
People still remember Rod Serling, 45 years after his death. It’s doubtful anyone outside of my immediate and extended family will remember me 5 years, let alone 45, after I’m gone. And I’m okay with that. I’m closer to 50 now than I was when I started this profession. Work is more sporadic, more tiring. I still write, I still create, and having decided to focus more on comics and novels, I’m much happier a person. The things I write now are 100% mine.
But more than writing, I’m a father. And being a father and a husband has the joy my life as a writer had been lacking. All those years of being the young, hungry scribe were, in hindsight, my unhappiest years. It took the discovery of what it felt like to actually enjoy your life, to realize how miserable you used to be. I’m not one to toot my own horn, but I do believe I’m a better writer now than I ever was. I’m certainly a happier one.
I may still die at 50, like Rod Serling. But I hope not. Because sometimes getting everything you want is the worst thing that can happen to you. It took my failing to reach that dream of being the next Rod Serling to give me the life I always wanted.