OWEN COMORA INTERVIEW
Owen Comora worked as a Public Relations Publicist for Young and Rubicam, Inc. (Y&R); a leading Advertising Agency, and, the very one that represented Rod Serling with the Twilight Zone. This illuminating interview was conducted on June 30, 2012.
TZA - So, you were a publicist for Y&R, which was, and still is a very prominent Advertising Agency. Can you tell me a little bit about what was involved in that kind of work?
Yes, our unit was called, for some strange reason, the Bureau of Industrial Service. I could never figure out why we were called that, because we were certainly a I guess it was to differentiate us from the product publicity department which ran completely separate. And what we had to do, once Y&R had the account, and the account had a TV show that they sponsored, we would then go in and make a pitch to the client, to get more attention for the show, to help build up the rating, to have all our people see the product advertised and maybe go out and buy it. So, our job was to get publicity for the show in behalf of the client, the sponsor, which was always a Y&R client. And our job was then to maybe, if we were really lucky, to get the television critic, and that the newspaper or the television show interviewer, to mention the name of the product that was advertised. Now in our case, the product was a General Foods product, Sanka, the coffee that let you sleep. So, it was a good connection for the Twilight Zone which may have kept you up. So, Sanka was the alternate week sponsor, and the other alternate week sponsor was Kimberly Clark. And if you remember, they had a commercial with a bunch of little lambs running around with toilet tissues in their mouths.
TZA - Yeah, there's a quote from Rod saying, I paraphrase, "How can I produce a serious television show when every ten minutes there's a bunch of rabbits running around with toilet paper...?"
Yeah, actually I believed it was lambs. And that was a question that came up when I took Rod on a press tour. And it was done at, I believe the interview was done by KDKA, in Pittsburg [PA]. Which reminds me of [laughs] uh, this is kind of Helter Skelter, not in order , it reminds me of when I took Rod on the personal appearance tour to Pittsburg. We were met at the airport by the PR man, or the promotion man, the promotion manager for the station, I'm not going to mention his name, I don't think he's alive anymore but it'll be an embarrassment to him if I did mention him but he and his wife came to pick Rod and me up at the airport, and it was kind of a bouncy ride and it was obvious after a few minutes that the promotion manager had been drinking. So, here I am, I'm 23 years old, and just learning the ropes, this is my second year in the publicity business, and I should have had the smarts enough to say, "Stop. Let me drive the car," or "let your wife drive the car." But I didn't. And Rod Serling said, "Please so and so stop this car and let your wife drive. I am a physical coward and I can't stand the way you're driving!" [laughs] You know, by just mentioning Kimberly Clark, it brought that up to my memory. Then, we went to the station, and Rod did his first interview. And that question came up, about the intrusion of commercials, and this is where it came up. And he said, "Yeah, they've done a little bit much when you see a bunch of these lambs running around with toilet paper in their mouths, it does kind of take you off subject off the topic." And after that interview, he came back to me and he said, "Oh my god! I think I just blew it with our other sponsor."
TZA - It's been talked about how those involved with producing Twilight Zone felt that the network, and especially the sponsors, really didn't get the series. I'm just curious, was it difficult selling the show to the sponsors?
In fact, I was in the meeting when Rod pitched it to what we called the Contact Men; they were the account executives, at Y&R. And they really were all men. As far as I can remember, there were no Contact Women in those days. There were about 10 of us in the meeting. I was assigned to go because we did have the PR account for the show. We had 1BP account for the show, and I was to be this was my first big show, as a PR man.
TZA - Wow, what a first big show!
[laughs] Yeah, I started off with Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers, which was a Saturday morning show starring Cliff Robertson. And it was done live up at the CBS Studio, like up at 104th Street, north of Central Park. And I also had, I've Got a Secret, and What's My Line. And all of my weekends were I couldn't go out, I couldn't date. So, I used to take my dates to What's My Line and introduce them, you know, behind the scenes to the celebrities. So, this is off topic I took this one woman, who was 17 years old, backstage and introduced her to Steve Allen, and to John Daily and to Dorothy Kilgallen, and to Fred Allen, who with his wife, had his own radio show. And he took this young woman around, and he was actually the one who introduced her to all of these people, and he was so nice and this young woman said to him, "Mr. Allen, it's an honor to have met you, and thank you very much." And he said, "Meeting me is no social accomplishment." And she thought he was insulting her, that she was looking to make social accomplishments. So I had to convince her that he was actually putting himself down, not you. And, well, that 17 year old woman ended up being Mrs. Owen Comora. And we've been married now for 56 years.
TZA - Oh my gosh, what a great story.
So anyway, that's a little off topic so, in order to have dates on the weekend, I'd have to take them to one of the shows. And I guess it was impressive to them, and that was it. I was booked on Saturdays and Sundays, and Friday nights, with all of those talk shows and with the morning on Rod Brown and the Rocket Rangers. Anyway, so, Rod Serling was in to Y&R at those meetings, where he had a pitch, the Twilight Zone. And he said, "It's not going to be a horror show, and it's going to be kind of offbeat, and I'm going to be the narrator. I'm not a professional, but I'm going to be the host of the show." And it took a little bit of selling on his part, so that he would be the host of the Twilight Zone. But he succeeded. And much better than I'm sure anybody expected. I used to get letters from him, and I don't know if David [Owen's son] shared any of them with you, because he's got them.
TZA - He just mentioned that he had letters back and forth and that Rod used to call you Bubby.
Actually, what it was, there was a popular comedian on the Steve Allen show, who used to say, "Why not, Bubby?!" So, we called each other Bubby. And both of us come from Jewish backgrounds, so, Bubby is a kind of a Yiddish expression. So, anyway, I was not only the PR man, and would travel with Rod, and we didn't go to too many places, but that Pittsburg one was an important one. Cleveland was another important one. And I learned a very valuable lesson when I went out as advance man. In those days we would be an advance man and we would be the publicist who would take the celebrity on tour. So, I went to the Cleveland Plain Dealer with a pitch, and I said, "This is off the record but I think that the Twilight Zone is either going to be a big hit or a dud. I don't think it's going to be anything in between." And I said, "Remember, this is off the record." And I talked about what the first show was going to be, starring Earl Holliman, and it was called Where is Everybody? "And it's kind of nothing like it quite had even been done before. So, it's either going to be a big hit or a bomb " is what I called it. And I expressed to him the importance of this being off the record. Well, the next day I was quoted, almost verbatim, in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and he made me sound like a Broadway press agent, and he said, "And Comora said, now get this " and on and on and on, you know, making me sound like a typical Broadway press agent. Now, what do I do?! Do I try and hope that Rod never sees this article, where I'm maybe making him look not very good, and I'm looking stupid? Or do I decide to tell Rod here's what happened? Well, I decided I'm not a good liar and I've got to be straight forward. I'm like a kid, so maybe he'll excuse me. So, I called him up, I said, "Rod, I gotta tell you, I've got to share this with you." And I told him what happened, and he laughed. I said, "Rod, you know, there's a lesson to be learned here." And I followed this until my last day at work - never speak off the record unless you're willing to see it in print. So, he was so gracious. I'm thinking of another time, when he came to town with his wife, and I put them up at the Plaza Hotel. I arranged for us to have dinner in the restaurant there, and when I got there, I found out that women were not allowed in the restaurant. I don't remember the name of the restaurant, but it was a really embarrassing thing, and I never did get to have dinner with Mrs. Serling, Carol. So this was something else that I learned from - when you're an advance man or when you're making plans, do all the details, don't assume anything, don't leave anything to chance. Later on, I don't know if it was a gold room or whatever, but later on they suspended that. It's hard to imagine that any place would have that kind of policy, but they did at the Plaza Hotel.
TZA - In those days maybe at a Men's Club, but at a restaurant?
This was a restaurant, I don't know if they allowed smoking cigars or whatever, but it was another embarrassment and a learning process for me. That as a PR man you don't leave things to chance, if you can avoid it.
TZA - So, let me ask you, on one side you have the artist, writer Rod Serling, and on the other you have the promotion man, they're quite different worlds
Absolutely. Oh, Rod was always very kind to me. There is a letter that David has, you know, after we did our press tours and everything and he was feeling kind of despondent because the ratings weren't what he expected them to be, and wondering, in writing, wondering if all this effort was worth it.
TZA - And this was in the very beginning, the very first season.
It was in the first season, yeah.
TZA - Well, it was going somewhere that hadn't really been gone before.
And you know, if those ratings that seemed disastrous then, if any show gets them today, they'll be thrilled. I think they were getting something like a 30 share, which would be in television terms today, with all the cable and all the competition, would be fabulous. But they were, I don't recall exactly what they were, but I know they were disappointing. And each year it was a question, would it be renewed, wouldn't it be renewed. It was a struggle every year.
TZA - Each year it went from getting sponsors and then the network executives saying, "You know, Twilight Zone is kind of this funky weird thing, it isn't really pulling in a lot " and it did struggle each year, and it's surprising because it became such a phenomenon.
Right. It had what they would say, "It had legs." And it was always a fun thing to work with and look for. David mentioned that painting that I had done [for Eye of the Beholder].
TZA - Yeah, tell me about that.
Well, it was, the woman who was actually in the show, they didn't think she was a very good actress, she was the one who ended up on
TZA - Well, Maxine Stewart played the character underneath the bandages, and then Donna Douglas, from Beverly Hillbillies...
Donna Douglas! You know more than I do [laughs]. I thought that if we had a painting to illustrate that, because we didn't have any photographs of that unveiling, and I wanted something that was dramatic, where the doctor was just removing the bandages. We're all waiting to see what she looks like underneath. And so, I had an artist named, Morr Kusnet paint it, and I think I paid him $200 for the rights. You always would pay a little more, so you had all the rights, so there was no question who owned it. Because I didn't want somebody coming back and saying you don't have the right for the repeat, you know, that this belongs to us. So, we had that done and it got terrific pickup all over the country. What we would do in those days oh, and incidentally, before I took Rod to the different cities, I had to go out in advance with a 16mm print under my arm, arrange for a projectionist and a hotel and a projection machine, so that we could screen the show for the local press. I would invite them to that room and we would get responses from the critics that way. Because there was no such thing as cable, there was no internet, and there was no video cassette, and there was no way to get to them other than going with the film under our arms and make arrangements and then to invite all the press. It was all so much more difficult in those days.
TZA - And that was Rod's pitch, where you see him on-camera, taking the sponsor through a couple of the stories, and just explaining what the show was about and what kind of pull it will bring it to the audience and stuff like this
No, well, that was Rod's pitch at Y&R, but what I took was Where is Everybody?
TZA - Oh, right, you took the episode itself
Yes, the premiere episode, to show it to people. Because there was no you know, today all you do is push a button and it's sent instantaneously to everyone you want to receive it all over the world. But that's what we had to do in those days, and later on, when I worked at NBC, we didn't want to do previews. We wanted the people to listen to our publicity and read our publicity and look at our promos on the air. We wanted them to make up their own minds before they saw a critic's review. That changed after a number of years and a lot of contention between the television press and the network. But I digress. So, anyway, whenever we would talk to each other, it was, "Hey Bubby " you know, "Whatcha doin'?" He was always, always reachable, always agreeable, always available, whenever you wanted to do a telephone interview and an in-person interview. It was just such a pleasure to work with him, even though sometimes he would say something the sponsor wasn't thrilled with [laughs].
TZA - I think that the commerciality of it kind of bothered him, but obviously you have to have that, it's a balance between the art and promoting it.
That's right! There wasn't a PBS at that time you know, for 10 years I did the publicity for a filmmaker for Ken Burns, and we kicked it off with the Civil War series, and did Baseball, and Louis and Clark, and Frank Lloyd Wright, and Thomas Jefferson, a whole string of them.
TZA - I have The War.
The War, this is also off topic, The War was produced by Ken and Lynn Novick, and the other producing credit was to Sarah Botstein, who had worked for me as a publicist. Ken hired her after she had worked with us on a series called The West, which Stephen Ives produced. Ken was not the director but I think he was like co-producer. He loved the publicity work that Sarah did and if you look at the show in the beginning [The War], after Ken and Lynn Novick get their credit, Sarah Botstein gets her credit. She was hired as a researcher for him, she went to live up in New Hampshire, in Walpole, where Ken operates most of the time, and she just worked her way up the ladder and was made producer for Ken, and that was really thrilling for me to see how well she had done. Back to Rod Serling.
TZA - We touched on the painting, what is the subject matters of the painting? Is it of Donna Douglas looking up with the bandages off her face, or obviously it doesn't show the doctor's face, since that's the reveal of the episode
TZA - I'll definitely contact him.
It was a painting, it was a compilation of several different photographs, and I had made an arrangement that I think was kind of unique. CBS had their photographer on the set, for every one of the shows, and they could only send out 1 or 2 pictures from each of the shows, but we had a budget. And I convinced the director of photography, Barrie Richardson, to allow me to come and make a selection of photographs that he's not going to use, that I could use to promote our episodes, of the Kimberly Clark episodes, our episodes. So, we paid a fee, a kind of minimum fee, for the episodes that were sponsored by Sanka, and had access to all of the pictures that were shot for each of the Sanka episodes. So, I would go over to CBS and select the ones I wanted, and there were some really good shots that I was able to then send out that had real force for publicity for each of our episodes. I worked for Kimberly Clark, I did that, I know they didn't do that because there was Gray Advertising out in Chicago and I don't think they had any PR representative in New York. They had an agency there but they didn't have a TV program publicist. And we got a lot of extra attention for the show and amongst the pictures I took, I think I used them to give to Morr and told him specifically what I wanted. And then I think what he would do, would be to put them on some kind of a board and trace them someway. I never could find out what his method was, but that picture [painting], I think it's a compilation of some of the photographs that were used in the show. I thought that it made it more of a dramatic sequence. What we never would do, would be to allow our photographs to be used for the ads. We could give them photographs, not photographs that we were going to use in our publicity, because we kept a strict wall of separation between our publicity photos and the advertising photos.
TZA - Oh, really?
Oh yeah, yeah, because that was a no-no.
TZA - So, the advertising, meaning
Meaning, newpaper ads
TZA - And the TV Guide and newspaper supplements?
Yes, TV Guide ads, as opposed to editorial space. So, we could send our pictures to TV Guide, and we could send them to the papers, knowing that they weren't going to be embarrassed by seeing the same picture in an ad; because to a reader it might look like the publicity photo was a pay-off for the advertising photo, for the ad. A little later on, what we would do, because we had a nice selection of photos, we would send them to the newspapers in each market, and call it 'exclusive to you in your city.' They would know that nobody else in their city is going to get the same photograph.
TZA - Right. Now, these were the black and white photos. Was there any color photos at all that you also had?
I do not remember any color photography, because most newspapers in those days didn't run what many of them were running later, the color TV supplements. Later on when we were doing publicity for a lot of other shows, we would be sending out color transparencies to the newspapers. And when we did the Baseball mini-series, for instance, we went up to Cooperstown, because we couldn't get the baseball people, the major-league baseball people wanted an arm and a leg for pictures of major-league stars. So, we went up to Cooperstown and got them to agree to give us an option to shoot a compilation of photographs, with red and white bunting in the background, of Ty Cobs' spikes, Babe Ruths' bat, Jackie Robinson's hat, and ended up getting a lot of publicity without using major-league ball players. Also, I took Ken up there with a baseball bat and a baseball cap, we had our own baseball caps for the show, and got pictures of him swinging a bat with the bleachers in the background. I've got a lot of publicity without using the major-league extortion pictures.
TZA - This is very interesting, what you're talking about with the publicity pictures, because I can tell you that in the late 70's, CBS/Viacom had this big auction, and they auctioned off those photos that were shot from the on-set CBS photographer
The black and white photos?!
TZA - The black and white contact-sheet photos. They auctioned the photos off and this archivist at the time purchased them, and in turn was selling them you know, he had I Love Lucy, Our Miss Brooks, Twilight Zone, and a few other shows, and he was selling these photographs off by episodes. He had about 75 episodes worth from the first 3 seasons of the Twilight Zone, and sold some of them for a couple of years, where the remaining collection just sat in an archive. Years later, in the early 90's, I found out about this and bought the remaining lot, and I own this collection of these original photographs, of close to 4,500 images, of the photographs of which you speak. They are incredible. And this is what my book that I had published features, many of these photographs [Dimensions Behind the Twilight Zone].
No kidding! And you have the rights to them?
TZA - Well, you know how copyrighting works, the publisher and lawyers dealt with that kind of stuff. I just dealt with putting the book together, and interviewing the alumni and writing the informative and analytical prose chapters. The book also has appreciation essays from some Hollywood people of today who were influenced by Rod Serling. But in this collection there are no color photographs. However, on occasion, there have been color shots that have shown up in color TV supplements of the time, and no one seems to know where they came from. Because up to now, no one really has color photographs, they're all just those black and white shots. And yet, these old TV supplements, I have a handful of TV supplements that have color shots.
That's interesting. Have you gone to CBS in New York, and ask them about their files?
TZA - Well, from what I have gathered, and it's the same thing with NBC, I'm not so sure that the younger guys who run CBS now and the networks, I wonder how much they really care about the work of the older shows.
Well, I'm going to tell you something, when I worked at NBC, the photo department reported to me, and we had a guy names Joe Ricutti, who was in charge of the files, and a woman and another young man who were in charge of the files, and we had files that went back to Toscanini [Italian composer], and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and I understand that some executive made the decision that they didn't need those files anymore. All the NBC shows, and, they didn't throw them away, they gave them to one of the photo houses in New York. We had files for all of the NBC shows from New York and Los Angeles, two separate files, everything. They disbanded the photo department, they practically gave away all of the photo files, negative, photographs. I'm talking hundreds, probably thousands of shows, television and radio shows, that there were stored photos of. And there was always a question of who owned those pictures. We had a famous case, before I got to NBC, I was still at Y&R, but it was a photographer named, Sy Freedman. When Toscanini was leaving the NBC Symphony Orchestra, he didn't want still photography. But Sy, it was kind of a wink of the eye, and Sy would hang around backstage and in between the sets and shoot these pictures of Toscanini. And eventually, he kept these pictures and sold them, and then NBC sued him, because he was an employee of NBC. These pictures didn't belong to him, they belonged to NBC, and he had no right to them and so forth, and so it was a big case. So, the question of photo rights is a very tricky one. And that you have all these pictures and have the rights to them is impressive.
TZA - The collection is comprised of over 650 8X10 contact sheets with the 4,500 images on them.
And no negatives?
TZA- No, I don't have any negatives.
Most of them were shot as 35mm, with Nicon.
TZA - Well, actually, most of the collection is comprised of 4X5's
TZA - Right, exactly. And also 2.5"X2.5" photos as well, and there's one set of photos, out of all the stuff I have, that are 35mm. What's interesting is you were talking about the different areas in which the photos were used for promotion. These are the original contact-sheets and some of them were marked up, they have marks on some of them.
Oh! They may have some of my red pencil marks on them!
TZA - Oh, my gosh! Are you kidding me?! I just got chills down my spine! They do have oh my gosh, these are your markings?!
With cropping and then checkmarks.
TZA - Well, what these markings are
A grease pencil
TZA - Yeah, a grease pencil. There's some red and mostly black, but what I've noticed are initials, which I assume were "NY," for New York
TZA - Then there's "LA," for Los Angeles, and "AP," which I assume is Associate Press. Does this ring a bell? [laughs].
Well, I don't remember how we did it, but I would go up to Barrie Richardson's office, at 486 Madison, where CBS was in those days, and then Barrie would show me these sheets and I would just make my marking(s).
TZA - Wow this is so ironically full-cirlce. Because I've had these photographs since 1990, and have purposefully kept them in a collection, in hopes to someday possibly donate it to the Rod Serling Archives, at Ithaca College.
Yeah, he taught at Ithaca College, as you know, and they had a place up there. One of my acquaintances at NBC worked for him, and she told me he used to hide his cigarettes in the chandeliers so his wife couldn't find them. And I have a letter from him when he recovered from the first heart attack, saying, "They can't kill this mean old Jew!" [laughs].
TZA - He really did have a sense of humor, didn't he?
TZA - That's what people say. So, well then, let me ask you, what were your impressions of Rod Serling?
Until I got to work with Ken Burns, he [Serling] was the best person that I ever worked with, from an interview perspective. He was smart, he was agreeable, I never had any problems with him as an individual, and he was, from my perspective, a very hardworking guy. I always got the feeling, you know, he was very short, and I think he was 5' 3" [5' 4.5"], and had to prove himself all the time. That's why he became a paratrooper, and jumped in the Philippines in WWII, if I remember correctly. And I think his height was something that he strove to overcome. You always expected to see someone larger than life, when you had met Rod Serling. I just remembered another thing that comes to mind, not to answer your question, that, on our first press tour he had an ear infection. And I had to have an eye and nose specialist waiting in each town as we landed, to open up his clogged ears so he could do his interviews. But he didn't say I'm not feeling well enough to go on this tour. And he was in pain, you know, each time we went up into the altitude, he had to get his ears unclogged so we could do interviews. He was a very impressive guy who we could just turn loose, most of the time, with the exception of the Kimberly Clark incident. I think he learned from that, about criticizing the sponsors. Most of the time he could always do an interview that was filled with quotable quotes. I liked Rod, and we always had that camaraderie with the, "Why not, Bubby?" [laughs]. It was really funny. But we did have that nickname for each other, we called each other Bubby. [laughs].
TZA- His character type, what kind of character was he? I mean, we all see him on the series with the somewhat stoic kind of look, somewhat serious, and yet we know he
He was a fun guy! When we were together there would be a lot of humor. Except when he was worried if the show was going to be renewed. He took his Twilight Zone very seriously. I thought Rod was a man of integrity, he took his Twilight Zone seriously, but he was always fun to be with. And whenever I spoke with him, he always had something very nice to say, something very pleasant. He was happy with the publicity that we were doing. There was one time, however, you're just bringing to mind, when there was a guy, a publicist at CBS, who kind of insinuated himself into Rod's family, and he got his kids calling him Uncle Jerry. And Rod was kind of beside himself, he didn't want to confront him personally, but he was very upset with Jerry becoming personally involved. I think Rod went to Jerry's boss and asked him to be reassigned. And so, there was a case where he didn't want to face it himself. But he had Jerry's boss reassign him. I was disappointed in that aspect because I knew that Jerry was getting too close, and we always taught our publicists after that to be friendly with your client, but don't consider yourself a friend with the client.
TZA - How did you consider your relationship with Rod?
My relationship with Rod was a friendly relationship. But I didn't intrude myself with his personal life.
TZA - Oh, of course not. But it seems like he was very friendly with you. Would you consider that well, maybe you weren't lifelong pals or something like that, super close friends, but, you were friends, right?
Well, yes, we were, whenever we worked together we were friends. But I wouldn't consider him a personal friend. But it was always a pleasant relationship that I had with him, because I knew, I don't want to say I knew my place, but I knew the areas that I didn't belong in, in his life.
TZA - Right. You were very respectful, but you most likely obviously were more than acquaintances.
Yeah, and the memory of working with Rod is one of my favorite memories, after 47 years in that business. I would put him up there with Ken Burns. And that's on a pretty high pedestal.
TZA - So, you traveled with Rod, are there any anecdotes that stick out, that were quite amusing or anything?
We only traveled to a few cities, and our relationship was mostly on the telephone. The only incident that I remember [laughs], right now, is the one with the eye and nose doctor.
TZA - Rod's brother, writer Robert Serling, told me that Rod was absolutely frightened of flying. Did you see that from him when you travelled with him?
No, I don't know if that had anything to do with the eye and nose doctor being available each time we landed [laughs], it might tie in [laughs]. I didn't get that feeling and I did travel with him, and never did get that feeling. Except the time when after we landed in Pittsburg, when the driver was driving erratically, when he told everyone in the car that he's a physical coward.
TZA - Robert had mentioned that even though Rod was a paratrooper, and he could jump out of a plane and all that, he was really frightened of flying. He would have to take a tranquilizer when he flew, and would kind of drive people crazy because he was so nervous. And yet, he could jump out of an airplane.
That's remarkable. I wasn't aware of that or I don't remember that I was aware of it.
TZA - So, what did you think of the Twilight Zone as a television series, aside from being a publicist on the show?
I thought it gave us, from a publicity point of view it gave us a lot of opportunities to promote the show. I enjoyed it, I looked forward to each episode, and I was very disappointed when Sanka finally dropped it. I think it ran two seasons with Sanka's sponsorship, you would probably know that better than I. But something like every 13 weeks we would hold our breath and hope that it would be renewed by CBS.
TZA - Yeah, they had a few sponsors besides Sanka and Kimberly Clark. They had the cigarette sponsors
Well, my recollection at that time, for the first season or two, it was only the two sponsors
TZA - Right.
And then later on, I think after we were not working on it anymore, they brought in more sponsors. But the amount of commercial time was very limited, compared to day. Today, there's almost more commercial than program, on the networks. But it was limited to 30 seconds or something like that, or a minute that would be divided up into three segments, during the beginning, middle and end.
TZA - And so, you worked on the first two seasons, right?
That's what I think. The seasons that Sanka was the sponsor. Sanka, which was a division of General Foods. But General Foods was a big Y&R client.
TZA - And you watched the Twilight Zone.
Well, we would get to see it, if I remember correctly, in advance, when they were available before they went on the air. You'd see them in advance, and I don't know if they would pull out segments of quotable quotes or things like that, but it was the kind of things I would have done. I know I did on other shows.
TZA - So, was Rod confident with the series when he was first working on it?
Well, when he announced it in that little conference room, at Y&R, he sounded very confident. And he had a great presentation. Putting himself down, that he wasn't the best deliverer, the best actor or whatever, that he knew what he was doing. That he was very comfortable when he walked into that room.
TZA - And he talked about the kind of draw that it would bring, and probably talked about some of the stories.
Yes, and that they wouldn't be horror stories. That was important for him, that they had messages that we could all understand.
TZA - Exactly. It was more of a psychological series, rather than a horror show. It was fantasy and had some terror-driven stories, but then again, it also had a lot of poignant stories.
Yes! As you know, he didn't write every episode.
TZA - Exactly. He wrote 92 of the 156 episodes, they also had Richard Matheson and of course, Charles Beaumont.
Yes. And there's a guy that was one of the directors, who lives in Sarasota. I don't know if he's still alive though. He used to attend, uh I belonged to a club for a short time, that was really for mystery writers, called The Liars Club [not the same as the series that Rod hosted], where we played Liar's Poker, uh, Stephen King was a member, and this guy who had a lot of Twilight Zone credits, was a director. I shouldn't bring it up, because I don't know if he's living or not. I 'm sure you know a lot about the directors.
TZA - Yeah, well, now I'm curious who it could be. Someone obviously in his 80's I would assume.
I would assume so. Probably closer to his 90's.
TZA - They had some great directors on that series. John Brahm did quite a few of them, and he was quite a director. And then younger directors like, Richard Donner came in, in the fifth season, who did Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, the one with the gremlin on the wing of the plane. But I think most Serling historians and fans consider the first three seasons the most strongest and consistent.
Yes. I like the first seasons, they were the sharpest.
TZA - The third season also has a lot of key episodes in it, but it's interesting how the first season just had his narration, just his audio, off-camera. And the second season is when they started to film his on-camera narrations, and that's what everyone remembers.
Yes, I didn't remember that either. That's very interesting.
TZA - Yeah, the first season is just of Rod's voice, for the intro and outro narrations. Actually, in the last episode of the first season, the one that starred Ed Wynn's son, Keenan Wynn, and Phyllis Kirk [A World of His Own], in the end, Rod Serling makes his first appearance on the show, in a funny tongue and cheek kind of way. And from that, I think it prompted having him do his narrations on-camera. Because then in the following season, we saw him on-camera for every episode.
That was probably a Kimberly Clark episode.
TZA - I'm just curious, going back to the photographs, when I was working on my book, I was concerned about copyrights with the photographs, and did bring my concerns to the attention of my publisher. The publisher told me they dealt with that all of the time, that they knew what to do, and I should only concern myself with the creative aspects of putting my book together. I did try to do research and provide credits for who shot the photographs, but I was disappointed because I could not get through to the right people.
By my recollection, it was several photographers. They had their own department there on the west coast [CBS], and there was a group of them, like we had a group of them in New York and Los Angeles. But there were staff photographers. There were people that did have the negatives, I think Los Angeles sent the negatives to New York, because our mailings were done out of New York. The guy who was in charge, who was vice president at the time, later on, was Barrie Richardson, he's no longer with us. But there was a department in New York, where the negatives and the still photos were kept. That's where I used to go to pick them up. You know, to pick out my stuff. Like I said about NBC giving up it's whole photo file, historic photos, and they practically gave it away to one of the big photo houses. There may still be some Twilight Zone pictures from the New York photo department.
TZA - When I was in New York in 2000, I remember going into a photo house of what you've mentioned, and they had tons of old photos from TV shows, but I didn't find originals, they most likely made prints from negatives. But I was able to get some photos that I did not have. I wish I could show you my collection of the original contact-sheet photos. I'm sure it would bring back many fond memories for you. I would be privileged to send you a copy of my book, just so you could see the photographs. But I always found it interesting how the photographs were marked up with those grease pencils, and some of them were with red markings, and here and there you'd find a big kill shot, a big "X" through the photo.
I don't know if they are my marks or not, but I do know that I went up there with Barrie, and marked them, usually marked them with a red grease pencil. He would send me the negatives and then we would do the mailings.
TZA - Is there any way you might remember any of the photographer's names that worked at CBS.
No, I never knew those photographers. As I said, I could probably remember some of the NBC photographers, where I worked for 20 years. But the names of the CBS photographers, again, if I heard them I might remember some of them. But I didn't really know the west coast CBS photographers. Some on the east coast, but they didn't take any of those photographs.
TZA - Well, back to some questions, let me ask you, what did you think of Rod's early live television plays?
Well, Requiem For a Heavyweight was done on the old Kinescope, a Playhouse 90, and we did publicity for Goodyear Playhouse, which had some wonderful shows, I think some of Rod's may have been on that. There was a reporter for the Hearst Newspaper in New York, Jack O. Brien, and he was quite a strong conservative, and he did a column that was almost like a Walter Winchell column, but for TV. And Jack O. Brien once wrote a thing criticizing Rod Serling, for a play that Rod didn't write. You know, when he quoted leftist propaganda. And, Reginald Rose had written it. And I wrote a letter to Jack O. Brien informing him that Rod Serling didn't write it, and he printed it. You know, kind of apologizing. But then, smacking Reginald Rose again.
TZA - It's really a shame after the cancellation of the Twilight Zone, after it was not renewed for a sixth season, how there were a few summer reruns, but there was no such thing as syndication then. At that point, Rod's agent, and his lawyer and everyone else was advising him to sell his rights, since it was then considered a dead product. But like a year later, television invented syndication, and the Twilight Zone became something that was once considered a lifeless property, into to an immortal one. It's really terrible, because the Serling's own no rights to the Twilight Zone. Carol Serling obviously has rights with Rod Serling's image, and things of this nature, but it's really a sad period on the whole story. Tt wasn't Rod's fault, I mean, his agent and lawyer and everyone told him to sell his rights to CBS. Still, no one could have predicted that [syndication]. Did you ever meet Buck Houghton, the main producer on the series?
If I did, I don't remember. I don't think I did. He was a west coast person.
TZA - And Y&R was in New York, that's right.
Yeah, in New York, and we also had an office in LA. But I worked in the New York office.
TZA - Well, let me ask you a speculative question I always like to ask alumni, if Rod Serling had lived longer, what do you think he would have done in the rest of his life?
I think he might have written a book or two. I think he might have done some television specials. Maybe not with the Twilight Zone theme, but I think he might have done something of a political nature, I think he might have done something I think if he were alive when we had the fiasco voting in Florida, I think he would have done something on that. I think he would have been pissed off [laughs]. And he would have done more topical, current shows, and I think they would have been of a political nature. I think he had strong feelings that probably coincided with mine. And that he would have done things that were socially important. I think once he had his first heart attack, that was the beginning of the end, for him. But if he were alive today, I think that's what he would be doing. I think he'd be doing specials that would be offered to HBO, or possibly even PBS, because PBS would give him the opportunity to write, as long as it would be written without the lambs interrupting with the program.